Craig Calcaterra

Blogger at NBC Sport.com's HardballTalk. Recovering litigator. Rake. Scoundrel. Notorious Man-About-Town.

Changes to strike zone, intentional walks could be implemented for 2017

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Over the weekend Jayson Stark of ESPN reported that Major League Baseball’s Competition Committee approved two significant rules changes that could go into effect next year: an altered strike zone and the elimination of the need for a pitcher to actually throw the four pitches now required for an intentional walk.

The strike zone change would be to raise the lower part of the zone to the top of the hitter’s knees. Right now the rule specifies that it extends down to “the hollow beneath the kneecap.” In recent years the zone has, practically speaking, extended even below that, with umpires calling very, very low pitches balls, much to the chagrin of hitters.

The change in the intentional-walk rule would end the practice of requiring the pitcher to actually throw four balls outside the strike zone. Instead, a team could simply tell the ump it wants to issue an intentional walk, and the hitter would be be awarded first base.

The zone change is aimed at reducing the number of strikeouts and putting more offense in games. In the past, however, changes to the zone have led to unexpected results. Small alterations in the 1960s led to first a dramatic increase and then a dramatic decrease in offense. The institution of Pitch f/x review of umpire calls all but eliminated the outside strike many pitchers thrived on in the 80s and 90s and led to great advantages for pitchers who could throw with higher velocity down in the zone. This change may have the theoretic aim at getting the ball up and giving pitchers something to hit, but given how pitchers don’t want to work up, it may simply trade strikeouts for walks, at least in the short term, as pitchers stubbornly but understandably continue to put pitches in places where batters cannot do as much damage, which is down low.

As for the intentional walks: eh, not too big a deal. It’s aimed at speeding up the pace of play, but there aren’t that many free passes given so the time savings will be negligible. Occasionally someone, quite hilariously, throws a wild pitch on an IBB and that will, sadly, be eliminated. So to will the ritual booing of the home crowd when a home batter is intentionally walked. Part of me likes that, in many instances, there is some shame and mild cowardice involved in intentionally walking a batter and it’ll be sad that that element of it is gone, even if it’s not a big deal. I suspect we’ll get used to the new walk rule fairly quickly.

As for implementation, the two changes can’t go into effect unless they are approved by baseball’s playing rules committee, which would meet later in the year. The plan is also being presented to the Player’s Union, but the union does not need to sign off on the changes for them to go into effect next season. Such presentation is something of a courtesy, however, and if the changes are incorporated into the upcoming collective bargaining agreement, they can last beyond next year without further review from the competition committee.

I think the strike zone change is worthy, but I don’t think there are any guarantees it’ll have its intended effect. The walk rule seems sort of pointless but basically harmless. Regardless of how you feel about it, these sort of incremental changes have been a constant feature of baseball over the years, even if we like to pretend that the game is the same as it always has been.

 

David Ortiz is not sticking to the script

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Last November David Ortiz announced that he was going to retire following the 2016 season. This year Ortiz is playing better than he ever has. Indeed, he’s on a pace for what may be perhaps his best season as a major leaguer. At age 40, his 20th year in the bigs. Clearly that has to have him reconsidering his decision, right?

Well, no. He has given no indication whatsoever that he plans to reconsider his decision to retire. Just five days ago he today Yahoo’s Jeff Passan, in the clearest possible of terms, that he still plans to retire. He placed the odds at 100%. He has said much the same thing to everyone who has asked him that question and they have asked him an awful lot. Despite this — especially after days like he had yesterday, falling a triple short of the cycle and powering the Red Sox to victory — columns are written and TV and radio spots are recorded saying that Ortiz should not retire because he is still performing at the highest possible level. Go Google “Ortiz reconsider retirement” and your browser will blow up.

This is all understandable. Athletes rarely if ever go out on top or on their own terms. They usually have to be forced out, gently or otherwise, when their skills diminish, and when an athlete whose skills have not apparently diminished says he’s leaving it really doesn’t compute. Less objectively, fans (and reporters, when they’re being honest) love to watch great athletes play and are sad when they leave. David Ortiz has meant a lot to Boston for many, many years and saying goodbye would be hard enough under normal circumstances. When you have the abnormal circumstance of such a figure continuing to excel yet still calling it quits, it creates something close to an emotional crisis in the fan base and the sporting press.

There is one set of expectations and desires missing from all of this chatter, however: David Ortiz’s expectations and desires. Indeed, they’re being pretty clearly ignored in all of this.

When Ortiz announced his retirement, it wasn’t because he was unable to perform at a high level anymore. Indeed, he had just come off a season in which he hit 37 home runs, drove in over 100 and posted an OPS+ of 140, which is the exact same OPS+ he has for his entire career. In the video he released announcing his retirement last November he was pretty clear that performance wasn’t the reason, in fact. He said he just wanted to do other things with his life. “Life is based on different chapters,” he said, “and I think I’m ready to experience the next one in my life.”

In light of that, Ortiz’s excellent performance this year provides no logical basis whatsoever for questions about him reconsidering. Him hanging it up was about the grind and his health which he told Passan five days ago is still a huge issue for him. Him hanging it up was about desires to do new things beyond baseball. In light of that, when a reporter asks him if his eye-popping stat line is changing his mind about retirement, the reporter is necessarily admitting that he either did not listen to Ortiz’s reasons for retiring or he did not believe him when he said what his reasons were.

I appreciate that Ortiz’s desire to leave because he doesn’t want to play anymore is a bit different than other athletes’ leaving because they simply can’t play anymore. I appreciate that many players, especially great ones like Michael Jordan and Brett Favre have reversed themselves following retirement many times and that, maybe, someone like a David Ortiz may too. Minds change sometimes. David Ortiz’s mind may change too. It’s only May.

But when I read all of this speculation and wishing about David Ortiz I can’t help but see it as fans and the media, once again, refusing to see athletes as human beings with agency. I can’t help but see it as just the latest instance of them believing that athletes owe them far more than entertainment but, rather, something of themselves beyond that. That David Ortiz’s decision and his desires are secondary because we want even more from him than the 20 years he has given us. That we think of athletes as mere characters in a drama for our own amusement and fulfillment and that we write scripts for them — sometimes literally — to follow. When they don’t stick to that script, we kind of freak out and demand to know why they aren’t doing exactly what we expect of them.

Maybe David Ortiz well go back on-script, as it were. Maybe he’ll reconsider his decision and decide to give more to us. But if he does, it’ll be his decision and, in reality, it will be because he sees something more in it for himself, not because we’re owed anything more. Also, like his retirement announcement, he’ll probably tell us if he makes such a decision so maybe we don’t have to pester him about it constantly.

Until then, maybe we should allow him to enjoy what is currently still his swan song. And maybe we can begin to try to accept that it is his swan song ourselves. If we do, maybe we’ll get to enjoy something rare and unusual: the sight of an athlete going out, unambiguously, on top.

And That Happened: Sunday’s scores and highlights

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Here are the scores. Here are the highlights:

Red Sox 5, Indians 2: Jackie Bradley Jr.’s hitting streak reaches 27 games. Normally a streak of that length would be the most astounding thing happening on a team but the Sox also have a dude on a retirement tour with a 1.092 OPS who is on pace for 41 homers and 136 RBI. David Ortiz went 4-for-4 with a solo homer and an RBI double, knocking in three in all and finishing a triple short of the cycle. He averages one triple a year, presumably in instances when outfielders are Raptured before reaching the ball, and he already has a triple this season so that probably would’ve been too much to expect.

Mets 3, Brewers 1: Does anyone know where the love of God goes when Noah Syndergaard turns the minutes to hours?Milwaukee they say had a really bad day as Thor put eleven strikeouts behind him.

I dunno where that came from. I’m on something of a sleep deficit right now. Sorry.

Blue Jays 3, Twins 1: Jose Bautista and Josh Donaldson each homered. John Gibbons was ejected after a couple of inside pitches to Donaldson which seemed a lot like lame “how dare you hit a home run off of me” retaliation pitches from Phil Hughes. Gibbons thought Hughes should’ve been given a warning. Joe West disagreed, which means that he DEFINITELY should’ve been given a warning on the “Everything Joe West Does on a Baseball Field is Bullcrap” theory. Anyway, the whole thing was rather adorable given how many home runs Hughes gives up. If he retaliated after every dinger he’d be a full-time retaliator, part-time pitcher. You just wanna pat him on the head or give him a reassuring hug.

Tigers 9, Rays 4: A win — the Tigers’ sixth in seven games, even — but a costly one as Jordan Zimmermann had to leave the game in the sixth inning with a strained groin and Miguel Cabrera left in the seventh with a bruised knee. Cabrera, who hit a homer before being hit on the knee with a pitch, is not expected to miss much time. Heck, he is notorious for playing through some fairly serious injuries so a bruise shouldn’t be too big  a deal. Zimmermann, however, will undergo an MRI today and could miss significant time, which is not great given that he has been Detroit’s best starter all year.

Mariners 5, Reds 4: Leonys Martin had four hits and Robinson Cano drove in two as Seattle sweeps Cincy, handing the Redlegs their seventh straight loss.

Nationals 8, Marlins 2: Max Scherzer was excellent again, only this time he wasn’t 20-strikeout dominant. Of course you can’t really keep that up for long, can you? Scherzer went eight innings allowing two runs and struck out eight. Washington and Miami feel like they’ve played 50 games against each other this year.

Phillies 5, Braves 0: Jerad Eickhoff pitched seven innings of shutout ball and knocked in a run on a fielder’s choice as the Phillies avoid a sweep against the Braves. They now go on the road to face the Tigers, Nats and Cubs, so I guess we’ll see if this early season roll continues once the grass gets taller.

White Sox 3, Royals 2Todd Frazier hit his 13th home run and Melky Cabrera drove in two as the Chisox avoid a sweep. Carlos Rodon scattered eight hits and allowed two runs over six and two-thirds.

Rangers 9, Astros 2: Cole Hamels allowed one earned run and struck out 11 over eight innings. Dallas Keuchel continued his atrocious 2016, allowing seven runs on nine hits in six innings. The reigning Cy Young Award Winner is now 2-6 with a 5.92 ERA. The Rangers have won six in row over Houston and 14 of the last 16. This is turning into rivalry in name only. It’s Ohio State-Michigan stuff. Like, recent Ohio-State Michigan stuff. Back when I went to Ohio State it was reversed. I guess rivalries have a way of working themselves out eventually, but right now the Astros are on Rich Rodriguez-Brady Hoke-John Cooper level.

Diamondbacks 7, Cardinals 2: Zack Greinke allowed one run over eight as the Snakes take two of three from the Cardinals and four of six overall. Paul Goldschmidt drove in two. Michael Bourn got three hits.

Angels 10, Orioles 2: Jered Weaver took a shutout into the seventh without ever topping 85 m.p.h. on the gun. In other news, citizens across the world brace for severe shortages of smoke and mirrors, as they have all been hoarded by unknown west coast interests. Carlos Perez homered and drove in five.

Yankees 5, Athletics 4: The Yankees have win five in a row. Michael Pineda allowed three runs over six which, while not spectacular in most instances, was pretty good for him lately.

Dodgers 9, Padres 5: Seventeen innings and nearly six hours of baseball here. This a day after an 11-inning affair on Saturday night. Yasiel Puig singled in two runs to break things open in the top of the seventeenth. Which he needed to do badly given that he had a massive brain fart in the ninth inning, failing to move up on a bunt for no apparent reason whatsoever other than absent-mindedness. Somehow no position players pitched in this one, but starter Ross Stripling, who is scheduled to start Tuesday night against Cincinnati, did. He pitched three innings of relief for the win. Even Clayton Kershaw played, though he didn’t pitch. He just pinch-hit.

Giants 1, Cubs 0: Live, From San Francisco, It’s the Madison Bumgarner Show! Starring . . . Madison Bumgarner! Brought to you by Seven And Two-Thirds Innings Of Shutout Ball. An RBI Double By Bumgarner in the Fifth Inning Production! And now, heeeeeeeeeeeeeeeere’s MADISON!

Rockies vs. PiratesPOSTPONED: Talkin’ to myself and feelin’ old
Sometimes I’d like to quit
Nothin’ ever seems to fit
Hangin’ around
Nothin’ to do but frown
Rainy days and Mondays always get me down