If you’ve watched any baseball on TV, you’ve probably noticed a floating box above home plate during at-bats. The contents of this box represent the “strike zone”, which is one of the most important elements of the game.
Now you might be wondering – what is the strike zone?
The strike zone is an invisible box that exists to differentiate whether pitches are strikes or balls, as called by the home plate umpire. It is generally an area directly over home plate and between the batter’s shoulders and knees that a pitch must cross to be considered a strike.
In a sense, the strike zone is a unique part of baseball, in that a large portion of the game revolves around the home plate umpire’s interpretation of an invisible zone. Naturally, you might wonder how the strike zone is defined and interpreted. We’ll get into that here.
What Is the Strike Zone in Baseball?
The most interesting thing about the strike zone is that while there is a rulebook definition of it, the interpretation of the zone is an ever-changing thing.
Simply put, the strike zone is an area over home plate and towards the middle of the hitter’s body that a pitcher must hit consistently to have any chance of success. From a batter’s point of view, the strike zone is the area where hitters see the most hittable pitches.
Because both the batter and the pitcher need pitches in the strike zone to be successful, this is where the cat-and-mouse game between pitcher and batter is evident.
A pitcher wants to hit the strike zone, but only around the edges where it’s harder for a hitter to make solid contact. Likewise, a hitter wants the pitcher to get too much of the strike zone and take advantage of a pitch in the middle of the plate.
Because the strike zone is technically invisible and will have a different shape depending on the batter at the plate, it is unique in that the zone is never uniform, even at the highest levels.
Additionally, different governing organizations have different rules on the strike zone, meaning that different levels have different zones.
How Is the Strike Zone Determined?
Because strike zones are ultimately up to the umpire’s discretion, they will vary, but as stated, there are definitions at every level as to how they should be called.
At the major league level, the strike zone is defined as the midpoint between the batter’s shoulders and beltline and the bottom of the hitter’s knees, as well as the area directly above home plate.
Of course, there is plenty of interpretation to be had with a definition like that. The midpoint can be interpreted differently by different umpires.
That point usually ends up around the bottom of a part of the jersey commonly referred to as the “letters,” which is named because many teams have their team or city name (or a logo) spelled across the chest, hence why it is called the letters.
Scientifically speaking, according to Sports Information Solutions, for the average MLB hitter the strike zone spans from 1.5 feet off the ground to 3.6 feet off the ground.
With home plate being 17 inches wide, the zone is a minimum of 17 inches wide as well, though it’s usually a few inches wider.
Generally, in American baseball, relative to the size of the player, strike zones tend to start off larger as players begin playing, then shrink as they get older.
We consulted a veteran youth baseball umpire to offer his insight at how strike zones evolve at different age levels.
He said that at the earliest ages of kid pitch (8-10 years old), strike zones may range from as high as the shoulders to the mid-shins, with perhaps 4-6 inches on each side of the plate given.
This tends to shrink gradually until high school when the strike zone begins to resemble the same boundaries as the college and professional strike zones.
Even when the strike zone is more or less set, there are factors in play that determine how big or small it is. One factor is that the definition of a strike zone does not define whether all of the baseball or just part of it must cross a certain area to be considered a strike.
As a result, a strike zone that is defined as being directly over home plate (which is 17 inches wide) could vary wildly in width.
According to the rules of baseball, a strike is when any part of a pitch passes over the plate and within the strike zone.
Only part of the ball must be over the 17-inch plate to be a strike, in essence making their strike zone roughly 23 inches wide, though some umpires may want more of the ball to catch the plate to consider it a strike.
This same line of thinking can be applied at the top or bottom of the strike zone as well, which suddenly means that two otherwise-identical strike zones may all of a sudden vary by a few inches both up-and-down and side-to-side because different umpires choose to apply the wording differently.
Another key factor in the size of the zone is a player’s size. Because Jose Altuve stands just 5’6” tall, his strike zone will be several inches shorter than that of Aaron Judge, who is 6’7”.
A hitter whose stance includes a crouch would have a smaller strike zone as well. Now, the catch is that there’s no guarantee the umpire will call it that way.
As a result, how an umpire calls balls and strikes can greatly influence a game.
How Does the Strike Zone Affect the Game?
The exact impact that a big or small strike zone can have on a game isn’t exactly nailed down, but in general, it’s agreed that the size of the strike zone can have a direct impact on the balance between hitting and pitching.
A large strike zone generally favors pitchers, while a smaller strike zone generally favors hitters. There are usually some traits you can pick up that will highlight this tendency.
These factors could be mitigated by having a certain type of pitcher on the mound or an offense geared around certain traits, but generally, a large zone will allow pitchers to work farther away from the middle of the plate without the risk of walking an exorbitant amount of batters.
At the same time, once hitters pick up on a strike zone being large, they may be more inclined to swing at borderline pitches that they may have otherwise taken.
Because hitters may feel forced to swing with a larger strike zone, some people believe it speeds up the pace of play, though it’s hard to specifically prove. Our youth baseball umpire said that advice from his early supervisors suggests this is the case.
He said that in his earlier years where he primarily worked games between 9-11-year-old kids, supervisors would frequently tell umpires, “Call a wide zone. Make the kids swing the bat.”
Of course, they would also add, “but don’t be too crazy about it.” In the eyes of the supervisors, a huge strike zone was necessary at the lower levels of baseball so that more balls are put in play and the game can ideally move along at a decent pace.
On the other hand, when an umpire is calling a tighter strike zone, hitters at higher levels of baseball will often pick up on close pitches being ruled balls and be less inclined to swing.
In this case, pitchers will tend to find themselves working behind in the count more often. This could lead to a pitcher walking more batters, throwing more hittable pitches out of near-desperation, or perhaps some combination of both.
In any case, a pitcher is usually hurt by a smaller strike zone.
History of the Strike Zone in Baseball
The strike zone did not exist when the original rules of baseball were written in 1845, meaning that a hitter could not be called out on strikes and the base on balls (a walk) did not exist.
The called strike was introduced in 1858 and the called ball (as well the base on balls) followed in 1863. However, pitchers had to conform to hitters calling for a high or low pitch until 1887, so there was no fixed strike zone at every time.
The modern concept of a fixed strike zone was introduced in 1887 and modified several times before the current definition of the MLB strike zone was instituted in 1996.
From 1887 to 1949, the strike zone encompassed the area between the batter’s shoulders and knees. The rule was then changed to lower the top of the strike zone from the shoulders to the armpits, which remained so until 1962.
In 1963, the rule was changed back to the pre-1950 rule, which is the first time since 1887 that the strike zone was expanded by rule.
The result was the so-called “Year of the Pitcher” in 1968, when the National League posted their second-lowest batting average ever and the AL hit just .230 as a whole, the lowest by either league all-time.
Consequently, the zone was shrunk in 1969 to now span from the batter’s armpits to the top of his knees. It shrunk again in 1988 to span from the midpoint between the shoulders and belt (the letters) and top of the knees.
Lastly, it was slightly expanded in 1996 to make the strike zone lower by calling pitches to the bottom of the knees strikes, adopting the modern-day iteration.
With this knowledge, the next time you want to yell “where was that one, blue?” you have a better idea of whether he made the right call or not.