Thursday, April 19, 2012

Origins of the Strike Zone

(The information in this article was received from a book by Peter Morris entitled, Game of Inches. The Stories Behind the Innovations that Shaped Baseball.)

Balls and Strikes.
Batsmen accumulated no balls while strikes were recorded only on swing and a miss. The premise was that each batter got to strike the ball once and that the pitch was the prelude to the fundamental conflict: The batter's effort to make his way home- by way of first,second, and third base- before the fielders could put him out.

Batters began to be very selective in the pitches they would swing at.  Since there was no limit to the number of balls thrown you would see as many as fifty (50) pitches before a batsman decided to swing at a ball he deemed suitable to for swinging.  This presented a grave dilemma. Something must be done to effect "the transfer of the interest of a match from the pitchers to the basemen and outfielders." (New York Clipper, May 7, 1864.)

The rule change had been intended to restore baseball to a battle between batters and fielders by reducing the pitcher's resources. Instead it had the unintended consequence of elevating a new figure into prominence- the umpire.  The umpire was in-charge of determining the players' intentions and many umps, at first, were reluctant to fulfill this responsibility.

The game of baseball was being adjusted for the enjoyment of those who played it and also for those who liked watching the game.  It's beginning stages had quirky rules such as a batter could be thrown out after a base-on-balls if he "walked" to first base rather than run to the first sack.

In 1889, three (3) strikes and four (4) balls were finally settled upon as the parameters for an at-bat. It was not until the early 20th century that fouls began to count as strikes.

Strike Zones.
The concept of a strike zone began to develop once called strikes were established in the late 1850s.

In 1868, Henry Chadwick: "When batsmen take their position at the homebase, the umpire asks him where he wants the ball and the pitcher is required by the rules to deliver the batsman a ball within legitimate reach of his bat and as near the place indicated as he possibly can."

Batters could not change their requested pitch location during the game.

In 1896, the batter played a role, at least as much as the umpire, in determining the strike zone. Was the toss by the pitcher "suitable"?

Like now, umpires then had a different interpretations as to how close the pitch had to be to the designated location. Some umpires considered a pitch as having to land within an inch or two of an exact spot. Translation, like with today, some umpires go "by the book" while others let their judgment be their guide as to how the rulebook (for a particular play) is most functional.

In 1871, the rules makers restricted the batter to calling only for a "high" or "low" pitch. This created two different strike zones- between the waist and shoulder for a batter who requested "high" and between the knee and the waist for a batter who chose "low" pitches. Since the pitcher could aim for anywhere within the area the batter had selected, the basic concept of a strike zone had been established.  

Explained, in 1874, Henry Chadwick wrote, "The umpire, whenever the striker (batter) takes his position at the home base (plate), should satisfy himself as best as he can as to what constitutes the fair reach of the batsman."  In other words, was the pitch hittable?

In 1885, Harry Wright suggested doing away with the requests for high and low pitches and just having a single strike zone that stretched from the shoulder to the knee (St. Louis Post-Dispatch, June 27, 1885.)  His idea was implemented after the 1886 season.  For the first time each batter had to defend a standard strike zone. The exact parameters have changed only slightly since, but there have been bigger changes in how umpires interpret the strike zone. One could view today's strike zone as having reverted to that of a batter between 1871 and 1886 who requested a low pitch.

In the early 1890s, moving the pitcher back became a key plank of the Lester Plan, a series of changes proposed by Philadelphia Record sportswriter, W.R. Lester. Lester's ideas gained a key ally in Sporting Life editor Francis Richter, who argued that another five feet between the pitcher and the batter would result in "the restoration of the proper equilibrium between the two great principles of the game- attack and defense. With the pitcher reduced to the ranks, nine men instead of two will play the game." (Sporting Life, 11/11/1892).

The current distance of 60'6" was adopted by the National League on March 7, 1893. This change from 50-feet to 60-feet, 6 inches is sometimes depicted as having moved the pitcher 10 1/2 feet farther from the plate, and the mysterious six inches is sometimes attributed to a surveyor's error. Neither is the case.

It was actually the intention of the rule makers to move the pitcher's back about 5 feet.  But the 5 1/2 foot pitcher's box had been the limit for the pitcher's front foot, while the new rubber effectively determined the location of the pitcher's rear foot. The result ws that the five foot change was added to the 5 1/2 foot box in the wording of the new rule, which created the magic number of 60-feet 6-inches.

(My thanks to the book, A Game of Inches, by Peter Morris. It is a very good read for those baseball officianados who are interested in the game's roots. Note: The Henry Chadwick Award was established by the Society for American Baseball Research in November 2009 "to honor those researchers, historians, analysts, and statisticians whose work has most contributed to our understanding of the game and its history."  Chadwick is credited with writing baseball's first rule book and the first box score by modifying the Cricket box score.)

Kevin Marquez