Early in spring training roving bands of umpires stopped by every major league camp to school managers and players in the new by-the-book strike zone, and this week the commissioner's office had two strike-zone demonstrations planned for members of the media. That's all helpful, but the strike zone is still like the tax code—all the explaining in the world doesn't necessarily make it easier to use, as the early exhibition games have proved.
"It's an adjustment," says Jerry Crawford, a major league ump for 25 years. "Players and umpires are feeling each other out to get a sense of what's a strike and what isn't. It's not something that's going to be resolved before spring training is over."
For example, some players say umps, in their haste to establish the high strike, have simply raised the old zone a few inches. "A couple have told me they're concentrating so much on high strikes that they're forgetting to call the low ones," says Devil Rays catcher John Flaherty. Adds Yankees catcher Jorge Posada, "Some [umps] have asked me, 'Do you think that's a strike? Is that high enough?' "
Some early reads on how the new zone might change the game:
?Power pitchers will benefit. If pitchers can get strike calls on chest-high fastballs, those who deliver them in the high 90s will be nearly untouchable if they hit their spots. Every major league hitter can turn on a fastball in the middle of the zone; few can catch up to elite high heat. Says Baltimore pitching coach Mark Wiley, "If he's getting that pitch, [ Indians righthander] Bartolo Colon may throw a no-hitter this year."
?Early-season slumps will give way to midseason onslaughts. In the past, batters frequently took hittable belt-high pitches because they knew they wouldn't be called strikes. When they realize that they have to swing at those meatballs, the hits will follow. "Once hitters get adjusted in the middle of the season," says Rangers closer Tim Crabtree, "there could be more home runs than we've ever seen."
?Plate crowders might have to step back. In recent years hitters have draped themselves over the plate to protect against strikes low and away. Because such a stance makes it difficult to catch up to pitches up in the zone, newly called high strikes might buy pitchers some room. "We created a lot of low-ball hitters," Tampa Bay manager Larry Rothschild says of the effect of not calling high strikes until now. "It's tough to handle those high pitches if you're on top of the plate."