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What aspect of the game dictates the trajectory and outcome of a baseball game? Many would argue that it is something offensive such as the number of hits or base runners a team is able to accrue in a game.
Others may point to defense and say that the number of runs a team gives up or the number of errors it makes determines the outcome of a game.
While neither of these answers are necessarily wrong, they don’t quite pinpoint the one thing that actually determines an offense’s ability to get hits and score runs and a defense’s ability to prevent them.
Many don’t like to admit it, but the game of baseball is actually dictated by something that can’t actually be seen: the strike zone.
In baseball, the strike zone is an imaginary box in which pitchers try to throw the ball. If a hitter does not swing at a pitch and it crosses the strike zone, then the umpire calls a strike.
The strike zone extends the width of home plate. The height of the strike zone goes from the midpoint between the top of the player’s uniform pants and the top of his shoulders to just below his knees.
The home plate umpire is responsible for determining whether or not a pitch crosses the plate in the strike zone, making it all the more frustrating for some players and fans that the pace and outcome of a game are controlled by an umpire and an imaginary box.
Still, the strike zone is an important part of the game that has existed ever since organized baseball began.
Do Different Leagues Have Different Strike Zones?
Theoretically, the strike zone is the same throughout all of baseball. However, different leagues are sometimes either more strict or more lenient with their implementation of it.
For example, umpires at the youth level are notorious for expanding the strike zone in order to give pitchers, who are not as skilled at commanding the strike zone, a fair chance at being successful. They also do this in order to help speed up the game.
As players advance into high school and sometimes even college, the leniency of the strike zone typically varies from umpire to umpire.
While umpires should try to be as consistent as possible, the reality is that talent, especially at the high school level, varies significantly from pitcher to pitcher.
Some pitchers simply aren’t capable of throwing to a “Major League strike zone”, so some umpires modify it to keep the game moving smoothly.
Again, this is not supposed to be the case, but it is the reality of the situation. At the end of the day and at this point in time, umpires are human, and balls and strikes are judgment calls.
How Does the Strike Zone Affect the Game?
As stated earlier, the strike zone dictates the entire game. Without a target for the pitcher to throw and a visual for the hitter to know what pitches to swing at and what pitches to take, the game would be a mess.
Other than regulating balls and strikes, the strike zone also has an effect on things that the average fan sometimes does not see.
How a catcher receives a pitch has a big impact on the strike zone. With a few subtle movements with his wrist and glove positioning, a catcher can sometimes make a ball look like a strike. This is called framing.
More recently, framing has become a big part of the catching position. More emphasis is placed on a catcher’s setup position to allow him to “steal strikes” for his pitcher.
With nobody on base, many catchers are now dropping one knee down to the ground instead of sitting in a more traditional squatting position. This allows them to give the pitcher a lower target by placing their glove on the ground.
This lower target allows the catcher to move his glove upward in order to catch any pitch that does not hit the ground.
By working up with his glove, pitches that cross the plate below the bottom of the strike zone give the umpire the illusion that the pitch actually skimmed the bottom of zone. This video breaks down the art of catchers stealing the low strike.
Pitchers can also play a part in manipulating the strike zone. It is often said that the more a pitcher is around the zone, the more likely he is to get borderline pitches called a strike.
Also, some pitchers like to try to expand the strike zone early on in the game to see how far off the plate the umpire will call a strike. As they inch back toward the zone, sometimes, umpires will be likely to give them an inch or so outside.
These mind games are frustrating to hitters which is why many people argue that robot umpires are necessary at the Major League level. As long as humans are calling balls and strikes, these tricks will remain effective in stealing strikes from time to time.
Baseball is known for its unwritten rules that players and coaches are often expected to follow. Some of these unwritten rules apply to the strike zone:
- Unwritten Rule #1: Coaches are not to argue balls and strikes from the dugout.
- While coaches may be able to see the height of the pitch from their view in the dugout, they cannot see the width of the strike zone. Arguing balls and strikes from this position is considered disrespectful to the umpire and is usually an ejectable offense.
- Unwritten Rule #2: Pitchers and catchers are not to show up the umpire.
- If a pitcher or catcher believes the umpire made a bad call, using his body language to make any sort of suggestion that he does not agree with the call is disrespectful. This may make it tougher for the pitcher to get borderline strike calls later in the game.
- Unwritten Rule #3: The Umpire is not to make a bad call on the catcher when he is hitting.
- Catchers and home plate umpires have a unique relationship as they are side-by-side all game long. If the umpire makes a bad call on the catcher, he is supposed to make it up by making a generous call for his team when on defense.
As with all unwritten rules, there is no official wording in the rule book prohibiting these actions, but they exist to attempt to keep the game respectable.
At the end of the day, respect from players and coaches toward the umpires officiating the game is crucial. After all, these guys are human. . . for now.
History of the Strike Zone in Baseball
Remember playing kickball on the playground in elementary school when you got to call out to the pitcher how you wanted him to roll the ball: fast, slow, smooth, bouncy? Well, back in 1876, hitters in baseball got to do the same.
The official baseball rules book established in that year stated that hitters could call out the height of the pitch they wanted at the beginning of the at-bat. They could call for a high, low, or fair pitch.
High pitches were to be thrown between the batter’s waist and shoulders. Low pitches were to be thrown between the batter’s waist and one foot above the ground. Fair pitches were to be delivered between the batter’s shoulders and one foot above the ground.
Once the hitter made his call at the beginning of the at-bat, he could not change it during his plate appearance. Pitches that did not cross the plate at the height of the hitter’s preference were called a ball by the umpire.
By 1877, this rule had changed. The hitters no longer got to call out their preferred pitch height, and a universal strike zone was established. Any pitch that crossed the plate between the hitter’s knees and his shoulders was called a strike.
This strike zone stood for 73 years until a slight adjustment was made in 1950 with more specific wording. The hitter’s armpits were designated as the top of the strike zone and the top of the hitter’s knees was designated as the bottom of it.
In 1963, the top of the strike zone moved again to the top of the hitter’s shoulders while the bottom remained the top of his knees.
It was also established the same year that the umpire would determine the strike zone according to the hitter’s “usual stance”. This prevented hitters from changing the strike zone mid-at-bat by changing their stance.
In 1969, the top of the strike zone was lowered back down to the hitter’s armpits before it was lowered even more 19 years later.
In 1988, the top of the strike zone was established to be the imaginary midpoint line between the top of the hitter’s shoulders and the top of his uniform pants. This remains the top of the strike zone in today’s game.
By 1996, the bottom of the strike zone was lowered from the top of the hitter’s knees to the bottom of them. The bottom of the knee is considered to be the hollow beneath the kneecap.
The Strike Zone in Today’s Game
In today’s game, the strike zone has not changed since 1996. However, thanks to modern technology, our understanding of it has changed drastically.
When watching any Major League Baseball game today, fans will notice a box around the plate. This box represents the strike zone. When each pitch is thrown, fans can see if the ball crosses the plate in the strike zone or not.
This box does not actually exist on the field. It is computer generated and strictly used for fans watching the game, but rumor has it that this strike zone (powered by TrackMan) may not only be used for entertainment value in the near future.
Talk of using this automated strike zone to call balls and strikes has been a hot topic in the MLB as of late. This would not completely eliminate the home plate umpire as someone would still need to make the final call and be there to make out or safe calls at home plate.
If this were to happen, the home plate umpire would wear a headset that would relay the pitch call to him, and then he would signal the pitch call to the players on the field.
Some professional leagues have already moved to the automated strike zone. The Atlantic League, an independent professional league, has been using this system to call balls and strikes since 2019.
The biggest complaints about this system are the delays in the calls and the extreme blunders that sometimes happen with this technology.
Take this call in an Atlantic League game for example. The hitter’s reaction explains his disbelief that such a bad call was made in such a close game by a system that is supposed to eliminate these types of calls.
While it is not perfect, the robot umpires do effectively eliminate the subjectivity of some borderline calls. Will the MLB eventually eliminate the human element of calling balls and strikes? Only time will tell.
Does the strike zone change based on a player’s height?
Yes, the strike zone does change based on a player’s height because the rule book states the player’s mid section and knees determine the height of the zone. This makes for a more equitable strike zone for hitters of various heights.
With that being said, the height of the strike zone is determined by the hitter’s normal stance. Therefore, he cannot change his batting stance mid at-bat to shrink or increase the size of the strike zone.
Is the black edge of home plate part of the strike zone?
If any part of the baseball crosses any part of the width of the plate, then it is considered a strike; this includes the black trim around the plate. When someone refers to a pitch “on the black”, they are talking about a pitch that grazed the corner of the plate for a called strike.
Can a ball or strike call be reversed by replay?
While many other calls made by the umpire can be challenged by managers in professional baseball, ball and strike calls cannot be reviewed and reversed by instant replay. This is part of the reason many fans and MLB executives are calling for the automated ball and strike calls.