There’s been much discussion about both the pace of play and the overall length of games over the past few years. When I say the past few years, I mean the past 170 years or so. Think I’m exaggerating? Think again:
The strike zone was created sometime around the civil war. The rationale for the new rule? To force pitchers to throw a ball that the batters could put in play which would create action. When pitchers threw pitches that couldn’t be hit, not too much was happening, and people got bored.
Then on this date in 1884: The National League agreed to allow overhand pitching, but ruled that pitchers must keep both feet on the ground throughout their pitching motion in order to reduce the velocity of their pitches. They still had to throw the ball at the height requested by the batter.
That rule also was enacted to force pitchers to throw a pitch that was easy for the batter to hit. Again, if pitches were being thrown that couldn’t be put into play, we’d all be waiting a while for some action.
Then on this date in 1888: The Joint Rules Committee reduced the number of balls for a walk from five to four, establishing the four balls/three strikes count that remains in effect today.
Yes again, a rule was enacted that explicitly told pitchers “Throw the damn ball where the batters can hit it. Nobody came to stand in this field in the summer heat to watch you try to nitpick – we want to see batters put balls in play and the subsequent action that results. Ongoing, you’ll be penalized more quickly for deviations of this directive.”
Then in 1915, Federal League President James Gilmore boldly proclaimed:
“Something must be done to speed up play, as the public does not like to see unnecessary wrangling on the field and a slow, dragging game.”
It must be noted that in 1915, the average game time was under two hours.
Flash forward to today’s game. We have more pitchers with a high degree of “stuff” and power by far, than at any other point in history. Yes, we know that Bob Feller and Nolan Ryan threw over 100 mph, but we have to remember those guys were the extreme exceptions. In today’s game, every damn team has five guys who live in the neighborhood of triple digits.
To be clear, power doesn’t just create velocity – power also creates more spin which creates more movement on breaking balls and change-ups as well. It’s not a coincidence that Feller and Ryan had the best curveballs of their day in addition to the heat.
The end result is that many, many pitches batters see – that are in, or very close to the strike zone – are literally unhittable. Again, think I’m exaggerating? Go look at the batting averages on curveballs from right handed pitchers to right handed batters that hit the down and away corner. (Spoiler alert: Dellin Betances once went an entire season without allowing a hit to a right handed batter on a curve that hit the down and away corner.) Tyler Glasnow’s curveball – on average – ends up almost 5 feet lower than the spot from where it’s released (59” to be exact) and is on the edge of the zone more than 40% of the time. I used Betances and Glasnow as examples because they are both good pitchers, but aren’t among the best. Let’s talk about Jacob deGrom…
deGrom’s fastball – on average – is 99 mph, ends up 7” closer to a right handed batter than its release point, and is on the edge of the zone 45% of the time.
Un. Hit. Able. If you’re a batter, you have to wait for a pitch over the middle, and if you get it, swing for the seats. You’re not going to hit anything else, and if you do it’ll be weak contact which isn’t an automatic out, but it’s pretty close. Even with two strikes you’re better off taking the pitch and hoping the ump calls it a ball because you’re not going to hit it anyway. If you’re lucky, you’ll get another pitch that’s hittable or you’ll draw a walk. And because the idea of stringing hits together against stuff like that is a pipe dream, the approach has to be that way on a team-wide level as well.
The problem this creates? The strategy that wins games – be selective and drive the ball – creates a less aesthetically pleasing game for many fans who would rather see more balls in play than many strikeouts, walks and home runs.
(Side note: Let’s stay on topic here. What strategy is better for winning games has been established – if you don’t think so you haven’t been paying attention for a very long time. Let’s stick to what creates more action for today’s discussion.)
Of course, we shouldn’t wait on players to change their approach. Players want to win and they aren’t about to start bunting, hitting and running and tapping the ball just to make us happy. Something has to change, but it’s not going to be the players or teams – understandably so.
The good news? An easy fix exists.
Just as previous generations have done, change the rules to force pitchers to throw hittable pitches. Specifically, shrink the strike zone. Make the strike zone from the top of the knee to just below the letters. Make the plate 16” instead of 17”.
The result will be fewer pitches that are technically in the strike zone but are unhittable, and more pitches within the batter’s reach that are hittable. Just like previous rule changes, this explicitly tells pitchers to throw the ball over the plate – as opposed to aiming for a spot that can’t be touched by a human with a bat.
Think my idea is drastic? Well then you would’ve been one of the folks in 1969 who thought lowering the mound was drastic, and how’d that work out? The problem baseball faced in the mid to late 60s is similar to the problem we have now – the idea of stringing together hits against Koufax, Marichal and Gibson when they were on a 15” mound was unsound to say the least. MLB decided to give the batters a chance and it worked.
Let’s do it again.
Shrink the zone. We’ll have fewer takes, more swings, fewer strikeouts, more balls in play – all while maintaining the power pitching and power hitting aspects of the game.
I can’t imagine anyone having a problem with those things.
Did I miss something? Let me know.
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