Everyone who’s played or watched a lot of baseball at almost any level knows that the strike zone is one of the most elusive concepts to attempt to identify. It varies with the umpire and many umps, even in the majors, are pretty inconsistent in how they call it.
Periodically while watching a game with friends, someone will ask, “What’s the strike zone, Shafer?”
There are two answers.
The practical response is that the strike zone is wherever the umpire behind the plate says it is for each pitch. Good umps try to be consistent, at least within a single game and preferably over time. But as someone who spent over a decade umpiring baseball and softball, I can tell you that getting it right even 90% of the time is pretty hard. Most of the umpires behind the plate in MLB are pretty good at balls-and-strikes. Some are notoriously not.
Behind the plate for tonight’s (May 20) game between the Giants and the Dodgers at AT&T Park in San Francisco was Angel Hernandez, one of the most often criticized officials in the big leagues. Giants’ broadcaster Duane Kuiper said after a particularly awful performance from Hernandez in a game against the A’s in 2014, “Angel Hernandez is not a good umpire and in my opinion, he does not belong in the big leagues. And I think Major League Baseball knows this, they just don’t know how to get rid of him.”
Before the game tonight, Kuiper described Hernandez’ strike zone as one that “breathes. It expands and then it contracts and then it expands again.” In other words, it’s unpredictable, which is the worst criticism that can be leveled against a plate umpire.
I must say that as the game went on, I agreed with Kuip more and more. Angel Pagan came close to getting tossed at one point when Hernandez made a horrendous call against him for strike two, effectively taking the bat out of his hands. And he wasn’t the only player on either side to get steamed.
The second answer to the question of where the strike zone is where the rule book (specifically Rule 2.0) says it should be. It’s a pretty straightforward rule that any fan can understand easily. Here it is in its entirety:
The STRIKE ZONE is that area over home plate the upper limit of which is a horizontal line at the midpoint between the top of the shoulders and the top of the uniform pants, and the lower level is a line at the hollow beneath the kneecap. The Strike Zone shall be determined from the batter’s stance as the batter is prepared to swing at a pitched ball.
I’ve noticed that most major league teams have their team name/logo stitched across the front of the jersey a bit higher than the top of the zone. I’m just guessing but I imagine this is because that is the largest block of type on the uniform and might distract pitchers into missing high a lot. For all I know, it works.
But when the hitter is in his normal batting stance, prepared to swing at a pitch, the zone is different — at least for most hitters — than when they are casually standing in the batter’s box. Umpires are supposed to take the hitting stance as the baseline,though I can tell you from years of personal experience that’s easier said than done.
One thing to be said for Hernandez is that he’s slow with the thumb. He doesn’t eject many players or managers, giving them time to vent his calls. Maybe he knows how bad he is.