Changes are an inevitable part of life. Baseball is no exception. But a change to the strike zone may hurt the Chicago Cubs more than other teams.
It is no secret. The administration of Major League Baseball is investigating ways to improve the game. From attempting to shorten games with a pitch clock to allowing instances for instant replay, ideas presented run the gamut. However, no change would affect the Chicago Cubs more than the raising of the strike zone.
During the Grapefruit League media day, MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred stated that data supports raising the bottom of the strike zone a few inches. The rule, as of 1996, states the following in the Baseball Rule Book:
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Rule 2.00 – Definitions of Terms.
“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 hollow beneath the kneecap. The Strike Zone shall be determined from the batter’s stance as the batter is prepared to swing at a pitched ball.”
Prior to 1996, the rule stated the bottom of the strike zone was the top of the batter’s knee. The change came about to help clarify the bottom of the zone and, theoretically, provide pitchers with an advantage. But then players like Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa took advantage and home run numbers rose. Of course, the strike zone more was not the only reason for that increase.
For the Chicago Cubs pitching staff, this news is not great. Pitchers in the starting rotation live in the bottom of the strike zone. In 2016, Kyle Hendricks, Jon Lester, and Jake Arrieta were among the MLB’s top eight of pitchers to get called strikes in the lower part of the zone. Hendricks received 79 such calls, with 16.3% of his pitching at or below the knees. Additionally, batters hit for an average of .043 on balls down in the zone off Hendricks.
As for Lester, 63% of all pitches below the zone were strikes, but only 31.5% were called. Arrieta lives at the bottom of the zone, more so that Hendricks and Lester. Almost one-fifth of all of Arrieta’s pitches are at or below the knee and over the plate. Yet, only 25% of the pitches below the knees get called strikes.
Raising the strike zone does not negate the fact the Cubs pitching staff allows the lowest batting average in the Majors. It will, however, force pitchers to throw in the swing-plane of more hitters.
If the pitchers struggle with the zone, batters should succeed. For example, Ben Zobrist had 71 pitches in the bottom three inches of the zone called for strikes. That was second most in baseball. Already a high on-base player, raising the zone to the top of the knees could lead to more walks or hits. If he bats in front of Anthony Rizzo and Kris Bryant, more opportunities to score will be produced.
Speaking of Rizzo and Bryant, bringing the zone up to the top of the knees will force more balls in their sweet spots. Bryant swings at approximately 70% of balls in this part of the zone, making strong contact. Rizzo prefers the ball up a little more, but many home runs came from balls at the knees.
The problem for Chicago Cubs batters is that several are free-swingers. Javier Baez notoriously swings at balls out of the zone. Jason Heyward did the same last year. If that trend continues, it will not matter where the ball is pitched.
Ideas for improving the game of baseball are always welcome, but not always beneficial. Moving the strike zone back to pre-1996 standards may or may not be helpful. Regardless, there are three zones on every pitch: the pitcher, the batter, and the umpires. Only the umpire’s zone matters.