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In baseball, balls and strikes still are in eye of the beholder

The strike zone has evolved over the years, but MLB has been working to make it uniform, improve umpire accuracy and reduce 'star treatment.' Still, even electronic tracking can't eliminate controversy.

October 08, 2011|By Mike DiGiovanna
  • Toronto catcher Jose Molina argues a called third strike with home plate umpire Marvin Hudson during a game against the Angels this summer.
Toronto catcher Jose Molina argues a called third strike with home plate… (Claus Andersen / Getty Images )

Baseball has made considerable strides from those seemingly lawless days of the 1990s, when the size and shape of the strike zone sometimes shifted with the reputation of the pitcher or hitter.

"There's no doubt umpires are doing a better job today," said Gary DiSarcina, the former Angels shortstop who now works in the team's front office. "When I came up [in the early 1990s] some umps played the name game; superstars got a lot of leeway.

"If Dennis Eckersley was on the mound, a fastball four or five inches off the plate was a strike. If Cal Ripken Jr. didn't swing at a pitch, it was a ball. If Gary DiSarcina drew a walk, Halley's Comet flew overhead that night."

Old perceptions die hard. Despite a push since 2000 for a more uniform and consistent strike zone, an effort fueled, in part, by the electronic tracking of pitches and umpires' calls, some think favoritism still exists.

St. Louis Manager Tony LaRussa accused umpire Jerry Meals during an in-game television interview of having "two different strike zones," one for Cardinals pitchers, one for Philadelphia starter Cliff Lee, in Game 2 of the National League division series last Sunday.

LaRussa was fined and acknowledged his comments "crossed the line," but after his on-air criticism of Meals, his team overcame a 4-0 deficit and won, 5-4.

"I think Tony was just sticking up for his players," Angels pitcher Dan Haren said in an email. "They were probably complaining, and Tony let the people know.

"Pitchers with the ability to nibble at the corners get the most calls because they're constantly around the zone. Cliff Lee may have the best command in the game, so when he gets a pitch two inches off the plate, the next one will be three or four inches off."

It is precisely that pitch — several inches off the plate, often called a strike — that baseball has been trying to reel in for the last decade or so.

No one is sure how or why, but when baseball lowered the upper boundary of the strike zone from the top of the shoulders to the armpits in 1969, and then to the midpoint between the top of the shoulders and the top of the uniform pants in 1988, the zone morphed from a vertical rectangle to something closer to square.

The shift was even more pronounced in the National League, which evolved into a low-strike-zone league that favored pitchers. The American League became more of a high-strike-zone league that favored hitters, though the height difference was negligible.

One effect: The chest-high fastballs Bob Gibson and Don Drysdale used to blow by hitters for strikes and the two-hour complete game went the way of flannel uniforms.

"When I came in, that ball above the waist was a ball," said Angels Manager Mike Scioscia, a Dodgers catcher from 1980-1992. "The pitch on the inside corner was a ball.

"It had to be totally on the plate to get a pitch inside called a strike. And if it was outside, you probably got three or four inches outside the strike zone."

Control pitchers made a living on the fringes, and former Atlanta stars Greg Maddux and Tom Glavine built Hall of Fame-worthy careers with pinpoint control of that zone.

Neither Maddux, who went 355-227 with a 3.16 earned-run average in 23 seasons, nor Glavine, who went 305-203 with a 3.54 ERA in 22 seasons, were overpowering. But both consistently threw strikes on the outside corner. When umpires gave them calls a few inches off the plate, they'd stretch the zone even more with pitches often called strikes that were virtually impossible to hit hard.

"We always heard in Atlanta how we got strikes called and other teams didn't," Maddux said by phone from his home in Las Vegas. "But if you go back and watch the tapes, the ball two or three inches off the plate that was a strike was being called both ways.

"The difference was our guys threw seven or eight a game out there, and they threw two or three. I charted Glavine off TV all the time. If he was getting the ball off the plate, so was the other guy. You could say we got more pitches, but we made more pitches."

That didn't change the perception that those superb Braves staffs, which included John Smoltz, got the benefit of the doubt.

"The strike zone has never been as high as it is technically written in the rule book, and it's always been a little wider," said Jim Evans, who retired in 2000 after 28 years as a major league umpire and now runs an umpire training academy in Kissimmee, Fla.

"A few years ago, guys got so careless with the outside pitch it created a controversy."

The flash point may have come in 1997, when umpire Eric Gregg stretched the zone beyond its outer limits in Game 5 of the NL Championship Series between Atlanta and Florida.

Marlins pitcher Livan Hernandez, a rookie who had not struck out more than eight in a game that season, took advantage of Gregg's largesse, throwing a three-hitter with 15 strikeouts.

His final pitch, a called strike to Fred McGriff in a 2-1 Florida victory, was about a foot outside.

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