We’re living through an era where pitching is king. Nobody disputes it. A number of reasons have been cited. Velocities are increasing due to better training. Teams and players better understand the relationship between strikeouts, walks, and success.
One cause may stand above them all, the strike zone has grown in recent seasons. The zone has increased by 40 square inches in the last five years, according to Jon Roegele. The growth is in one direction, down. As this becomes common knowledge, the league may discover a simple solution to inject more offense into the game – shrink the strike zone. What If It Changed? Hypothetically, Rob Manfred could instruct umpires to stop calling the new low strikes. And, still hypothetically, it’s possible those instructions would not be reported to the media. As such, there is a scenario where some players could lose a big portion of their fantasy value. As outsiders, we might not find out until it’s too late. If the strike zone ever changes, the obvious losers are sinker ball pitchers. Zach Britton comes to mind. He dominated out of the Orioles bullpen in large part due to a ridiculous 75 percent ground ball rate. It’s easy to visualize. He pounded the bottom of the strike zone. His stuff actually produces grounders no matter where it’s thrown, but it stands to reason that he produces the weakest dribblers on low pitches. What happens if Britton loses 40 inches to the favorite part of his zone? A reasonable guess: we’d see better contact against him. It’s not just low-ball pitchers who will suffer. Everybody benefits from the occasional low strike call. Pitchers who rely on high strikes, like Sean Doolittle, could also suffer. While it doesn’t appear as though the high edge of the strike zone will undergo an adjustment, removing the lower 40 could subtly change hitter profiles. The Athletics stocked up on low-ball hitters prior to the 2014 season. As the narrative goes, those same hitters were exploited late in the season when teams figured out to work up in the zone. It’s possible said narrative is a misnomer, but comments made by Billy Beane over the last couple years lend anecdotal support to the story. If umpires aren’t calling low strikes, then there is less reason to roster low-ball hitters. Instead, teams could focus on players who tattoo higher pitches. That’s bad news for Doolittle and his ilk. Unlike the painful adjustment sinkerballers could experience, it will take a few years before teams can pivot towards rostering more hitters who thrive on high pitches. Theoretically, removing the lowest strike calls should improve league-wide power. As such, high-whiff home run hitters like Justin Upton could experience the largest boost in value. In general, the benefits of a smaller strike zone should be noticeable with all hitters. Fantasy Impact An asteroid could crash into the planet and end civilization as we know it. That worries some people. A precipitous change in the strike zone is the fantasy version of the asteroid. It could happen at any time. Perhaps we rational types should focus our worry on something more tangible. Nevertheless, it has my attention. Pitchers are more talented today than they were five years ago. The league is flooded with dozens of elite relievers. Some teams are stocking eight to 10 starting pitchers who can provide close to league average production. At some point, the league is going to want to inject more offense. The strike zone is an easy and painless solution from a public relations perspective. This consideration only affects owners in deep keeper and dynasty formats. When a pitcher like Britton reaches the peak of their value, it might be wise to trade them for somebody less reliant on the low strike zone. Let one of your league mates depend upon the strike zone remaining static. Or, maybe you choose to ignore the possibility of a shrinking strike zone. After all, we can all cross that bridge later.
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