The Rundown: MLB Proposes Changes to Strike Zone, Cubs Check on Seth Maness, Starlin Castro on Trade Block

The strike zone is one of baseball’s most enduring and endearing anachronisms, a throwback to bygone days that has remained untouched by the prying eyes of hi-def video cameras. That doesn’t mean the zone, or its interpretation by decidedly fallible practitioners of the umpirical arts, is beyond either reproach or refinement. Quite the contrary, as we’ve seen what constitutes balls and strikes altered by both edict and entropy.

We could dicker over the semantics of how and why the zone has changed over time, but the fact is that it has indeed changed. And not for the better, at least when it comes to offense. While the numbers are a little outdated at this point, it’s pretty obvious that the downward expansion of the zone has had a deleterious effect on run-scoring. That has not been lost on Commissioner Rob Manfred, who’s been vocal in the past about potential efforts to remedy the situation.

According to ESPN’s Jayson Stark, MLB has moved forward with a formal proposal to the players’ union that would move the bottom of the strike zone from “the hollow beneath the knee” to the top of a hitter’s knees. The league has also proposed the adoption of the beer-league softball free pass in lieu of requiring a pitcher to lob four intentional balls in order to put a man on first.

I can’t say I feel too strongly about the intentional walk stuff, since neither the time it shaves off nor the aberrant wild pitch it eliminates will appreciably change competition. And while it is pretty flippin’ fun when a batter swings at an intentional ball, I just can’t find it in my heart to mount a sufficiently rigorous defense of the practice. If it’s that you seek, check out Nick Stellini’s argument over at FanGraphs.

Now that I think about it, though, there could be an impact when it comes to bullpen management. Except, nah, I guess not. I wanted to chase down the idea that managers, reluctant to have a guy come in and throw balls right away, will hold a reliever until after the IBB. This change just means that a new pitcher comes into the game sooner in terms of the clock, but it shouldn’t really change actual usage.

The only thing I’ll say further about this matter is that changing the rule under the guise of improving pace of play is dumb as hell. You wanna speed up the game? Cut back on the length and frequency of commercial breaks. You’re welcome, commissioner, my invoice will be arriving soon. Moving on.

Raising the lower limit of the strike zone is something that will have immediate, tangible results. Both wOBA and run expectancy are significantly reduced on pitches that cross the plate at 21 inches or lower, so you can imagine how downward growth of the zone in that area (from nonexistent in 2009 to 47 square inches in 2014) has stifled offensive production over the last few years. It follows, then, that excising a bulk of that nether region would provide an immediate boost to run scoring.

This doesn’t change the reality that umps are still going to have their own ideas when it comes to what constitutes balls and strikes, and that those ideas will still change from batter to batter and even pitch to pitch. Though nothing short of robots can fundamentally correct/eliminate human error, changing the rules is a practical step toward reversing the creep that has been pulling the zone ever lower.

Now if only we could reverse the creep that is [insert your least favorite umpire’s name here].

The union is said to be feeling out players’ opinions on the changes, since MLBPA’s approval is required and would need to happen quickly in order to be integrated for 2017. Man, I’d love to be a fly on the wall for those talks, particularly the stuff about the zone. A trend toward higher low strikes is a really good deal for hitters, but it’s not so sweet for those pitchers who have taken up residence in the area just below the knees like so many unwanted squatters.

What do you think about the proposed changes? Is either necessary or worthwhile and will we see them this season?

Welcome to the Maness event

More on former Cardinal Seth Maness and the Cubs’ interest can be found in my post from yesterday, but here are some brief points:

  • He plans to be ready for opening day, only 7 1/2 months after UCL reconstruction
  • Opted for “primary repair” surgery over Tommy John (more in link above)
  • Ground ball specialist
  • Three years of club control

More notes

  • The Yankees made Starlin Castro available in trade talks but weren’t able to get an acceptable return. Despite a .270 average and a career-high 21 home runs, the flighty former Cub posted a paltry .300 OBP due to walking at a mere 3.9% rate. That’s actually a little higher than in 2015 (3.6%), but Castro also struck out at a career-worst 19.3% and was pretty atrocious with the glove (-8 DRS, tied for 68th among all 2B’s with at least 100 innings in 2016).
  • The Rays and Yankees both went after Sergio Romo, who ended up signing with the Dodgers after all.
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