Defining the Strike Zone
From the beginning of the game, the rules makers have been trying to define the strike zone. There are many people that have their own opinion about the strike zone and that appears to be the problem. Too many people, umpires included, have been trying to call the strike zone as they think it should be called and it really has always been intended to be called as it is written. So, I am prefacing this entire article with this statement,
"CALL THE PITCHES AS THE RULE IS WRITTEN"
This is the only way we can become consistent as an umpiring fraternity. It is the players and coaches responsibility to play within the rules but they will at least try to bend them. Many of them will try to break them. It is our responsibility to umpire the rule. So, to become consistent, all of us must buy into the premise that we are going to enforce the rule. Especially, we must enforce the strike zone rule.
Now, let’s look at what the strike zone is written like today and how it has been written at other times in the history of the game. First, the strike zone is defined today in the year 2008 as follows:
Professional Baseball & American Legion: “OBR 2.00 – Strike Zone is the area over home plate, the upper limit of which is a horizontal line at the midpoint between the top of the shoulders and the top of the uniform pants, and the lower level is a line at the hollow beneath the knee cap. The Strike Zone shall be determined from the batter’s stance as the batter is prepared to swing at a pitched ball.”
NCAA & NAIA: “NCAA Rule 2 – Strike Zone – The area over home plate from the bottom of the kneecaps to the midpoint between the top of the shoulders and the top of the uniform pants. The strike zone shall be determined from the batter’s stance as the batter is prepared to swing at a pitched ball.”
High School Baseball: “Federation 2-35 – The strike zone is that space over home plate, the top of which is halfway between the batters shoulders and the waistline, and the bottom being the knees when he assumes his natural batting stance. The height of the strike zone is determined by the batter’s normal batting stance. If he crouches or leans over to make the shoulder line lower, the umpire determines height by what would be the batter’s normal stance.”
All umpires should be calling it as it is written. Basically all 3 codes of baseball are identical in practicality if not almost word for word. The only real difference appears to be in the Federation where the normal stance determines the strike zone and not as the batter is prepared to swing at a pitched ball as in OBR and NCAA. SO, CALL IT AS IT IS WRITTEN
Why is the strike zone as it is today? To answer that question accurately we need to look back on its past. So, here goes my attempt to do so. In baseball’s beginning, there appears to be no mention of a strike zone prior to 1858. A “called strike” was proposed by Daniel “Doc” Adams at the First baseball Convention in 1858. We still have it in existence today. There really was no written strike zone in the rules but it was generally accepted that the strike zone was 12 inches above the ground to the batter’s shoulders and within fair reach of the Batsman’s bat. In 1871, the batter was able to ask for the pitcher to deliver the ball in one of three areas. A “low ball” could be asked for and that would have to pass between the knee and the waist. A “high ball” could be asked for and that would have to pass between the shoulders and the waist. A “fair ball” could be asked for and that would have to pass between the knees and the shoulders. In the next few years only the definition of the “low ball” was changed to 1 foot from the ground instead of the knees. After the 1886, the strike zone had nothing to do with the batter’s request. It was simply over the plate between the batter’s knees and shoulders. The batter could no longer call for a “high” or “low” ball. In 1879, all pitched balls must be called strikes, balls or foul. The number of strikes was finally set at 3 but moved to 4 in 1887 for one year and moved back to 3 in 1888 and remains there today. Nine balls were necessary for a walk in 1879. This became 7 in 1881, 6 in 1884, 5 in 1886, and in 1889 it became 4 and it remains there today. In 1894 a strike was to be called when the batter makes a foul hit, other than a foul tip, while attempting to bunt that is hit and falls or rolls upon foul ground between home base and first or third bases. In 1899, a foul tip by the batter, caught by the catcher while standing within the lines of his position is a strike. In 1901 a foul hit ball that is not caught on the fly is a strike unless 2 strikes have already been called. The National League adopted it in 1901 and the American League added it in 1903.
In 1907 the strike zone was defined as follows: “A fairly delivered ball is a ball pitched or thrown to the bat by the pitcher while standing in his position facing the batsman that passes over any portion of the home base, before touching the ground, not lower than the batsman’s knee, nor higher than his shoulder. For every such fairly delivered ball, the umpire shall call one strike.” If you would reword this statement so that it would be negative in all regards, the pitch would be called a ball.
In 1950, the strike zone was changed as follows: “The Strike Zone is that space over home plate, which is between the batter’s armpits and the top of his knees when he assumes his natural stance.”
In 1957, the definition of a strike was placed in the rulebook and it became to be understood as follows: A strike is a legal pitch when so called by the umpire which:a) is struck at by the batter and missed;b) enters the Strike Zone in flight and is not struck at;c) is fouled by the batter when he has less than 2 strikes at it;d) is bunted foul;e) touches the batter as he strikes at it;f)touches the batter in flight in the Strike Zone; org) becomes a foul tip. Note:f)was added to the former rule and definition.
In 1963, the Strike Zone was changed somewhat again by bringing the upper level up to the top of the shoulders again and the bottom was just his knees. This lasted until 1969 because the owners saw that the game was not having as much offense as it once had and they felt they needed to have more offense to get fans to come to the games. By the way, Bob Gibson had an ERA of 1.02 in 1968 and looked almost unhittable with the strike zone that was in place during this part of his career. I think this had a lot to do with making the change again.
In 1969, the Strike Zone reverted back to the armpits and to the top of the knees and probably for the reason I sighted above.
Because there appeared to be a number of umpires adhering to there own idea of what the strike zone should be the rules makers again changed the strike zone to close to what we have today.
In 1988, the new Strike Zone became “that area over home plate the upper limit of which is a horizontal line at the midpoint between the top of the shoulders and the top of the uniform pants, and the lower level is a line at the top of the knees. The Strike Zone shall be determined from the batter’s stance as the batter is prepared to swing at a pitched ball. I
n 1996, the Strike Zone was expanded on the lower end, moving the top of the knees to the bottom of the knees. Or, to be more precise, the hollow beneath the kneecap is the bottom of the strike zone. Remember, that is the OBR definition precisely but in essence it is true for NCAA and High School games too.
Along about that time, the new technique in many stadiums allowed each game to be digitally placed on a DVD and each umpire was somewhat judged by how the Questec machine rated the umpire. This technique has allowed us to become more critical in our understanding of the Strike Zone of each umpire and is supposed to be a learning tool for the Major League Umpires for improvement. Only time will tell in this regard.
As far as amateur umpires go, let’s read the rule and try to understand that our role is to umpire that rule and not make up a new strike zone based on our idea of what should be called. Use the rule and try to get as consistent with it as you can. Yes, call a large strike zone if you can but be consistent and don’t stray from what the rule states. Look for strikes and have the pitch itself prove that it is not a strike.
From several Internet Sources but written mostly by Larry Gallagher, Baseball AlmanacSpitters, Beanballs and The Incredible Shrinking Strike Zone by Glenn Waggoner, Kathleen Maloney & Hugh Howard