Shrink the plate? What?

My hero Frank Deford had a thought-provoking and semi-bizarre commentary on NPR the other day about the strike zone. Frank was one of the biggest reasons I became a sportswriter. In a way, his grace as a writer was the BIGGEST reason I became a sportswriter. So what follows is written in that spirit.

Frank based his commentary on a simple premise: There are too many strikeouts in baseball these days. He thinks it is making the game boring. To fix this, his solution is fairly simple: Shrink home plate. Frank’s idea is to cut an inch and a half off each side of the plate, making it 14 inches across instead of the 17 inches it is now.

So much to talk about here. Question 1: Are there too many strikeouts in today’s game?

Obviously this is a matter of opinion, but I tend to agree at least somewhat with Frank. It would be nice to see the ball put in play more. As baseball fans know, the increase in strikeouts is a skyrocketing phenomenon. Here is the rise of strikeouts per game (both teams):

1946: Average 7 strikeouts 1952: Average 8 strikeouts 1956: Average 9 strikeouts. 1959: Average 10 strikeouts. 1963: Average 11 strikeouts. 1967: Average 12 strikeouts. 1971: Average 11 strikeouts. 1974: Average 10 strikeouts. 1986: Average 11 strikeouts. 1994: Average 12 strikeouts. 1997: Average 13 strikeouts. 2010: Average 14 strikeouts. 2012: Average 15 strikeouts.

Sp. you can see the progression kind of bounced around until the 1994 strike season and has been soaring ever since. The battle between hitter and pitcher is a fascinating one, but it is true that when 15 of the 54 outs are strikeouts there is a repetitive feel to at-bats. Strikeout. Walk. Strikeout. Lots of foul balls. Baseball is great when there’s motion -- fielders in motion, runners in motion, things happening so fast our minds struggle to keep up -- and with strikeouts, as Babu says on Seinfeld, there is no motion.

Question 2: Why are strikeouts up?

Here is where Frank and I begin to diverge. Frank lists off the following reasons for the rise in strikeouts: Hitters are working the count more, they are not embarrassed to strike out like they were in the proud olden days and, most of all, pitchers are faster and better than they have ever been. Frank’s general premise is built around the opinion that pitchers (in large part because of the extensive use of fresh-armed relievers) have passed hitters in quality and so the game must be altered to balance it.

I don’t believe this last part at all. At all. Yes, I’m sure the fact that pitchers throw in the mid-to-high 90s more consistently now than at any point in baseball history has some effect, as do those other factors.

But in my view. by far the biggest reason strikeouts are up is pretty simple: The incentives point the game in that direction.

Baseball’s incentives used to point toward few strikeouts. Batting average used to drive the game -- or at least it drove the way the game was viewed both inside and outside. The best players were the ones with the highest batting averages. The mark of excellence was being a .300 hitter. And striking out a lot crushed your chances of hitting .300.

Look, between 1901 and 1994, there were 818 players who struck out 100 times in a season.

-- 78 (10%) -- hit .300 or better (only two, Roberto Clemente in 1967 and Dave Parker in 1977 led league in hitting) -- 139 (17%) -- hit between .280 and .299 -- 246 (30%) -- hit between .260 and .279 -- 224 (28%) -- hit between .240 and .259 -- 121 (15%) -- hit lower than .240

The last 20 years, though, the game has been driven by a different force: Power. Of course, power was always a part of the game, but for a long time only a few select players had it. There were only five to 10 players in each league capable of hitting 30 home runs in a season for the half century or so before the strike. There was a clear division in baseball then. The greatest home run hitters, many of them -- Ruth, Mantle, Schmidt, Foxx, Howard, Killebrew, Greenberg, Snider, Reggie, on and on and on -- struck out a lot for their times. But they hit home runs so it was generally tolerated.

The rest of the hitters couldn’t afford to strike out that much. They were light-hitting middle infielders and fast outfielders and hit-and-run craftsmen and professional hitters. They HAD to put the ball in play. It was the only way they could provide offensive value, the only way they could become stars and get paid like stars. They could be .300 hitters.

But in the 1990s that drastically changed. Suddenly EVERYBODY had power. Second baseman were 15-25 homer guys. Shortstops crushed the ball. How did they do it? Well, lots of ways but one was: They just started swinging a lot harder. Just one example:

In 1976, 22 players hit 20-plus home runs. In 2007, 84 players did.

In 1976, 18 players struck out 100 times. In 2007, 86 players did.

The entire way we view the game has changed. As Tom Tango points out all the incentives these days point toward strikeouts. Pitchers -- facing hitters who hit the ball farther and harder than they ever have -- need to get strikeouts.* And so they pitch for the strikeout (rather than the old “put the ball in play” philosophy). Hitters, meanwhile, don’t really have the same incentive to avoid strikeouts. On-base percentage sand slugging percentages -- not batting average -- plays a much bigger role in baseball now and both of those can be HELPED by side-effects of strikeouts. The more pitches a batter sees, the more likely he will draw walks. The harder a hitter swings, the more likely he is to get extra bases when he connects.

Strikeouts are simply going to keep rising as long as the incentives of the game push it in that direction.

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*INTERLUDE: It seems worthwhile to spend a minute or two talking about the incentives for pitchers to strike out more batters. We often talk here about BABIP -- batting average on balls in play -- but this is mostly to talk about defense and a pitcher’s general hit-luckiness. It excludes home runs hit because they are not technically in play.

But when looking at what pitchers have been facing since the strike, it’s even better to look at batting averages on balls hit fair. This includes home runs. And it paints a nasty picture for pitchers.

Twenty of the 21 highest batting averages of balls hit fair have come since the strike. Only the crazy 1930 season -- the year Bill Terry hit .401, the year Hack Wilson drove in 191 RBIs, the year four players slugged .700 or better -- even placed in the Top 20. In 1930, players hit .326 on balls hit fair. That’s 15th on the all-time list.

The Top 14 are 1994,1995, 1996, 1997, 1998, 1999, 2000, 2001, 2004, 2006, 2007, 2009, 2009, 2012.

The batting averages range from .327 to .333.

Even more telling: Slugging percentages. The top 20 slugging percentages on fair balls are ALL from 1994 to now. Twenty first on the list is that juiced ball 1987 season -- it’s the only season not in the last 20 that had a .500 slugging percentages on balls hit fair.

What does this mean? It means you don’t want the hitter to make contact. Since the strike, hitters are absolutely crushing the ball when they connect. Again, you can blame steroids -- I’d argue it’s a shift in the game. Hitters are stronger even without steroids. And most of them are paid to hit get extra base hits, even if they happen to be second basemen or catchers. Swing hard. That’s the game now.

So pitchers really have no choice but to go for strikeouts. In 1975, hitters hit .302 and slugged .438 when they hit the ball fair. A pitcher could didn’t have to go for the strikeout all the time -- hitters would often get themselves out, and even if they got hits it was often a scratch single or something like that.

Last year, hitters who hit the ball fair hit .325 and slugged .509. They’d hurt you. As a pitcher, you better go for the punch out.

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Question 3: Would shrinking the plate by three inches solve the problem?

Obviously, I don’t know for sure. But I have strong suspicion and it’s a two-part answer.

Part 1: It might or might not solve the problem.

Part 2: It would blow up the game and make the strikeout thing look like nothing at all.

If I’m being honest, I’m surprised someone as thoughtful and brilliant as Frank Deford would come up with such a lumbering and clumsy solution. It reeks of the old John Lowenstein joke that they should move first base a foot closer to the plate to eliminate close plays

I have little-to-no doubt that cutting home plate by about 20% would create absolute havoc in the game. Would it cut down strikeouts? I’m guessing it would but, I must say, I’m not even sure about that. Hitters might swing even harder and strike out even more because runs would absolutely go bananas.

But I do know it would blow up the entire structure of baseball as we know it. As Tom Tango points out, some time after the 2000 season, in an effort to slow down the insane run scoring of 1999 and 2000, umpires were encouraged to start calling the strike zone a bit more consistently with the rulebook. Runs dropped about .4 per game -- the average team scored 65 or so fewer runs in a season which is a pretty big deal. That was for just the slightest adjustment.

A 20% reduction in plate size? Here’s what would happen: Walks would skyrocket -- Bill James wonders if teams might walk seven more times PER TEAM PER GAME. Fourteen more walks per game. Yikes. I don’t know if it the numbers would be quite that high, but they would be very high. You could tack on a half hour to games already too long. And walks are ten times more boring than strikeouts. I’m kind of shocked that Frank did not consider this at all.

But here’s something else: If they shrunk the strike zone by 20%, someone would hit 80 home runs in a season within five years. And one hundred homers in a season would be in play. The thing people kept missing -- and still keep missing -- about the home run derby of the Steroid Era was that steroid use was only a part of it. We can argue about how big a part but there was so much more to the story. Harder bats. Livelier balls. Players (clean players too) who work out religiously. Home run friendly ballparks. And ... the strike zone. Umpires essentially stopped calling the high strike, which forced (1) Pitchers to bring the ball down and (2) Hitters to have a smaller area to focus on.

If you shrink the strike zone and give these hitters a smaller target to work in -- look out. I think Frank has it wrong. Pitchers have not improved more than hitters have. My guess is that it’s the other way around. Hitters -- now facing night games, harder-throwing pitchers and relief pitching -- crush baseballs. Barry Bonds proved that with increased strength -- unnatural now, perhaps, but not necessarily unnatural in 20 years -- the game’s balance can go completely out of whack. If you cut down the strike zone -- especially by that much -- I really believe, the game would go haywire.

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Question 4: So what could be done to cut down strikeouts (if indeed this is a problem)?

I posed this to Bill and his answer is succinct and interesting: “Reduce power. Deaden the baseball's 1% per year; see what happens. The strikeouts are a consequence of everybody trying to hit homers. If you take a few homers away, the odds swing in favor of hitting singles.”

Tom Tango’s idea is similar: “One way to change the balance for the hitter: move fences back 20-30 feet. Now the HR is not so attainable. Now they will think more about making contact.”

But then Tom asks the pertinent question: “Is the cure worse than the disease?”

It’s a good question. Do people -- and I’m talking about the mass of baseball fans, not one particular sect -- want to give up home runs to cut down on strikeouts? Do they want to go to more slappy baseball in order go get more consistent action?

I don’t know. My guess, frankly, is: No. I think most people would like to see a few less strikeouts or at least to stem the tide of rising strikeouts. I personally would like to see fewer strikeouts so we the games would have a little bit quicker pace and more movement.

But baseball’s great equalizer in a time more geared toward violence and dunks and thrills is the home run ... and, frankly, the strikeout. Too much of them can (and does) get tedious. But too little and baseball can lose much of what makes it so popular. A 1976 game with lots of singles and stolen bases and few home runs and fewer strikeouts -- yeah, I’m not sure how that’s playing in 2013.

I’d be for deadening the balls or bats slightly to give the game some added depth and dimension. But I don’t really know that it would improve the game. Honestly I would have been interested to hear Frank offer something counterintuitive like WIDENING the strike zone, which might make it less viable for hitters to swing so hard and might make them concentrate more on plate coverage. I don’t know if that would happen -- I kind of doubt it -- but I do believe that shrinking the strike zone is just about the worst baseball idea I’ve heard for a while.