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Expand the strike zone, not the playoffs

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How to steal back football’s market share without cheapening the regular season

The World Series started as an exhibition, like an All-Star game, and was voluntary in 1903. In fact there was no 1904 World Series simply because the legendary John McGraw was pissed at Ban Johnson, dictator for life of the new American League, who had just poached one hundred star players from the National League after those owners wouldn’t let him in their meetings. The event become compulsory in 1905, and got popular fairly quickly after that, especially with the Yankees winning so many titles starting in the 1920’s behind Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig.

But pennant races remained hard fought and interesting. There was 1951 between the Dodgers and Giants, ending in the “shot heard round the world,” hit by Bobby Thompson. How about 1967, when the Red Sox overcame the Tigers and Twins in the last two weeks of the season by virtue of perhaps the best half month of clutch hitting in history by Carl Yastrzemski, and keeping their “impossible dream,” alive? There was the Bucky Dent home run in 1978, the 1995 Mariners making their furious late season comeback on the Angels to arguably save baseball in Seattle, and the 2007 Rockies winning fourteen of their last fifteen games to steal a playoff spot from the Padres. Perhaps someone remembers the 2006 and 2009 seasons, one where the Twins led the division for zero days until the last one, and the other culminating in the best game 163 in history.

Of course, I am not advocating for a return to pre-1903 style baseball, or even pre-1969 baseball minus the League Championship Series. It is worth stating, however, that baseball was pretty exciting when the playoffs were merely the cherry on top of a long baseball season, and not something that rendered all regular season success irrelevant. Sure it sucked when a team would win 100 games and not even make the playoffs, but whether the year was 1926 or 1982, that team knew exactly who was ahead of them and if they came up short of the pennant, they had no one to blame but themselves.

Now, playoff heroes are pretty cool and it is without dispute that some of the best baseball moments since 1969 have been playoff series to decide the league pennant- think of the Phillies-Astros series in 1980, Astros-Mets in 1986, Braves-Pirates in 1992, and of course Red Sox-Yankees in 2004. And the World Series has cemented its necessity, giving us a classic as recently as 2019.

But do you remember any division series matchups that you cared about? There were some decent A’s Yankee battles in the early oughts, the Houston-Kansas City series was pretty good in 2015, and so was the Blue Jays-Rangers series that year. Of course, I am partial to the Twins beating the A’s in five games in 2002, but I doubt anyone outside the Midwest remembers that happening. That’s the issue: the stakes are just too low for any lasting impression to be made.

The upside to the 1995 playoff expansion (resulting in the inception of the Division Series) is that more teams got in, and we wouldn’t have the ’14 Giants, ’04 Red Sox, ’02 Angels, either of the Marlins teams or the Nationals last year without it. We also wouldn’t have teams with the third best record who won their division. But prior to 1995 I’m not sure people cared that much: coming in second for the division was still pretty good- If they wanted to win it the next year they needed to play better; that was the takeaway, not, “We should have had a chance even though we had the third or fourth best record in our league.” Adding a division series just added a meaningless layer that gave the better team a chance to bow out before even getting a shot at the pennant. Case in point: it’s neat when a team like the Marlins catches lightning in a bottle and goes all the way, but they didn’t win anything during the season in each of their championship years, and the teams that did, the ’97 and ’03 Giants, had the best record in the whole league and were “rewarded” by getting to face a young team playing with house money just for the chance to play for the pennant.*

*Which is also why I am of the opinion that the best record in each league should either choose who they play in the Division Series or play the worst division winner.

But adding yet another round that allows for a team to play for the chance to play for a chance to play for a pennant? It’s silly, and allows for an even worse team to play with zero expectations and defeat a number one seed. In 2020, the number one seeds, the Dodgers and Rays, played the Brewers, with one of the best hitters in baseball along with the best closer in baseball, and the Blue Jays, a young team with a ton of offensive talent and a legitimate ace. Baseball was fortunate those series turned into sweeps for the favored side, because if either top seed had lost, it would have tainted the legitimacy of whoever ended up winning the championship. Imagine if that had happened after a 162 game season? In a three game series anything can happen, particularly if the better team is grappling with expectations, and with the additional teams involved, the chances of a Marlins style run effectively double, and good teams would honestly be better off jockeying for the second or third seed. That would provide the game an added boost of integrity, I’m sure.

Now, the Division Series isn’t going away, and I know that. Owners and the commissioner’s office know that playoff TV money is their cash cow, no matter how a semi-final for the division would cheapen the regular season, or introduce extra randomness after the grind of 162 games. They feel compelled to go this route because of profit but also because of the specter of the nation losing interest in baseball. The latter has been a narrative for 100 years. In fact, if you took the entire history of baseball writing, the only time periods where the writing establishment wasn’t unanimously worried about America losing interest in baseball would have been the Babe Ruth era.

Americans are an instant-gratification-oriented, ADHD-addled, caffeine-dependent and bloodthirsty bunch. They like their football, and they think baseball is boring. They will jump on the bandwagon if their local team is playing well, but even that is fleeting: “That’s nice but call me when they make the World Series,” is a familiar refrain.

How is the game boring? Is it because an attention span is required to appreciate the intricacies of the game, and for every other act of relaxation or pleasure Americans engage in, they don’t need one?

Maybe, and maybe not; Americans have the right to relax any way they want. The most specific reason baseball doesn’t excite people in 2020 however, is the time between pitches. Whether it be overthinking the strategy to be employed on the batter, conserving as much energy as possible between pitches by taking a stroll behind the mound every other pitch, or the batters adjusting their batting gloves seven or eight times per at bat, pitches are taking longer than ever to be thrown. Football has a forty second play clock that usually leaves just enough time for the viewer to digest what had just happened, who was hurt and what the stakes are for the ensuing play. Baseball takes about thirty seconds between each pitch, the announcers are explaining the stakes to you like you’re in kindergarten, and often there is nothing to digest that takes longer than five seconds, especially if a pitcher is having trouble throwing strikes. The cat and mouse game between the pitcher-catcher combo and the hitter is interesting, but most broadcasts don’t have a Tony Romo caliber interpreter to tell you about it. You mainly have dinosaurs on local broadcasts talking about obscure statistical achievements (This is the second time since 1983 that a hitter has hit 4 doubles and 1 triple in a game!), that they don’t like how cerebral the pitcher is (just reach back and throw it- challenge him!) and telling us the hitter doesn’t get cheated (a loose term meaning the hitter swings hard a lot). They lament the pace of the game and this is valid, but the answer to the question of how to make the game more exciting isn’t to make pitchers challenge hitters more or for hitters to beat the shift or go the other way, though none of those options would hurt. The answer is to expand the strike zone.

Currently the strike zone stands as follows, per MLB.com: “The official strike zone is the area over home plate from the midpoint between a batter’s shoulders and the top of the uniform pants — when the batter is in his stance and prepared to swing at a pitched ball — and a point just below the kneecap.”

Umpires are actually pretty good at keeping the strike zone consistent, overall. There have been numerous changes to it, generally as reactions to a precious record being broken, such as Roger Maris in 1961 (can’t hit a home run if it’s a strike at his shoulders) or Bob Gibson in 1968 (ok change it back).

Outside of the Maris change, adjustments to the strike zone generally have favored hitters, as did lowering the mound in 1968. The goal was always an uneasy mix of pearl-clutching and hoping to make the game more exciting/profitable. Certainly offensive output has increased in most respects, but excitement has not. The issue is that the postage stamp of a strike zone we now have doesn’t reward the pitcher who paints the corners because if a batter is expecting a pitch on any corner, he can hit it, given how small the area is that he has to cover. Howie Kendrick proved that definitively in game seven of the World Series last year. The way to ensure the most success as a pitcher nowadays is to get the hitter to chase out of the zone, which has always been true, or to beat him in the zone. The latter isn’t new, but it has been redefined. A 100 MPH fastball in the zone won’t work for a pitcher- hitters will learn to gear up for it. But a 95 MPH fastball with high spin (Jake Odorizzi), or extremely low spin (Josh Hader) will deceive the hitter’s eyes and result in misses and soft contact. For breaking pitches such as a slider or curveball, the goal is to have so much break on the pitch that even if it is thrown in the zone, the batter can’t hit it. This is the strategy of the ageless Sergio Romo. You also have seen an increase in the number of pitchers who can have their pitches move both to their glove side and their arm side, adding additional guesswork for the hitter, even if the pitch is thrown in the zone (Jorge Polanco loves to stick to his guesses on these, and the results are pretty funny). These are the natural adjustments pitchers and front offices have emphasized because the deck has been so increasingly stacked against pitchers since the 60’s.

Batters have adjusted by realizing that with the zone so small, once they learn to recognize a strike, all they have to do is wait for it and swing as hard as possible. If they don’t get their pitch, they take their walk. They generally don’t have to worry about a pitch being called at their shoulders, or 2 inches outside the plate. This results in an increase of the three true outcomes lamented by 90 year old broadcasters: walks, strikeouts and homers.

With an expanded strike zone we can make life easier for pitchers for the first time in over fifty years. We can also make it electronic, so crucial moments in a game aren’t determined by a perceived slight that country snowflake Joe West just can’t let go. Let’s go back to armpit level strikes being called, which was the standard height of the zone until 1988, and keep the lower limit at the knees. Let’s also allow for just an inch or so off the plate- these are called strikes a lot of the time, anyway (and definitely were back in the 70’s and 80’s). Let’s also put in a pitch clock- with the new zone, pitchers won’t have to go max effort every pitch and can stay away from the hardest hitters- they won’t have to throw each pitch as if it were his last so the pitch clock won’t be as much of an issue. Hitters will have to learn to protect again, and will do much more of what causes the most excitement in baseball- swinging (and less time adjusting their batting gloves). What else will happen?

Walks will decrease, as will home runs. I’m fine with this because home runs are like cussing- if you do it too much you lose the effect.

Strikeouts will increase but they won’t take as long.

Singles will rise, as will bunts and stolen bases.

Soft tossing lefties will come back in style and knuckleballers might, too.

Eddie Rosario and Luis Arraez will thrive due to their excellent plate coverage. Vlad Guerrero Sr. will come out of retirement at age 46 and hit .260.

Miguel Sano will have to leave the game, and as underrated as he has been by Twins fans, the game won’t, or at least it shouldn’t, miss him.

We’ll get another five years of Rich Hill.

Catchers will squat again with runners on to help their blocking and throwing, rather than worrying about framing a low strike.

Pitchers would have fewer high stress/high pitch count innings, leading to fewer injuries.

Rookie pitchers would get the same strikes called as future hall of famers, and famous teams the same calls as small-market ones. Which would both be fair and eliminate the whining from small-market fans rooting for a rookie pitcher and claiming big-market bias every time he walks someone.

In related news, Angel Hernandez would have less impact on the game.

Finesse players would catch up to power players, at least a little.

Awkward swings on outside pitches would result in ground balls the opposite way, which would beat shifts and likely result in less of them as the new analytics catch up.

Teams that identify talent that will thrive in this new era could create a whole new version of Moneyball.

Broadcasters can stop whining about pace of play, pitchers not throwing enough strikes, and the three true outcomes, and actually analyze the game.

Some hitters might complain, but they would adjust in due time as they always have.

In the end, everyone knows that baseball is a better sport than football, or at least anyone that would read this, so why should the NFL take all the market share? MLB has made deliberate changes over half a century that have clearly reduced the aesthetic appeal of the game (Theo Epstein’s words, not mine), and changing that back around is as easy as a big electronic strike zone. Casual fans would have far less to complain about, and purists would get the game sort of back the way they liked it. And maybe the next time your local star NFL player gets his career ended due to injury because football is literally designed that way, or one of your best fantasy football players gets benched in real life because that’s how far from reality fantasy football operates, or one of your favorite players gets blacklisted for having a normal opinion/sexual orientation, or you’re sick of all the creepy war analogies, you can switch over to baseball and see the game is getting more watchable for the first time in 50 years, with its playoff format continuing to matter.