This winter, there has been plenty of talk regarding rule changes in Major League Baseball. Speeding up the pace of play seems to be MLB’s goal, regardless of whether the current pace of play is actually a problem. Whispers of pitch clocks have emanated for a few years now, and it sounds like the conventional intentional walk may be doomed. There have even been (silly) discussions about automatically placing a runner on second to start every extra inning.
None of those proposals really threaten to change the game all that much, and the extra inning rule seems especially unlikely to ever reach the majors. One proposed rule change that would have a substantial impact on the sport, however, is the idea of the raised strike zone.
For those unaware, the strike zone called in the majors has been voyaging downwards for years. A strike zone with more area to cover for batters, and a lower bound to aim at for pitchers, is likely one of the reasons strikeout rates have ballooned and run scoring has been dampened in recent seasons. Here, from The Hardball Times, is a graphic illustrating that march southward:
Those graphics are only through 2014, but the trend has continued in the past two seasons. Now, the ramifications of a raised strike zone vary. The probable theory from MLB’s perspective is that a smaller, raised zone would make pitchers throw more strikes closer to the middle of the zone, cutting down on walks and strikeouts and therefore hastening pace of play, while also adding more batted balls and more exciting batted balls into the mix.
A rule change as significant as changing the strike zone would undoubtedly have further unintended consequences, many of them difficult to foresee. What we can foresee is who would be most profoundly affected by a raised strike zone. Pitchers who work the most in the lower part of the zone and generate both the least and weakest contact in the lower third are the pitchers who likely will be most negatively impacted by this change. So, which Yankees pitchers have the most to lose if the strike zone is altered?
Taking a cue from Mike Petriello of MLB.com, who looked at league-wide pitchers who would be adversely affected by a raised strike zone, I used Statcast to look at all 439 pitchers who threw at least 500 pitches in 2016, and then sorted them by how often they came into the lowest, three-inch band of the strike zone (the area 18 to 21 inches off the ground). Those 439 pitchers, on average, threw 10.2 percent of their pitches in that three-inch area.
Now, here is how often the Yankees’ starters lived in that area, along with the exit velocity they yielded in that area compared to their overall exit velocity:
|Pitcher||% of pitches||EV||Overall EV|
|Pitcher||% of pitches||EV||Overall EV|
As you can see, the Yankees have a number of pitchers who throw an inordinate amount of pitches in the lowest part of the zone, and those pitchers generally seem to yield weaker contact when staying in that lower area. That would seem to be a minor cause for concern should MLB follow through with the proposed rule change.
It’s not entirely surprising that staff ace Masahiro Tanaka works most often at the bottom of the zone. Tanaka has strong command (he ranks 14th among qualified starters by Baseball Prospectus’ new command metric, CSAA) and has the ability to consistently pound the bottom of the strike zone with his signature splitter. He allowed just a .312 slugging percentage on batted balls off pitches in this low area, compared to a .354 league average mark.
Perhaps more surprising is how often Michael Pineda lives at the bottom of the zone. However, throwing a lot pitches at the knees and making a lot mistakes in the middle of the zone are not mutually exclusive tendencies. It seems Pineda targets the bottom of the zone quite a bit but leaves up a number meatballs that get hit a long way. Giving Pineda even less area to target at the bottom of the zone could lead to him hanging even more pitches over the heart of the plate.
It does make intuitive sense that CC Sabathia could be at risk if the strike zone was raised. Stuff-wise, Sabathia is a ghost of his former self, with the former power pitcher often sitting below 90 mph and throwing far fewer pitches in the zone than at his peak. He was still very effective last year, overcoming his diminished stuff by using good command and living on the edges of the zone. Restricting those edges and forcing him to enter the zone more with his less imposing arsenal could really hurt Sabathia.
Overall, nearly every pitcher in baseball would be negatively impacted by a smaller strike zone. Having to give batters more hittable pitches simply makes pitchers’ jobs more difficult, and it could lead to an increase in run-scoring. Yet it does seem like the Yankees could be a bit more at risk than most teams. Their pitchers have used the bottom of the zone heavily, and their softer-throwing command artists would seem to be disproportionately affected by having less low area to work with. In the end, we will just have to wait and see if MLB follows through with its ideas to change the game.