Covering the Front and Back Pages of the Newspaper
January 26, 2001
BASEBALL: The New Strike Zone
(Originally posted on the Boston Sports Guy website)
One of the hottest topics coming into this baseball season is what the new strike zone will mean. Word has it that the powers that be (i.e., Sandy Alderson) want the umps to enforce a strike zone that is much higher – extending all the way to the letters on the batter’s uniform – but also narrower, extending only so far as the edges of home plate. In other words, it's the strike zone in the rulebook, rather than one shaped like Eric Gregg. Peter Gammons reports that, at least for now, the umps are actually taking this seriously.
Personally I’ll believe this when I see it. We’ve heard about new strike zones before, and they tend to drift downward and outward after a little while. The last really big new-strike-zone initiative, in 1988, was never formally repealed but drifted gradually into disuse.
This much is certain: at least at the start of the season, the zone will be different. And the effect on the game of baseball will be dramatic. The strike zone is baseball’s central battlefield; control of the strike zone is to baseball what control of the line of scrimmage is to football, what control of the boards is to basketball. With enough talent you can lose that battle and still win the war, but you are swimming upstream something fierce.
STUDYING THE IMPACT
I’ll get out my own crystal ball in a little bit. I certainly agree with some of Olkin’s picks (Matt Anderson could benefit tremendously from the high strike) and he’s probably seen some of the young guns in the NL more often than I have. But as I was working on my Hall of Fame column, a thought hit me: it seemed like an awful lot of the key candidates – Hernandez, Carter, Dale Murphy, Rice, Parker, Lance Parrish – hit the wall dramatically right around the time the new strike zone came in, cutting the productive parts of their careers short just shy of the qualifications needed to cement their Hall of Fame cases. I started to think back and realize that they weren’t alone – there were lots of players of that generation who just evaporated at about the same time (remember Buddy Bell?), to the point where comparing a list of the best players in baseball in 1987 and 1991 would yield very dramatically different lists.
Just suspicion wasn’t enough; I decided to take a systematic (albeit not entirely scientific) look at what happened to players age 32 and up when the new strike zone hit town. I picked 32 because the most dramatic results seemed to be with guys who were expected to begin a long, slow decline to their careers and instead just turned into pumpkins overnight. Spurred on by the cases of the most prominent players, I decided to focus not on the immediate one-year impact but on how these players’ careers changed from 1986-87 to 1988-89, a long enough span to test whether their relationship to the rest of the league was fundamentally altered.
Of the roughly 300 players who played at least semi-regularly in 1988, 60 were 32 years old or older. This was a bit of a self-selecting list; guys like Jerry Mumphery, who dropped from .333 in 1987 to .136 in 1988, were left out because they didn’t even last out the year. Ditto for Ted Simmons. To calculate the change in performance, I used OPS (On Base Plus Slugging), which provides a good general snapshot of offensive production.
SPLAT! THE RESULTS
-30.3% Bob Brenly (34, C: 780 to 544)
Other players with 10% or greater dropoffs (in order): Don Baylor*, Terry Kennedy, Jack Clark, Fred Lynn, Pedro Guerrero, Lance Parrish, Chet Lemon, Keith Moreland, and Gary Carter.
There are some obvious caveats here. The league OPS declined 4.7% in the AL and 5.7% in the NL over this period, so anyone who declined less than that was actually improving relative to the league, and anyone who declined by less than about 8% or so certainly wasn’t suffering from anything more severe than the natural aging process. Also, you can easily identify individual issues at work in some of these cases: Jim Rice was going downhill in 1987, and a bunch of these guys (Hernandez, Buckner, Carter and Guerrero) suffered from various leg injuries.
A number of players (18 of the 60 in the study) actually either improved or improved relative to the league (i.e., a 2-3% decline). The ten biggest trend-buckers:
+25.5% Carlton Fisk (40, C: 691 to 867)
Notables just off this list include George Brett, Robin Yount and Andre Dawson. Again, some individual factors were at work; Smith’s improvement was all in 1989, as he had less than 200 at bats in both 1987 and 1988; Dawson didn’t move to Wrigley until 1987; Salazar got his first everyday job in years in 1988. This list also includes a lot of people who were bouncing back after hitting rock bottom, including Fisk (who sulked through an awful '86 in left field before returning to catching as a part-timer), Smith, Armas and Templeton. There is, perhaps needless to add, neither any rational explanation nor any precedent in history for two of the three most-improved hitters in any group being a pair of 40-year-old catchers. Fisk and Boone just stick out like a sore thumb from virtually all the visible trends.
To wrap up the heavy number-crunching, here are the overall trends, listed by Age, Average Change, and number of players declining out of number in the sample.
Age 32, -5.4%, 12 of 18
Ages 32-33, -5.4% 16 of 27
As far as individual declines, the list here reminds us what we should already know: catchers in their mid-30s tend to drop like flies. The rest of the list of big losers is a mixed bag of the patient and the impatient, the tall and the short . . . all different types of hitters. When you combine it with the list of improvers, though, one thing does jump out: the guys who were hit hardest were mostly good players, while several of the people who went the other way were terrible. That suggests that reduced offensive conditions tend to exacerbate the leveling forces already at work in the game, and that players who have built a foundation of some success have the most to lose. Also, the decliners were more likely to be people who depended on good strike zone judgment, while half of the top 10 list of improvers were died-in-the-wool hackers (Templeton, Quirk, Washington, Armas, and Salazar).
In retrospect, it would have been more interesting to run a complete study of all hitters, to see if there were other patterns among the likely victims. The other group of hitters who had a tough time in 1988-89 were the guys who had their first good year – mainly rookies and guys getting their first full-time job – in 1987. I didn’t study them systematically; there are certainly counterexamples (like Bonds and Bonilla, or like Howard Johnson, who bounced back in 1989), but the number of players who dropped off severely and somewhat permanently in 1988 was substantial, including Larry Sheets, Benito Santiago, BJ Surhoff, Devon White, Dale Sveum, and Juan Samuel. But this group exists in any year: guys who just had a big year and never adjusted once the pitchers caught up with them. Dave Concepcion, among others, fits in both groups, since he had a career year with the bat at age 39 as a part-timer in 1987.
The reasons why so many older players, particularly successful ones, took it on the chin when they started calling the high strike in 1988 seems easy enough to explain rationally, in two ways:
--1. Players with a long track record of success may be more stubborn about changing their approach.
--2. The high strike mostly helps out the hard throwers – meaning that these guys are suddenly seeing a lot more high fastballs just at the age when they are starting to have real trouble catching up with the high heat.
--3. Players who could foul off borderline fastballs and let the high hard one go for a ball, laying in wait for breaking balls, are suddenly required to swing at pitches they really can’t hit anymore with consistency. There’s nowhere to hide.
BILL JAMES’ 1963 STUDY AND 1988 PREDICTIONS
The most pronounced effect he found was that “tweeners” – players who hit for good but not great averages with medium power – just got destroyed. For 1963, James cited people like Willie Davis, Brooks Robinson, Vic Power and Tito Francona. The 1988 results at least partly bear this out. The people he named for 1988 were Keith Hernandez, Pete O’Brien, Phil Bradley, Carney Lansford, Ryne Sandberg, Bobby Bonilla, and Terry Pendleton. I’m not sure that the last two really belonged in the group; Pendleton had been wildly inconsistent before this and kept that pattern, while Bonilla blossomed into a serious home run hitter in 1988. Sandberg was OK in 1988 and later returned to being a big home run threat. But the others held the pattern:
* Hernandez I discussed above, as well as Buddy Bell, Walling, Griffey, Knight, Herndon, and Buckner, also all players of this type.
(Another group worth mentioning: three nearly identical players, all centerfielders with speed, some power, and some plate discipline but only moderate averages and high strikeout rates: Lloyd Moseby, Mike Davis, and Oddibe McDowell. Not sure why, but these guys all got ruined for good in 1988-89, even though they weren’t that old. Hard to say if that’s a trend or a coincidence.)
2001 PREDICTIONS: HITTERS
Let’s start with the obvious suspects, the guys who lived through this last time and took it on the chin then as young players: Surhoff (age 35), Rafael Palmiero (age 36), Mike Stanley (age 38), Dave Martinez (age 36), Santiago (age 36), Devon White (age 38; he’s basically done anyway), Joyner, Raines (working on a comeback with the Expos), and Mark McGwire. McGwire may seem bulletproof, but remember: he’s 37, he has an enormous top half of the strike zone, his batting average fell off a cliff in 1988-89, and he’s got to get his timing back after a half season on the DL. Could be tough sledding for these guys.
What about the Keith Hernandez group, the line-drive-hitting tweeners? James defined these guys as players who hit .275 to .310 with 15-20 homers a year, although the definition of “moderate power” has changed some; I’m thinking more of guys who generally hit around .290-.320 with 15 to 25 homers most years. The two guys who come to mind as parallels to the Hernandez/Buddy Bell type are Mark Grace and John Olerud; both are in their 30s (37 and 32, respectively) and Olerud is about 6 foot 5 to boot.
Others in this general class of hitters include Surhoff, Joe Randa, Rusty Greer (age 32), Garret Anderson, Bobby Abreu, Travis Fryman (age 32), Paul O’Neill (age 38), Dante Bichette (at sea level; Bichette is 37), Johnny Damon, Jay Payton, Ray Lankford (age 34), Todd Walker, Jeff Cirillo, David Segui (age 34), Brian Daubach, Herbert Perry, Troy O’Leary, Jeff Abbott, and until recently Derek Bell (in his good years; Bell is 32), Jeff Conine (age 35) and Rico Brogna, all of whom are the same type of hitter.
(Abreu and Damon are just hitting their prime and at the upper end of this group, so they would seem the best bets to buck the trend or at least stay very valuable. Also, there’s no telling how this will play out in Colorado. I would not want to have a lot of money tied up in Randa, Fryman or Greer under these conditions, never mind some of the guys who have multiple strikes against them.)
An additional group that, one reasons, should have a tough time is players who had long track records as pretty weak hitters until the 1994 offensive bonanza, and who would thus presumably be most vulnerable to changed offensive conditions. These guys may have stepped up for other reasons, such as adding muscle mass, but it’s worth a spin: Jay Bell (age 35), Surhoff (boy, he’s really got a lot going against him), Bichette (his improvement wasn’t all altitude), Todd Zeile (age 35), Ken Caminiti (age 38), Steve Finley (age 36). A subsidiary group is the guys who were good enough hitters until 1993 but were vaulted to stardom by the same changes: Edgar Martinez (age 38), O’Neill, Jay Buhner (age 36), to a lesser extent Palmiero.
In a class mostly by himself is Frank Thomas. Thomas is unusually dependent on the strike zone; you may remember that some people blamed his 1998-99 slump on his running feud with the umpires over to his continual griping on called strikes; I don’t think it’s a coincidence that he had a big resurgence after Alderson fired about half the veteran umps in the league. Thomas could be in for a long, grouchy year.
The other enormous power hitters in the McGwire/Dale Murphy mold will be the main group to have trouble, although these guys were all over the map in 1988. This group includes Richie Sexson, Canseco (who had his best year in 1988 but is a lot older now), Cliff Floyd, and Tony Clark. Of course, these days the ranks of 6-foot-3 and over power hitters is a very long list and includes catchers and shortstops.
Rickey Henderson may actually be helped by the new zone if the narrower corners are actually enforced; with his crouch there’s not much room between the belt and the letters anyway. But Rickey is obviously sensitive to any tinkering because he rarely swings at anything anymore.
Eric Davis will be unaffected as he was in 1988, since he swings at everything above the belt anyway. Tony Gwynn’s decline should not be affected, since contact hitters in the Gwynn mold (including Gwynn) faired pretty well the last two times.
Anything that makes scoring runs harder is good news for Rey Ordonez, who can’t hit under any conditions.
2001 PREDICTIONS: PITCHERS
The old power pitchers may wind up being helped as much as the new ones, since they will know from Day One how to take maximum advantage. Clemens, even at his advanced age, should be one of the biggest beneficiaries, since he can get ahead of hitters by throwing closer to the head, thus setting up the split finger pitch (same goes for Armando Benitez). Clemens’ control has been a big issue in recent years. Al Leiter also loves to work high in the strike zone and misses high a lot, as does Curt Schilling. The high strike may revive the careers of Troy Percival and Billy Wagner, and might even rehabilitate Jose Mesa and Heathcliff Slocumb. Randy Johnson, if he stays healthy, should finally break the strikeout record. A number of players have been quoted as saying Pete Harnisch will be particularly tough with the high strike. I’ll address Hideo Nomo and David Cone in my Red Sox preview (coming in the next few weeks).
Pedro would seem to be helped as well, but he’s the flip side of Ordonez; since Pedro’s butting up against the theoretical limit on how good a pitcher can be, anything that helps the rest of the pack catch up is bad news. Same goes for Mariano Rivera.
Should be fun to watch and see.
FUN FACT: The federal budget averages out over the year to spending just over $205 million an hour. At that rate it would take the entire government 73 minutes to spend the equivalent of the reported value of A-Rod’s contract.