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Balk Talk Hiding Strike-Zone Effect

"There's no such thing as the strike zone. It's too
tough. . . . Every umpire has his own."

Ed Varga, supervisor of NL umpires

By Kenneth Broder
Los Angeles Herald Examiner
May 29, 1988

I don't understand the confusion. What could be clearer than a new strike zone that follows "a horizontal line at the midpoint between the top of the shoulders and the top of the uniform pants"?

Umpire Ed Varga isn't confused, even if the rules committee is expanding the strike zone while writing rules that indicate it's shrinking. "It's the nipple line," the veteran ump says, describing the new height limit. Technically, it used to be the armpits, but no one has called a strike much above the waist in years.

Despite all the doubletalk, baseball is giving pitchers back the high, hard one they've been deprived of the past few years. Since 1983, the de facto strike zone has gotten smaller and lower with the expected results: more strikeouts, more walks, more home runs -- and more runs scored. Strikeouts don't fit in the chart, but trust me. They're up, too.

American League
YRRunsAve.HRBB

'8711,112.2652,6347,812
'8610,449.2622,2907,667
'8510,317.2612,1787,465
'8410,027.2641,9807,171
National League
YRRunsAve.HRBB

'878,771.2611,8246,577
'868,096.2531,5236,560
'857,899.2521,4246,373
'847,894.2551,2786,149

This isn't the first time the powers that be jacked around with the strike zone. In 1950, they shrank it, but hitting declined anyway for other reasons. In 1962, the owners, in their infinite wisdom, thought the game was being devalued by too much hitting, and expanded the strike zone. Teams immediately went from averaging 4.5 runs per game to under 4.0. Batting averages plummeted 12 points and home runs decline 10 percent.

In 1968, Carl Yastrzemski won the AL batting crown with a .301 average and Oakland led the league at .240. The Tigers won the pennant and the World Series scoring barely four runs per game -- and that led the league by a mile.

In the senior circuit, Bob Gibson was making a mockery of the record book with a miniscule ERA of 1.12. However, he still suffered nine losses.

But what has the new strike zone meant in 1988. The controversy almost has been overshadowed by a strict interpretation of the balk rule that has wreaked havoc with pitchers, but the umpires haven't lost sight of it. The new strike zone has taken its toll.

Last year, American League teams averaged 4.9 runs per game; this year, as of May 25, it's down to 4.5. In the NL, scoring has dropped from 4.5 to 4.0. Batting averages are off nine points in the AL, 14 points in the NL; slugging percentage is down; home runs are way down; and, of course, walks are harder to come by.

Is everybody happy? Probably not. When there are fewer runs, there are fewer fans in the ballpark.

Before the season started, author Bill James predicted the new strike zone would hurt some players more than others, based on the experience of 1963. That year, a group of hitters with good batting averages (.275 to .310) and decent power (15 to 20 homers) got murdered. This year, their James-ID'd counterparts (Bobby Bonilla, Keith Hernandez, Carney Lansford, Pete O'Brien, Ryne Sandberg, Terry Pendleton and Phil Bradley) are faring much better. Only Bradley is truly suffering, though Sandberg has seen better days.

Booming power hitters, like Mark McGwire, Dale Murphy and Mike Marshall (huh???), also were supposed to be killed, with batting averages off 15 to 20 points and home runs down. Marshall is hanging in there, McGwire is hitting homers, (though his average is down), but Murphy is having a terrible year.

Power hitters with a fine sense of the strike zone, like Dwight Evans, Mike Schmidt, Howard Johnson, Eddie Murray, Jack Clark and Wally Joyner, were expected to find themselves behind in the count more and suffer the consequences. They all have. But others in the group, Danny Tartabull, Kent Hrbek, George Brett and Darryl Strawberry have done just fine.

One group of hitters in particular have seemingly been thrown a nasty curve by the rules committee. Pure hitters who work the strike zone, like Tony Gwynn, Wade Boggs, Paul Molitor, Kevin Seitzer and Tim Raines, supposedly would lose a few points off their average, a little power and a lot of walks, but James expected they would be OK.

All five of these hitters are producing less offense than last year, though, except for Gwynn, they're not walking any less. In '87, Boggs had a Runs Created Per Game average of 11.16. In other words, a team with nine Wades in the lineup would theoretically score 11.16 runs per game based on his number of hits, extra-base hits, walks, etc. This year he's at 8.33, though coming on strong. Oft-injured Gwynn is down to 4.07 from 10.31; Molitor is at 5.50 from 10.74; Seitzer is off his 7.27 mark at 5.54; and Raines has dropped from 9.55 to 7.11.

Some players have adjusted better. (They're listed in the box entitled "Top Hitters.")

As for the brouhaha over balks, they may be throwing pitchers for a loop, but the effect on stolen bases has been negligible. The American League is running slightly less than last year, the National League a little more. Success rates in both leagues are still around 70 percent.

Top Hitters

NameTeamRC/GRCNameTeamRC/GRC

WinfieldNY12.1542.5BonillaPit8.9937.7
BrettKC10.0440.9StrawberryNY8.5334.4
LansfordOak8.9638.9GalaragaMon7.8833.0
Carter J.Cle9.0038.1PalmeiroChi8.2031.9
HendersonNY8.6434.6DawsonChi7.1331.5

Davis A.Sea9.5233.3LarkinsCin6.3530.8
CansecoOak7.2133.0RainesMon7.1130.6
McGriffTor11.0932.9Clark W.SF64.729.4
TartabullKC8.6731.7Davis G.Hou6.9128.2
Bell G.Tor7.2831.4HernandezNY6.8626.7

TrammellDet7.4639.7BondsPit5.3126.6
HrbekMin7.7230.6DanielsCin6.2726.3
McGwireOak6.8229.7Carter G.NY7.5825.4
BoggsBos8.3329.5GibsonLA8.9924.5
PuckettMin6.6129.0BrunanskyStL5.3724.2