As Cubs fans in 2015, there is no doubt in my mind that most reading this article have called the strike zone into question at least a few times this year. It’s easy for some to dismiss the grumblings as sore losing or purely anecdotal, but if you’ve been paying close enough attention, you know that, at best, there have been some inconsistencies between different umpires and even between innings, regarding the constitution of the strike zone.
Luckily, we are not alone in that assessment.
Jon Roegele (FanGraphs) has been keeping up with the strike zone throughout the year, and he recently released the results of his findings from 2009 up until, and through, the month of July, 2015. What he’s found, so far, is almost painfully expected and revelatory of the depressed offensive environment. It is a pretty great read, with a good deal of data and graphs, so I suggest taking a look at it and reassessing your opinion of the modern strike zone and its recent evolution.
From the start of the 2009 season up until July 2015, the 2015 strike zone has been the largest (in terms of square inches), strikeouts are at their second highest rate (second to 2014), walk rates are at an all-time high, runs per game are second lowest (again, behind 2014), and the strike zone is generally getting lower and more inconsistent. There is clearly work to be done, and as the rankings show, the trend is only worsening.
Moreover, even though some of those numbers were worse in 2014, there is still plenty of time and reason to believe that 2015 will ultimately match or exceed those values. Roegele dug into the strike out trends for the last month of each season and found that September is generally worse for the strike zone and run scoring throughout baseball. Generally, strike out rates have risen, while walk rates and runs per game have fallen in nearly every September, going back to 2009. Roegele offers reasons for that trend (expanded rosters allow for more inexperienced hitters, contenders are using better pitchers longer and more often, etc…), but regardless of the reason, the trend persists and will likely make 2015 even worse than the seasons prior.
I’d take solace in these numbers being flukey, if it weren’t relatively apparent that some umps are simply fooled by changing circumstances. For example, Roegele uncovered that the strike zone has been pretty different for righties and lefties in 2015. Specifically, the strike zone has been bigger (in terms of square inches) for righties, than lefties. Indeed, that has led to more walks for southpaws and more Ks for righties.
Whether these problems will be addressed naturally or through rule/policy changes, they clearly need to be monitored. Perhaps underscored by the shift towards framing-talented catchers, calling a fair and equal strike zone is just as important as any aspect of the game. We’ve already seen MLB make strides towards addressing missed plays (the ability to challenge), so perhaps the strike zone is not far off – even if it isn’t robot umps quite yet.