CHICAGO - Blame it on Bob Gibson.
When the size of the strike zone is debated these days, the former St. Louis ace is usually the first name brought into the conversation.
In a season where 8-7 games seem to be the norm and three players are chasing Roger Maris' home run record, Gibson remains the symbol of an era when pitchers dominated the game. It was Gibson's phenomenal season in 1968 that helped lead to a change in the strike zone, a zone that some current players say has shrunk to microscopic proportions.
1968 belonged to pitchers
The strike zone expanded to an area from the knees to the shoulders before the 1963 season, but contracted again after the so-called "Year of the Pitcher" in '68.
From start to finish, the 1968 season was a pitcher's paradise.
Early on, Don Drysdale broke a 55-year-old record set by Walter Johnson by hurling six consecutive shutouts and 58 2/3 consecutive scoreless innings. Gibson threatened to break Drysdale's record shortly afterward, compiling 47 2/3 straight scoreless innings until it ended on July 1 in a Gibson-Drysdale pitching duel.
Next came an excruciatingly boring All-Star game in the Astrodome, when Drysdale, Juan Marichal, Steve Carlton, Tom Seaver, Ron Reed and Jerry Koosman combined to shut out the American League 1-0 on only three hits. In September, San Francisco's Gaylord Perry and St. Louis' Ray Washburn threw back-to-back no-hitters against each other's teams, and Denny McLain became baseball's first 30-game winner in 34 years.
When it all ended, Gibson finished with a measly 1.12 ERA, and the Cardinals led the league with a 2.49 team ERA. The two leagues combined for 335 shutouts, and Boston's Carl Yastrzemski was the only AL hitter to top the .300 mark, batting .301. The overall National League ERA in '68 was 2.99, and 2.98 in the American League.
1994 belongs to hitters
By comparison, through last Monday, the Atlanta Braves and Montreal Expos led the NL with 3.63 ERAs while the Chicago White Sox paced the AL at 3.92.
Expansion and the introduction of the designated hitter to the AL in 1973 make comparisons between the two eras tricky.
Still, there are pitchers who say the shrinking of the strike zone in '69 was only the beginning of a trend that has favored hitters over pitchers.
"Why has it happened? I don't know," said Texas reliever Tom Henke, who sarcastically compared the current strike zone to the size of a grapefruit. "Maybe it's my imagination, but I hear a lot of pitchers around the league saying the same thing this year. Look at the stats - there is no team in the (American) league with a staff ERA under 4.00, except Chicago."
"Every rules change for the last 20 or so years has been done to bring in more offense. When Gibson had the 1.12 ERA, they lowered the mound. It's just like when they tried to enforce the balk rule a couple years ago."
Owners change rules
On Dec. 4, 1968, the owners' rules committee - consisting of Chub Feeney, Joe L. Brown, Cal Hubbard, Cal Griffith and Rick Farrell - got together and voted in two significant changes regarding the size of the zone and the pitcher's mound. They redefined the zone as "that portion of the player's body from the armpits to the top of the knees," reducing it at both ends. Formerly, the zone was defined as being from the "shoulders to the knees."
And while managers and general managers had lobbied to have the mound reduced in height from 15 inches above the plate to 8 inches, a compromise eventually was reached at 10 inches.
Theories run rampant
When the ball leaves ballparks the way it has in the last two years, there are always a million theories for the statistical oddity. But not all players are convinced that the strike zone is any different from previous years.
"I can't tell really what's changed about it," said Houston pitcher Doug Drabek. "I know that the last few years the runs have started to add up a little more than they have in the past. Whatever reason for it - you keep getting theories about the balls, the strike zone, the quality of pitching and all that - I don't know.
"I just think that one year you have a hard time against one team and an easy time against another team, and then the next year it could change. The team you had an easy time with, you have a hard time with. I just think it goes along with that. Different years - that's what's happening."
Like Henke, Jack McDowell, who was recently waived by the White Sox, is one pitcher who has complained about the incredibly shrinking zone, and both of them brought up Gibson's name.
"When you watch those old World Series games, with Bob Gibson and all those guys, strikes are up here (at the armpits)," McDowell said earlier this year. "Sure a guy's going to have a 1.00 ERA, a 2.00 ERA. It doesn't happen anymore, because the strike zone's miniature. Everyone's a lowball hitter now, because that's all you have to be. The art of pitching is disappearing."
"I know it's smaller than when Gibson pitched," Henke said. "I was watching the '68 World Series on TV last winter, and I marveled at how big it was. To be able to throw a strike today, it's got to be a perfect pitch to hit. The strike zone is lower. You can't get a strike above the belt anymore. Catchers set up, and their facemask is at the belt. You throw the ball there, and you seldom get a call. If it's thrown between the top of the knees to the belt, that's about all you've got anymore."
Chicago Cubs broadcaster and former major league pitcher Steve Stone says umpires now will give pitchers a few inches on either side of the plate, but that the National League umps have taken about 8 inches off the top of the zone, lowering it from the armpits to the belt.
"The National League has always been known as a lowball league," Stone said. "The reason was the American League umpire used the inflatable (chest) protector, and so the umpire stood right behind the catcher and peered over the top, and consequently, his sight level was higher. The National League used the inside protector, and he'd appear between the hitter and the catcher, and so his sight line was lower.
"So the National League, just by the physical thing, was lower. Then everyone went to the inside protector, and the National League stayed lower. The American League started to come down, but there's still higher strikes in the American League. The National League is a still a league where above the belt is high."
Some pitchers who believe the strike zone has shrunk to unprecedented levels may be reluctant to say so, knowing that umpires read newspapers, too. On the flip side, perhaps it was American League umpire Larry Barnett who spoke for most of his peers when he recently assessed the current crop of major league pitchers.
"I've never seen it this bad in 26 years," Barnett said. "That's as clearly as I can put it without getting vulgar. I remember when this game was good. Now you could have a strike zone from the top of the hitter's head to the bottom of his feet, and 85 percent of these (expletives) couldn't throw a strike."
Not all of the players see any difference in the zone, including McDowell's batterymate, catcher Mike LaValliere.
"The difference a lot of times is between the umpires," said LaValliere, a former National Leaguer.
"Sometimes you get a pitcher's umpire, and sometimes a hitter's umpire. A few more higher pitches are called strikes in the American League. It's only a slight change in the zone. You get a lower strike in the National League and a higher one over here."
"Every umpire is different," Drabek said. "Just like every pitcher is different. Each of them have their own different strike zone. Over the years, it's seemed the same to me."
Maybe hitters are better
Maybe modern-day hitters are just much better than modern-day pitchers, a theory espoused by Astros second baseman Craig Biggio, a converted catcher.
"Just look at the American League - they've got some guys over there that can just kill you," Biggio said. "And they've got smaller ballparks over there. I'm not in the American League, so I can't comment on it over there, but from a National League standpoint, I don't think the strike zone has changed at all."
Home runs are even being hit at a record pace in Houston's Astrodome, traditionally a pitcher's park. It has nothing to do with the strike zone, said one Astros player, but everything to do with the thermostat, which has been turned up from either 73 or 74 degrees to 76 or 77 degrees this year. The anonymous Astro joked that the higher temps are to supposed to make fans thirstier so they will buy more refreshments, though others think it was meant to increase run production and increase attendance.
And, there's the weather
An Astros' spokesman confirmed the temperature has risen a few degrees from last year, but said there was no real reason. Either way, after setting a team record with 138 home runs last year, the Astros are on pace to hit 174 homers, provided there's a full season. Jeff Bagwell already has 21 home runs in the Astrodome, shattering Lee May's single season record of 18, set in 1974. Is the raising of the temperatures a subtle attempt to increase offense in a dreaded home run graveyard?
"If there was any truth to that," Drabek said, "I'd have it about 40 degrees in there every time I pitched there."