Baseball umpire may actually follow the rules

Posted: Apr 01, 2001 12:00 AM
PHOENIX--America overflows with specious ``victims'' demanding redress for spurious grievances. However, one genuinely oppressed minority is getting overdue relief. Beginning with spring training in Arizona and Florida, Major League Baseball, taking pity on traumatized pitchers, is directing umpires to enforce the strike zone as defined in the rulebook. What a concept. And what a lesson there is in this about the vagaries of reform. The ``new'' strike zone was actually defined years ago when MLB shrank the zone in an attempt to enlarge it. Or, more precisely, to entice umpires to quit calling idiosyncratic strike zones much smaller than the official one. Through most of the 20th century the strike zone was defined as a rectangle extending over the 17-inch-wide plate, from the batter's shoulders to his knees. Actually, the rectangle is about 22 inches wide, because a pitch is a strike if any part of the ball crosses the plate, the width of which thus is, effectively, 17 inches plus the width of two baseballs. However, for many reasons--one was that home plate umpires quit wearing mattress-style chest protectors outside their clothing, and so could more easily crouch and see low pitches--umpires stopped calling high strikes. Pitches above the belt were rarely called strikes. The rectangle became turned on its side--the top, at the belt of the pants; the outer edge extending several inches off the plate. In 1995, hoping to turn the rectangle from horizontal back to vertical by tugging the strike zone up and in, baseball redefined the bottom of the zone as ``the top of the knees'' and the top as ``the midpoint between the top of the shoulders and the top of the uniform pants''--about two-and-a-half ball widths, or about seven inches above the belt. But the umpires still refused to call higher strikes, and in 1996 baseball surrendered to them, lowering the zone to ``the hollow beneath the kneecap.'' As the strike zone became smaller, so did ballparks, and batters became bigger. Pitchers nibbled around the shrunken strike zone. Huge hitters waited as pitch counts mounted. Complete games by pitchers became rare, and hitting feasted on middle-inning relief pitching, baseball's most mediocre commodity. Offense became too predominant. Base stealing became too infrequent--why risk it, with bulked-up hitters waiting for fat pitches in a shoebox-sized strike zone? And games became too long. Just 20 years ago, the average game length was two hours and 34 minutes. Last year in the American League, home of the designated hitter, the average game was three hours long. This is largely the result of the incredibly shrinking strike zone. So is this: Last year 26.7 percent of all at-bats resulted in either a walk or a strikeout. No ball put in play. Feel the excitement. Clark Griffith, owner of the hapless Washington Senators, once said, ``Fans like home runs and we have assembled a pitching staff to please our fans.'' Fans like offense, so when pitching got too strong in 1968 (21 percent of all games were shutouts; the highest American League batting average was .301; the Yankees batted .214) reformers did what reformers do: overreacted. The height of the pitcher's mound was lowered from 15 inches to 10 inches, fences were moved in, the strike zone slowly shrank, and in 1973 the designated hitter arrived. Today, experts say the new strike zone--slightly narrower, but seven inches higher--will help pitchers, who will have as much as 30 percent more space to pitch to. And experts say it will shorten games because batters will be swinging sooner instead of looking for walks. And experts say the new zone will help hitters who will prosper hitting higher pitches and will be spared the need to swing at balls off the outside corner of the plate. And experts say games will be longer because the strike zone will increase the number of hits. And experts say it will shorten games because, walks being less likely, more balls will be quickly put into play, most of them for outs. It is axiomatic: People are conservative about what they know. So professional baseball people, and serious fans, generally believe that any change, at any time, for any reason, is lamentable. Which is generally true, in baseball as in the little remainder of life. But this year's change is really just a restoration. Besides, experts agree that under the restored zone, good pitchers and good hitters will excel. About this, at least, the experts are right, because it is a tautology.