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Umps go wide to counter short strike zone


In his defense of beleaguered umpire John Hirschbeck the other day, Ben McDonald hit on a touchy subject that produces a wide difference of opinion between hitters and pitchers -- the size of the strike zone.

For years, pitchers have contended one way to speed up the game is a stricter enforcement of the strike zone. They particularly have contended that pitches at the top of the strike zone, defined as the midpoint between the armpits and waist, are consistently dismissed as being high.

There is an obvious contradiction to that theory. Pitches that are routinely described as "up," are referred to as mistakes by managers, coaches and pitchers themselves. The simple reason is that's where hitters do their best work, even though they also exhibit their worst judgment while chasing pitches in that area.

Conversely, hitters claim that the strike zone has expanded in the worst possible areas -- on the edges of the strike zone, principally in the vicinity of what is described as the "outside corner."

That's where Hirschbeck, despite consistency, experienced most of his difficulty the other day. He listened to numerous complaints from both sides before ejecting Brady Anderson in the eighth inning.

Afterward, while praising Hirschbeck's ability to call balls and strikes, McDonald said pitchers should be rewarded for good control -- even on pitches outside the strike zone. "If a catcher sets up three inches outside and the pitcher hits his mitt, the pitcher should be rewarded with a strike," said the right-hander.

But McDonald didn't say anything about those three inches being a trade-off for the high strike. That, essentially, is what has happened.

"If we called strikes on this pitch," said one veteran American League umpire, pointing to the area at the top of the stomach, "we'd get run out of the game.

"You can't call that pitch a strike, so you give a little bit on the outside."

That appears to be the rule of thumb followed by most umpires.

The result has been a strike zone that, for the most part, has been consistent -- despite complaints from pitchers and hitters.

There is another aspect to the discussion that has been generally overlooked. Everyone in baseball knows, or at least should know, that home plate is 17 inches wide.

Many erroneously consider that distance to be the width of the strike zone, which is not the case. They forget to add the most important dimension to the equation.

A baseball is a fraction less than three inches in diameter, which, in theory, adds almost six inches to the width of home plate. The end result is a strike zone that is roughly the equivalent of two square feet.

Which is too wide for the hitters, not high enough for the pitchers, and too open to argument for the umpires. In other words, just as intended.

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