FG on Fox: Let’s Stop Screwing Left-Handers

After a two-decade stretch of offensive prowess, pitching is dominating Major League Baseball once again. The “Year of the Pitcher” has turned into the “Half Decade of the Pitcher” and at this point we might as well call it an era, because these changes don’t look like they’re going away any time soon. Whether it’s Felix Hernandez, Clayton Kershaw, or most recently Jose Fernandez, it seems like every team features a staff ace that used to be described as a once-in-a-generation talent. What was rare is now commonplace

As FOXSports’ own Rob Neyer has written on several occasions, the shift towards lower-scoring games has been a direct result of a rapidly increasing trend towards more strikeouts. 2013 set the record for highest average strikeout rate — 19.9% — but that isn’t really such an accomplishment anymore; the league has actually broken the all-time record for seasonal strikeout rate in each of the last six seasons.

And 2014 is just continuing the trend; the current league average strikeout rate of 20.8% would easily break the 2013 record. This is not a trend that seems to be peaking, only ever increasing, and at some point, MLB will be forced to confront the issue that the game is moving away from hit-it-and-run towards swing-and-walk-back-to-the-dugout. The league has shown that, if pitching begins to dominate too much, they will intervene to make things more equitable and move the sport back towards a more reasonable balance; after the 1968 season, they lowered the pitching mound, and in 1973, the American League adopted the Designated Hitter.

Things aren’t quite to those extremes yet, but the offensive levels of 1972 and 2014 maybe aren’t as different as you might think. The last year that pitchers had to bat in the AL, MLB as a whole hit .244/.311/.354; this year, MLB is hitting .248/.317/.389. There’s more power now than there was then, but the rate of hits and outs in the game are nearly equal to what they were before the DH existed. Having the National League adopt the DH would force offensive levels up, but it wouldn’t do much to turn the game away from its affection for strikeouts.

Instead, I’d like to suggest an alternative remedy that doesn’t require any new rules or any change to an existing rule. That alternative? Help Major League umpires move the strike zone back over the plate. More specifically, to make this adjustment when left-handed batters are at the plate.

Read the rest on FoxSports.com.




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Dave is a co-founder of USSMariner.com and contributes to the Wall Street Journal.


47 Responses to “FG on Fox: Let’s Stop Screwing Left-Handers”

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  1. Brendan says:

    My understanding was the LH strikezone started right on the plate on the inside, and then extended 3 inches to the outside. While the RH strikezone extended 1.5 inches off both sides. So they are the same sized strikezone, just in slightly different locations.

    Shouldn’t it be solvable by LH’s standing 1.5″ closer to the plate than RHs?

    I mean the whole thing is stupid, the strikezone should just be the strikezone and fixing it to give a consistent as possible zone is a great idea. I’m just not sure that LHH are actually disadvantaged compared to RHH, the area of the strike zone is the same and even if it’s in different places the hitters should know where it is.

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    • Dave Cameron says:

      It’s easier to foul off a pitch 1.5 inches off the inner half of the plate than it is a pitch 3 inches outside. The strike zones might be the same size, but shifting it away from left-handed hitters makes the hittable area smaller.

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      • Gabriel says:

        I concur with Brendan that the article should have discussed this. Your response may be correct, but the article should have hard data on it, covering both how many pitches that are thrown inside vs righties end up being thrown outside vs lefties and how successful each set of batters is when dealing with those pitches.

        I suspect that the impact of this on the overall trend of lower offense in the league would be negligible.

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      • RC says:

        “but shifting it away from left-handed hitters makes the hittable area smaller.”

        Only if you assume the hitters are standing in the same place, which they’re not.

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        • Park Chan ho's beard says:

          The batter’s box for LHH isn’t any closer to the plate than for RHH. I don’t know how you think they can just scoot on closer to the plate. Unless you think getting beaned all the time, Choo style, is a fair result too.

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        • RC says:

          Getting hit more is a good result. It’s free bases.

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      • Hank says:

        Lefties have to cover the pitch 1.5″ in as much as righties have to cover the pitch 3″ in.

        The zone is simply shifted. While they should address that, the hittable area is identical. If lefties choose not to move closer to the plate then righties, than they are causing the reduced hittable area, not the strike zone.

        Based on the zone shifts, lefties should be able to stand 1.5″ closer to home and need the same effective inside (and outside) plate coverage.

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        • Andrew says:

          ” If lefties choose not to move closer to the plate then righties, than they are causing the reduced hittable area, not the strike zone.”

          Really guy? Once is a typo, but twice, using each incorrectly?

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        • cass says:

          Andrew, you’re criticizing two misspellings in a comment on FanGraphs. Really?

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        • Hank says:

          Cass – thanks but don’t worry about it.

          I have a bit of a form of dyslexia where I will exchange words close to each other. Then/than or they’re/there/their or even four/for pairs are even worse when close together. I also randomly exchange an r with 5 at times (thankfully browser spellcheck helps catch this though)

          I’m kind of used to comments like Andrew’s; on the internet it’s par for the course.

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        • Park Chan ho's beard says:

          then you’re screwing lefties by making them more susceptible to HBPs. Either way, it’s not fair.

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      • mark says:

        This bit about ease of fouling a pitch off. Is it true? A lot of hitters don’t like to “get tied up inside”. And if it were not true, then wouldn’t RHBs be the ones being screwed?

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  2. cass says:

    An aside:

    I really wish FoxSports would use RSS. I’ve followed Rob Neyer’s writing for years, but not since he went to Fox since they don’t appear to have an RSS feed for his writing.

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    • Tom says:

      The Foxsports website is obnoxious. Seems like a 15year olds first webpage..too many huge pictures and bells & whistles.

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      • cass says:

        The other part of the site I don’t like is all the misogynistic ads and article that demean women. It’s becoming a horrible stain on many sports sites and driving all but the most crass fans away. It used to just be Bleacher Report but now tons of places have ‘em.

        A real shame FanGraphs would associate with a site that portrays women in that manner, but what’s integrity compared to cash? At least FG doesn’t have someone writing about “WAGS”, but I wouldn’t rule anything out.

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        • Radivel says:

          If the alternative is a FanGraphs paywall, then by all means, link to stupid Fox.

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        • joser says:

          They’re one of an unfortunately increasing number of sites using “Around-the-Web” tabloid-style plug-ins (from Taboola in this case, it appears) that this Verge article calls “weaponized clickbait” and suggests won’t last long. I wish I was as optimistic about that.

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        • Ben says:

          Randivel: Your comment is akin to saying you wouldn’t trade player X. Hard to make the statement without knowing what the price/return is.

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  3. philosofool says:

    LHB and RHB strike out at the same overall rate, so if lefties are “getting screwed” the effect is merely leveling down, i.e., making them on par with RHB. Remember that lefties posses a natural advantage most of the time, owing to getting a beneficial platoon split more often than not.

    Anyway, I take it that the main point is not really that lefties are getting screwed but that if baseball wants to effect an offensively minded change, it can get umps to improve their calling of strikes on LHB to make it happen.

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    • joser says:

      LHB are also a little closer to first base on infield hits. Not that matters much for most people, but it certainly did for Ichiro.

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    • Dan Ugglas Forearm says:

      If they’re striking out at the same rate, but possess a natural advantage most of the time, then how is that a level playing field?

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  4. Lutz says:

    If I may say, your title here is much better than the title there.

    No one wants to slow down pitchers. See a fair strike zone called? Definitely. Curb the rising tide of strikeouts? Maaaaaybe. But slow down ANYthing? Not a very good hook.

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  5. atoms says:

    YES, YES, A THOUSAND TIMES YES. I absolutely can’t stand the “lefty strike”. The zone should be the zone. Period.

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  6. Lutz says:

    Speaking of the rising tide of strikeouts: it’s largely irrelevant. This bias is not a cause, and so removing it is not a cure.

    I assume the umpire’s head position hasn’t changed much over the years, so this effect should be a constant, not a factor contributing to the rise.

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    • philosofool says:

      The bias is a cause of higher strike out rates, but it is not a cause of the change in strike out rates. It’s still a mechanism to control offensive production.

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  7. Radivel says:

    Today on “FG on Fox Comments”:

    keyboardwarfare 2 hours ago
    did anyone read all that? jw


    lol.

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  8. Jimmer says:

    Whether it’s Felix Hernandez, Clayton Kershaw, or most recently Jose Fernandez, it seems like every team features a staff ace that used to be described as a once-in-a-generation talent. What was rare is now commonplace.

    The Twins say hello… :-)

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  9. Matthew Murphy says:

    While the increasing strikeout rate may correspond to a decrease in contact outside of the zone, there wasn’t really any evidence showing how handedness does or doesn’t influence this trend. Here are total strikeout rates for lefties and righties since 2007:

    RHH LHH
    2007 16.6% 16.5%
    2008 17.2% 16.8%
    2009 17.8% 17.2%
    2010 18.5% 17.6%
    2011 18.3% 18.0%
    2012 19.5% 19.0%
    2013 19.5% 19.2%

    Strikeout rates have increased for both groups at a similar rate. Changing the strike zone for LHH would likely decrease their strikeout rate, but this wouldn’t be correcting an imbalance that has developed over the past 6-7 years. The fact that a change would tip the balance in favor of left-handed hitters and therefore have a significant effect on the relative value of all hitters in baseball is one reason why I can’t imagine that this will be actively pursued by baseball, even if they do decided that a change is needed.

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    • Jason B says:

      Wait, so your line of reasoning is that because left-handers strike out slightly less already, they should have to defend a bigger strike zone just to keep the results the same? Yuck.

      Try and enforce the same strike zone for every batter regardless of handedness. And if lefties as a group are slightly more talented at making contact or striking out less, so be it. (Just as if they struck out slightly more with the zone called fairly, so be it.)

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  10. Resolution says:

    If you recall Fast’s work on catcher behaviors that influence framing, I believe (among others) that one of them was angling the body so that the umpire had a better view of the pitch/glove. If you think about how a catcher would be angled catching an outside pitch with their left hand (since they’re all righty)without the batter in view, it seems like mid-to-low outside pitches to lefties would leave the catcher in the best framing position. This may help explain the otherwise arbitrariness of this…

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    • Dan Ugglas Forearm says:

      This was something I thought about as well, but I don’t think it can be adequately rationalized, even on the surface. I think a lot of it would come down to how the catchers are positioned. Perhaps when setting up for an outside pitch to a RHB, they are closer to the center of the plate. Receiving the pitch wouldn’t require very much glove or arm movement outside the catcher’s body. These pitches would be easier to frame. If the catcher is set up in the middle of the plate, and receives a pitch that is outside to a LHB, then they’ll have to have a significant amount of arm and glove movement. The catchers may just be setting up further off the outside part of the plate against lefties, which gives the umpire a very clear view of the catcher’s glove hand, at a kind of caddy-corner angle over the catcher’s right shoulder. For a RHB, the umpire is looking across the catcher’s body, over his left shoulder. Intuitively, this would seem to FAVOR LHB, but the opposite is true, so I’m not sure how much can be attributed to framing/receiving.

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      • jfree says:

        With a LHB at the plate, the ump can’t see the righty catchers arm/glove. The real advantage of framing may not manifest with a righty at the plate (where the ump can see any arm movement) but with a lefty at the plate (where the ump simply gives the benefit of the ‘framing doubt’ to the catcher based on the framing they see when a righty is at the plate).

        At any rate, it does seem like someone needs to research framing skills to see whether there is a big platoon difference – based on both lefty/righty pitchers (the natural trajectory of the pitch itself) – and lefty-righty batters (any umpire assumptions about the catchers skill).

        Ultimately, the biggest impact – if such a platoon difference exists – might be to create an incentive to actually develop lefty catchers for the first time in 100+ years.

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  11. randplaty says:

    Because the umpire stands in the gap between the catcher and the hitter, they do not stand in positions that are equidistant to the plate. As Fast noted, with a left-handed hitter at the plate, the umpire would stand almost directly in-line with the inside corner, while when a right-handed batter was at the plate, they were often well off the inner half of the plate. It seems likely that it is simply easier to see the edges of the plate from where umpires stand with RHBs at the plate compared to where they stand with LHBs batting, and thus, the left-handed strike zone gets shifted from the inside corner to an area that extends a few inches off the plate.

    I need a diagram for this.

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  12. Krog says:

    According to the Wikipedia page for Ocular Dominance, “Approximately two-thirds of the population is right-eye dominant and one-third left-eye dominant.” This could account for some of the lefty strike zone. Umpires do not see the left side of the plate as well due to right-eye dominance.

    In addition, most umpires set up with their head between the batter and catcher instead of directly over the center of the plate. When right-handers are batting, this means that the umpire is focused on the left side of the plate and uses their dominant right-eye to view the outside corner. When left-handers are batting, the umpire is focused on the right-side of the plate and must use their non-dominant left-eye to view the outside corner.

    I think it would be fascinating if we could determine which umpires were right- or left-eye dominant and then see if this had any effect on their strike zone.

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  13. OnlyPadresFanEver says:

    FG on Fox posts are the only ones in internet history in which I look forward to reading the comments of the comments.

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  14. Chris from Bothell says:

    Decent premise and data points, but man, in my opinion, for these Fox articles, you need to know your audience.

    In all seriousness, and not as a dig at the education of the average Fox Sports reader, you need to downgrade the reading level of an article like that by about 4 grades. There’s a variety of tools you can use within word processors or standalone which will take a body of text and spit back what the estimated reading level is. Even without using something like that: Use smaller words. Use simpler sentences with less rhetorical flourishes.

    I was following along fine because I understand the basic principles and have been used to your writing style for a long time. (I was also a biased reader because I’m sick to death of some of my own team’s players being vulnerable to the lefty strike.) But for the average, casual sports fan, who is at least neutral if not hostile to learning something new or following along with stats and math? Yikes. An article like that is going to look like a wall of text, and not very approachable at all.

    If part of the point of writing is to be read, to educate, to be understood, then I would think that writing for a general audience is going to have to be very different than writing for the diehards that follow Fangraphs.

    This is the part where I acknowledge that I know my audience, and nod to the fact you guys are the ones who got the writing gig with Fox Sports and not me. :)

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  15. Alyssa Milano says:

    Hey! I dumped Zito a long time ago!

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  16. dls says:

    robo umps. there is nothing more powerful than an idea whose time has come.

    accurate calls for all players, all the time.

    same strike zone for all players, all the time.

    with the potential of expanding or contracting the zone to increase or decrease offense, as needed/desired.

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  17. maqman says:

    I agree electronic measurements are more accurate and unbiased. You can keep the umps to referee disputes and consult on rules. Also penalize any batter that steps out of the box one strike and any pitcher who exceed the stipulated delivery time one called ball or allow the hitter the option of a re-pitch.

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  18. Peter Jensen says:

    the outer edge of the rulebook strike zone should be roughly 11.5 inches from the center of the plate; 8.5 inches for the outer half of the plate, and three inches for the diameter of the ball,

    This statement is wrong. Pitch Fx determines the position of the center of the ball. The rule book strike zone should by slightly less than 10 inches on either side of the center of the plate, not 11.5″.

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  19. dominik says:

    I agree that the lefty strikezone is bad (I’m a LHB myself annd hate it) and needs to go but I do think that it maybe explains 1% of the offensive struggle of the league at best. As others have shown here lefty K rates are virtually identical to RHBs (which might still be a skewed number because of the lefty advantage but numbers did not change either and the lefty zone is nothing new).

    Umpires should be forced to call the real strike zone (a machine would be best) but I suppose if anything that will cause the offense to go DOWN more because that would force umps to call the high strike again (good luck trying to hit an aroldis chapman heater at chest height) which increases the zone.

    The criticsm of the lefty zone is correct but the conclusion that it has anything to do with the collapse of offense in the last 5 years is pure speculation. YOu can get away with that on fox but not at fangraphs:).

    still a cool article, I liked to read it.

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