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Baseball adapts to a new zone

Umps are expected to call the rule book version of the strike zone. There's little consensus on its impact.

By JOHN ROMANO

© St. Petersburg Times, published February 27, 2001


photo
[AP photo]
Umpire Jerry Layne, right, shows Tigers manager Phil Garner where the bottom of the strike zone will be.
CLEARWATER -- They stood politely and listened while umpire Jim McKean explained how the strike zone was going to be called this season. A few Phillies players nodded, and one or two asked a question.

Then came time for the demonstration. A pitching machine started shooting balls toward the plate. Pat Burrell stood with a bat in his hands. McKean stood behind the catcher and began calling strikes. Lots of strikes.

Murmuring gave way to exclamations as the ramifications began to sink in.

"That's what I've been trying to tell you boys," McKean said.

It is a whole new ballgame for pitchers and hitters in 2001, and that may not be an exaggeration. Major League Baseball apparently is serious about returning the strike zone to the rule book definition, and the directive could have a major impact on how the game is played.

"It'll definitely change the game," said McKean, a major-league umpire for 28 years. "This is the biggest change I've ever seen, without a doubt."

The edict came from commissioner Bud Selig during the winter, but it is starting to hit home as teams prepare for exhibition games this week. Baseball officials set up meetings with managers and general managers in Florida and Arizona to explain the new landscape.

McKean visited the Phillies on Monday and plans to stop by the Rays camp today to give another demonstration.

Among the changes:

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Click for larger graphic
The high strike is going to be called, pitches as much as 6 inches above the belt. Umpires will use the hitter's lead elbow as the measuring line.

The outside strike no longer is going to be called, pitches that hit the catcher's mitt 2-3 inches off the plate.

Inside strikes will be called, regardless of whether a player has to bail out to avoid it. The idea is to force hitters to back off the plate.

Players will not be allowed to wear protective armor on their arms. Only small, league-issued pads will be allowed on the elbow unless a player gets medical clearance for something larger. This is another attempt to get players such as Mo Vaughn and Barry Bonds to back off the plate.

To ensure compliance, tracking devices that can accurately determine balls and strikes are being installed in stadiums. That means umpires who are not properly calling the strike zone will be confronted with evidence of their mistakes. Five of the tracking devices are expected to be installed by the All-Star break, and every stadium should have one by 2002.

The strike zone gradually drifted from the textbook definition decades ago when umpires discarded the cumbersome chest protector in favor of smaller vests inside the shirt. With freedom to maneuver, umpires began crouching lower behind the catcher, thus lowering their line of vision.

When pitchers started to lose the high strike, they began throwing farther outside. That forced hitters to get closer to the plate.

"I know it's a drastic change, but I think it will make the game better," McKean said. "If we get the strike zone straightened out, inside and out, up and down, it'll stop guys from leaning over the plate, striding into pitches, stepping out of the back and front of the (batter's) box."

Reaction to the proposed enforcement of the strike zone has been mixed. Some believe it will speed up games because it will force hitters to become more aggressive. It also is seen by many as the first proposal to benefit pitchers after years of giving hitters all of the advantages.

"We've been taught to leave that (high) pitch alone. It's never called," Rays catcher John Flaherty said. "That first week of the season when you're down 0-and-1 in the count because that high pitch has been called, you're going to see some guys going up there with different attitudes. They'll be aggressive, they'll be hacking, whatever you want to call it.

"The pace of the game will be a little better. This is the catcher in me talking, but anything to get guys swinging the bat is good. Let's create a rhythm to the game that flows a little better."

Others believe the changes actually may benefit hitters.

Only power pitchers can afford to consistently throw high in the zone. A sloppy breaking ball or an 89 mph fastball above the waist generally will be crushed. That means a vertical strike zone could be even more hazardous than the horizontal zone that has been prevalent in the past three decades.

On first impression, hard throwers such as Randy Johnson and Pedro Martinez would benefit while finesse pitchers such as Greg Maddux and Tom Glavine could suffer if they no longer get pitches off the plate.

"Pitchers are trained to pitch low and away, they don't want to live upstairs," Rangers shortstop Alex Rodriguez said. "Unless you're a guy who throws 95 mph with your fastball, that's a danger zone. So I'm happy about the opportunity that it's higher and not lower. A low-ball pitcher is much tougher to hit."

Managers say pitchers will not change their styles to incorporate the high strike, but they may use an occasional letter-high pitch for effectiveness.

"The one thing it can do is open the hitter's view. It will force hitters to widen the area they are looking for," Phillies closer Ricky Bottalico said. "It's going to be more of an effect pitch. You might get away with a first strike pitch there that surprises a hitter, but I don't think you'll see a lot of guys throwing up there. And if they do, good luck."

Baseball has made attempts such as this without much success. For that reason, some players and managers say it will take several weeks of consistent calls before the change sinks in.

"It's going to be really tough, especially for some of these veteran umpires, to change what they see as a strike," Yankees manager Joe Torre said. "I'm going to have to see it first. If it's ever going to show up, I would sense we'll see it here in spring training."

McKean said he understands any skepticism.

But he also said it quickly will be cleared up.

"There's no question the burden of proof is on us to show we're going to call it," McKean said. "They can be skeptical, but they also better be ready for it because we're calling it."

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