So. The umps suck. What else is new?
Well, I don’t know if this is new, but a problem has arisen that demands immediate attention. I will explain the problem as best I can below, but bear in mind that I’m coming off watching a Mets loss that was caused by this problem, so I may be slightly biased. I’ve typed key terms in capitals for organizational purposes.
To explain the problem, I will start with the first sentence of the definition of the strike zone, taken verbatim from the official 2014 MLB rulebook:
“The STRIKE ZONE is that area over home plate the upper limit of which is a horizontal line between the top of the shoulders and the top of the uniform pants, and the lower level of which is a line at the hollow beneath the kneecap.”
I will also put forward another definition, which may seem redundant, but apparently not for MLB umpires:
The STRIKE ZONE is the STRIKE ZONE.
Based on the above definition, certain assumptions can be made:
1) The STRIKE ZONE is the area inside the STRIKE ZONE, and no other areas.
2) The STRIKE ZONE does not extend outside the MLB-defined strike zone.
Keeping in mind the two points stated above, I will rephrase my earlier point: The STRIKE ZONE is, and only is, the STRIKE ZONE.
What do I mean? Well, here’s what I don’t mean:
1) The STRIKE ZONE only exists inside the strike zone.
2) Therefore, the STRIKE ZONE is not “close to the strike zone,” but “inside the actual strike zone.”
3) Therefore, any ball that is not inside the ACTUAL STRIKE ZONE, no matter how close, is not a strike, because it was NOT INSIDE THE ACTUAL STRIKE ZONE.
3) Returning to the MLB definition of “Strike Zone,” and substituting the term “over the plate” for “inside the strike zone” in the first part of the sentence, I will make the following statement, which describes the root of the problem:
“Any ball that is not over home plate, no matter how close, is not a strike, because it was NOT INSIDE THE STRIKE ZONE.”
The problem with this is that it has apparently been forgotten in equal measure by both umpires and broadcasters. It used to be that a “close pitch” was one that was an inch or two outside, and a strike had to be in the strike zone, which – follow me closely here – is what makes it a strike in the first place. In other words, a close pitch was just that – close to catching the plate, but not quite getting there. Now, however, the strike zone is completely different – for reasons unknown to me, it extends a few inches off the plate in either direction, and a pitch that comes in six inches outside is usually described as “just missing” or “too close to take.”
Originally, a pitch that was thrown a little bit outside the strike zone – what would today be called a strike – was considered a good pitch because such pitches often yielded swings, which meant the batter was swinging at pitches that were not strikes, which meant that the chances of solid contact decreased. However, good hitters – Ted Williams comes to mind – could lay off the close pitches, and only swing at the true strikes. However, as the game evolved, people found themselves looking at pitches two or three inches off the outside corner, and thinking to themselves “Nice pitch!” without knowing why. So, naturally, they came to a conclusion: “those must be strikes!”
The problem with this system, as opposed to the former “true strike” system, is that today, any pitch that is not called a strike is almost always completely unhittable. Today’s hitters, already conditioned to swing at anything close, find themselves swinging at pitches that today are considered “close,” but are, in fact, six inches or more outside the actual strike zone. In the earlier days of Baseball, players would swing at pitches outside the strike zone only in certain situations – protecting the plate with two strikes, for example, and even if a pitch was slightly outside the strike zone, these players could still hit with relative confidence, since a ball one or two inches off the plate, even though it is not a strike by the MLB definition, is not markedly harder to hit with authority than a ball over the outside corner. However, with today’s expanded strike zone, players, especially when protecting the plate with two strikes, often find themselves swinging – they do this every time, and every time I am flummoxed – at pitches that they actually cannot physically reach, as if they expect their bats to hit a growth spurt during their swing. But is this habit of swinging at pitches that cannot be reached, much less hit hard, the fault of the players? Of course not! Why are the players swinging at these absurd pitches in the first place? Because the umpires are A) getting steadily worse, B) have no accountability, and C) do not call pitches solely based on their location, but factor into their decisions count, pitcher, hitter, and in some cases, whether it will make them look like a man.
So what am I saying? I’ll tell you what I’m saying. The fact that strikeouts are increasing rapidly, and offense as a whole is decreasing as well, from about 4.75 runs per game on average from 1993 to 2009 to about 4.25 runs per game on average since 2010, is the fault of the umpires. I don’t know about the effect on MLB revenue, the possible long-term ramifications in the sport, or the impact on contract amounts, but I will say one thing: with all the talk of obeying the rulebook and cleaning up the game, doing something else to make it harder for the hitters, while simultaneously going against one of the oldest and most basic rules in the rulebook, doesn’t seem like a strategic move on MLB’s part. Of course, it’s not really any move at all on MLB’s part – the expansion of the strike zone has been completely unofficial – but you’d think in the effort to bring back fans who were disillusioned after the steroid era, making a basic change THAT IS ALREADY IN THE RULEBOOK AS A RULE, which would bring the playing field somewhere closer to level for hitters would be welcomed by MLB.
Of course, MLB also welcomed George Steinbrenner, so when it comes down to it, you never really can tell.