ESPN’s Jayson Stark reported Monday that MLB has proposed to the players’ union two significant gameplay changes: Raising the strike zone to the top of a hitter’s knees and allowing automatic intentional walks so that a pitcher no longer has to purposefully throw four balls to put a runner on first base.
Rarely will you see such a good idea and such a bad idea coupled in the same sentence.
Let’s start with the good idea. MLB should shrink the strike zone yesterday. The game has been overrun by strikeouts, with 21.1 percent of batters going down on strikes in 2016. That’s the highest rate ever and almost 30 percent higher than we saw as recently as 2005. Never in the game’s history has a batter been more likely to strike zone and less likely to put the ball in play. That’s a problem for one obvious reason: Strikeouts make for unexciting games.
Baseball has increasingly become a two-man battle between the pitcher and hitter, and the league should do all it can to restore the relevance of fielding and base-running. The game is most fun when it features diving catches and daring base running. Not strikeouts. Shrinking the strike zone would increase walk rates (which have reached all-time lows in recent years) resulting in more baserunners, and it would also force pitchers to throw more hittable pitches, resulting in more balls in play.
The strike zone is currently defined as ending at “the hollow beneath the kneecap,” but umpires increasingly call strikes even lower than that. Moving the strike zone to the top of the knee and actually enforcing it as such would be a win for the game and its fans.
Now for the bad idea. MLB reportedly wants teams to be able to signal for an intentional walk instead of lobbing four straight balls. It’s not hard to see why someone might support this change. Intentional walks are boring and drawn out, and they force teams to go through the motions for a predetermined outcome.
But withdrawing the requirement that a batter draw four balls before being awarded first base eats away at one of baseball’s most fundamental rules. As it stands, the intentional walk exists fully within baseball’s structure. The pitcher throws four balls, the batter takes first base. Sometimes there’s a wild pitch, occasionally a runner steals, etc. As far as the rulebook goes, an intentional ball is really just another ball. It looks different because the pitcher and catcher are telegraphing their intentions, but it’s not actually different in essence. If, on the other hand, teams were allowed to simply signal an intentional walk, the act would exist outside the rules. That seems flatly wrong.
Automatic intentional walks wouldn’t destroy the game or anything. In fact, we’d probably hardly notice. But they would slightly degrade the spirit of the rules, just to make games slightly shorter.
Both the strike zone change and the new intentional walk system need to be approved by the Players Association before they become law of the diamond. Here’s hoping the strike zone gets smaller but the old-school intentional walk survives another day.