The upcoming Collective Bargaining Agreement – set to take effect in 2017 – has already received a ton of discussion and coverage this year. Looming in the background of the many notable topics to be covered in the negotiations will be the declining offensive tendencies of the era in which we find ourselves.
Even though offense was up a bit in 2015, the first time in the last six years, there is still an overwhelming decline that needs to be addressed. Allowing a designated hitter in the National League is one way to address the problem, but that doesn’t appear to have as much momentum as originally thought.
Raising the bottom of the strike zone, then, might be another, less invasive, way to increase offense in a pitcher’s era, and MLB is studying that approach.
In an article at FanGraphs, Fagerstrom took a look at how the strike zone has expanded over the past five years to better understand what has been happening. Through a series of graphs for both left and right-handed hitters, Fagerstrom illustrates an area between 1.5 ft and 1.75 ft off the ground where pitchers didn’t used to get called strikes, but are now.
While raising the strike zone should help increase offense (gives batters better pitches to hit, creates fewer tough strikes), it would also affect certain pitchers – the ones that live in the bottom of the zone – more than others. So, using Baseball Savant’s advanced PITCHf/x search, Fagerstrom tried to identify which pitchers would be the biggest hypothetical losers of a raised strike zone, and several Cubs are on the list.
Kyle Hendricks (5th) and Jon Lester (7th) had some of the greatest presence in that targeted zone in all of baseball in 2015. Eliminating just a few inches might alter their entire approach, and possibly, the degree of success they’ve grown accustom to achieving. And worse yet, Hendricks received the greatest percentage of called strikes in that particular area, meaning that a significant change to the zone might affect him more so than any other pitcher in MLB. Adam Warren (12th) and Lester (16th) are right behind him, too.
Given the likelihood of all three pitchers throwing significant innings for the Cubs after 2016, a raised strike zone might become a particularly important issue to Chicago.
So, a change in the zone might cause them to change their strategy, but nibbling at the periphery is always going to be a part of their game. A raised strike zone will force them to be more careful and come up into an area where a batter can do more damage. I’m not saying a raised strike zone is necessarily bad for the Cubs – there are other pitchers on the team, and the Cubs have plenty of bats who would love to see a raised zone – but it is certainly an issue that might disproportionately affect some of their pitchers.