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Monday, May 05, 2008

The Shrinking Strike Zone

In 2001 Bud Selig and Sandy Alderson encouraged MLB umpires to "hunt for strikes," enforcing the "letters to knees" strike zone as it is defined by baseball's century-old rulebook.  The Commissioner's office argued that the modest strike zone was partially responsible for longer game times, depleted pitching staffs, and the well-documented offensive explosion.  In the seasons which followed, they implemented the QuesTec pitch-tracking system, amidst considerable upheaval from the umpire's  and player's unions.  Some players, like Chipper Jones, argued that QuesTec actually helped hitters, discouraging umpires from employing the expanding "Greg Maddux" strike zone, since these subtle changes would be caught by the machine, and complained that the system was not used consistently in every game and every park, so certain teams (namely, the Mets) were gaining an unfair offensive advantage.  Umpire representatives argued that the technology was inconsistent, forced them into uncomfortable situations with players, and was prompted not by a genuine desire to improve the efficiency of the game, but because Selig was doing a favor for one of his corporate cronies who owned the QuesTec manufacturer.  It has been effectively proven, by Rob Neyer and others, that the QuesTec system and the "hunt for strikes" in general did very little to effect scoring.  However, game times and pitch counts did go down, partially because there was a dramatic decrease in walks.  Here is a chart of the average walks per major league franchise between 1998 and 2007:

1998: 548
1999: 596
2000: 608
2001: 527
2002: 542
2003: 530
2004: 541
2005: 507
2006: 528
2007: 536

This significant drop-off, more than 100 BB per team from 2000 to 2005, came despite the fact that teams are preaching patience more than ever, in the wake of "Moneyball," and players like Barry Bonds, Jason Giambi, Adam Dunn, and Jack Cust made their livings largely by moseying slowly to first.  Hitters adjusted to the new zone, still took their walks when appropriate, but were forced to swing at chest-high pitches, which no doubt quickened the pace of games and relieved the pressure on pitchers, even if it didn't cost the league any run production.  There is evidence to suggest that the trend is heading back in the wrong direction, since the low-point in base-on-balls in 2005.  The modest increases the past two seasons may foreshadow a significant upswing on the horizon.  I, personally, feel like pitchers have been getting squeezed more often in games which I've been watching and the early numbers this season suggest that it isn't merely coincidence.  In April of 2007, the average major league franchise took 87 free passes.  This April that number jumped to 97.  That's a total of 300 walks more across the league than a year ago (This number is somewhat exaggerated by the fact that there were more games in March this season).  Nonetheless, taking into account March and the first few days of May, the current pace would result in an MLB average for the season of around 563, more than 20 more walks per team than any season since 2000.  

I, personally, think Selig or Alderson would do well to issue a reminder to the umpires, in order to protect the fragile arms of major league pitchers.   

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