The Strike Zone’s Still Dropping

Nothing groundbreaking here. The primary trend discussed has been discussed at length in other places, with far superior analysis. Here is one example! During the PITCHf/x era, through last season, umpires were granting more and more low strikes. Now we have most of a new season’s worth of data, and, guess what? Trend’s still alive. Trend’s still thriving. There’s never been a better time to be alive as a low strike, provided low strikes appreciate the company of others. We will, henceforth, focus on what I’ve elected to refer to as the zone of interest, because it is our present zone of interest:

zoneofinterest

The black box is an approximation of the average rule-book strike zone. The red zone of interest is somewhat arbitrary, but it more than gets the job done. Sometimes you don’t need to call on superior analytical techniques. Which is good for me, because I don’t know them. Data’s on the way! Thank you, Baseball Savant.

This is a graph with a lot of information. Don’t worry about consuming it all at once — we’ll break it down piece by piece. The four lines are labeled, because, why wouldn’t they be? If they weren’t, that would be a terrible graph!

zoneofinterest2

Red line first. This line shows the rate of called strikes within the zone of interest, with called pitches as the denominator. At the start of the PITCHf/x era, fewer than half the called pitches went as strikes. It reached about two-thirds in 2012, and now we’ve surpassed three-quarters. Relative to 2009, those pitches are called strikes now 60% more often. In numerical form:

  • 2008: 47%
  • 2009: 47%
  • 2010: 52%
  • 2011: 56%
  • 2012: 64%
  • 2013: 70%
  • 2014: 76%

There was a substantial leap between 2011 and 2012. Then the rate jumped another six percentage points, and now the rate has jumped another six percentage points. So, there’s no sign of a slowdown, here. Obviously, there’s a built-in maximum, but these called strikes are exploding. The lower part of the zone has never been kinder to pitchers, at least as far as we know.

Now the blue line. This shows the overall rate of pitches ending up in the zone of interest. This line isn’t nearly so fascinating. You’d think that, with the bottom of the zone opening up, pitchers would go there a lot more often. They have gone there more often, but not dramatically so. In 2008, the frequency was about one of every ten pitches. In 2011, it was about one of every nine. Over the past three years, the frequency has increased only four-tenths of one percentage point. We know that pitchers are throwing down more, and we know that hitters are looking down more, but this is a subtle thing, and the extra strikes aren’t being granted because the pitches are going there more. They’re just being granted.

Overall, this, of course, is significant. A lot of pitches go to that area, and the calls add up. The difference between 2014 and 2009 is right around 300 strikes per year per team. The difference between 2014 and 2012 is right around 125; the difference between 2014 and 2013 is right around 65. As people have reasoned, this is one of the factors behind the decline in offense. Between 2002 and 2009, there was no change in league strike rate or league first-pitch strike rate. Since 2009, the league strike rate is up a point and a half, and the league first-pitch strike rate is up a point more than that. In 2009, for every pitch thrown behind in the count, pitchers threw 1.9 pitches ahead in the count. This year, the ratio’s gone beyond 2.2. Pitcher-friendly counts favor pitchers in all ways, leading to more swings and to worse swings.

But let’s go back to the graph, and let’s consider the green dotted line and the gray dotted line. The PITCHf/x era captures two things: an era of more accurate umpire feedback, and the era in which we’ve come to understand pitch-framing as a skill. Are there more low strikes because of the umpires, or are there more low strikes because teams are more heavily favoring receiving ability?

I can’t actually really separate the two, if I’m going to be honest. But the green line averages the five best catchers in terms of getting low strikes, and the gray line averages the five worst catchers in terms of getting low strikes. Both lines have increased dramatically, but look at where the gray line has ended up: the five worst catchers this year are getting 61% called strikes in the zone of interest. The five best catchers in 2008 were at 64%. The league average in 2012 was 64%. The ceiling is still quite high, but the floor is rising.

As another way of considering this, the 2014 Blue Jays have gotten 63% called strikes in the zone of interest. That’s the worst rate in baseball, just below the Twins’ 64%. The Blue Jays would’ve been basically average just a few seasons ago. In a subtle area, things are continuing to change un-subtly.

Let’s consider every catcher with at least 250 called pitches received within the zone of interest, year to year. Each season, this gives us a sample in the dozens. Here are the standard deviations of called strike rates, as a percentage of the league mean:

  • 2008: 24%
  • 2009: 22%
  • 2010: 21%
  • 2011: 25%
  • 2012: 16%
  • 2013: 14%
  • 2014: 11%

Beginning in 2011, we observe less and less spread in league-wide performance. In 2011, the gap between the five best and the five worst catchers was 48 percentage points. This year, that’s dropped to 27. Some of what we’re seeing is greater emphasis on receiving low pitches with good technique, and some of what we’re seeing are just changes in umpiring, but at least in terms of low strikes these days, there’s a lesser difference between the best and the worst. So there’s less to be gained, relative to the average. A good low-pitch framer will appear less valuable in 2014 than he would’ve in earlier years, which is an interesting thing to think about.

Do we see anything that might resemble a cap? The highest rate in 2011 was 85% strikes, belonging to David Ross. The next year, it was also 85%, belonging this time to Yasmani Grandal. In 2013, Martin Maldonado came in at 88%. This season, Mike Zunino leads catchers at 90%. The ceiling is rising slowly, and it seems reasonable to assume it’ll be around, I don’t know, 92% or so. And the floor? For a handful of reasons, presumably, the effective floor is higher than ever. Catchers are taught certain skills, and they’re selected for certain skills, and there are more strikes being called low because of those reasons, and also independent of them.

People in the past have lamented the absence of the high strike. Baseball has responded by adding strikes somewhere else. People in the past have lamented the significance of pitch-framing technique. Baseball has responded by seemingly reducing the differences between the best and the worst pitch-framers. Did you know that everything around you is constantly changing? Even the floor that you’re sitting on. That floor is nothing like it was last week, if you think about it right.



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Jeff made Lookout Landing a thing, but he does not still write there about the Mariners. He does write here, sometimes about the Mariners, but usually not.


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Jim S.
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Jim S.
1 year 8 months ago

Another super job, Jeff.

Walter
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Walter
1 year 8 months ago

This seems to hold up based on what I’ve seen watching baseball the last few weeks especially. I can recall many of fastballs in which the catcher caught them at rough his ankles that were called strikes. Then the side view camera clearly shows them cross the plate about half way up the shin.

That’s pretty tough on the hitter. I’m not sure I like where them is going.

joser
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joser
1 year 8 months ago

This is starting to get noticed in the world outside Fangraphs — this Atlantic article for example. (Not that I personally agree with the conclusion there: I like pitching duels. I love 10+ pitch at-bats. I think low-scoring games are fun. I think runs are better when they’re precious, rather than being scored in bunches. But I realize the knuckle-dragging every-sport-should-be-more-like-NFL disgree, and it would seem there are more of them.)

pft
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pft
1 year 8 months ago

Ptoblem with this article is that while they call out the strike zone as getting lower in the pitch f/x era it also says its getting narrower. I am pretty sure I have seen some articles showing the strike zone has gotten wider as well, but having reached a critical point where it could expand no wider it has now dropped.

Why MLB wants offense to drop, along with rating and revenue is curious

joser
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joser
1 year 8 months ago

I think (as that article concludes) MLB didn’t “want” this outcome, it was just an unintended consequence of PitchFX and a lot of other factors, mostly stemming from the increased data available to GMs and managers (greater use of the shift, better positioning due to HitFX and other data, larger bullpens with more fireballing middle-relievers, smarter late-inning matchups, much wider use of the splitter, etc, not to mention every tedious comment-troll’s automatic hobby horse, PEDs or rather their “elimination” due to testing).

evo34
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evo34
1 year 8 months ago

Funny…comment troll calling comment-trolling “tedious.”

tct
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tct
1 year 8 months ago

I can’t stand this attitude, and I see it more and more. I call it the internet baseball snob. He’s the guy who believes that anyone who enjoys hitting and seeing some offense every now and then is not a “real baseball fan.” Because he is a real baseball fan and as such he only enjoys pitching and defense. I’ve actually seen someone on this site say that real fans care more about pitching and defense. Its such a ridiculous thing to be snobby about. And now this guy says that anyone who wants to see a little more scoring is a “knuckle dragger.” Grow up, dude.

I guess I am not a real baseball fan because I don’t really want to see a second dead ball era. I mean the offense in the late 90s and early 2000s was ridiculous, but now we’ve gone to the other side of the spectrum. Ten years ago, the NL average wOBA was .327. Five years ago it was .324. Now, it is .308. That’s just a ridiculous drop in that short of a time and it seems to keep getting worse. But luckily, we’ve got the “real baseball fans” to cheer on this unprecedented drop in offense. Seems to me that a real baseball fan would be a little worried about the future of a game that keeps getting more and more out of balance. But what do I know? I enjoy good hitting as much as good pitching or good defense, so I am not a real fan.

Andre the Angels Fan
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1 year 8 months ago

Personally, I want shorter games. And whatever gets us there.

Joshua Northey
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Joshua Northey
1 year 8 months ago

I think it is just that your average idiot fan is soooo solely focused on offense that is becomes easy to make fun of people who dislike low scoring games.

You see this in football all the time, even relatively sop[sophisticated fans will describe a game between teams with good defenses and bad offenses as a “terrible game”. “Oh it looks to be 10-3 that will suck.” Among casual and even semi serious fan there is zero appreciation that the game is half defense and that good defense can be just as interesting as good offense. Very few complain complain when a football game is 54-45 or a baseball game is 16-9. But people hate the 1-0 or 6-3 defensive struggles.

tct
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tct
1 year 8 months ago

I don’t know what the average “idiot fan” focuses on so I can’t really comment on that. But I enjoy great pitching as much as anyone. But when a pitcher is getting guys out because the ump is calling pitches that are 2 inches off the ground strikes, or calling the pitch that is 6 inches outside to a lefty a strike, I don’t consider that “great pitching.” I mean, there is something to be said for a pitcher that realizes the umpire is giving him that call and he hits that spot repeatedly, but it feels cheap to me. Great pitching challenges the hitter and beats him, it doesn’t get him out by throwing pitches that are out of the zone and are called strikes. I’ve seen several 1-0,2-1 type games in the past 2 years that didn’t seem like good pitching at all to me. They were more bad offense and bad umpiring with mediocre pitching.

Brett
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Brett
1 year 8 months ago

Re: Blue Jays have the lowest called strikes

I’m sure you could break this down to invidvidual pitchers if you chose to do so, and I’d wager that if you did that, you’d find that R.A. Dickey has worse numbers in this zone than most other pitchers on the team. I wouldn’t be suprised if he alone brings the team % down by a few points.

The Blue Jays broadcasts include Pitch F/X for the viewer and umpires often seem to miss the strike call on his knucklers at the bottom of the zone. Without Pitch F/X to say otherwise, most of the low knucklers do look like balls with the naked eye, presumably because of the movement and because of the way the catcher has to receive them.

joser
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joser
1 year 8 months ago

The Jays broadcast is unique (in my experience — I haven’t seen the home broadcast from every team) in that they show the PitchFX view in 3D (or at least add a side view to the standard head-on view). Assuming it actually reflects the data (ie the trajectory as calculated from the data is essentially correct) I wish this was universal.

snack man
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1 year 8 months ago

I don’t think there is a good reason to trust pitch F/X for a knuckle because it assumes that the third derivative is zero, which they claim is true for most pitches, but shouldn’t be true for knuckles.

Torgen
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Torgen
1 year 8 months ago

It wouldn’t surprise me if Navarro was at fault here, actually. Sometimes the pitcher misses to one side of the plate or the other, but is still at the bottom part of the zone, and Navarro turns his glove over and catches that pitch underhand. Apparently the umpire won’t call this a strike, whereas if you keep the glove right side up and shift over (smoothly), you can get a call.

Aaron
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Aaron
1 year 8 months ago

After watching the blue jays all year I would agree this is more Navarro than Dickey. Navarro tends to stab at low pitches that often catch the zone of interest according to Pitchfx. Umpires have a tough time calling it when the stab ends up taking the ball nearly to the dirt.

Luke
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Luke
1 year 8 months ago

Is there any possibility that pitchers are doing a better job of hitting the upper part of the Magic Red Box? That’s a pretty tall box there, so the fact that the average strike percentage in the box is increasing could be explained by a larger fraction of pitches going to the upper half of the box. Just a thought.

Or, are major league hitters getting shorter? I’m really reaching here, I know, but maybe as teams are valuing defensive players more, the shorter, faster guys are playing more than the big bruisers. That would lower the strike zone a bit.

joser
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joser
1 year 8 months ago

AFAIK the Pitch FX system normalizes the strike zone according to the height of each batter, so even the All Altuve Allstars shouldn’t skew things. Of course, there may be non-linear effects, especially since we’re still talking about humans calling the pitches. But actually I’d think it might have the opposite effect: really short guys in a crouch aren’t going to leave much room between the bottom of the zone and bouncing pitches off the plate, and umpires are still going to want to have some space to call a low ball, so to do that they might actually carve some space off the bottom of the zone.

Keeper
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Keeper
1 year 8 months ago

Seems to be a general consensus. What I think John Q Public would like to know is how does this change during the playoffs? Having watched *a few* playoff games, it seems that they tighten up the bottom of that zone, especially toward the end of the game. Any empirical evidence to support my claim (probably SSS for the end of the game part of the question)?

Mike Pozar
Member
Mike Pozar
1 year 8 months ago

Regarding the decrease in SD of called strikes rates for catchers, you mention “in terms of low strikes these days, there’s a lesser difference between the best and the worst…. A good low-pitch framer will appear less valuable in 2014 than he would’ve in earlier years.”

The “5 Best” rate is around 90%; certainly as more and more low pitches are being called strikes and that rate approaches 100%, you’d expect the difference between best and worst to shrink. However this doesn’t necessarily mean that good pitch-framers are less valuable – maybe those good framers are still adding value on pitchers outside some larger (equally arbitrary) “zone of interest”, and the gap between best and worst remains large?

Edwin
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Edwin
1 year 8 months ago

Has the lower strike zone affected the strike rate for curveballs?

james wilson
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james wilson
1 year 8 months ago

I do wish baseball graduated to electronic balls and strikes. The home plate umpire can still call them after the beep in his ear. Both hitters and pitchers would love it, and then baseball could redefine the strike zone however they want, which is what they always have done.

If a hitter hates having a legitimate low strike called, move off the back of the box and he might not have to hit off his ankles.

lewish
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lewish
1 year 8 months ago

I wonder if perhaps the catchers are doing a better job of framing the low pitch than before, perhaps leading umps to widen downward the strike zone or maybe a descending strike zone is leading to guys being better at the low pitch than they once overall were. Something that is for sure is these guys learn from each other, and they notice when someone is getting calls and they try and emulate better newer technique…I mean nobody wants to lose and if you are losing no matter the beliefs sooner or later your going to change or be gone from the game…I stopped playing in the early 80’s and didn’t follow the sport until my kids started being interested in the late 90’s…so I have some huge gaps in observation, and I of course have my head where the son doesn’t shine more often than I like to think about, but there was lots of emphasis put in to keeping pitches strikes and close pitches close, back when I played, but low pitches were a difficult area…you have to keep in mind the late 60’s early 70’s the no hinge glove stopped existing, and so the palm up method of catching the low pitch suddenly was obsolete, yet that is what was practiced up until the hinged glove and it isn’t hard to go find pictures of that antiquated method. I could be wrong about this, but common sense tells me there had to be a learning curve, new cutting edge thought…I certainly wasn’t privy to every pro coach, but the one’s I was privy to weren’t advocating what I saw when I turned on a TV years later to see Varitek, so beautifully handle what I know to be very tough low pitches…this all just gets me wondering what old footage of some of the so called greats would look like in comparison to Molina, Lacroy,etc…on these low pitches. I wonder what Bench or Yeager or Munson etc.. would look like. Maybe they were basically doing the same technique. If not, I wonder who was the break through guy…was it before Varitek…maybe he learned from somebody…somebody could have been not good enough to be MLB, because that is a crazy high bar, but the guy could have figured this bitching technique to ‘steal’ these marginal pitches for his pitcher. The sides and top are relatively easy, when someone is smooth and clean on the low pitch, you want to notice that. Especially given the importance of low strikes…even ancient old dinosaurs that are looked down on by this new age baseball recognize the importance of low strikes ;)…just my 2cts…awesome article, like always. thanks!

lewish
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lewish
1 year 8 months ago

I am not great at researching topics on the computer, and I may be the only one interested and it is only one small segment, but found this video tribute to Johnny Bench on MLB, the only thing I found was at about 12-14 second point there is a from the side picture of Bench receiving a pitch at the bottom of the zone and it looks pretty consistent with a good receiver from today…real pretty hands… so maybe there was no learning curve for the best, ie MLB players?

lewish
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lewish
1 year 8 months ago
Eric
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Eric
1 year 8 months ago

It matters where the pitch crosses the plate, not where the catcher ends up leaving his glove after receiving the pitch.

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