Pending rule changes could fix MLB’s increasingly high strikeout rate
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According to ESPN’s Jayson Stark, Major League Baseball’s competition committee initiated two significant rules changes at the owners meetings in New York this week. Though both still require approval from the playing rules committee and wouldn’t be imposed until next season even if approved, the competition committee approved a motion to raise the lower limit of the strike zone from below the knee to above the knee and to eliminate need for pitchers to throw four balls in order to issue an intentional walk.
The strike zone change is one that has been under discussion for some time and is motivated by a desire to increase offense as well as the number of balls put into play. It’s one I heartily agree with. Strikeout rates have been trending upward since the 1920s, but that pace has accelerated over the last decade, and since 2008, the league-wide strikeout percentage (the percentage of plate appearances to end in a strikeout) has set a record every season, and is on pace to do so again this year.
*through Thursday’s games
If this year’s strikeout percentage holds, strikeout rates will have increased nearly 28% since 2005, when the league-wide strikeout rate was 16.5%. To put that another way, in a dozen seasons, we have gone from seeing a strikeout once every 6.08 plate appearances to once every 4.73 PA.
In light of those trends, bringing up the bottom of the strike zone is a move that is long overdue, in large part because the current lower limit of the zone, defined in the official rules as “a line at the hollow beneath the kneecap,” is inconsistent with the majority of baseball history. When the standardized strike zone was first put into place in 1887, the lower limit was described as “not lower than the batsman’s knee.” That stood until 1950, when it was redefined as “the top of his knees.” That remained in place until 1996, when it was lowered to its current position below the knee for the first time. Thus the lower limit of the zone has extended below the knee for just 21 of the 130 years of the standardized strike zone’s existence.
I, for one, believe that a ball that crosses the plate at the hollow bellow the knee is an unhittable pitch for the vast majority of hitters. What’s more, in recent seasons, pitchers have been getting strike calls on lower and lower pitches as they exploit that lower limit with sinkers and breaking balls, forcing hitters to chase pitches that they have no hope of hitting with authority. That’s to the credit of those pitchers, but to the detriment of the game.
As enthusiastic as I am about bringing up the bottom of the strike zone, however, I disagree with the motion to no longer require pitchers to throw four pitches to execute an intentional walk. I simply don’t think that intentional walks occur frequently enough for the time saved to have a significant impact on the overall pace of play. On the other hand, automating intentional walks does eliminate the, admittedly minute, chance of an alternative result, be it a wild pitch that advanced the runners or even allows a run to score, a catcher’s balk, or a hitter reaching out and turning an intentional ball that got too close to the plate into a hit as Miguel Cabrera did earlier in his career, driving in a run in the process.
With regard to impact on pace of play, in 2015 there were 951 intentional walks in 2,429 games, an average of 0.4 IBBs per game. Friday night, the Dodgers’ Scott Kazmir took roughly 35 seconds to intentionally walk San Diego’s Adam Rosales. At a rate of 0.4 IBBs per game, eliminating those 35 seconds would save an average of roughly 14 seconds per game, and less if the indicating of an intentional pass takes more than a second. That seems pointless to me given the loss of potentially compelling action.
It’s also worth considering that intentional walks tend to come in high leverage situations, which contain the suspense that makes baseball so compelling. Those 35 seconds aren’t being dithered away with the bases empty, waiting for something to happen. They’re spent contemplating the wisdom of the intentional walk, who is on deck, whether or not the opposing manager should pinch-hit, whether or not the manager who issued the walk should counter with a pitching change, all while hoping the pitcher and catcher don’t make a costly mistake in executing those four wide tosses. They are 35 seconds that heighten the tension of the moment, and I would prefer to see them remain a part of major league baseball.