Baseball: You’ve Got It All Wrong On Fixing the Strike Zone

The MLB Rules Committee is talking about adjusting the strike zone to enhance the game’s offense, but umpires won’t break their habits—unless…

By Eric Gouldsberry, This Great Game—Posted May 26, 2016

TGG Opinion

Major League Baseball is not happy with the evolution of the strike zone over the past 10 years. Umpires, it seems, are calling strikes lower with each passing season; if the trend continues, the hitter will have to put away the bat and break out the three iron, because pitchers won’t be afraid to throw it at tee-level—and the umpires won’t be afraid to call them strikes. 

Okay, so we exaggerate—maybe. MLB is truly concerned that the strike zone, which umpires have consciously or subconsciously been recalibrating to their own liking, is largely responsible for the reduced amount of offense seen so far in the new millennium. If you’ll recall: The Steroid Era peaked circa 2000 with an average of 10 runs and 2.3 home runs per game. That’s also the year that not one team could produce a staff earned run average below 4.00. 

Fast forward to 2015. Scoring is down 17% from the 2000 apex. Home runs, down 13%. Half of all teams now have their ERA below 4.00. But here’s some other, more telling numbers to consider. One is that strikeouts are up 19%. The other is that walks are down, significantly—by 23%. Yes, you can attribute this to the crackdown on steroids, harder throwing relievers and perhaps hitters who operate on a one-track mind and yearn for the fences every time they come to bat. But it’s also this: Hitters are finding it more challenging to succeed with an inflated strike zone. 

MLB’s official definition of the strike zone is “that area over home plate the upper limit of which is a horizontal line at the midpoint between the top of the shoulders and the top of the uniform pants, and the lower level is a line at the bottom of the knees.” All umpires are currently told to conform to this strike zone. Many of them don’t. They have their own idea of what a strike zone is. Some prefer to call the low strike. Others extend the zone beyond the outside corner. Or the inside corner. Or both. When players have to be given scouting reports on umpires as well as opponents, there’s something wrong. 

Baseball is looking into moving up the bottom of the strike zone to the top of the knees to reverse the statistical trends of the last 15 years. Enactment will be the easy part. The challenge will be the enforcement. 

The umpires will certainly get the memo, but will they heed it? Or will they continue to customize their own version of the zone as they always have, regardless of what the rulebook states? Should they do more of the latter—and it’s quite possible they will—then perhaps it’s time for MLB to consider promotions and demotions of umpires based on job performance—the same way its teams send down and bring up players to and from the minors. 

All MLB needs to do is look at the accuracy of umpires’ balls-and-strikes calls relative to how the Statcast strike zone is showing. This will also need to be done in the minors as well, because if an umpire in Triple-A is doing an unbelievable job and is deserving of a call-up, he should be given that chance—especially if someone in the majors is failing the accuracy test. 

Unfortunately, to do this will result in a shock to the system. 

First of all, major league umpire turnover is virtually non-existent. Of the 76 umpires assigned to the majors in 2016, 73 were there the year before. Of the three not there, two have retired—and the third, Paul Schrieber, has mysteriously been let go for reasons that have not been officially stated or, certainly, reported. No wonder umpires feel secure in their self-customized zone; no one is likely to fire them. 

Then there’s the prickly situation of salary, another potential headache for those advocating umpire promotions and demotions. The difference in wages between major and minor league umpires is essentially night and day. Cot’s Baseball Contracts doesn’t cover umpires and available official information is scarce; based on what little research we could find—none of it datelined within the past five years—umpires make anywhere between $125,000 to $400,000 a year, with generous per diem and first class travel. Minor league umpires, on the other hand, barely top $20,000 in yearly salary and are strapped with tighter expense accounts. (Hello, Dairy Queen!) 

So what does MLB do? It could, as we suggest, tie job security to on-field performance, as it tried to do in 1999—before the umpires union blew its fuse and fatally reacted by boycotting, eventually leading to the termination of 22 arbiters. It’s a different union now, so maybe it will see the wisdom of not overreacting this time around. But the umpires rightfully will need protection from the current culture in regards to salary. If a major league ump making, say, $250,000 is demoted, he suddenly shouldn’t have to be scraping by on $20,000 at the Triple-A level. 

So here’s some suggestions. 

Place all umpires in organized pro ball under the same union roof, with pay given at an appropriate scale. Major league umps will make a minimum of $125,000, while salaries set at $60,000 in Triple-A, $45,000 in Double-A, and $30,000 in Single-A and rookie leagues, prorated by the length of season. Cost escalators and de-escalators can be considered for demoted major league umps with seniority and/or making considerably more than the $125,000 minimum, so the drop-off in salary isn’t so brutal. 

There should be no promotions or demotions during the season. A midseason switch would create logistical and financial problems and meddle with the chemistry of the four-man crews who bond and perform well together as the season progresses. 

You can only be promoted or demoted one level at a time. So if a major league ump’s performance is particularly bad, he can be knocked down to Triple-A—but that’s it. 

And by the way, this job performance shouldn’t be tied to how good he is behind the plate. There are tough decisions to be made on the other bases they patrol, and if they’re screwing up there as well, it should be noted accordingly by MLB as well. 

If MLB badly wants its calls made correct as close to 100% as possible, it should consider these points. But it will come with cost. It will likely have to help pay the increased wages for minor league umps, because the 14 minor league organizations will certainly not want to bear the cost of something that will not benefit them. Additional headaches will likely emerge. The minor leagues won’t be anxious to get on board, knowing that perhaps some of the game’s better umpires may currently be stuck within their ranks. And major league umpires will likely fight tooth and nail against those trying to weaken what is basically tenured job status. 

So, it’s your call, MLB. If you want to see more games end at 9-8 versus 1-0, if you want to stop seeing monthly strikeout totals break new records with each passing month, if you want the strike zone to be called as it’s supposed to be, then tell the umpires to enforce it…or else.

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