Onward, upward for test of strike zone

VERO BEACH, FLA. — VERO BEACH, Fla. - For much of the past decade, the strike zone was a lot like the weather. Everybody liked to talk about it, but nobody ever really did anything about it.

It got shorter and wider.


Games got longer and longer.

The theoretical rectangle that frames the duel between pitcher and batter strayed so far from the parameters outlined in the official baseball rule book that Major League Baseball executive vice president Sandy Alderson finally put his foot down. He has directed umpires to raise the upper limit of the strike zone, perhaps hoping that it will lead to a more consistent interpretation throughout the American and National leagues and also improve the pace of games.


"We'll see what the results are," Alderson said at the outset. "There are no intended consequences. We can always change the rule, but until we enforce it, we're not going to know the impact. The only intent is to get us back to the reality of the official playing rules."

Alderson's grand experiment has begun in earnest this week with the beginning of the exhibition season. The "new" strike zone will extend from the top of the knee upward to a point about two widths of a baseball above the belt. Umpires also have been instructed to be more strict with the outside pitch, no longer calling it a strike if it passes over only the black edge of the plate.

It still isn't quite the zone outlined in the rule book, but it represents a significant upward expansion from the strike zone called by most umpires in recent years.

The question is, will it make any difference?

Baseball officials obviously think so, or they wouldn't have gone through the machinations necessary to make such a dramatic change. Alderson spent a good part of the winter in meetings with umpires, coaches and managers, creating a consensus on where the upper limit should be. Umpires have visited each spring training camp to brief the players on the enforcement of the new zone.

Veteran umpire Bruce Froemming spent several hours with the Los Angeles Dodgers on Monday, first delivering a lecture on the specifics of the change and then demonstrating the differences by calling strikes and balls during batting practice.

"Everybody that I've talked to in this camp says it's not going to be a big deal," Froemming said. "Not one guy has said it will be a problem.

"I think a lot of the confusion and controversy about this will come from the media trying to explain all this, because it's something new. It's two to 2 1/2 balls above the waist when the hitter is in his stride. Sandy has had three or four meetings on this, and I don't see it as a problem at all."


It's possible, however, that the players and coaches are not complaining because they have no idea what impact the new interpretation of the strike zone will have on the way the game is played.

There is a certain level of skepticism because the area in question - the 5 or 6 inches above the hitter's belt - isn't exactly prime real estate for pitchers.

"From a hitter's standpoint, the high strike is not that big of a deal," said superstar shortstop Alex Rodriguez of the Texas Rangers. "Pitchers are trained to keep the ball down. You don't want to throw a curveball up there because it's a danger zone. And you have to throw the fastball 95 mph to throw it up there and get away with it."

Pitchers agree that a fastball in that area generally is a mistake pitch, though they certainly don't mind the idea of getting credit for a strike when the hitter makes the mistake of letting it go by.

"There are those times when you hang a curveball or breaking ball up there and the guy doesn't swing at it," said Orioles pitcher Pat Hentgen. "If those are going to be called strikes, that will speed up the game. I'm a pitcher. I'm all for it."

Teammate Mike Trombley said he feels the same way, but he can see where the change might have a very positive impact on certain pitchers - the guys who already are dominating the sport.


"Whatever works for the game," Trombley said. "I'm going to pitch how I pitch. I'm going to throw up for effect, but not up for strikes. Guys like Pedro Martinez and Roger Clemens, they are going to like it because they pitch up."

No argument from Clemens, who has to be licking his lips at the prospect of taking hitters another rung up the ladder.

"I enjoy pitching up in the strike zone," Clemens said. "If my splitter is working down, it's nice to be able to keep the hitter looking up and down. I like to jiggle the hitter's eye level a little bit. I had a discussion with [Orioles great] Jim Palmer about why we don't pitch up in the zone more. It's because they stopped calling it [the high strike] in the mid-'80s."

Clemens was almost unhittable when he broke into the major leagues in the early 1980s. He remained one of the game's most overpowering pitchers even as the strike zone evolved downward, but might have had even more impressive career numbers if umpires had continued to call the high strike in the late '80s and 1990s.

He's certain to derive some benefit from the change at this late stage in his career, but the impact likely will be greater for young fireballers like the New York Mets' Armando Benitez. Imagine trying to hit a 101-mph fastball right under the elbows.

But the vast majority of pitchers are going to continue to make their living in the lower reaches of the strike zone.


"I don't plan to make any changes in my preparation because of it," said former Orioles pitcher Mike Mussina, who has joined Clemens with the New York Yankees. "I want to keep the ball down if I can. It's going to change some [pitch] counts once in a while, but it's not going to change the way I prepare for a game."

It might, however, change the way some hitters go about their business. Chicago White Sox slugger Frank Thomas has made a career out of squeezing the strike zone to get a good pitch to hit. Now - if the umpires call the high strike consistently - he won't be able to lay off the borderline pitch at the top of the zone.

"I'd like to see what changes it makes in the hitter's approach," said Orioles reliever Alan Mills, "whether they get more aggressive up there. If they have to swing at the pitch there [two balls above the belt], it's going to make it harder to lay off the pitch up even higher."

The new strike zone contains a tradeoff that might actually make it better for hitters. The ball off the outside edge of the plate often is given to the pitcher. The new zone also is intended to force umpires to bring the outside strike back onto the white part of the plate.

If they do, there are going to be a lot of happy pull hitters.

"I knew that plate was there for a reason," Orioles outfielder Brady Anderson said with a laugh.


Of course, the impact of any change will depend on the consistency of its enforcement, leaving plenty of room to wonder if the umpires will embrace it in practice as enthusiastically as they have embraced it in theory.

Remember, this was one of the issues that helped fracture the old umpires union. Alderson's first attempt to change the strike zone two years ago was met with a grievance by former umpires union chief Richie Phillips, a move that convinced ownership that the time had come to get tough with the umpires. The prospect of a lockout prompted Phillips to order the disastrous resignation strategy that cost 22 umpires their jobs and led to the decertification of the MLUA.

Now, there is a new union (the World Umpires Association) and a new relationship with management. Perhaps the new strike zone will be the proof that the new system works.