Twenty-five years ago, Ted Williams, retired a year, and Mike Roarke, then a Detroit Tiger catcher and now the pitching coach for the St. Louis Cardinals, were discussing the strike zone. They were interrupted by their companion, who just so happened to be a blind judge.
This is an article from the April 6, 1987 issue
"What is the big deal?" asked the judge. "The strike zone is a vertical rectangle 17 inches wide extending from the armpits to the top of the batter's knees."
"Don't take offense, your highness," said Williams. "But that's an ideal set forth in the rule book. Baseball isn't played with ideals. The strike zone is whatever that day's umpire says it is. So if a hitter is smart, he knows that particular umpire as well as he knows the opposing pitcher."
"I see," replied the judge. "That means that the strike zone is no different than a court of law."
The strike zone determines a great deal more than balls and strikes. It determines what's hit or isn't hit, who's called out and who isn't. It determines who's on the defensive and who's on the offensive. "Baseball is a game of counts," says Hall of Fame pitcher Don Drysdale. "You win at 1 and 2, lose at 2 and 1, and the difference between 1 and 2 and 2 and 1 is often a fraction of an inch in one mind's eye." The strike zone is the very heartbeat of a game.
The rule book reads, as the judge stated, that the strike zone is the width of the plate and the distance between the batter's armpits and his knees. "The rule book doesn't really have any touch with reality," says Marty Springstead, a long-respected umpire who's now the American League's chief supervisor of umpires. "There are no directives, no set standards." National League supervisor Ed Vargo says, "I can't begin to tell you what the strike zone really is. It comes down to individuals, instinct and common sense."
"There are 52 different strike zones because there are 52 umpires," says American League umpire Joe Brinkman, who runs one of the two schools that train young umpires for organized baseball. "From the time they come to our school, through the umpire development program and right on up to the big leagues, no one ever defines the strike zone to an umpire."
"We don't need a specific definition," says the AL's Richie Garcia. "We know what the strike zone is. Managers know what it is. So do hitters and pitchers."
All well and good, but the strike zone is clearly not what the rule book says it is—and what most of us are taught it is. Today's strike zone basically runs vertically from the belt buckle to the bottom of the knees and horizontally maybe a shade or two outside of the plate. If some latter-day Rip van Winkle fell asleep in front of his TV set 20 years ago watching Nolan Ryan throw a high heater for a called strike past Pete Rose, he would be surprised upon waking up in front of the set today to find that the same pitch thrown by Ryan to Rose is now called a ball—without argument. Even those of you who haven't been asleep for 20 years might well ask, What happened? Why isn't that perfectly good, rib-high pitch a strike? Does the centerfield camera lie?
Hank Soar, a former umpire who's now an assistant supervisor in the American League, says, "I wonder if Early Wynn would be in the Hall of Fame if the strike zone had been like this when he pitched. I wonder how Allie Reynolds, Vic Raschi, Virgil Trucks or Jim Palmer would have been affected. What would have happened to Don Larsen's perfect game? That pitch Dale Mitchell took for a called third strike is a ball today."
Fans aren't the only people who get exercised by the sinking strike zone. Says one AL catcher, "There is no more high strike. That's why run production is so high in this league. The hitters are hanging over the plate." According to one hard-throwing pitcher, "I like to pop one good fastball up there because it freezes the hitter, but now it's a ball, and it's the difference between 2 and 2 and 3 and 1, which means I now have to come in with something else."
Umpires hardly observe the rule-book strike zone—which is not to say that some baseball people haven't tried to define the strike zone more clearly for them. When Yankee owner George Steinbrenner was on the umpires' committee in 1978, the members drew up a specific guideline. "We said from the nipples to the knees," recalls Steinbrenner. But that disappeared in a bureaucratic Bermuda Triangle. Like the umpires, National League president A. Bartlett Giamatti, a classical scholar, resists the notion of an ideal strike zone. "That sort of rule is Platonic," says Giamatti. "Baseball isn't Platonic."
If anything, baseball is Darwinian: It is governed by natural laws. The strike zone didn't collapse overnight. The change has been an inexorable evolution brought on by a number of factors. Strike 1) When the umpires went from outside chest protectors to inside cushions—first the NL (in the '50s), then the AL (in 1978)—they were able to crouch a little lower and, as a result, started to call a lower strike. Strike 2) The prevailing pitching wisdom became "keep the ball down," out of the batter's wheelhouse. It's a chicken-or-egg sort of question—Which came first, the low strike or the sinker?—but once the umpires began to lower the strike zone, drop pitches soon came into vogue, and the umpires permitted the zone to go even lower. In turn, the batters have adapted and become good low-ball hitters. Strike 3) In their desire to get more hitting into the game, the owners have made rule changes that for the most part have been pro hitter, anti pitcher. Thus, the smaller strike zone has been winked at.
Today it's the little variables that often help define a strike. Umpires concede that Fernando Valenzuela's precision can lure the strike zone inches beyond the outside corner. An ump's respect for Wade Boggs's eye—if he let it go by, it must be a ball—can shrink the zone. Bob Boone's steady catching hand expands the zone down, in and out. "An umpire's size can determine the strike zone," says Rose. "Lee Weyer is 6'6" and his strike zone is big. Bruce Froemming is 5'8" and his is small." Also, umpires may not admit it, but they do let their feelings get in the way of balls and strikes.
There's no more difficult position in baseball than that of the umpire. The travel is hell; the pay, though getting better, still isn't what it should be; and the constant abuse is demeaning. Umpires are essentially policemen, and just as there are good cops and bad cops, there are good umps and bad umps. Think of yourself behind the plate on a hot August night in Arlington, Texas, encumbered by a chest protector and a mask, your ears ringing with invectives from both of the benches and the beered-up fan behind the screen. The bases are loaded, and Bobby Witt unleashes a 95-mph, 3-and-2 fastball on the inside part of the plate, heading directly for your head....
It's a tough job, but somebody has to do it. All that the players and managers really ask of a plate umpire is that he be consistent, whether he be a "high ball" umpire or a "low ball" umpire. A "high ball" ump may call a strike as high as the belly button. A "low ball" umpire like Ken Kaiser of the American League has a zone that goes, according to one official, "from the top of the thighs to the shoe tops." In defense of the low-strike zone, NL ump Dick Stello says, "If we called strikes up around the letters, the hitters wouldn't hit." Tell that to Ted Williams, who feasted on fastballs above the waist.
Brinkman says that at his school he tries to get prospective umpires to raise their strike zones. "They've all watched a lot of television, and they see how low it can be," Brinkman says. "So we try to at least start them higher until they have the experience to determine their particular strike zone."
The strike zones in the two leagues are relatively the same now, but that hasn't always been the case. The National League had long been a "low ball" league because of the inside chest protector. "There's a tremendous difference," says Brinkman. "With the outside protector, you have to stand straight up over the catcher, so while you've got a pretty good view of the inside and out-side corners, you can't see the pitch down. You have to guess. With the inside protector, you're right down over the catcher. You can set your strike zone for the individual hitter like a television screen and get a near-perfect view of the low pitch."
The pitchers who now complain that they can't get a high strike have to share some of the blame. Says Toronto coach John Sullivan, "Somewhere around the early '60s, the game changed from fastball-curveball to sinker-slider. So you had the strike zone moving down to fit the pitch." Adds Soar, "The managers helped force the pitches down. That way, if they did get beat, they could say they got beat on a good low pitch and not on a mistake."
Complicating matters for the umps, early in the 1980s Roger Craig began to teach the split-fingered fastball, a pitch that made Bruce Sutter famous and Mike Scott untouchable. "The toughest thing to hit and call is that split-fingered thing," says Stello. "So many of these guys are throwing it so hard and with such a sharp drop at the last instant." Says another NL umpire, "They come in at 85 to 90 miles an hour, and they look good right up to the last second, so you tend to call them strikes. They're almost impossible to call accurately."
Did the lowering of the strike zone alter the very nature of the game? Says Williams, "There is a damn near 100-point difference in average between hitting the pitch at the top of the knee and at the bottom of the knee." But Rose, for one, just went along for the ride down. "Every pitching coach told his pitchers to keep the ball down," he says. "I said, 'Good, right into Pete Rose's power.' You've got to be a low-ball hitter to survive in baseball."
The Charlie Lau school of hitting took over with the disappearance of the high, tight strike. Says Rose, "Almost all of your good contemporary hitters—Gwynn, Mattingly, Brett, guys like that—are spread out [dug in]. They move into the ball, and they put it in play all over the field." Says Boston hitting coach Walter Hriniak, "There aren't more than five good high ball hitters in the American League, and I'll bet you can't find that many in the National League. If you can't hit the low pitch, you can't hit."
The lack of a high strike creates big problems for the pitcher. "Because the pitch at the letters on the inside corner is a ball, hitters can look down and away and dive into the pitch," says one catcher. "There's no way to keep a hitter off the plate, because half the time if you even move a guy back, they hand out those ridiculous warnings." (The warnings, designed to deter beanball wars, have created far more problems than they've solved.)
Roger Clemens and Dwight Gooden, the game's premier fireballers, can get into trouble when umpires don't give them the strike above the belt. "We had some luck a couple of times with Clemens by laying off his high fastballs," says Blue Jay catcher Ernie Whitt. "But with a Clemens or a Gooden, their control is so good that those pitches look good. They start out at the belt, but by the time you swing, the pitch has taken off and left you with absolutely no chance to catch up."
Mets pitching coach Mel Stottlemyre thinks that umpires will heighten the strike zone for control masters like Clemens and Gooden. "If a pitcher stays on the borderline and proves to the umpire that he can consistently hit that spot, he'll get that pitch," says Stottlemyre. He claims the opposite was true when he brought his sinker to the highball American League in 1964. "At first I had some problems with the umpires, but Elston Howard would tell them, 'That's his strike.' I would hit that spot at the knees and get it."
Because hitters have become so used to the pitch between the waist and the knees, Red Sox pitching coach Bill Fischer believes that baseball will see an increasing number of pitchers start throwing high again just to keep the hitters honest. Fischer has most of his pitchers throwing cross-seam fastballs, which if thrown hard enough, appear to jump at the last second. "Most of the hitters are low-ball hitters so that they're thinking down," says Fischer. "A cross-seam fastball ties them up. Bruce Hurst started doing it last year. Everything else he threw was down—a fastball that sinks, an overhand curve, a forkball—so he got a lot of strikeouts on cross-seamers."
The size of a batter also creates problems for the umpire (see box, page 39), especially when you consider that batters range anywhere from 5'6" to 6'6". "I don't think umpires adjust to the individual hitter as well as they should," says one American League reliever. "A ball to [5'8"] John Cangelosi could easily be a strike to [6'6"] Dave Winfield, but umpires have a box mentality, so they don't always make the calls that they should."
Then there is the matter of Rickey Henderson's unique strike zone, a raging controversy unto itself. His crouch is so low and so exaggerated that Angel manager Gene Mauch once described it as a "three-inch strike zone." Henderson, who walked 89 times last year, claims that the umpires call strikes on him that would be balls on other batters. Steinbrenner called the league to task on the subject last year, citing the umpire committee's 1978 guidelines. The umpires say that Henderson comes out of his crouch to swing at the ball, and according to Springstead, the strike zone should be determined by "the normal hitting stance when a batter is swinging at the ball." Stop-action photographs of Henderson, though, reveal that he really does stay down when he swings at a pitch.
The horizontal strike zone hasn't changed nearly as much as the vertical one, but it is moving nonetheless—to the outside. "The inside corner is seldom a strike," says one National League pitcher, "but you can get pitches a couple of inches outside." Says one catcher, "With the umpires right over our shoulders, they're so worried about the outside corner that they lose the inside corner. So they miss a lot of pitches there."
Pitchers maintain that because so many hitters now move into pitches, any ball on the inside corner sends them reeling back—and influences the umps. Several umpires also admit that the skill of a catcher—"framing" a pitch—can affect them. "Guys like Carlton Fisk and Bob Boone will catch the baseball in front of them like infielders and steal a few more strikes," says Garcia. "Some other catchers will carry pitches right out of the strike zone." Don Slaught of Texas is often mentioned as a catcher who loses strikes for his pitchers.
If a catcher knows what he's doing, and knows his pitcher, his setup is very important. Says Yankee manager Lou Piniella, "You see catchers set up outside. If the pitcher hits the glove, it's a strike, whether that particular pitch is off the plate or not."
Rose has the same complaint. "Jim Barr of the Giants used to drive me crazy," says Rose. "The catcher would set up outside, he'd hit the glove perfectly, and it would be called a strike. If a part of the ball doesn't cross the white of the plate, it should be a ball, no matter how well the pitcher hits the glove."
Former Yankee pitcher Eddie Lopat says that if the pitchers are indeed getting an extra couple of inches outside, "it's about the only thing they get today." Indeed, the strike zone has gone from a vertical rectangle to a square, the mound has been lowered, moving batters off the plate has become a punishable offense, and most ingenious pickoff moves have been ruled balks. Virtually everything has been done to benefit the hitter.
Yet, a bigger strike zone is not necessarily a bad thing. For one, it would get batters swinging instead of looking. For another, it would speed up ball games. In fact, the Yankees and the Royals still talk about a matchup last August 8 between Tommy John and Charlie Leibrandt. One of the best young umpires in either league, John Hirshbeck, was behind the plate. Because his strike zone is generous, he was forcing the hitters to swing at two pitchers who nibble at the corners. John and the Yankees won 2-0 in a game that lasted only 2 hours and 10 minutes.
Both Rose, who has more hits than any man who ever lived, and Cardinal manager Whitey Herzog, who possesses one of the sharpest minds in baseball, would like to see a bigger strike zone. "The major reason that games are so long and boring today is the strike zones are so damned small," says Rose. "It's a better game when guys are up there swinging. I'd like to see them move the strike zone back up to the letters and get everyone hacking."
Adds Herzog, "Ed Runge had the biggest strike zone of all time. I remember he would be umpiring first base and he'd say to you, 'You'd better be swinging tomorrow.' That's the way baseball should be played."
RULE BOOK (RED)
THE LONG AND THE SHORT OF IT.
Batters come in all shapes and sizes, but some in baseball maintain that the umpires don't take into account how big a hitter is when they call balls and strikes. "Umpires have a box mentality," says one player.
Darryl Strawberry 6'5"
about 580 sq. in.
Kirby Puckett 5'8"
about 500 sq. in.
THE CATCHERS CALL THE UMPS
THE AL'S BEST
1) STEVE PALERMO
"In a class of his own. He hustles, and he's consistent. I just enjoy working with him."
2) RICH GARCIA
"Solid, reliable and fun to have behind you."
3) JOHN SHULOCK
"He has a temper, but he always wants to make the right call."
4) JOHN HIRSCHBECK
"The best young ump. Reasonable. Big zone."
5) DAVE PHILLIPS
"A consummate professional. On the ball all the time."
THE NL'S BEST
1) LEE WEYER
"The biggest strike zone. Consistent game after game and there aren't many like that."
2) DUTCH RENNERT
"Doesn't miss many. One of the best for a long time."
3) DOUG HARVEY
"Still cares about doing the best possible job."
4) BRUCE FROEMMING
"He's hot-tempered, but you know what to expect."
5) FRANK PULLI
"Gets 'em swinging the bat, then sets a consistent zone."
TEN WHO HAVE THEM SINGING THE BLUES
"He's just not real good on balls and strikes."
"He only makes excuses back there. He gets intimidated."
"He's always apologizing, always saying, 'I missed that one.' "
"Loses his position and strike zone too easily."
"He's heads or tails. I think he goes by sound."
"His strike zone changes from inning to inning."
"Inconsistent, depending on his opinion of you."
"More concerned with aiming the spotlight at himself."
"I've no idea what a strike is after he calls a game."
"He can destroy you, because he's unpredictable."