Baseball America had an interesting bit of news: The Low-A Southeast League is adjusting its automated strike zone. According to BA:
MLB informed clubs it plans to widen the strike zone by four inches — two inches on each side — while eliminating nearly 3.5 inches at the top of the strike zone. The league is also altering where the pitches are registered in the strike zone in an effort to eliminate strike calls on breaking balls in the dirt, pushing it back to the middle of the plate after pitches were previously registered at the front of the strike zone.
The change follows negative feedback from players; apparently there’s some process where they’re able to register disagreement with the robo calls.
As BA notes, there’s been a huge increase in offense in what used to be called the Florida State League, which MLB decided wasn’t sufficiently corporate-sounding. Of course, there’s no way to do a direct comparison because the league was High-A back in 2019. Still, things shouldn’t be all that different.
Runs are up from 3.8 per team per game in 2019 to 5.2. That’s almost entirely due to walks. BA is down by nine points. HRs are up, but not a great deal, from 0.6 per team per nine innings to 0.8. Walks, however, have skyrocketed from 3.1 per nine to 5.2. Despite the drop in BA, league-wide OBP is up 33 points. Strikeouts are also up sharply, from 8.6 to 10.9 per nine.
Especially interesting, BA observes, “The rise in offense and walks has led to some wonky stat lines — just look at Phillies prospect Baron Radcliff (.197/.414/.362).” Well, just look at Hudson Head (211/382/392), or Sammy Siani (210/364/403). Or pretty much any Marauders hitter, although the others are less extreme.
You can parse the nature of the changes to try to reason through how they’d increase walks, strikeouts and homers all at the same time. Forcing pitchers to work more up and down, as opposed to side to side, seems likely to me to reduce contact while still leaving a risk of gopher balls. That seems to have been the result, anyway. The bottom line for Pirate fans following all those prospects at Bradenton is that the results were seeing so far are probably even more anomalous than we supposed, so we may not be learning a great deal about these players just yet. Although I’m all the more convinced that Endy Rodriguez (274/356/466) is damn good.
I guess one possible conclusion from this is that it’s a good thing MLB experimented with it in the low minors rather than risk a radical change in the majors. (Of course, MLB managed that anyway with the mid-season about-face on sticky stuff.) Then again, these are 20-22 year old guys trying to make progress at a critical stage of their careers. But they don’t drive much revenue now, so who cares, right Rob?