Revitalizing the Babe
Remember hearing stories of Babe Ruth as a child? Some kiddos were told of the time where he called his shot. Maybe just the story of the Boston Red Sox’ curse which originated from the Babe’s departure to New York. Me? I was told of how many times he struck out–a kind tale that my mother would comfort her young son who struck out four times in four at-bats. “Babe Ruth hit all those home runs, but he also struck out more than anyone!” This was great parenting no doubt; however, the only difference between Babe and I was that I never hit “all those home runs.”
That description of Babe serves as a spitting image of the current state of baseball. Now don’t get me wrong, I know that there have been countless power hitters with high home run and strikeout totals over the last 30 or so years. But this isn’t about a few home-run-or-bust hitters. This is about an entire sport digging the long ball and swallowing the strike outs.
Let me give you some stats to back up my claims because everyone loves stats. The averages for homers per game and strikeouts per game currently sit at 1.26 and 8.22 respectively (both MLB records). In fact, this June, the MLB has set an all-time record for home runs in a month. Let’s dissect each of these best/worst case scenarios for batters and pitchers.
Shrinking Strike Zones and Towering Long Balls
Pitchers across all leagues and at all ages are instructed to keep the ball down. A low two-seamer or sinker is the antidote for the long ball. It requires the hitter to lower their center of gravity and practically prohibits hitters from getting under the ball and out of the park. Since 2009, Jon Roegele of The Hardball Times has tracked the ever-shifting MLB strike zone and 2016 proved to be the first year that the zone has shrunk. And it shrunk in one particular area: the bottom of the zone.
In May of 2016, the MLB proposed a rule to raise the bottom area of the strike zone; however, the players’ association did not agree to this change. But the MLB is allowed to do what it wants. After years of consistently lowering strike zones, spring training allowed for some early calculations on the lower third of the plate.
These changes in the strike zone are obviously hard to trust due to their low sample size, but it is definitely something to follow in the game. Calling balls and strikes is one of the hardest duties of any umpire or referee in any sport. Making split second decisions on balls traveling up to and over 100 miles per hour is about as easy as it sounds, but small changes to the strike zone can become evident after the pouring in of thousands of pitches each night. This shrinking strike zone leads to more walks, base runners, high-scoring games, and, of course, the long ball! And the MLB would love nothing more than producing more exciting games with the constant complaints over slothful low-scoring affairs.
Most hitters benefit from the rising strike zone, but some welcome the low ball. Take Brewers 3B Travis Shaw for example. Shaw feasts on low pitches and often fails to even connect on pitches up in the zone.
Shaw might have some gripes with the rising strike zone, but connoisseurs of the high ball like ESPN’s love child Aaron Judge will lead the MLB to continue this strike zone trend due to its walloping of mistakes made up in the zone.
So this begs the question, “If strike zones are shrinking, then why the rising rate of strikeouts?” Great question. Just a brilliant question. The answer? Velocity. Strikeout rates have grown each year since 2005, and average velocity has been following that strikeout trend to a T. Since 2002, the average MLB fastball has upped its velocity from 89.0 mph to 92.8, and the same can be observed with every type of pitch thrown. Pitchers across the board fire off pitches in the upper 90’s on a consistent basis which contributes to both the velocity rise and the home run rise.
So if you’re a young pup hoping to make it in the big leagues someday, you have two options. Either learn to smash pitches up in the strike zone, or develop your arm into a 100-mph-hurling machine. Easier said than done.