In recent years, Major League Baseball umpires have been said to call lower and lower strikes, perhaps even below the official lower limit of the strike zone, officially defined here in Rule 2.00:
The STRIKE ZONE is that area over home plate the upper limit of which is a horizontal line at the midpoint between the top of the shoulders and the top of the uniform pants, and the lower level is a line at the hollow beneath the kneecap. The Strike Zone shall be determined from the batter's stance as the batter is prepared to swing at a pitched ball.
"The hollow beneath the kneecap." Oooookay, if you can ever even see that on most hitters. No wonder umpires have so much trouble.
In part of a wide-ranging interview Commissioner Rob Manfred gave on the one-year anniversary of his taking office, he noted the possibility that might change:
Major League Baseball is studying whether to raise the bottom of the strike zone from the hollow beneath the kneecap back to the top of the kneecap. "I'm not in a position to predict whether it's going to happen or not," Rob Manfred said during an interview with The Associated Press on Monday on his anniversary as baseball commissioner. "I think that the interest in the topic is really driven by the fact that if you look over time there has been a movement down of the strike zone, largely as a result of the way we evaluate the strike zone with umpires."
The unofficial increase in the size of the zone as called by umpires today is one factor in the huge increase in the number of strikeouts over the last decade. In 2005, MLB teams struck out 30,644 times, an average of 1,021 times per team. Five years later, that had jumped to 34,306, or 1,144 per team, an increase of 12 percent. And five years after that, in 2015, major-league hitters struck out 37,446 times. That's 1,248 per team, and an increase of 9.2 percent over five years earlier.
The major-league record for team strikeouts had stood at 1,202 (1968 Mets) for 30 years, until the 1998 Cubs broke it (1,223). Since 1998, 110 teams have struck out more than that record-setting Cubs team and the record now stands at 1,535 (2013 Astros), 28 percent higher than the 1968 mark.
Of course, there are other factors such as many hitters swinging for the fences and the increase in the number of pitchers who can throw 95-plus. But clearly, the increase in the size of the strike zone as called is a factor.
A smaller zone, if called properly, would cut down on the K's and presumably increase offense. But check out this quote from Manfred:
"The umpires have done a great job calling the strike zone as we want it called," Manfred said. "The question is whether we ought to make an adjustment."
Really? Because right now, the way strikes are called seems to be a hodgepodge of individual umpires' preferences. I know I'd like, and many of you would as well, to see the strike zone automated. I have posted this FiveThirtyEight article from 2014 before, but if you haven't read it, you should, because it shows how umpire biases change the zone depending on the hitter, the pitcher and even the game situation. In my view, that ought to end. Call the zone the way it is in the book. Period.
Does the zone need to be changed? Should calls be automated? Your turn.