Shrinking Strike Zone Not in Baseball’s Best Interest

New commissioner Rob Manfred has yet another bold rule change in mind. Is shrinking the strike zone really in the best interest of the game though?

Remember how new MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred wants to dramatically decrease the analytic power managers have in baseball, especially regarding defensive shifts and relief pitcher match-ups?

Yeah, well, he’s back at it. According to Jeff Passan of Yahoo! Sports, a committee will look into raising the strike zone slightly to help eliminate what they’ve found is an increase in low strikes being called by umpires.

In fairness, I’m only placing this on Manfred because he’s the boss of the bosses and surely had a hand in this, even if it’s not one of his publicly-discussed initiatives. In fact, it runs counterpoint to his top priority, which is quickening the pace of the game overall.

But, as the powers that be see it, offense across the league has declined to such a startlingly low point recently that they must potentially mess with another fundamental baseball feature.

MLB: OCT 05 ALDS - Orioles at Tigers - Game 3

The strike zone has morphed over the years and obviously fluctuates depending on who is behind the dish on any given night, but the basics–those rules that I was taught playing my entire life–are that the strike zone extends from just below the letters to the bottom of the knee.

And of course that isn’t a perfect scenario either. It leaves a ton of room for error on those low pitches that Manfred’s Minions (oh, I like that – can someone teach me how to trademark a phrase?) are so eager to abolish. There is a grey area to every strike zone that even QuesTec couldn’t solve. But the real issue does not lie in the perceived zone of umpires.

The problem is that batters don’t know how to take pitches, draw walks, and get on base. MLB strikeout rates among batters have risen more than five percent since 2008, largely due to an increase in speed and velocity of pitchers’ fastballs.

Rare now are the Victor Martinez’s of the world, who get on base more than 40 percent of the time and walk more than they strike out. More often, we’re seeing star hitters like Giancarlo Stanton racking up huge offensive numbers (including a .395 OBP in 2014), but whiffing twice as much as they draw free passes.

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The days of .400+ OBPs are slowly fading away

That’s not even to say that players with Stanton’s approach are doing it wrong. Hell, Mike Trout led the AL in strikeouts last year and the MVP award-winner was widely accepted as the best player in baseball.

The thing is, none of this means that the strike zone needs fixing, either. Yes, pitchers are throwing harder and it would benefit MLB’s “flailing” offensive production to squeeze them at the knees a bit, but why can’t we let this play out? Much like hitters adjusting to shift-happy defenses, they will eventually learn to catch up to the heat and this S-curve will make its way back to the median.

We know baseball is a cat-and-mouse game both on a daily and yearly basis. For one decade, pitchers have the upper hand because hitters can’t keep up with the new speeds, arm angles, off speed arsenals, etc. Then, the offense figures it out and finds a way to counter attack.

MLB: APR 15 Red Sox at White Sox

For most players, a smaller strike zone would be a welcome sight

The funny part is, Manfred seems set on hurrying up the game. It has been a top priority of his since day one. From the aforementioned shift and reliever rule changes to the proposed pitch clock (don’t even get me started), Manfred is intent on making the game “less boring,” which is executive speak for “more profitable.”

Lest we forget the last time we had an enormous boom in offensive production? Big muscles, big flies, big run totals; ah, those were the days. Except now, some of those players are among the most hated athletes in sports history.

That’s an extreme example, but you get the point: More offense doesn’t necessarily equate to a better game. Especially when many fans (guilty!) consider watching an expertly-crafted performance by a pitcher as the highest form of athletic artistry achievable.

In reality, Manfred is just doing his job. He is paid to bring more fans and viewers into the sport and increase revenue. It’s a business he’s running, after all.

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You can’t necessarily fault Manfred’s initiatives from a business standpoint

But that doesn’t mean this is the right way to go about it. I’ve said it before, and I’ll keep saying it until Julio Franco retires (so, never…get it?): Manfred has some very promising, likable ideas on the table that he needs to pursue and prioritize.

Make the game more accessible to young players. Continue to build on the relationship executives have with the MLB Player’s Association. Embrace technology and social media and get America’s Pastime out to a larger audience.

Do not keep screwing with the little things that make baseball, baseball. Stop trying to manufacture strategy. Let the players and the sport adjust through the generations and fluctuate with its natural cycles.

If you leave it, the offense will come.

Like a good change up with your dinner? Let’s talk baseball at @Jamblinman.

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