Two Easy Ways To Make Baseball a Better Game by Craig Edwards December 16, 2020 Baseball is great, but it can be better. While earlier versions of this piece had an overwrought and overly long intro on the delicate balance between the intimacy of the pitcher-batter matchup and the frenzied multi-actor action across beautiful acres of wondrous expanse resulting from a ball put in play, let’s just get to my suggestions to improve the play on the field. Shrink the Strike Zone One of the unfortunate side effects of the balls-in-play discussion is that strikeouts and walks tend to get lumped together. In reality, walks are a pretty static feature through baseball history, while strikeouts have fluctuated. Here’s a graph showing walk and strikeout rates over the last 50 years. Over the last 50 years, the average walk rate has been 8.6%, which is the same as it has been the last five years, and over the last 10 seasons, it is 8.2. Whatever hitters and pitchers are doing in recent history, it hasn’t caused more walks. Strikeouts, though, have soared, and on average, there are about 26 fewer free passes per year over the last decade as opposed to the previous 40 years, compared to an additional 352 whiffs per team per year over the same time frame. While you can argue that the increase is due to changes in hitting philosophy, the average fastball has gone from 89 mph in 2002 to 93 mph last season, while pitchers throw more and more offspeed pitches and fewer pitches in the strike zone. It’s not batter philosophy causing the rise in strikeouts; it’s the pitching just getting better and also being better aided by an increase in the size of the strike zone of about 10%. The natural opposition to increasing the strike zone is to wonder whether there would be more walks and a subsequent negative impact on the game. But the strike zone has changed multiple times over the years, and rarely has it made any real difference. In 1968, the Year of the Pitcher, the walk rate was 7.6% — not too far off from historical averages despite it being a historically great season for pitching. Even after MLB lowered and changed the mound and shrank the strike zone for the 1969 season, the walk rate only went up to 9.1%, and by 1972, the year before the designated hitter was introduced, it was back to its normal 8.5. The strike zone was shrunk again in 1988 and expanded at the bottom in 1996, but all the while, we’ve seen little change in walk rate. If we remove pitchers trying to hit, every season over the last 50 years has produced a walk rate between 7.9 and 9.2%. Pitching isn’t easy, but major league players have such incredible skill and incentive to avoid issuing walks that they will adjust to the strike zone, either by aiming more in it or by taking something off of their pitches to be more accurate. To provide some example of how a smaller strike zone might work, I took all the pitches tracked by Statcast (2015–20) and put them in the zone buckets provided by Baseball Savant. The results look like this: Here’s what happens when pitches are thrown in these sections. Plate Discipline and Contact Based on Location Heart Shadow Chase Waste TOTAL Pitch% 25.7% 42.5% 22.7% 8.8% Swing% 71.8% 52.2% 23.1% 5.8% 46.6% Whiffs/Swing 14.4% 25.3% 51.1% 83.4% 24.5% Batted Balls/Pitch 33.1% 19.0% 4.5% 0.3% 17.8% SOURCE: Baseball Savant You can see how good pitchers are: Roughly two out of every five pitches hit the corner of the strike zone. Those pitches are strikes about 50% of the time when taken, and batters swing at them at about the same rate. When a pitcher throws a pitch in the middle of the plate, batters swing more than two-thirds of the time, and a ball is put in play on one out of every three pitches. When batters swing at pitches in the zone, they make contact a vast majority of the time. When a pitch moves from the edge of the plate toward the middle, the chances of a ball in play go up by 74%. The closer we get pitches to the middle of the plate, the more swings, more contact, and more action in the field we see. The potential counter is that hitters will simply take more pitches on the new edge of the zone, and we won’t see a change in behavior on swings. That isn’t all that likely, though, because those pitches are good to hit, and more than just looking for pitches inside the strike zone, hitters are looking for good pitches to hit. Here’s how hitters have performed on pitches in the different zone buckets. Hitting Numbers Based on Pitch Location Heart Shadow Chase Waste TOTAL BA .317 .231 .117 .023 .252 SLG .567 .356 .148 .027 .418 BABIP .312 .289 .260 .267 .298 wOBA .367 .273 .295 .455 .317 wOBACON .415 .336 .261 .251 .370 SOURCE: Baseball Savant Not swinging at pitches in the heart of the plate would be a bad baseball decision, as hitters do incredibly well on those. On the edges of the plate, hitters put up below average numbers, even when the batter makes contact. The wOBA on chase pitches is low due to a combination of strikeouts as well as weak contact. On wasted pitches, the wOBA is high because of walks, but the results on contact are pretty pitiful. Hitters are smart not to swing on pitches on the edge of the zone and outside in most cases because even if they make contact, they don’t get great results. They swing at pitches in the heart of the plate not because it will be a strike if they don’t, but because they do damage if they do. There’s little reason to think that would change significantly with a smaller strike zone. Hitters “take” walks because they are given by the pitchers, not because hitters seek them out. Shrinking the strike zone creates more swings and contact, nets fewer strikeouts, and shouldn’t have a significant effect on walks. The potential negative is too much offense: Shrinking the strike zone could shift the balance between hitting and pitching too much to the hitting side. That leads me to my second change. Deaden the Ball Every change brings about other changes that aren’t necessarily desirable. Shrinking the strike zone could lead to scoring at absurdly high levels. To plan for the effects of increased offense, MLB can make a small change to the ball to help the pitchers out. We don’t need to eliminate home runs or anything, but the last few years have seen a huge increase in home runs thanks to decreased drag on the ball. Along with adjustments by hitters to hit the ball harder and get it in the air, the ball has kept offense from cratering as the pitching keeps getting better. From 2002 to ’14, the average HR/FB rate was 10.4%; in the last six seasons, it’s been 13.5% and 15% over the last two years. Increasing the drag slightly will still end up with a healthy amount of home runs but should serve to depress offense enough to make up for the increase due to the smaller strike zone. Deadening the ball isn’t the main thing, but it’s a small adjustment necessary to get more balls in play and more action during games. Bonus Change: Expansion If I had a third way to make baseball better, I’d expand by a few teams to thin the pitching talent pool a bit, potentially make workhorse starters more valuable, and encourage quality starting pitchers to throw more innings in games, which would increase the dropoff in talent to relievers. But expansion is considerably more complicated and requires much more effort to get done. … The past is often viewed as a still image, frozen in time, but it was once as malleable as the present, fluidly moving toward an unknown future shaped by opportunities for change or stasis. Relatively minor rule changes have helped balance, grow and improve the game. Fifty years ago, it was lowering the mound and adding the designated hitter, and in recent years, there’s been a newfound appetite for more moves, acknowledging improvement is possible. Limiting mound visits and adding the three-batter minimum both had minor effects on the game. Evaluating umpires with electronic monitoring of the strike zone has changed how balls and strikes were called. Even if unknown at the time, reducing the drag on the baseball has had major effects on the hitting environment. There are current discussions about pitch clocks and shift-banning, but these are more high-visibility, low-impact changes. Decreasing the strike zone might come with a lot of complaints initially, but it shouldn’t be that noticeable over time and it should provide a high-impact change overall to the action during game play. More swings. More contact. More baseball.