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SportsColumnistsDavid Lennon

Lower strike zone in baseball, but MLB insists there's no mandate

Baseball commissioner Rob Manfred listens during a press

Baseball commissioner Rob Manfred listens during a press conference after his first owners' meeting as baseball commissioner, Thursday, May 21, 2015, in New York. Credit: AP / Bebeto Matthews

One interesting topic that popped up unexpectedly last Tuesday in Cincinnati may be directly tied to the scoring drought that's been prevalent throughout Major League Baseball this season.

While mostly everything has been discussed, from the absence of performance-enhancing drugs to the wear-and-tear of an increasingly grueling travel schedule, one of the best answers may also be the simplest.

The changing dynamics of the strike zone.

Commissioner Rob Manfred, along with Joe Torre, the sport's Chief Baseball Officer, sort of backed into an admission of a lower border for the strike zone when the question came up during the annual All-Star Game meeting with the Baseball Writers Association of America.

There have been persistent rumblings this season about umpires calling more low strikes -- kryptonite for most hitters -- but Manfred insisted this was not a mandate from the league office.

"The most important point is there's been no instruction this year that's any different with respect to calling low strikes," Manfred said. "I know that's running around out there. That's absolutely untrue."

Well, yes and no.

When Manfred tossed the discussion over to Torre, seated across the room, his top lieutenant didn't deny the strike zone was lower. In fact, Torre stated that it was the same as last season, which the data indicated was indeed noticeably below the previous years leading up to 2014.

"They are calling more low pitches as opposed to two years ago, yes," Torre said. "But last year to this year? Absolutely no change."

That's not very reassuring to hitters now, however. And neither Manfred nor Torre suggested it was an aberration that needed to be corrected. Torre did admit that he was hearing from managers, who were concerned this somehow was part of MLB's plan to shorten games. But Torre denied that.

"The rumor that we're calling more strikes because we want to speed up the game, there's nothing to that," Torre said. "The umpires have not gotten together and agreed to something like that."

Everyone can agree that scoring is down, however. In the first half, teams averaged 4.10 runs per game -- slightly above last year (4.07) but below 2013 (4.17), according to Teams are striking out at a similar rate (7.54) as two seasons ago (7.55) but walking less (2.81) than in 2013 (3.01).

A more accurate read will need to wait until the end of the season. But a lower strike zone, as Torre described, would no doubt be a contributing factor to what is shaping up to be another pitchers' era. And that's the conundrum here.

On one hand, MLB wants quicker games, which they believe appeals more to a short-attention span generation. On the other, there is concern that a downtick in scoring -- fewer hits, empty bases, less activity overall -- will turn off fans and TV viewers. It's a difficult tightrope to walk in trying to implement new rules and pace-of-play guidelines. There is some consolation that Manfred is at least getting the first part right.

"I remain committed that this initiative can't be judged solely by the length of games," Manfred said. "It's interesting and useful, but it can be confusing. It's hard to ignore the fact that we are down nine minutes. If we hold it, it will be the largest decrease since 1965, and that's another reason to be encouraged."

In case you're wondering, teams averaged 3.99 runs per game in 1965, with a .246 batting average and .683 OPS. They averaged 5.95 strikeouts and 3.10 walks. Given the variations of the strike zone, from umpire to umpire, Manfred is frequently asked about the possibility of a digitized box someday. But it doesn't sound like robot umpires are just around the corner.

"I think we are a ways away from using technology to call balls and strikes," Manfred said. "I really do. It's because of the speed, it's because of the technological limitations, it's because quite frankly the strike zone is different for every individual guy.

"People make a mistake when they see the box on the broadcast. The difference between that box and the information [Torre's] people provide -- by way of feedback to the umpires -- is night and day. The principal differentiator is that in our system used to review umpires, the strike zone is adjusted for every individual batter. Which is not the case on TV."

Whatever the case, the strike zone bears watching in the second half. And where it goes from here could reveal the direction the game is headed, too.

Fantasy or troubling reality?

MLB could have a gambling problem, and it has nothing to do with Pete Rose's effort to get reinstated. Rose, of course, was banned for life for betting on baseball, a no-tolerance policy that each subsequent commissioner has upheld because of the threat to the game's integrity.

But MLB's high-profile partnership with the fantasy website, DraftKings -- which promises to pay out $1 billion in prize money this year -- raises a new round of ethical questions.

Like isn't this the same as MLB endorsing a form of gambling on its own players? And isn't there a concern that those same players, whose performance is wagered on, could become complicit in the process?

Speaking Tuesday in Cincinnati, where Rose's ban was briefly lifted to allow an on-field appearance before the All-Star Game, Manfred drew the line -- but did suggest potential conflicts might be a problem.

"We've made absolutely clear to our players and to our front office personnel that we do not believe that DraftKings is an appropriate -- or any other daily fantasy -- is an appropriate activity for them," Manfred said. "We see a very clear distinction between people who affect the outcome of the game and fans who want to engage through daily fantasy."

Making sure that wall stays solid is the tricky part. And union chief Tony Clark did acknowledge there is a potential for trouble with such a cozy business relationship.

"We are watching very closely," Clark said. "As you might expect, considering where we've been and where we're at, we're walking a very delicate line, a very sensitive line, that could be muddied very quickly depending on what words you use in a sentence.

"So that's something that we're paying a lot of attention to. For right now, we can appreciate how it's being navigated and rest assured we won't turn our attention away from it."

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