Baseball's strike zone is the hotly contested center of the game

The rules define it clearly, but working – and understanding – baseball's strike zone is a delightfully inexact science

  • Oriole manager Earl Weaver had a difference of opinion with home plate umpire Ken Kaiser early in the second game of a double header. Weaver was irate at ball and strike calls by the umpire, who took exception to the manager's questioning.
Oriole manager Earl Weaver had a difference of opinion with… (William Hotz, Baltimore…)
September 08, 2012|By Jonathan Pitts, The Baltimore Sun

The heater rides in at 91 miles an hour, belt-high and straight, giving Orioles hitter Matt Wieters a good view of what looks like a strike in the making. As it reaches the plate, it dives toward the ground.

No mortal can say for sure whether the fastball from Angels pitcher Jered Weaver would have grazed the imaginary border of the strike zone, located at Wieters' knees. But umpire Kerwin Danley has called "strike" on two previous close pitches. Wieters swings, awkwardly. His slow roller ends the inning.

It's a single at-bat, one of 98 in a midseason game between contenders. The box score will say Wieters left a runner on base. But his failure is a collective event, a three-way collision between pitcher, umpire and batter, all played out in what is supposed to be a clearly defined area above home plate.

Welcome to the strike zone, 4.5 cubic feet at the heart of a game. Pitchers throw toward it, hitters defend it, catchers frame it, managers keep an eye on it, umpires adjudicate it and fans are convinced they can see it clearly from the upper deck.

The zone is invisible and imaginary, and its boundaries ebb and flow. Major League Baseball has installed sophisticated technology to try to manage the strike zone, but every game still relies on split-second, inexact judgments about balls and strikes. And as the Orioles wage their fight for a championship, this is the battleground.

"The K-zone has boundaries, but they change so much from one night to the next it's a hard thing to define," says Orioles shortstop J.J. Hardy. "It's kind of a mystery, to be honest with you. It's just one of those things about our game."

Wieters' groundout ended the first with a man on. The Angels would go on to score eight runs over the next two innings on their way to a rout. Did the at-bat matter at all?

Pitching coach Rick Adair says you can't rule it out.

"Win in the strike zone," he says, "and good things do tend to happen."

Is it or isn't it?

"[In baseball], you can't sit on a lead, run a few plays into the line and just kill the clock," the great Orioles manager Earl Weaver once said. "You've got to throw the ball over the damn plate and give the other man his chance."

Everyone in the Hall of Famer's game, in other words, must make an accounting of himself, and the one place he can't evade his destiny is the strike zone.

Small wonder that the sport demarcates it so clearly.

The strike zone is a conceptual right pentagonal prism, or heptahedron, that hovers directly above the 216.75-square-inch rubber slab known as home plate. The 2012 Official Baseball Rules establish the zone's upper limit at "the midpoint between the top of the shoulders and the top of the uniform pants" (essentially the letters), its lower limit at "the hollow beneath the knee cap."

The strike zone has the same official width as the plate, 17 inches, though umpires are expected to add the width of a baseball, or about 2.5 inches, to each side. If any part of a pitched ball grazes any part of this volume, it's legally a strike.

Clear enough? The man who oversees big league umpires, Randy Marsh, thinks so. He has helped spearhead a technology-powered mission in the game to regularize the strike zone, and he's happy with the results.

"It's not the umpires that set the strike zone," says Marsh, a former big league ump in his own right. "It's the hitters. They do it when they take their stances. Otherwise, it's totally uniform."

Umpires are remarkably consistent these days, he says, about 96 percent accurate in 2012.

Just don't try to pitch that view to baseball's other stakeholders. They see the zone as a fuzzy enterprise.

"It's an imaginary box in the umpire's mind," says closer Jim Johnson, one of the Orioles' three All-Stars this year. "Some nights it's bigger; some nights it's smaller. You adjust. It's part of the game."

Hall of Fame pitcher Jim Palmer, now a MASN announcer, believes umpires are calling a wider strike zone this season and questions whether they're attaining the accuracy Marsh asserts.

"Not in most of the games I watch," Palmer says, adding that whenever he hears a pitcher has thrown a no-hitter, "the first thing I do is check to see who the umpire was."

Center fielder Adam Jones claims to pay no attention to the strike zone. Designated hitter Jim Thome, who has 610 career home runs, sees "only my own strike zone" when hitting, and adjusts if the umpire is calling wide strikes.

Hardy can't even tell you what the rule book says.

"Where's the official top? The belt?" he asks. "I don't know. That's where they call it, so that's where I play it, but it does change game to game."

The conversation spills into the stands, where fans hold a similar view. Lee Elrick, an Orioles season ticket holder who sat behind the plate at a recent home game, was quick to mention the "small strike zone" umpire Scott Barry was calling.

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