The History of the Strike Zone

baseball on moundIf you haven’t noticed, I love baseball.

Baseball is a game of skill and intellectual acumen like no other sport.  There’s a unique sense of strategy on so many levels at one time, and, at any point in a given game, a pitcher schemes to make the batter miss a thrown ball, while fielders position themselves to catch a batted ball, just in case it’s put into play.  Hopefully, you do this over and over, enough to keep batters-turned-runners from making it all the way around the bases to score a run.

A Simple Game

Sound complicated?  It’s really not.  In the movie Bull Durham, Skip, the coach of the Carolina League Durham bull-durham managerBulls, scolded the hapless players in the locker room, telling them, “It’s a simple game.  You throw the ball.  You catch the ball.  You hit the ball.”

Simple complexity.  Complex simplicity.  Take your pick.  Baseball exists in a state of antinomy, and the fascinating thing is it’s played by boys and men.  The same game.

Baseball, though, is not immune to fundamental controversy.  In time, and in a variety of ways, pitchers can gain an advantage; conversely, batters can somehow get an edge.  The beauty of the game – which emphasizes skill – is turned on its side.  And, something has to be changed.

The Oft-Defined Strike Zone

strike-zone-1The strike zone, upon which the entire pitcher/batter relationship hangs, is the one part of the game that determines who gets the advantage.  It is an imaginary polygon sitting over home plate, which corresponds to dynamic points on a  batter’s body, and relies on human observation and interpretation, usually in a time frame of…oh…less than one second.  In other words, an umpire, standing behind the catcher, sees a 90+ mph fastball coming towards him, and he must decide quickly if it passed over home plate between the batter’s knees and shoulders.

Oh, if it were that easy.

The current MLB rule (1988), describing the strike zone, states

The Strike Zone is that area over home plate the upper limit of which is a horizontal line at the midpoint between the top of the shoulders and the top of the uniform pants, and the lower level is a line at the top of the knees. The Strike Zone shall be determined from the batter’s stance as the batter is prepared to swing at a pitched ball.

In 1996, the rule was changed to enlarge the strike zone, so that it was “expanded on the lower end, moving from the top of the knees to the bottom of the knees.”  The bottom of the knees…technically referred to as the “hollow” below the knee.

Advantage pitchers?  Depends.  The batter may be a low ball hitter.

This is not the only time, though, that the strike zone has been changed.

In 1876, batters had the responsibility of telling the pitchers where to throw the pitch.  The rule stated,

The batsman, on taking his position, must call for a ‘high,’ ‘low,’ or ‘fair’ pitch, and the umpire shall notify the pitcher to deliver the ball as required; such a call cannot be changed after the first pitch is delivered.

A ‘high’ pitch was thrown between the shoulders and waist; a ‘low’ pitch was thrown between the waist and knees; and, a ‘fair’ pitch was thrown anywhere between the shoulders and one foot above the ground.

Advantage batters?  No doubt.  Especially since it was considered bad form in the early days of baseball to throw aspitball pitch that curved.  But, alas, the rule changed in 1887, and, while batters could no longer call for a pitch, the bottom of the zone was raised to the knees.

Fairly Thrown Balls

In 1907, the strike zone was solidified.  The rule states,

 A fairly delivered ball is a ball pitched or thrown to the bat by the pitcher while standing in his position and facing the batsman that passes over any portion of the home base, before touching the ground, not lower than the batsman’s knee, nor higher than his shoulder. For every such fairly delivered ball, the umpire shall call one strike.

It should be noted that, in 1907, a ball delivered “unfairly” was called a ball.

In 1950, the top of the strike zone was lowered to “the armpits”, but in 1961, Roger Maris set a new MLB home run record.  In 1963, MLB responded with a new strike zone.

The Strike Zone is that space over home plate which is between the top of the batter’s shoulders and his knees when he assumes his natural stance. The umpire shall determine the Strike Zone according to the batter’s usual stance when he swings at a pitch.

Back to the top of the shoulders, giving pitchers a seeming advantage.  Apparently, it did.  In 1968, pitchers like Bob Gibson dominated major league baseball.  Only one batter, Carl Yastrzremski, finished with a batting average above .300.  There were 339 shut outs that year.  So, in 1969, MLB makes the adjustment and goes back to a smaller zone.

 The Strike Zone is that space over home plate which is between the batter’s armpits and the top of his knees when he assumes a natural stance. The umpire shall determine the Strike Zone according to the batter’s usual stance when he swings at a pitch.

That brings us back to the present, where the top of the strike zone (1988) is as low as its ever been – a horizontal line half way between the shoulders and waist.  This, paired with an umpire’s subjective interpretation of 90+ mph fastballs, sliders, curves, and such, creates a strike zone that will morph daily.

Ted Williams, baseball’s best hitter, gives the best advice when stepping into the batter’s box.  He says,

The batter has three strike zones: his own, the opposing pitcher’s, and the umpire’s. The umpire’s zone is defined by the rule book, but it’s also more importantly defined by the way the umpire works. A good umpire is consistent so you can learn his strike zone. The batter has a strike zone in which he considers the pitch the right one to hit. The pitchers have zones where they are most effective. Once you know the pitcher and his zone you can get set for a particular pitch.

Davey Johnson is realistic when he says,

It’s always been the job of the hitter and pitcher to recognize the strike zone for that particular night, whether it is high or wide, and adjust accordingly. It’s been like that for like two-hundred years.

Johnson has it mostly correct.  The strike zone changes with each game, and it’s the job of every hitter and pitcher to see that.  But, two-hundred years?  Johnson obviously isn’t a historian, but his point is made.  Baseball has forever tinkered with the strike zone in an effort to achieve competitive equity.

Even with this seemingly imperfect facet of the game, it gives us all, regardless of the role we play, a reason to yell at the umpire!

Play ball!

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