Baseball isn’t and has never been perfect, but why not try?
Last week I wrote about … well, about my general distaste for strikeouts. No, not all strikeouts. For as long as anyone can remember, there’s been a place for strikeouts in America’s greatest game. From 1903 through 1905, Athletics left-hander Rube Waddell averaged 313 strikeouts per season. In 1946, Bob Feller returned from the U.S. Navy and struck out 348 batters in 371 innings. In 1965, Sandy Koufax blew away the old National League record with 382 strikeouts; that record still stands. In the 1970s, Nolan Ryan … well, you probably know all about Nolan Ryan. For as long as anyone can possibly remember, strikeouts have been a thrilling part of the game, and a memorable part of the game’s lore.
I’m not anti-strikeouts. I’m anti-strikeouts-overwhelming-the-rest-of-the-game. Which is why I wrote what I wrote last week. Beneath the column, the comments were … shall we say, interesting. One common reaction: There wouldn’t be quite so many strikeouts if the umpires would just call the strike zone correctly. Another, more common reaction: Baseball is PERFECT, has always been PERFECT, and how dare anyone suggest that any change might even be considered.
Well, you might think that baseball is PERFECT right now, but throughout the game’s history, the people who believed what you believe have been overruled, time and time again, by people who didn’t believe in perfection. Do you want to know exactly how many rules have been changed or added to the book in the last century?
Exactly 96 rules. That’s how many.
Yes, I made that up. But I promise the real number might loosely be described as “a lot.” And regarding just the matter at hand, a) the strikeout has be redefined a number of times, and in 1969 the height of the pitcher’s mound was lowered from 15 inches to 10 inches. Was the game PERFECT before that change, or after? Well, it’s still 10 inches. So maybe it’s PERFECT now … but that means it was IMPERFECT before a massive change to the pitcher’s mound, right?
Now I’m getting confused. Is Our Grand Game PERFECT at every moment of its existence? Was it perfect before Jackie Robinson joined the Dodgers? Was it perfect in 1968 when the entire American League finished with a .230 batting average? Maybe. Hell, anything’s possible. I don’t really believe in perfection, though. I’m with Vince Lombardi. PERFECTION is worth chasing, relentlessly, but only because the pursuit will lead to excellence.
Believe it or not, Major League Baseball is on Lombardi’s side, too. Some years ago, MLB installed cameras in all the ballparks, in the pursuit of detailed data on every pitched baseball. This data’s now been around for six or seven years, and it’s changed the game and how we perceive it. Before that, the QuesTec system allowed Major League Baseball to more accurately evaluate umpires … who, as you might expect, responded to these evaluations by changing their behavior. All that data also allowed smart people with computers to measure how umpires changed.
In The Hardball Times Baseball Annual 2014, Jon Roegele looked at the data backwards and forwards, and his conclusions are pretty striking. It’s a long piece and you might get bogged down some, so here’s your executive summary: The effective strike zone has gotten larger, with fewer called strikes off the plate more than balanced by significantly more called strikes down low. And as Roegele writes, “So you could say that one-third of the offensive decrease over the last five years has been due to the growing strike zone.”
Hey, those comments about the umpires were probably on target! The umpires probably are at least partially responsible for all the strikeouts. Along with the pitchers who throw so hard and the batters who can’t seem to adjust, except by swinging ever harder. The good news is that if the umpires aren’t calling the zone as well as they might, there’s room for improvement. The bad news is that a healthy percentage of these “new” low strikes might actually be strikes, according to the rule-book strike zone.
I believe that pitchers have simply gotten better faster than hitters, or at least it seems that way. We know that pitchers are throwing significantly harder than they used to, which is because a) they’re bigger and stronger, and b) whether starter or reliever, they’re not asked to throw as many pitches per appearance, so they don’t have to pace themselves.
Of course the hitters aren’t helpless; just ask Chris Davis. But the Strikeout Scourge suggests the pitchers are getting better – or more effective, anyway – faster than the hitters. And they’re getting some help from the umpires, however unwittingly. So to those commenters who blamed the umpires for all the strikeouts: Kudos to you, Good Sirs and Ma’ams.
On the other hand, a pox upon the houses of Good Sirs and Ma’ams who think baseball is perfect and deserves nary a trifle. For you, the bad news is that baseball has always been trifled with. Adding QuestTec and then PITCHf/x were trifles, and even more trifles are on the way. It’s really a matter of deciding who’s doing the trifling, and where the trifles will take us. In this Humble Servant’s opinion, Baseball has let the trifles take us in a place we might not want to be, with more strikeouts and slower games and fewer balls in play and less action than we would, if designing a great game from scratch, desire.
The notion that we might preserve the perfect baseball of our youth in amber is a slightly demented fantasy. Baseball has always and will always change, due to an infinite number of factors we might just hazily begin to comprehend. But that doesn’t mean we can’t or shouldn’t try to guide the changes, however imperfect our wisdom.