More critics step to plate, but umps deny any reshaping The INCREDIBLE SHRINKING STRIKE ZONE?

June 24, 1994|By Peter Schmuck | Peter Schmuck,Sun Staff Writer

The world is full of gray areas. That fuzzy line between right and wrong. That gap on the speedometer between 55 mph and the speed that gets you pulled over on I-95. Cleveland before they built Jacobs Field.

The baseball world is full of them, too, and none has created more controversy than that theoretical box known as the strike zone.

It is too big. It is too small. It is getting too narrow. It is far too wide. It is always changing. It hasn't changed in years. It depends entirely on who's doing the talking.

One thing is certain. The amount of talk about the strike zone has increased dramatically this year, as the fans and the media search for the most logical explanation for the startling upturn in offensive production.

Is the strike zone getting smaller, or are the hitters just getting bigger? Inquiring minds want to know.

"I think everybody's just looking for the answer to all the home runs," said the Detroit Tigers' Mickey Tettleton, "but I've seen balls called strikes that shouldn't be and some called balls that should have been strikes."

The umpires say they are making no concerted effort to change the dimensions of the strike zone. The notion that there is some conspiracy to increase offensive production to benefit the new television contract was shot down during the "juiced ball" debate and has not resurfaced. The umpires say they are going about their jobs the same way they have for years, and have not been instructed to do otherwise.

"There has been no conscious effort to change the strike zone in the last three or four years," said veteran AL umpire Jim Evans. "Three years ago, we experimented with calling the high strike in spring training, but nobody wanted it. That pitch is considered a mistake. What the pitchers want is a wider plate."

The hitters say the pitchers are getting that, so there certainly is no consensus on the supposedly shrinking strike zone. Umpires do appear to call a lot of strikes that are off the outside corner, though Evans says that is a perception that is exaggerated by the angle of the center-field camera and complicated by the popular notion that the entire ball has to be inside the imaginary plane that projects upward from the outer edge of the plate.

"The ball doesn't have to be entirely on the plate, and the camera is 40 to 50 feet off center," Evans said. "If it was perfectly centered, you'd be blocked out. You wouldn't be able to see the catcher because it would be right behind the pitcher."

The umpires also say that the center-field camera gives a distorted view of the height of some pitches, which adds to the impression that they do not call anything above the belt a strike.

"You watch on TV, and everything looks waist high and below," Evans said. "That's camera angle."

If the strike zone has evolved in the past few years, it may be a matter of shape rather than size. Some umpires -- perhaps in response to pressure to speed up play -- do appear to be trading the higher strike for a slightly wider plate. Instead of a vertical rectangle, the zone seems to have become more of a square.

"It's definitely getting smaller," said California Angels left-hander Chuck Finley. "They talk about the juiced ball. It [the ball] might be a little harder, but the inside part of the plate has been taken away. That makes you approach the game a little differently."

"It's getting larger," said Angels hitting coach Rod Carew. "You look at some of those overhead camera shots and see balls six dTC inches outside getting called for strikes."

There is the debate in a nutshell. Competing interests tend to view an issue from different angles, just as broadcasters are employing a slightly skewed view from that center-field camera.

"I can't say it's bigger and I can't say it's smaller," said Angels designated hitter Chili Davis, a voice of reason in this polarized debate. "I think it's just inconsistent. I don't think an argument about the size of the strike zone is going to stand up if you've got hitters and pitchers both complaining."

Theory of evolution

Though no one will admit to a concerted effort to change the strike zone in the past few years, no one denies that it has evolved throughout the history of baseball. There was a time early in the 20th century when anything under the chin was considered a strike, but the top end of the strike zone now is about four or five inches above the belt.

The last time it clearly changed was when American League umpires abandoned "balloon" chest protectors in 1985. Before the chest protector was standardized, the American League generally was considered a high-ball league and the National League was considered a low-ball league.

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