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THE COUNT

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Runs per game

-10.6% April 2000, 10.75; April 2001, 9.61

Batting average

-3.7%

April 2000, .270; April 2001, .260

Home runs per game

-8.6%

April 2000, 2.56; April 2001, 2.34

Earned run average

-9.5%M April 2000, 4.96; April 2001, 4.46

Strikeouts per game

+5.4%

April 2000, 12.91; April 2001, 13.61

Walks per game

-13.3%

April 2000, 7.82; April 2001, 6.78

Length of game

-2.2%

April 2000, 2.58; April 2001, 2.54

Throughout his crusade to standardize the strike zone, Major League Baseball vice president Sandy Alderson insisted there was no hidden agenda.

It wasn't to speed up games.

It wasn't to reset the balance of power between pitchers and hitters. It wasn't to assert more authority over the umpires.

Alderson said all along his directive re-establishing the high strike had one purpose - to move baseball back to something resembling the strike zone defined in the Official Baseball Rules.

Who could argue with that?

The strike zone - once extending from the chest to the knees and spanning only the width of home plate - had evolved into a set of individual strike zones, with each umpire applying his own personal standard and each player forced to divine what that was on any given day.

Some umpires had strayed so far from the rulebook that the zone had become a horizontal rectangle, with the upper limit barely reaching the belt and the outside strike often several inches off the plate. Others had simply shrunk the zone to the point where hitters could just work the count until they got something fat.

Alderson, whose casual front office attire as general manager of the Oakland Athletics always gave him the look of a free spirit, decided the strike zone was one area where conformity should be king.

Now, one month into the new season, the change has taken root and the early returns are coming in. Baseball's grand new experiment has gone relatively smoothly, and it has had a significant impact on the sport, whether Alderson and commissioner Bud Selig intended that or not.

"I think things have gone pretty well, depending on your point of view," Alderson said Friday. "I think the strike zone change has gotten a foothold and - by and large - most of the umpires are attempting to apply the new standard, but we still have some work to do to provide feedback and ensure consistency."

Alderson and management officials also are pleased with the overall effect on the quality of play, even though he wasn't sure at the outset what the net impact of the new zone would be on offensive production and the pace of games.

Most noticeably, scoring is down significantly from a year ago.

During the first month of the 2000 season, the average number of runs in a game by both teams was 10.75. That number fell to 9.61 this April, a decrease of 10.6 percent.

Offensive numbers are down across the board. The combined batting average of all major-league hitters in April was .260, down 3.7 percent from .270 a year ago. The number of home runs has dropped 8.6 percent. Triples are down 7.3 percent. Doubles are down 9.1 percent.

There has even been a modest decrease in the average time of game (from 2 hours, 58 minutes to 2:54), something baseball officials have been working on for the past several years.

Coincidence?

Probably not.

Doesn't it stand to reason that a larger, more consistent strike zone would affect the competitive balance between pitchers and hitters? Isn't it also logical to assume that more strikes would lead to shorter pitch counts and quicker games?

Perhaps the most striking - and predictable - statistical change has come in the number of walks in April. They were down a dramatic 13.3 percent from the same period last season.

"What I was unable to predict was the net effect of calling the high strike, being more consistent with the inside pitch, keeping the low strike and not calling the pitch off the plate," Alderson said. "Would the net effect be positive or negative?"

The net effect is an average of seven fewer pitches a game so far. And, because it takes about 30 to 35 seconds between pitches, that accounts for the four-minute decrease in the average time of games.

The larger issue is the impact on the way pitchers work hitters and the way hitters work the pitch count.

"It's a pretty significant change," Florida Marlins manager John Boles told reporters recently. "This to me is right up there with the DH and the lowering of the pitching mound."

Even some veteran umpires are hailing the change, though an earlier attempt by management to standardize the strike zone was met with a union grievance by former umpires labor leader Richie Phillips.

"I'm all for it," said veteran umpire John Shulock. "It's a great idea. I think it should have been done a long time ago."

Not everyone is rushing to praise Alderson for his decisive attack on some of baseball's perceived shortcomings. The new strike zone has not been as well-received among hitters, who had gotten pretty comfortable at home plate during the past few years. That's why Alderson qualified his satisfaction with the first month's result by saying "it depends on your point of view."

"Most definitely it's had an effect," Colorado Rockies infielder Jeff Cirillo told reporters recently. "There's not even a question about it. These people who are making these rule changes have never put a jock on. They don't realize how hard it is to hit a high breaking ball above the hands.

"The pitcher doesn't want to throw it, and the hitter doesn't want to swing at it. I don't mind the high fastball. That's an adjustment us hitters have to make. But basically, pitchers are getting rewarded for throwing a bad curveball."

Veteran hitters struggle

Obviously, it isn't bothering everybody with a bat. Arizona Diamondbacks outfielder Luis Gonzalez hit the ball out of the ballpark at a record rate in April, and a lot of other hitters are off to big starts. But the change clearly added to the frustration of some veteran hitters who struggled in April.

Orioles first baseman David Segui voiced his displeasure on several occasions, once getting thrown out of a game for disputing a low strike in a key run-production situation. Teammate Cal Ripken, who also has been fighting to build more respectable offensive numbers, exchanged sharp words with the plate umpire on a couple of occasions in the past few weeks.

"It might be easier for somebody coming up than a Cal Ripken," Tampa Bay Devil Rays hitting coach Wade Boggs said. "You've been trained to lay off that pitch. You have to retrain your brain. It's hard to get away from Pavlov's dog."

Orioles outfielder Delino DeShields struggled badly in April before breaking out with a strong performance on the club's recent nine-game road trip. He said the "book" strike zone umpires worked hard to perfect in spring training seemed to get bigger once the regular season began.

"In spring training, it was higher, but it wasn't wider," DeShields said recently. "Now it's wider and it's higher. You play 10, 11 years in the big leagues, that's a lot of time playing ball and getting to know the strike zone. It's like, overnight you've got new rules. But it's really up to me to make those adjustments. You're supposed to be able to do that at this level."

New Pittsburgh Pirates manager Lloyd McClendon also was critical of the new interpretation, saying recently that individual umpires still were giving preferential treatment to established hitters and pitchers.

"It's not being called consistently, and that's the problem," McClendon told the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review recently. "I have no problem with the high strike, but I don't see it being called consistently for both teams.

"It's back to the same old thing. Everyone talked all spring about how a strike is a strike regardless of who is at the plate. But Jack Wilson gets balls a foot outside called a strike and Jeff Bagwell gets a [pitch] right down the middle for strike three and they don't call it."

Though the new zone clearly has helped the majority of pitchers - a 9.5 percent drop in the major-league ERA does not lie - not everyone on the mound is thrilled about it either.

Two-time Cy Young Award winner Tom Glavine has seen his walk ratio more than double from last year, when he averaged 2.4 walks per nine innings. Now, he's averaging 5.6, which is clearly the result of a narrower strike zone, because he is the kind of pitcher who lives on the outside part of the plate.

But he hasn't made a stink about it, because it hasn't had a negative impact on his overall performance. He's 4-2 with a 3.77 ERA that is less than a half-run above his career mark.

Pitchers give mixed marks

Other pitchers have expressed concerns.

The Detroit Tigers' Chris Holt told the Fort Worth Star-Telegram: "They don't call the ball low anymore or give you corners like they did in the past. For the most part, they've been somewhat consistent with the high pitch. But do I think it's going to last? No."

"It's not as high as I thought it would be; it's not as high as they said it would be in spring training," Texas Rangers starter Darren Oliver told the Star-Telegram. "They are calling more high strikes, but I thought it would be a big change just by the way they were explaining it to us in spring training."

One of the most noticeable beneficiaries of the new zone has been Boston's Hideo Nomo, who pitched a no-hitter against the Orioles in his first regular-season start and unabashedly credited the high strike with helping him do so.

Nomo, who was thought by many to be on the downward slope of his career when the Red Sox signed him, has given up 15 hits in 36 innings and ranks sixth in the American League with 36 strikeouts.

Of course, three-time Cy Young winner Pedro Martinez figured to be even more overpowering than usual with a taller strike zone, and that has been the case. He leads the league with 72 strikeouts in seven starts, a pace that would put him in position to challenge Nolan Ryan's all-time single-season record (383) if he makes 36 starts this year.

Actually, the entire Red Sox staff seems to have taken the new strike zone to heart. The Sox finished April leading the major leagues with a 2.71 team ERA, far below the American League's 4.37 combined mark.

Sun staff writer Roch Kubatko and the Associated Press contributed to this article.

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