Even though the Reds are struggling this year, it’s an exiting time to be a baseball fan: teams are using new defensive formations around the diamond, new hitting strategies are emerging, and some teams are learning that people see what you do while browsing the internets!

The “big picture” trends in baseball are well known: pitchers are throwing harder than ever before, hitters are becoming an endangered species, and teams are placing players in strange new configurations. The result of these trends is also well known: baseball is feeling a bit “run down”.

It is rumored that MLB is considering a few options to correct for the decline in offense, including lowering the mound (something that has not happened since 1968). The early evidence, however, indicated that MLB has nudged umpires to call a slightly smaller strike zone than they had in previous years. Grantland reported that the strike zone, which had previously expanded every year since 2009, was now starting to recede around the edges. An article from John Roegele (Fangraphs) argues that the strike zone has gone from 475 square inches in 2014 to 457 inches in April of 2015.

I don’t have the aggregate strike zone data, but we can take a look at the “bottom line” trends in MLB to see if there has been a corresponding increase in offensive statistics across the league. Here are the projected 2015 “counting stats”:

The Counting Stats

Year HR Runs SB
2006 5386 23599 2767
2007 4957 23322 2918
2008 4878 22585 2799
2009 5042 22419 2970
2010 4613 21308 2959
2011 4552 20808 3279
2012 4934 21017 3229
2013 4661 20255 2693
2014 4186 19761 2764
2015* 4860 21270 2819

Compared to the recent past, home runs, runs scored, and stolen bases are all up. Baseball, it seems, has rolled back the offensive clock by half a decade in one offseason. So what is behind this rise in offense?

The Rate Stats

Yr BB% K% OBP SLG
2006 8.40% 16.80% 0.337 0.432
2007 8.50% 17.10% 0.336 0.423
2008 8.70% 17.50% 0.333 0.416
2009 8.90% 18.00% 0.333 0.418
2010 8.50% 18.50% 0.325 0.403
2011 8.10% 18.60% 0.321 0.399
2012 8.00% 19.80% 0.319 0.405
2013 7.90% 19.90% 0.318 0.396
2014 7.60% 20.40% 0.314 0.386
2015 7.60% 20.10% 0.314 0.395

The rise in strikeouts over the past ten years has been one of the most discussed aspects of MLB’s power outage. For the first time since 2004, however, the strikeout rate is falling, down by 0.3% from 2014. While the league’s on base percentage (and walk percentage) has not budged from 2014, slugging is up almost ten points.

One argument for why offense is declining is that pitchers are throwing harder than ever before. This is easy to verify: since 2009, the average fastball velocity has been on the rise:

Year Fastball Speed
2009 91
2010 91.3
2011 91.3
2012 92.1
2013 92.4
2014 92.7
2015 92.5

Up until this year, the rise in fastball velocity has linked to better training techniques, coaches putting young pitchers on a pitch count, and reliever specialization. In 2015, however, we see average fastball velocity declining. Now this decline in fastball velocity could be due to a variety of factors including injuries or the weather.

Im going to wander into dangerous territory and speculate that fastball velocity is partially driven by strike zone size. Under this idea, the larger the strike zone, the easier it is for pitchers to record a strike. Since pitchers feel it is easier to throw strikes, they can go for bigger pitches than before since there is a smaller risk they will end up walking the batter. With a shrinking strike zone, hitters have to defend against a smaller area and are facing slower pitches than before, making it easier to drive the ball (hence, the increase in slugging).

I don’t want to overstate this claim because there still needs a lot more evidence on the relationship between fastball velocity and strike zone size (for one, it could be that at the end of the season fastball velocity rises above its 2014 levels). Yet if small, almost unnoticeable changes in the strike zone can have large impacts on aggregate scoring, it might be time to start letting computers call balls and strikes.

There is a tipping point in any sport where “the human element” goes from being “part of the game” to a distraction and source of frustration for fans. ESPN now lets fans see every strike call that goes agains their team. Furthermore, it has to be frustrating for both pitchers and hitters to learn and re-learn the strike zone every year.

What do you think, Nation? Should we start letting Siri call balls and strikes?

42 Responses

  1. Kurt Frost

    I thought the strike zone was defined in the rule book. How is something that is defined open to interpretation?

    • Victor Vollhardt

      the rule book set the guidelines and human umpires to the best of their ability try to get the calls correct. But if we keep adding ” machines” that second guess what umpires do we get a lesser grade umpire who is no longer in charge of the game on the field. Sometime in the future probably in a world series the whole thing is going to turn on one of these machine calls and then we will find out just how important to MLB this all is. God help them if it turns out that somebody got to the ” faceless umpires” in the New York replay studio.

  2. George Mirones

    Only if “Siri” wears a bikini and has a vodka in her right hand :).

  3. DJ Ramey

    Exciting? Defenses shift because people like Jay Bruce are more worried about their power numbers than taking easy hits and setting up scoring opportunities for the team. They cant move runners over and their fundimentals stink in general. Thats why the cardinals win. Fundimentals and clutch hitting. Oh yes , and they dont strike out constantly with runners in scoring position. Nothing exciting about this Reds team anymore. REDS fans stop pounding on BP, he,s a winner and does all the little things including playing well with injuries that would bench most players!

    • eric3287

      RISP in 2015:
      St.Louis 617 PA, 138K (22% K rate)
      Cincinnati: 613 PA 129 K (21% rate)

      • DJ Ramey

        Yet the dreaded Cards are 20 over and we are where? Theyre injury bug is as severe if not worse than ours but they still play much better fundimental ball., must be attitude i guess. It Stinks because i iate the Redbirds

      • mtkal

        It could be that they have better players who are better managed because they have a better front office because they have a better ownership.

      • greenmtred

        Of course clutch hitting exists. Runner on third, game tied, 2 outs. I get a hit (a guy can dream, can’t he?) That’s a clutch hit. The question is whether or not some batters hit better (or worse) in those situations than they do in other situations. I understand that, over time, there is no evidence of this, but my question is whether that is based on all hitters or individual hitters?

  4. greenmtred

    It may not precisely correspond, but I’ve been impressed by how difficult some of the challenged calls must be to rule upon: Different camera angles appear to show different things: The tag came before the runners foot touched the base, the tag did not get applied in time, etc. I suppose that something could be imbedded in home plate that would precisely record the location of each pitch and thus be definitive. Then the Cardinals would find a way to tinker with it and change the strike zone for their opponents. Automating ball and strike calls feels wrong to me, but I couldn’t tell you that I have a rational objection beyond a general concern that such a system would have to be absolutely definitive and reliable. We’re sorry, sir, but the computers are down and we can’t access your account information…

    • lwblogger2

      Actually, you bring up a good point when you talk about the possibility of hacking the system. That is a very real possibility. Of course so is bribing an umpire… Computers do also go down from time to time. I suppose the plan should the systems go down would be to have the human umpire call balls and strikes again.

      • Matt WI

        Yes, MLB would have to be very careful to install independent IT people, and there should be some way to check the data against all other parks to keep things honest.

  5. renbutler

    I just want umpires to be a.) consistent, and b.) very close to the strike zone as written in the rule book.

    I don’t think machines should necessarily call balls and strikes, but there should be some mechanism for correcting truly horrible ball/strike calls, like some in Sunday’s Cubs/Reds game. I’ve NEVER seen a stretch of such bad calls in my life. Check the graph:

    http://www.fangraphs.com/wins.aspx?date=2015-06-14&team=Cubs&dh=0

    • Vanessa Galagnara

      something like “google glass” would be ideal. The umpires mask has a computer overlay inside of it along with an earpiece.The overlay shows the strike zone in a similar fashion as mlb gameday or espns gamecast. The umpire doesn’t have to use it but can use it for when he is uncertain as to where the pitch went. All the data is stored for review after a game and an umpire that calls balls and strikes at an extremely different clip than the computer projection has his umpire ranking lowered. The higher ranked umpires get paid more and are eligible to be used in high profile games, playoffs, and world series.

      Oh yeah, this techinology is already out there and could be used tomorrow if MLB wanted to pony up the money.

      I worked with a private company several years back that designed a speciality diving mask that shows on the dive mask amount of oxygen remaining, dive depth, and amount of time spent underwater. If that was available 5 years ago imagine what they could do for umpires.

      • eric3287

        I think that would be a good check against any of the possible tampering or glitches that might occur. Let the umpire be notified if the ball crossed the computer generated strikezone and, for the time being anyway, let him make the ball/strike call. There would inevitably be SOME glitches especially at the beginning and that could alleviate it a bit.

  6. HerpyDerp

    I mean…. Ciri is a professional at slaying monsters and lifting curses. I’m not sure how – wait. wrong Siri…

  7. hof13

    I guess I fall in the category of someone that doesn’t really mind if the strike zone has some moderate fluctuation (not extreme) from day to day as long as the calls are consistent.

  8. Frogger

    I personally would like to keep umpires, but only if they start calling an accurate zone. I get really annoyed by those who defend bad umpires with excuses like its part of the ‘charm of the game’. Or we are going to get a lower grade of umpires if we take the decision making out and control of strike zone away from them. These umps are like pro athletes. Paid extremely well to simply use their vision to call a game made for children. Hold them accountable.

  9. Frogger

    While I’m thinking about it. Why is it we see defensive runs saved by framing statistics for catchers. For example Cerveli is a league leader in stealing strikes. Great for Pirates fans, but it pisses me off. It’s like they have found a way to excuse bad umpiring. I want to see a statistic that shows a team break down. I bet the Reds get screwed on strike calls. In the age of data why can’t this happen. Also, why don’t we have numbers for umps? We have stats for players. Umps are part of the league and affect the outcome of games. They are payed well to perform a task on the field directly affecting the product. Why don’t fans have that data?

  10. bhrubin1

    “Man did you see the calls that Ump made last night? They were spot on!” Said no one. Ever…….Ever!

    • renbutler

      Well, that’s because people are a lot more disposed to complaining instead of praising.

      Weather forecasts might go unnoticed for weeks, and then they might miss one day badly and people complain about how terrible weather forecasters are.

      It’s just how we are as people.

      Most umps do a pretty good job. It’s just far more noticeable when the bad ones ruin a game.

      • HerpyDerp

        Pretty much this. A good umpire, referee, or weatherman is supposed to be invisible. A “bad” one will always get destroyed for one bad call/mistake. An actually bad one interjects themself into the game, like Angel Hernandez (I think?) calling 2 balks in the same game against Cueto earlier this season.

      • bhrubin1

        This was actually exactly my point, but I can see how you took it in the opposite way from what I intended.

  11. Doug Gray

    I go to the games to see the players face each other. Not to see them face each other AND the umpire. We’ve had the technology for a while now. We’ve seen data that shows that catchers can trick umpires into calling balls strikes and that bad catchers can turn strikes into balls. That should not be happening. The strikezone isn’t three feet behind the plate where the catcher is receiving the ball, yet that spot is changing the strikezone every day. Fix the problem. Let the computer system baseball has invested millions of dollars in for our entertainment, and the same one that the umpires union actually uses to grade the umpires on their calls and tell them if they did indeed get the call right/wrong (which means they know it works) – and just make it official.

    • greenmtred

      You make a lot of sense, Doug, but the question is really philosophical–how do we feel about more and more of life being measured and standardized? Many people, reasonably enough, see it as an unambiguously good thing. Others, also reasonably, are not so sure: Human quirks and their attendant variation are part of the thin defense against baseball and life becoming a computer game.

  12. jdx19

    Regarding the decline in fastball velocity: I saw a graph not too long ago plotting average fastball velocity by month of the year. The lowest average FB velocity was in April, as you might suspect. After that, velocity increased every month through August and then saw a slight dip in Septermber. I tried to find the article/graph but came up empty. I think it might have been The Harball Time, but could have been FG, as well.

    I say all that to say this: since April, May, 1/2 June has average FB velocity at 92.5, I’d say we’re likely to see 92.8 or 92.9 once the season is over, keeping in line with the trend outlined in your chart above. (Mostly just spec, though)

  13. lwblogger2

    I’m not necessarily against the idea of automated ball/strike calls as it would enforce consistency of the strike zone. My concerns are that 1) No system is above tampering 2) The algorithms for how the zone is calculated need to be made public and should be consistent with how the zone is written in the rules (such as a taller player vs a shorter player. 3) There has to be a backup plan for when the system is down. There needs to be an umpire that can call balls and strikes if needed 4) It takes baseball a step closer to the boring consistency of the NFL. It does matter. I mean, didn’t we all hate the “cookie-cutter” stadiums and the sameness of it all? What’s the next step of this? Do we neutralize ballparks so that they all pretty much play the same? Where does the automation end? Where should it end?

    • Doug Gray

      It’s already public as to how the zone is calculated for all of the PitchF/X – Gameday – Fox Trax – ESPN K Zone (they are all the exact same system that is just named differently for where it appears).

      • lwblogger2

        Ah… I had thought they were all proprietary. That eliminates some of my concerns.

  14. Red April

    I prefer to think this is an “exciting” time in baseball.

  15. Jeremy Conley

    I’ve proposed this middle ground: Move the umpires a few feet around the catcher to get a better angle, and have them call high or low. This part would be difficult for a computer because each hitter has different proportions and a different stance. Then have a light go on for whether the ball actually crossed the plate, which is much easier for a computer to do.

    This way, umpires don’t lose their jobs, and there’s still a guy there to call safe and out calls at home. At the same time, hitters and pitchers will get a consistent strikezone over the plate, and there won’t be any ejections etc for people yelling at the ump when he clearly misses one.

    • renbutler

      The electronic trackers supposedly adjust for batter height. Each batter is programmed into the system to determine the upper and lower extent of their strike zones. You might notice on Gameday or in the Fox Box that the height of the box is ever so slightly shorter or taller for different players.

      Phillips crouches so much that his box is smaller than most other players.

      • Jeremy Conley

        Yeah, but I think that without putting trackers in people’s uniforms or something, a human with a good angle is probably more accurate since the strike zone sets at a particular time etc.

        Plus it has the benefit of keeping an umpire at home plate.

      • renbutler

        See my post below (from 3:04 pm) for a list of other rulings that would keep the ump at home plate.

  16. Nick Doran

    I support using the PITCHf/x system to call balls and strikes. It is already installed in all 30 ballparks and is much more accurate and consistent than human umpires. As technology advances the calls will get more and more precise every year. Just get the calls right!

    • renbutler

      I can live with that. We would still need home-plate umps to call fair/foul (in the infield), swinging strikes, catcher’s interference, hit batsmen, outs in foul territory, and of course plays at the plate. Probably a dozen other things I’m forgetting.

      I’d think that umps would generally support this, but they’re probably too proud and fearful of being replaced altogether.

  17. Art Wayne Austin

    Let siri call the outside corner, The ump leans into the inside corner, altho missing an occassional one, but his accuracy would improve if he didn’t have to worry about the outside black.

  18. Mark Elliott

    Here’s an idea – Pull all the umpires off the field and put them behind computer screens. Use the K zone to call balls and strikes. Put RFID chips (look it up) in gloves, balls, home run walls, foul poles, bases and shoes and let the computer call double plays, home runs and everything else. With the technology available today it is possible to take almost 100% of the human factor out of umpiring. Teams could also collect mountains of data that Marty and the Reds wouldn’t use and that the Cardinals would hack out of everyone’s servers.