In The Zone

by Chris Haffenreffer | 2/20/01 6:00am

It seems like just yesterday when the New York Yankees walked away with the World Series title once again, yet ball clubs have already begun to make the trek to the warmer climes of Florida and Arizona for Spring Training.

Although it's difficult to even consider baseball in mid-February, it's about time to start looking at the 2001 season, and as of now the most significant development in the game will be the new strike zone.

Attempts, as most everyone knows, have been made in the past to fix the strike zone, but the last two times it was going to be expanded to coordinate with the rule-book definition, absolutely no results were seen. However, this time power is more centralized within league offices and the umpires are not governed by separate rules.

"They say they want to call the strike three ball-widths above the belt," one pitching coach told ESPN's Peter Gammons. "That would be a radical change, but if they even bring it to one ball-width above the belt, or just move the top of the strike zone from where it's been--right at the cup--to the belt it's going to impact the game. It's going to be difficult for dead lowball hitters, or hitters who lock their eyes and line of vision on one plane; changing planes may be very difficult for certain hitters."

However, the inability of certain hitters to adjust to a new strike zone won't even compare to the effect it will have on pitchers. Naturally, high fastball pitchers such as Roger Clemens or Curt Schilling will benefit greatly, but pitchers such as Greg Maddux and Pedro Martinez who pick spots and hit corners will simply destroy hitters.

It is quite possible we will see Pedro dominate like nobody has since Bob Gibson in 1968. Several studies have already been done to determine who will be affected the most by the new strike zone. ESPN compared the pitchers with the highest groundball and flyball ratios to the best and worst hitters against those pitchers.

Obviously, as ESPN discovered, certain lowball hitters such as John Olerud, Todd Zeile, Eric Karros or Pokey Reese will most likely struggle more than others.

Clearly there will be a group of hitters who will struggle more than others, yet it is necessary to realize that an enlarged strike zone will obviously diminish the abundance of hitting across the board. Pitchers such as Hideo Nomo will suddenly be able to get high strikes called.

"He's always been a high, straight fastball/forkball pitcher, but he doesn't get the high strikes too often," says one AL scout.

If Nomo can get those high strikes called now, his dismal first-pitch strike percentage of 54 will most likely increase significantly. The same goes for numerous other pitchers.

The ultimate effect of the new strike zone on the game of baseball will be interesting to watch. The most obvious question is whether it will actually go into effect. After several previous failed attempts, will Sandy Alderson be able to maintain enough control over the umpires? Furthermore, what effect will this change have on the appeal of the game to the American public?

In an era where pure power and record breaking home-run binges have been the only remedy for an ailing sport, how will the public react to a more dominant pitching game? Although traditionalists praise the return of a larger strike zone and an increase in exhilarating pitching duels, most of America will chastise the lack of offense.

However, if this change truly goes into effect, it will be one of the most significant changes in the game in the past decade. Offense will not dominate the game, and not every player will be able to hit thirty home runs a year as has become the standard in the past ten years.

Furthermore, the current problem of a thin cover of pitching will become less of an issue, as more decent pitchers will suddenly become staff aces. It seems a backwards solution to the problem, yet the only other solution (reducing the number of teams in the league) would only increase the abundance of offense.

Therefore, regardless of the effect this change may have on the American public, it is a necessary first step in the solution to the problems of the game of baseball.