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.