Change for the Better?

by Rob Kim | 4/20/01 5:00am

In the past five years, Major League Baseball has altered different parts of the game in an attempt to increase its appeal and to increase its revenue. MLB has tried to make amends for the 1994 players strike, which completely shut down the league and even eliminated the World Series for the first time since 1904.

Prior to this season, the most recent major change to the game was interleague play, in which teams from the American and National Leagues play each other within their division (East, Central, West). Before this monumental change, you could not see a game between the New York Yankees and New York Mets in the regular season; however, interleague play has totally changed the scope of the regular season.

Thus far, interleague play has been relatively successful. There were fears that MLB was creating a gimmick, but it has earned positive support from fans, increased revenue, and has helped baseball to enjoy the sort of popularity that it had lost after the players' strike. The only fault to interleague play is that the distinctive flavor of the World Series has the potential to be diminished.

Take last year for instance. Had the Yankees and Mets not played each other during the regular season, the subway series in October would have been even more exciting. The teams, having played each other before, were able to gauge each other's strengths and weaknesses, which might have lowered the unpredictable nature of the Series.

This year, MLB has made another subtle, yet greatly important change in the way the game is played. This change deals with the strike zone, which can tip the scales between the pitcher-hitter battle towards one side. The MLB official rulebook now 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 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."

The rulebook said the same thing last year, but umpires went by an "unofficial" strike zone that started from the armpits instead of the tops of the letter-area. Now, the pitchers, with the help of the MLB, have been encouraged to throw the high strike.

MLB is trying to curb the astronomical run scoring that has occurred the past few years with the change in the strike zone, especially in the wake of the 70 home run season by Mark McGwire in 1998. However, as early results from this year have shown, the new strike zone has not seemed to curb scoring. This is in part due to lesser pitchers trying to use the high strike and instead leaving 'fat' pitches up in the strike zone for the AL's power-laden lineups to smash out of the park.

The strike zone does, however, benefit power pitchers like Arizona's Randy Johnson and Curt Schilling, who throw fast enough to toy around with the high strike on a regular basis, instead of just using it as a strikeout pitch. It also can aid intellectual pitchers like Greg Maddux who will utilize the threat of the high strike zone to force hitters to chase other 'bad' pitches for strikeouts.

What do players think about the changes? Well, fans of low pitches like Texas' Andres Galarraga definitely dislike the changes, for obvious reasons. But player reaction is all across the board. Most pitchers have liked the change, which takes the advantage away from the hitters. But some have said that there is not going to be a big change, because umpires will eventually regress towards the strike zones that they are more comfortable with. Either way, these delicate changes can decide seasons. So once again, just like 1999 with Tim Tschida and 1996 with Jefferey Mayer, it's all in the hands of those "damn" umpires.