First Pitch: A Potential Rule Change That Could Impact a Few Pirates Pitchers

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.

**Pirates Announce Several Baseball Operations Changes

  • Give the umpire an electric shock when their call conflicts with the computer’s. 😛

  • Change the strike zone? The problem is that major league umpires in general are horrible with calling a consistent strike zone, and MLB can do nothing about it. They need a program to improve the umpiring, not trying to change a moving target. First the DH, now this. The men running baseball are clueless.

  • Totally off topic but I had to share this article by Grant Brisbee. Look where the Pirates rank.

  • Btw, BP just put out their Top 101 prospects.

    11 – Glasnow
    22 – Meadows
    49 – Bell
    51 – Taillon
    76 – McGuire
    80 – Ramirez

    Where’s the wunderkind, Alen Hanson???? 🙂

    And, I still think there won’t be much diff between Diaz and McGuire. Both are good defensively and average hitting with little power. One may be better than the other either off or def, but not by much.

    • Why am I not seeing that on their site? Link?

      • added to original post…refresh.

      • They didn’t put it on their site yet, probably won’t be out for three weeks or so because they do all the top 10’s first and still have 13 to go(unless they decide to release it earlier now that it’s getting passed around). Someone yesterday found a back way that shows what they have in their book. We aren’t posting it yet because they didn’t release it to the public, so don’t expect the article until they actually post it. I doubt they want their book out there for free.

    • Probably ranked about 140th, which is that different from being ranked 90th.

  • Am I one of the few that enjoy Pitching and defense and situational hitting? We just got through the steroid era where it was home runs and total offense. I am really enjoying the game at this present time. Good pitching and timely hitting and defense. This is the way the game was meant to be played

    • You are definitely not the only one. I can’t stand the narrative that more offense equals more excitement. But I am pretty sure we are in the minority on this one.

      • I was gonna say, one of the most exciting games I saw last year was that August day game vs the Giants. Cole vs Leake. Kang hit 2 solo shots and Marte hit a walk in the bottom of the 9th. The score of that game was 3-2 and it was riveting.

      • The “rule changes to improve offensive output” saga is what has pushed me away from the NFL.

        But it’s more popular than ever so what do I know…

    • I agree with you too! We are back to a good level, IMO. Plus, there is improvement in offense to be had if the PLAYERS themselves adjust their approach to hitting. I think it’s way too soon to change the rules.

      I think the right approach would be to allow the game a chance to punch back against the defensive shifts, harder throwing relievers, and more literal strike zone.

  • Hey Tim … Like the suit! Do you have a job interview today that we should be worried about?

    • Hey I thought that was my High School Algebra teacher. He would be 96 now.

      • If you just said that, in 1996 your teacher was 4 times your age and in 2016 he is now 3 times your age … I think it would be obvious how old he is….

    • Ha, no. I needed an update. My credential photo was from 2010, and I wanted something more professional for the site. So kill two birds with one stone. Plus, I got to put one of my eight suits to work, which I only get to do in this job when I’m covering the Pirates for a national televised game.

  • So much for speeding up the game.

    • Sawchik made this argument and I laughed.

      How many times have you been watching a crisply played 4-3 ballgame with plenty of balls in play and said to yourself, “shit I wish this game was three and a half minutes shorter. I’d really rather see more strikeouts.”?

      • Agree. The issue with game times is the ratio of breaks (between innings, between pitches, pitcher changes, stepping out of the box, etc.) to actual playing time.
        I love an old time 2-1 game but I have nothing against a 5-4 game either. Now 18-1 is another story…

      • nothing wrong with a crisply played 4-3 game.

        there IS something wrong with a 4-3 game with interminably long innings because of walks, etc.

        • Yes, Foo. Calling the strikezone as it was intended for the last 100+ years is certain to turn the game of baseball into an interminably long walk-fest.

          No way pitchers will adjust, but continue targeting those three inches into oblivion.

      • Lived in Tampa for 2 years, so Ive watched my fair share of AL ball.

        Add the DH, take away that lower half of the strike zone, runs will go up.

    • more walks would slow down the game even more, that’s for sure.

    • My exact thoughts when reading the DH coming to the NL article.

  • No DH was the best item I read. The strike change will not work because with the technology currently available the human behind the plate has their own imaginary boundaries. We see this now where in the past we did not have the advanced graphics. They can change and the pitcher will adapt.

  • If MLB wants more runs per game, they should bring back the juice — i.e., the juiced baseball.

    Competent umpiring would also help.

  • First there is serious talk about a DH in the NL and now tinkering with the strike zone? I do not see the need to try to fix something that is not broken. The game is more popular today than it ever has been, and how much of this is simply having a new commissioner.

    • More popular than it ever has been?

      How old are you?!

      • I have fond memories of marching around Forbes Field as a Little Leaguer on Saturday Knothole games, buying peanuts from the vendor right outside of the LF bleachers, etc. Yes, that is old, and I remember standing across the street from the Sarah Heinz House in the Northside when Bill Mazeroski made everybody happy in 1960.

        • Which is what surprises me!

          Not sure how you’re grading “popularity”, but baseball used to be an institution in America. I wish those days were still around.

          • I agree, but then again there was a time when baseball was the only sport. Then in the 60’s the NFL started to challenge baseball, the NBA got a lot stronger, the NCAA sports programs got stronger, hockey became more popular in the US, as did Soccer, etc. TV was the reason. How many can remember being able to drive over to Pitt Stadium and just walk into a Steeler Game and the stands were half empty?

            Baseball took some beatings, but fought back to be even stronger than they were prior to the 60’s, and the popularity continues to grow each year especially with the big TV Contracts being negotiated. I am a purist and I would hate to see the game changed.

  • Why is this change necessary? Is it a proxy for another problem, e.g., umpires’ competence. that mlb doesn’t want to deal with? Is it just the kind of relentless tinkering that has afflicted the NFL?

    • Umpires are evaluated on every pitch following each game – and the data that Fangraphs has looked at suggests that errors happen – but tend to even out – as many strikes are called balls as balls are called strikes AND that the error rates have dropped each year. The technology exists to go to electronic ball and strike calling anytime MLB would like to do so.

  • I think scaling the effect on the Pirates’ pitchers in terms of the current run environment is overblowing potential issues. Pitching low in the zone is a pretty common pitching philosophy, whether or not guys are good at it, and if offense is up across the league, the Pirates will suffer only a fraction of that one win reduction in net value.

    Of interest specifically with Liriano, though, is the fact that no pitcher relies less on called strikes than he does. His unique skill to induce whiffs out of the zone is the primary component of his success. He already throws very few pitches in the strike zone, he’s just great at getting chases. So this rule change may actually end up having very little impact on Liriano.

    • And to further your point, Liriano will adjust to find where the bottom of the strike zone is on that particular night, and pitch accordingly.

      I don’t see this rule change, if it happens, to have much of an impact at all. Now if they start calling the letter high strike again, that will have a huge impact, but not in favor of more offense.

    • You don’t think it’s a huge advantage to the hitter, knowing he no longer has to chase the slider down in the zone? Liriano sucks when he leaves the ball up. And this would require him to do more so.

      • No pitcher in baseball induces more swings at pitches out of the zone than Francisco Liriano.

        I *promise* you hitters will not be standing up there saying to themselves “Oh wait the zone just moved 0.25 Feet I’m gonna lay off that slider in the dirt”.

        • Not even going to argue this. Take away the lower half, offense will soar.

          • We’re gonna have to have a very basic discussion of arithmetic and measurements if you call this talking away “the lower half” of the strike zone.

            • And your talking out of both sides of your mouth.

              For 8 years, I’ve read columns, articles and comment sections filled with “lauding” over the Pirates 2 seam FB, down and in approach.

              And now, the commissioner is considering eliminating the lower half of the strike zone, where almost 95% of the Pirates homegrown and reclamation projects have lived. And you don’t think it’s a big deal?

              And to boot, you have constantly bitched about how the strike zone seems to change from umpire to umpire. Which means it could extreme in some cases, to your non factor version.

              • “The guy to worry about is Jon Niese.”

                Do I really have to explain that all pitchers aren’t created equal?

              • He’s really not eliminating the entire lower half though, thats a big distinction to not come to agreement on when discussing this.

                Bottom and lower half are different and key here.

      • They already don’t have to swing at the low slider, but they can’t help it. That’s the point. Moving the strike zone won’t change how good that pitch is.

        And the changeup is even better.

        • You and NMR are ignoring what the table says.

          Highest Pitch % and “Called” Strike % in Target Area

          • And you’re ignoring the actual impact of doing such a thing.

          • He throws fewer pitches in “called strike” regions than virtually anyone else in the game. What I’m getting at is that Liriano’s game relies more on swinging strikes than called strikes, which definitely mitigates the adverse affect on him. Remember, rate only matters when scaled by number of events. Liriano’s number of events are relatively small, that’s why this may not affect him as much as the rate indicates.

    • Absolutely correct on Liriano. Silly to think a change this minor would greatly impact a guy with his kind of stuff.

      The guy to worry about is Jon Niese.

      • Not just Jon Niese but any pitcher who relies on contact at the bottom of the zone. Hughes is the guy who most jumps to mind for me, or Charlie Morton if he was still around. Those are guys who need the absolute bottom of the zone.

      • * his kind of stuff*.

        As long as he can keep the fastball at 93-95. As he ages?

        And Drekers absolutely right, those teams did lay off the slider more in his second year.

    • A story came out last year after his 11 strikeout game against Washington in July, basically explaining how he does so well without throwing strikes. That story got passed around fairly well and it was on MLB Network too. After that game, he had a 4.23 ERA(2.91 before), his BAA went from .190 prior, to .278 the rest of the way. His walks went up and strikeouts went down. Batters may have already made an adjustment to him.

      • That 2.80 FIP in September sure doesn’t scream “batter adjustment” to me.

        • So batters getting on base more by both hits and walks while striking out less often doesn’t mean they did better because his FIP was good? How about the fact he went at least six innings in 16 of his 19 starts before the article and six of his 12 starts after?

      • If some sports writer noticed what Liriano was doing, then Major League scouts and data crunchers had as well, which means the game plan would have already existed for Major League hitters. That ERA jump screams coincidence to me, not adjustment brought on by a sudden epiphany about how Liriano pitches.

        Pitchers have good stretches and bad stretches just like hitters. Liriano had a bad stretch. But if hitters were going to figure him out, it would have already happened.

        • It could have been something else as well, just pointing it out because I noted it at the time. It was more than just ERA though. I thought the bigger deal was players getting on base much more often by hits and also the added walks. He was not the same pitcher before and after that game. May have been him, may have been the batters adjusting.

          • This is interesting idea for a January day. However I’m inclined to think there isn’t much too this, Liriano isn’t what one would consider consistent.

            Using that 11 strike out game as a cut point, there isn’t really any change in the plate discipline numbers, same swing rate, same chase rate, a little lower 1st pitch strike rate, and whiff rate, but nothing drastic.

            Looking at individual pitches after the 11 K game, he was only locating his sinker in the zone 30.9% of the time, for the 120 innings before it was 36.0%. I consider that a big relative drop, for which I think Liriano is to blame, not how teams are attacking him.

            The elephant is BABIP, in those first 120 innings is was .251, in the last 66 innings .356. Neither of these numbers represent his true talent level.

        • Exactly. Liriano has had that reputation of not throwing much in the zone since he came up with the Twins.

      • So now the quality of sports writing is a major weapon in MLB? How about you PP writers start dissecting the Cubs lineup and posting the articles around?

    • I read that FG article on Liriano’s swing and miss %too…have to say I wasn’t even surprised. When his slider and fastball are on he gets everyone chasing.