Today there was a report from the AP which discussed a few potential changes to the game in the future. In the second half of the article, there was a discussion about how MLB could change the strike zone. Specifically, the zone could be raised from just below the knee to above the knee. This would all be in an attempt to bring more offense to the game, restoring the strike zone to an area it was prior to 1995, when the zone was lowered to the current level.
That adjustment isn’t massive, and I personally think the bigger issue here is that umpires around the league do an absolute horrible job of calling the strike zone. While MLB commissioner Rob Manfred said they are satisfied with the way umpires call the zones, the truth is that the umpires do anything but call the “zone”. On any given night, there are 15 different versions of the strike zone, along with calling outside strikes differently for left-handers, and the current issue of the bottom of the strike zone growing.
August Fagerstrom wrote an article at FanGraphs that did a great job breaking down the current issues with the strike zone, while also looking at the biggest hypothetical losers of a raised strike zone. The article featured the pitchers with the highest pitch percentage in the area that is between 1.5 and 1.75 feet off the ground, along with the most called strikes below the 1.75 foot off the ground mark.
From the perspective of a Pirates writer, the thing that stood out here was that Francisco Liriano and Jon Niese were on both lists. J.A. Happ was also featured high on the called strike list. So there’s a clear trend here with Pirates pitchers throwing low in the zone, especially their left-handers. I ran the numbers on their other 2016 starters, and Jeff Locke was a bit behind Niese, while Gerrit Cole and Ryan Vogelsong were throwing about ten percentage points fewer pitches in this zone.
The suggested changes wouldn’t take place until the 2017 season. Vogelsong will be gone. Locke probably won’t be a starter at that point. So the only Pirates who might be impacted by this are Liriano (under contract through the 2017 season), Niese (team options for the 2017 and 2018 seasons), and Cole (under team control through the 2019 season).
There are no PITCHf/x numbers for this, but the philosophy in the minor league system is the same in regards to working down in the zone, so a lot of the guys coming up will also have high numbers for this trend. Looking at the minor league philosophy — which is also an organizational philosophy — it makes sense that the Pirates have gone after guys like Liriano, Niese, and Happ.
Using the same method as the FanGraphs article, I looked at Gerrit Cole’s results. They weren’t as extreme as Liriano and Niese in terms of the number of pitches in the area, but the percentage of called strikes and the amount of strikeouts looking were close.[table id=10 /]
As the FanGraphs article noted, a change in the strike zone won’t remove all of this. Some of those strikes will still be called. But if just 25% of the above called strikes get called as balls instead, you’re talking about an extra 10 runs (the difference between a ball and a strike is 0.128 runs per pitch). That’s a loss of one win just from three starting pitchers, not counting the other two guys (likely prospects who work down in the zone) or bullpen guys (who also follow the same low-in-the-zone strategy).
There’s still a lot we don’t know about this story. We don’t know how those pitchers might change their game with the adjustment of the strike zone. That change could result in problems, or it might not be an issue at all. We don’t know how framing could impact the strike zone, even if it is raised. We don’t even know if the rule will change (I think MLB should go with robot umpires to call the actual strike zone if they want better results).
For now, it’s something to watch, while considering that it could impact two of the Pirates starters more than most pitchers, while also working against their organizational philosophy. I wouldn’t draw any conclusions and say the Pirates are doomed, and this definitely isn’t something that impacts just the Pirates. But there could be a real impact here to some pitchers, especially since MLB’s focus on this entire topic is adding offense to the game.
**Pittsburgh Pirates 2016 Top Prospects: #8 – Elias Diaz. The top 10 countdown continues. If you buy your copy of the Prospect Guide, you’ll get all of the reports, along with our grades, and the reports of the 21-50 prospects and every other player in the system. It’s the most information you can find on the Pirates’ system, and the cheapest price you can find for a prospect book this time of year, especially with the Top Prospect and Annual discounts.
**Francisco Cervelli Open to an Extension With the Pirates. Not an easy decision for the Pirates. There are questions about whether Cervelli can repeat his 2015 season, and whether Elias Diaz can match his production. I broke down the questions in the article.