The Ever-Changing Strike Zone


The other day, I wrote a post about Terry Larkin that focused on his problems off the field, but in doing so, I made a historical mistake that I shouldn’t have. The Common Man pointed this out in his post over his always interesting self-entitled blog. In my post, I made a quick note of Larkin’s playing career, but as I made a judgment (always a potentially dangerous thing to do) of his playing career, I took a few things out of context about the stats I used. I am open to criticism (which his post wasn’t really), and I’m glad he made a mention of it (I preach about keeping things, especially in today’s world, in context and perspective, and I shouldn’t screw it up in my own work). It just reminds me of how much I still don’t know about the history of the game. In order to correct this and prevent further such mistakes, I’m going to go back and look at how different aspects of the game has evolved. Planning to do this even before TCM’s post, it’s even more important that I do this now. Today, we’ll take a look at how the strike zone has changed over the years, which seems to change even in today’s game.

In the original rules, baseball might seem a bit more like softball. The pitcher could not throw over-handed and must keep his arm motion below his waist. In addition, the batter called the pitch. He could ask for a “high”, “low”, or “fair” pitch. A “high” pitch had to come over the plate and between the batter’s shoulders and waist. A “low” pitch had to be below his waist and at least a foot above the ground while still crossing the plate. A “fair” pitch had to come over the plate, below the shoulders, and at least a foot off the ground, essentially a combination of a “high” and “low” pitch. On a third strike, if a batter let it go and it was in the zone, the umpire would warn him, calling it a “good ball”, and if he did so again, he would be out. Cool. At this point, the strike zone is from the shoulders to about a foot off the ground, but the speeds of pitches are slow it would seem, evening out the advantages.

In 1884, the National League decided to let pitchers throw from over the waist, and ERA’s and batting averages dropped. Even though pitchers had been doing it the other way for all those years, all but a few changed to the new style, as it probably seemed to their advantage to do so. Three years later, they told hitters that they could no longer call pitches, but before it became too one-sided in favor of pitchers, the strike zone was shrunk on the bottom to the knees.

In 1907, the rules were made a little more official to aid in the combination of the American and National Leagues. The rules didn’t really change, but the language sure did.

The strike zone would remain largely unchanged over the next 40 years, but in 1950, they limited the strike zone a little bit more. The upper limit of the strike became the armpits instead of the top of the shoulders. This is also the first time that we see “stance” in the definition, and I wonder if this is the first time they took stances into perspective. Hmm.

Regardless, the rules changed again a few years later in 1957, but it didn’t have much to do with the changing of the strike. But it did change an important thing about in the strike zone. If a batter was hit in a body part hanging in the strike zone, it is now a strike. No more leaning into it.

By 1963, offense had taken control of the game, and the MLB had seen a rise in run production. In order to curb this, they made changes to the strike zone. Actually, it wasn’t so much a change as going back to the old days. They simply expanded the zone back to the top of the shoulders. But as part of a combination of things, pitching dramatically made a comeback and took the game, leading to one of the greatest years ever for pitchers in 1968. Before the next season, the MLB went back to the armpits.

For another 20 years, the MLB liked the rules, but in 1988, they changed the top of the strike zone to the mid-point between the top of the shoulders and the top of the pants. Also, the strike zone at the bottom became specifiically the top of the knees, but it wouldn’t stay that way for long. In 1996, the last time we had rule changes, the bottom of the strike zone became the bottom of the knees (or the hollow part below the knee cap).

No wonder umpires can never have a constant strike zone. The MLB keeps changing it on them.


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