In his next life, Ranger pitcher Bob Tewksbury says, "I'm coming back as an umpire." Then he will do something about the incredible shrinking strike zone.
At week's end the number of walks per game was 7.52, and if that rate holds up for the rest of the season, it will be the highest since 1950 (when there were 8.04 bases on bails a game) and the fourth highest in this century. Through Sunday there had been 17 games in which at least one team had issued 10 or more free passes, including 14-walk embarrassments by the Oriole and White Sox staffs.
All these bases on balls are a contributing factor to the disturbing length of games this year—average playing time was 2:56 through Sunday—not to mention testimony to the fact that umpires still aren't calling the high strike.
It's not unusual to see a pitch that is thrown an inch above the belt called a ball. (According to baseball rules, the upper limit of the strike zone is the midpoint between the top of a player's shoulders and the top of his uniform pants.) "If they swing at that pitch, it's a home run," says Tewksbury. "If they don't, it's a ball. Does that make sense?"
No. But watch any game on TV, and from the view provided by the centerfield camera, you will see that pitch called a ball all the time. For instance, on May 31 a 2-2 pitch from Mariner pitcher Bob Wells to the Yankees' Wade Boggs was a belt-high slider down the center of the plate. Ball three. Boggs then hit Wells's next delivery for a homer.
"It shouldn't matter who the hitter is, what inning it is or what the situation is—if the pitch is a strike, call it a strike," says Twin pitching coach Dick Such. "The high strike isn't being called anymore, and as for the so-called black [the thin border around the plate], that's no longer being called in the pitcher's favor. There used to be certain umpires who were labeled hitters' umpires or pitchers' umpires. I don't know if those labels still exist. As for the time of games, well, obviously the umpires have nowhere to go."
Some umpires say if they start calling the high strike, hitters will complain. So what? It wouldn't be long before the hitters started swinging at that pitch, which would improve run production and cut down on walks. Through Sunday, a total of 10 players had walked four times in a game this season; White Sox first baseman Frank Thomas had two such games. In fact, Thomas had walked 44 times in 34 games through Sunday, a pace that—over a 162-game season, at least—would break Babe Ruth's 1923 record of 170 bases on balls in a season.
Ranger first baseman Will Clark, on the other hand, says the increase in walks has nothing to do with the strike zone and everything to do with the attitude of pitchers. "They're starting hitters off with breaking balls, falling behind in the count. Then they have to throw a heater," he says. "But they're kind of timid about throwing it near the plate." On May 31 Clark batted four times against the Royals' Kevin Appier, one of the hardest-throwing, most aggressive pitchers around. Clark said that he saw only six fastballs during those four at bats.
"The umpires I've talked to say that a lot of pitchers don't want to throw strikes," says Giant manager Dusty Baker. Of course, it might help the pitchers if they knew that a strike would be called whenever they threw one.