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Clearing Up the Confusion over the Strike Zone

Clearing Up the Confusion over the Strike Zone – baseball

Jim Armstrong

Here are some insights from players and umpires regarding one of the major leagues’ controversial issues

THIS IS A STORY ABOUT THE STRIKE zone. See, there you go already. Just seeing the words got a rise out of you, didn’t it?

If you’re an umpire, you cringed. You were convinced, one sentence into things, that you were in store for another of those cheap shots from some genius with a laptop.

If you’re a player, you shook your head or smirked, depending on whether you’re some rookie pitcher who can’t buy a borderline call, or Tom Glavine, whose strike zone has been known to resemble Tennessee–low and wide.

If you’re a fan, you were confused from the get-go. You quit trying to figure out the strike zone a long time ago. You don’t understand how something so seemingly black and white can be interpreted by the umpires in various shades of gray.

No matter what category you fall into, you have a definite opinion about the strike zone. Everyone has an opinion about it. It’s the baseball equivalent of politics, religion and the Oval Office Olympics.

Maybe it’s because we see so much of it. There are 275 to 300 pitches in your standard major league game, sometimes more, sometimes less. Take away the pitches that hitters swing at, the ones that bounce a foot in front of the plate, and the ones that come precariously close to hitting the backstop, and you’re still left with a good 25 questionable pitches a game. That’s 25 chances to debate whether the umpire is second only to St. Peter among the universe’s great arbiters, or whether he needs to make a quick pit stop at his friendly, neighborhood LensCrafters.

“It’s so visible,” Florida Marlins manager John Boles said. “Other things, like the phantom tag at second base … nobody makes a big deal about that. But the strike zone comes into play on every pitch. The visibility of it brings it to the forefront. People have been arguing about the strike zone ever since they started playing this game.” Question is, since we see so much of it, why don’t we understand the strike zone better? What’s the deal with the strike zone, anyway? Why aren’t strikes called according to the letter of the law? How can letter-high pitches that were routinely called strikes during the 1960s be called balls in today’s game?

Considering there are only two options in this multiple-choice question, the strike zone sure can be confusing. Balls and strikes are supposed to be a universal language, but sometimes it’s as if the paying customers have a Canadian accent and the umpires talk with a Texas twang.

“The strike zone is probably the most misunderstood part of baseball,” said Bob Davidson, who umpired 17 years at the major league level. “It’s hard to define because, as any umpire will tell you, it’s by memory. You remember, `OK, I called a strike on that pitch before and got away with it. I’ll call it again.'” Umpires from the previous generation may have called the same pitch a ball.

How can that be, considering the strike zone is defined, in no uncertain terms, on the pages of the official rule book? Regardless of what you might think, it’s not a matter of arrogance on the part of the umpires. They don’t make up the strike zone as they go along to fit their own personal agendas. That’s just one common misconception about the strike zone.

There are others, which we’re here today to address.

As confusing as the strike zone may seem, it really isn’t. There are specific reasons why it’s different today than it was in generations past. Each has to do with the fact that humans are making the calls, throwing the pitches and swinging the bats. Oh, and grumbling in the dugout. Don’t discount that for a minute. That may be the biggest factor of all in the evolution of the strike zone.

Fact is, while the evolution started with the umpires, it’s the players who, more than any other entity, have determined where the strike zone is today compared with years past. Players and managers, that is. And you can throw pitching coaches and hitting coaches into the equation, too. They’re watching every pitch just as intently as the hitters, if not more so.

Umpires have long since realized they can’t eject every player, manager and coach who gets on their case. Instead, over time, the umps have made the adjustment to a lower and wider strike zone from the higher and tighter one.

“They can’t tell in and out in the dugout, but they can tell up and down,” Davidson said. “When you’re a young umpire, you go by touch and feel, trial and error. I don’t know if they’d want to admit that, but I would. That’s exactly how I determined my strike zone. You call that high strike, they’re going to get on you in the dugout.”

A lot of it has to do with vantage points. Managers and coaches can’t tell if a pitch is an inch or two off the plate, but they can tell if it’s the slightest bit high. Then there’s the umpires’ vantage point, which was different from league to league until the late 1970s. Before then, American League umpires wore the outside chest protector–the balloon, as they called it–instead of the interior protector.

The difference in equipment made for an entirely different vantage point. American League umps lined up higher and directly behind the catcher. Naturally, they were more inclined to call a high strike, since those pitches were at their eye level. National League umpires squatted lower than the American League umpires, putting their heads between the catcher and the hitter. If they had to look up to see the ball, they were more inclined than their A.L. colleagues to call the pitch a ball.

“The problem with the strike zone started way back in the ’70s, and it was because of the difference in protectors,” longtime National League umpire Bruce Froemming said. “To me, the strike zone became universal as everybody went to the same protector You used to have the high strike vs. the low strike. You don’t have that anymore. Having said that, what you do have is individual judgments.

“I’ll hear people say, `Gee, that was a ball with that guy and maybe a strike with another guy.’ Those are individual judgments. The umpires are not machines, We’re not radar. Everything is a judgment, which is a nice part of the game. It’s an instant. You usually have guys who throw 88 miles an hour to 96 miles an hour. Some are faster, some slower, but that’s where you’re at pretty much every day. The pitch comes in, you make your judgment and that’s what it is.”

Rockies bullpen coach Fred Kendall, a major league catcher from 1969-80, has seen up close and personal the evolution of the strike zone. He played in the American League, where the umpires wore the balloon, and in the National League, where they didn’t. He sees the same strike zone in both leagues these days–which is to say, a lower and wider one than in years past.

Why wider? Again, it all has to with the umpires’ vantage point.

“The umpire is down low between the catcher and the hitter,” Kendall said. “It’s tough for him to see the outside corner. All he can see is the glove. That’s why framing has come into the game. How the catcher catches the ball determines whether it’s a strike. If the umpire sees that elbow fly up, it’s a ball. If not, it’s a strike.” Since they line up over the catcher’s shoulder toward the hitter, today’s umpires get a clear view of the inside corner. But to hear players and coaches talk about it, the strike zone has moved wider, off the outside corner. As contradictory as that may seem, there are two reasons for it.

First, giving pitchers the inside corner is an open invitation for trouble. When the Gas-house Gang and the Boys of Summer ruled the baseball world, being hit by pitches used to be the price a hitter paid for digging in. Not anymore. Now the pitcher antes up. Literally. A pitcher comes inside these days and he’s ejected, sometimes without even hitting a batter. A few days later, he gets a letter from Frank Robinson, who doles out the fines for on-field indiscretions.

The other reason the strike zone tends to be wider instead of tighter, on the hitters’ fists?

“It’s because guys hang over the plate today,” Chicago Cubs catcher Joe Girardi said. “They wear all this armor, which should be outlawed, and they’re diving at every pitch. A lot of times, it’s hard for the umpire to call that pitch. The hitter jumps back and it makes it seem like the ball is inside. It’s a split-second reaction for the umpires. It’s hard to call it a strike when the hitter tries to get out the way.” If umpires went by the letter of the law, the strike zone would be, as it’s defined in the rule book, from the midpoint between the top of the shoulders and the top of the uniform pants to the hollow beneath the kneecap. But that isn’t happening now, hasn’t happened for years, and, despite a man-date from the powers that be to call a higher strike, doesn’t figure to happen in the foreseeable future.

Sandy Alderson, commissioner Bud Selig’s right-hand man in charge of policing the strike zone, sent out a memo to the umpires in 1999 just before spring training. In it, he ordered the umps to call strikes on pitches two inches above the belt. Even that’s lower than the midpoint between the top of the shoulders and the top of the uniform pants–at the letters, ostensibly–but it was viewed as a step in the right direction.

Trouble is, to hear most players and managers talk about it, the new strike zone never has been enforced. Oh, there have been some variances, some high-strike calls here and there. Many have come from the 25 new umpires hired in the aftermath of last year’s purge of the umpires’ union. But in general, things have remained the same with the strike zone.

“I don’t think it’s changed, because I don’t think they’re capable of changing,” Girardi said. “I’m not saying they’re not good, but when you do something for so long, it’s a habit. I think a larger strike zone up and down would make it a better game, but umpires have been umpiring the same way for 20 years. You can’t expect them to change. When they call balls and strikes, it’s a reaction. It’s not something they think about a long time.” Said Davidson: “I tried to do that (follow Alderson’s directive), but I kind of thought that’s where I was anyway. It’s hard to get yourself to change. `OK, I’ve got to go two inches higher.’ You still remember your strike zone. It’s a memory reflex, it really is. It’s hard to change when you’ve trained your memory.”

There’s no question that the game’s higher-ups would like a heightened strike zone. But the people who put on uniforms every day know it isn’t realistic. Many suspect that the rhetoric coming out of Alderson’s office was a bargaining ploy against the umpires’ union, which imploded with last year’s mass resignations. “I don’t know if that was all just a smoke screen for what was really going on behind the scenes with the umpires,” Colorado Rockies hitting coach Clint Hurdle said. “He was trying to get their attention somewhere else, away from what he was really going to try to accomplish down the road, and ended up accomplishing. There’s a method to everybody’s madness.”

And so it goes in baseball. As long as the umpires don’t have time to review Alderson’s edict after every pitch, they’ll continue to call balls and strikes out of habit more than by the letter of the law. What, we’re supposed to be surprised by that? This is baseball we’re talking about. It’s a game that’s long since been played by rules, some written, others unwritten.

Umpires don’t figure to change their strike zones any sooner than they’re going to outlaw the phantom tag at second base or disallow hitters from digging out the back of the batter’s box.

Umpires have been targeted by some as one of the biggest culprits in the runaway offense that defines today’s game. If they would just expand the strike zone, the argument goes, hitters wouldn’t have it so easy. But that argument cuts both ways. Sure, since the high strike of the American League in the 1960s isn’t called anymore, hitters can zone in on pitches near the knees. But by giving pitchers borderline calls on the outside corner, you could argue that the umpires are, in effect, giving them a chance against today’s bulked-up bashers.

“When pitchers aren’t getting the corners, aren’t getting a little bit wider plate, they get beat up,” Atlanta Braves shortstop Walt Weiss said. “If you can put the ball just off the plate consistently, that’s a tough ball to handle. That ball two or three inches off the plate and down, that’s really tough to do anything with. You can reach it, but you can’t drive it. If the pitcher isn’t getting a break off the corner, that’s when you get hammered.” Glavine and Greg Maddux, Weiss’ teammates with the Braves, are the most notorious pitchers in the game for getting a generous strike zone from the umpires. Then again, they’ve earned theirs. They’ve been the best control pitchers in the game for more than a decade. They’ve had to be.

“If you can pinpoint it and hit any spot, like Maddux has for 11 or 12 years, more power to him,” Braves pitcher John Smoltz said. “But if you get him in a coffee can, he’s going to get hit. He’s going to show that he’s human. A lot his success, a lot of any pitcher’s success, has to do with what calls he’s getting from the umpire.”

There’s something else you need to know about the strike zone. It’s not just the umpires who can’t change. By now, we’ve had an entire generation of hitters who have been taught to look for the ball down, and an entire generation of pitchers who have been taught to keep the ball low and away, where they can often get the benefit of the doubt. If the umpires suddenly started calling the high strike, the arguments would last longer than the game.

“Hitters are trained to look down,” Girardi said. “It’s what you’re used to. You know they’re going to be called strikes, so you practice on those pitches. A lot of times you’ll see left-handed hitters who are low-ball hitters. Now, you see low-ball hitters who are right-handed. That’s just the way it’s evolved.” Said Kendall: “They say a guy is a high-ball hitter. Well, how high is high? It’s not like it used to be. Not too many guys can’t hit that letter-high pitch. If it’s thrown 92, 93 miles an hour, it’s tough to catch up to. Think about hitters and the way they work the bat angle. They’re bringing the bat barrel down in the hitting area. It’s tough to hit that pitch in the chest area. They’re not geared for that.” Imagine the scenario if an umpire suddenly started calling the high strike according to the rule book. Or even, for that matter, according to Alderson’s edict, which calls for a strike zone two inches above the belt. Thank you, but Davidson would rather not imagine it.

“If the commissioner’s office came out with a memo and said, “Listen, we want strikes called at the armpits,’ I’d bring it on the field with me,” he said. “When I call Larry Walker out, I’d tell him: `Don’t yell at me. Yell at the guy who makes the rules.'” Many umpires couldn’t bring the memo on the field with them if they wanted to. Why? According to Davidson, only about half of the umps ever received it. That ought to tell you how seriously the edict was taken.

No, these umpires aren’t about to go changing, not after all these years. In fact, they owe it to the players not to change. If they did, they would be breaking the first commandment of umpiring: Be consistent. In the end, that’s all players ask of them.

“You go around and ask players on this subject, and they’re looking for you to be as consistent in the eighth inning as you are in the second,” Froemming said. “If it’s a strike in the second inning, it’s a strike in the eighth. That’s what they want.”

Said Hall of Famer Billy Williams, former Cubs’ batting instructor and now the club’s first base coach: “The strike zone is different from what it was in my day, but one thing hasn’t changed: You’ve got to know the umpire. Every umpire has a different strike zone, but that’s OK. The worst thing that can happen is if an umpire is inconsistent. If he calls ball one and you take the same pitch with two strikes and he calls you out, that’s where the problems come in.”

Ultimately, fans and media make more out of the strike zone than do the players. To hear Smoltz tell it, the players don’t care where the strike zone is. They just want it to be in the same place throughout the game.

Said Smoltz: “Most pitchers would say, `I don’t really care where it is; just let me know where it is.’ Once they know where it is, they can adapt to it. It’s the same way with hitters. They have to make adjustments, too. That’s what this game is all about–making adjustments.”

COPYRIGHT 2000 Century Publishing

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