Baseball's strike zone is the hotly contested center of the game

The heater rides in at 91 miles an hour, belt-high and straight, giving Orioles hitter Matt Wieters a good view of what looks like a strike in the making. As it reaches the plate, it dives toward the ground.

No mortal can say for sure whether the fastball from Angels pitcher Jered Weaver would have grazed the imaginary border of the strike zone, located at Wieters' knees. But umpire Kerwin Danley has called "strike" on two previous close pitches. Wieters swings, awkwardly. His slow roller ends the inning.

It's a single at-bat, one of 98 in a midseason game between contenders. The box score will say Wieters left a runner on base. But his failure is a collective event, a three-way collision between pitcher, umpire and batter, all played out in what is supposed to be a clearly defined area above home plate.

Welcome to the strike zone, 4.5 cubic feet at the heart of a game. Pitchers throw toward it, hitters defend it, catchers frame it, managers keep an eye on it, umpires adjudicate it and fans are convinced they can see it clearly from the upper deck.

The zone is invisible and imaginary, and its boundaries ebb and flow. Major League Baseball has installed sophisticated technology to try to manage the strike zone, but every game still relies on split-second, inexact judgments about balls and strikes. And as the Orioles wage their fight for a championship, this is the battleground.

"The K-zone has boundaries, but they change so much from one night to the next it's a hard thing to define," says Orioles shortstop J.J. Hardy. "It's kind of a mystery, to be honest with you. It's just one of those things about our game."

Wieters' groundout ended the first with a man on. The Angels would go on to score eight runs over the next two innings on their way to a rout. Did the at-bat matter at all?

Pitching coach Rick Adair says you can't rule it out.

"Win in the strike zone," he says, "and good things do tend to happen."

Is it or isn't it?

"[In baseball], you can't sit on a lead, run a few plays into the line and just kill the clock," the great Orioles manager Earl Weaver once said. "You've got to throw the ball over the damn plate and give the other man his chance."

Everyone in the Hall of Famer's game, in other words, must make an accounting of himself, and the one place he can't evade his destiny is the strike zone.

Small wonder that the sport demarcates it so clearly.

The strike zone is a conceptual right pentagonal prism, or heptahedron, that hovers directly above the 216.75-square-inch rubber slab known as home plate. The 2012 Official Baseball Rules establish the zone's upper limit at "the midpoint between the top of the shoulders and the top of the uniform pants" (essentially the letters), its lower limit at "the hollow beneath the knee cap."

The strike zone has the same official width as the plate, 17 inches, though umpires are expected to add the width of a baseball, or about 2.5 inches, to each side. If any part of a pitched ball grazes any part of this volume, it's legally a strike.

Clear enough? The man who oversees big league umpires, Randy Marsh, thinks so. He has helped spearhead a technology-powered mission in the game to regularize the strike zone, and he's happy with the results.

"It's not the umpires that set the strike zone," says Marsh, a former big league ump in his own right. "It's the hitters. They do it when they take their stances. Otherwise, it's totally uniform."

Umpires are remarkably consistent these days, he says, about 96 percent accurate in 2012.

Just don't try to pitch that view to baseball's other stakeholders. They see the zone as a fuzzy enterprise.

"It's an imaginary box in the umpire's mind," says closer Jim Johnson, one of the Orioles' three All-Stars this year. "Some nights it's bigger; some nights it's smaller. You adjust. It's part of the game."

Hall of Fame pitcher Jim Palmer, now a MASN announcer, believes umpires are calling a wider strike zone this season and questions whether they're attaining the accuracy Marsh asserts.

"Not in most of the games I watch," Palmer says, adding that whenever he hears a pitcher has thrown a no-hitter, "the first thing I do is check to see who the umpire was."

Center fielder Adam Jones claims to pay no attention to the strike zone. Designated hitter Jim Thome, who has 610 career home runs, sees "only my own strike zone" when hitting, and adjusts if the umpire is calling wide strikes.

Hardy can't even tell you what the rule book says.

"Where's the official top? The belt?" he asks. "I don't know. That's where they call it, so that's where I play it, but it does change game to game."

The conversation spills into the stands, where fans hold a similar view. Lee Elrick, an Orioles season ticket holder who sat behind the plate at a recent home game, was quick to mention the "small strike zone" umpire Scott Barry was calling.

"There's too much technology in sports," he says. "If the ump blows a call, it's part of baseball. At least he's being fair. He's calling it for both teams."

The Buck strikes here

Not everyone's so eager to dish on the strike zone. Indeed, many inside the game duck the subject as though it were a chin-high fastball, at least until they regain their balance.

Orioles manager Buck Showalter, for instance:

"Man, you can get me in trouble asking about that," he says. Then he reconsiders.

"You could talk about this for hours," he says, and he proceeds to do something close.

The skipper, now in his 14th big league season, points to a spreadsheet on a wall in his office. It ranks all big league umpires by how greatly they favor pitchers or hitters.

The top name on the list is Brian Runge, an ump known for calling a big zone; lower down is veteran Joe West, whose zone is seen as smaller, his ball-strike distribution more even.

When Runge's behind the plate, Showalter says, he might tell hitters to "go up there swinging." When West is back there, "we know we'll have to throw the ball over the plate."

Showalter is known to tweak his pitching rotation when he sees the umpiring schedule for the week.

There are lots of talented umpires in the big leagues, he says, men who call a consistent strike zone, make sure each side gets its share of close calls, generally handle people well and are so matter-of-fact in their excellence that fans and announcers rarely notice them.

But Showalter knows it's not easy. In his view, half the pitches could fairly be called either way. Most arrive at high speed with movement. Umpires have limited sight lines (they tend to set up in the "slot" between hitter and plate), face constant danger (foul tips can travel 140 mph) and must find a way to keep their emotions in check.

"The thing I think umpires don't realize is that we know how hard it is to do what they do. This is a hard sport to referee, as hard a sport as there is," says Showalter, a former college basketball official.

That doesn't mean he's easy on them. He bristles at the way "some teams whine and moan about every pitch and tend to get calls in front of their home fans." (He has ripped the Yankees for this.) Some umpires give in too easily, he adds, to "the bubble gum card factor"— favoring players with piles of stats on the back. "I tell them, 'Our players have bubble gum cards, too,'" he says.

Showalter sees bigger issues. He wonders, for example, whether baseball should develop officiating talent the way good ballclubs develop players. It takes seven or eight years of seasoning to learn umpiring, he says, and pay for the job can top out at $800 a month in some minor leagues. If Major League Baseball required every club to send one released player per year to umpiring school, then pay him as he learns, wouldn't the strike zone be crisper in time?

"You're only as good as your farm system," he says.

Through the years

The strike zone is where offense and defense collide, where the cat-and-mouse game between pitcher and hitter ends up in the form of strikeouts or walks, homers or hits, rallies and final scores. For a site that important, it has changed a lot.

The first rule book, printed in 1876, said "the batsman, on taking his position, must call for a 'high,' 'low,' or 'fair' pitch, and the umpire shall notify the pitcher to deliver the ball as required." By 1888, the hitter could no longer express a preference, and the rules defined a strike as a ball "over home plate not lower than a batsman's knee, nor higher than his shoulders."

As time went on, the game reset the upper limit to the top of the shoulders (1950), the armpits (1968), the upper shoulders again (1988) and the middle of the chest. The lower edge also moved. Umpires switched in stages from the "bubble" chest protector of the early 1900s, an inflatable behemoth that kept them upright over the catcher, to smaller, harder guards that enabled them to get lower and further inside.

As the zone changed, so did the balance between offense and defense.

The high strike was on the endangered list by the mid-1970s, according to left-hander Scott McGregor, who won 138 games for the Orioles between 1977 and 1988. "I'd throw one down the middle, belt high, and they'd [often] call it ball, high," he says.

By the 1990s, most believe the strike zone had grown so tiny it joined steroids as a factor in the offensive surge that saw jaw-dropping home run marks such as Mark McGwire's 70 in 1998 and Barry Bonds' 72 three years later.

The game called on technology to reverse the trend. In 2001, officials signed a pact with QuesTec, a pitch-tracking and graphics firm. The company set up cameras in 11 ballparks — two in the high stands to log pitch trajectories, two at field level to mark the top and bottom of every hitter's zone — and started recording every pitch on DVD. Not everyone liked the idea.

In 2003, pitcher Curt Schilling, then with Arizona, famously smashed a camera in protest. At one point, 69 percent of the umpires voted no confidence in the system. But studies showed the zone was becoming more uniform, home run totals ebbing. Baseball now has a similar system — Zone Evaluation — in all 30 big league ballparks.

Today, every home plate umpire must review each of his games within 24 hours. Facts on location and figures on accuracy are logged and sent to the major leagues' headquarters in New York. Marsh monitors it all.

Should he notice, say, a weak spot off the plate, or an accuracy rate below 92 percent, the equivalent of a passing grade, he gives the umpire in question a call.

Usually it's a matter of positioning, Marsh says, something they can quickly rectify.

"We're doing well," he says, "but human beings aren't robots."

Working it

Baseball loves the fallible — the hitter with the tar-strewn bat, the pitcher with three fingers, the crazy hop that decides a game.

When it comes to the strike zone, the question isn't whether it's perfect. It's whether you can turn its imperfection to your advantage.

In his career, McGregor says, he was the one who controlled the strike zone. The secret to getting the calls was throwing strikes.

"You might not get a certain call on the black early in the game, but if you can show the umpires you can keep making that pitch, you'll get it later in the game," he says.

Palmer — known during his long career for getting calls well above the belt — recalls painting the black at times to the point of absurdity. Take the day in the mid-1970s when he faced Cleveland's Mike Hargrove with Durwood Merrill behind the plate.

"I started [Hargrove] out with a pitch two inches off the plate," he says. "I got the call. I moved the next one out an inch. I got that one, too. I did it a third time — same result. I thought, 'This is fun; I don't even have to throw it over the plate.'" He never caught that break again.

Adair, the pitching coach, says that by working "front to back" — that is, subtracting speed — a pitcher gains an extra dimension through the strike zone. Catchers, too, must work the zone. Elrod Hendricks liked to set up on the outside part of the plate to suggest Palmer owned that corner, and Wieters, the All-Star Orioles backstop, says he does what he can to coax strike calls.

"Umpires are people. They see things differently," he says. "If I can catch the ball a certain way where it looks good to the umpire — holding a strike in place or maybe guiding a [borderline] pitch into a better position, I've done my job."

Even the zone's staunchest defender bent the rules. A pitch that grazes the bottom edge, then drops out, is legally a strike, but when Marsh was umpiring (1981-2009), if that pitch bounced before reaching the catcher, he never called it one.

"A ball in the dirt, a strike?" he says, laughing at the absurdity of the idea.

The rulebook bars managers from arguing balls and strikes, but they get their say. Weaver always kept up a flow of criticism from the dugout, but kept it low-key enough most of the time to avoid ejection. "He thought intimidation helped," McGregor says.

Showalter, ejected from a recent game while disputing a call at first base, says he generally hates arguing with umpires. He thinks young hitters like Nick Markakis and Wieters have earned "bubble gum card" status, so he urges them to speak up.

When new umpires hit the majors, he combs their backgrounds for topics of conversation. And flattery is not beneath him.

"We have one excellent umpire who was calling a great game earlier this year. About the eighth inning, I went out and told him [so]. He said, 'Jeez, Buck, you're going to jinx me!' He knows he's one missed call away from being dissected on 'SportsCenter.'"

Does that get the skipper a call or two? This season, as the Orioles chase their first playoff berth in 15 years, or any other, it can't hurt. And fans say if balls and strikes were a perfect science, they'd be the losers.

Irwin Kantrowitz of Tallahassee, Fla., an Orioles backer for 43 years, remembers Weaver charging to home plate to kick dirt on umpires. "Fun times," he says, between innings of a recent game.

His wife, Elaine Harris, agrees. Expect perfection in sports or elsewhere, she says, and you miss what really matters in life.

She glances at the Camden Yards field, where an Orioles pitcher is warming up.

"That ball's coming in at 90 miles an hour," she says. "How can [umpires] get it right every time? Rules are important, but sometimes I just want to get up and shout, 'Hell, those guys are human!'"

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