In an effort to improve pace of play and generate more offense, Major League Baseball has made formal proposals to the players union seeking changes to intentional walks and the strike zone, reports ESPN Jayson Stark. No rule changes can be made without the MLBPA's approval.
Here are some details from Stark:
MLB's proposal would raise the lower part of the strike zone to the top of the hitter's knees. Since 1996, the bottom of the zone has been defined as "the hollow beneath the kneecap." But data shows that umpires have been increasingly calling strikes on so many pitches below the knees that, if umpires enforce the redefined strike zone, it would effectively raise the zone by an estimated 2 inches.
The change in the intentional-walk rule would end the long-standing practice of requiring the pitcher to toss four soft pitches outside the strike zone. Instead, a team could just signify it wants to issue an intentional walk, and the hitter would be sent directly to first base.
The intentional walk proposal has been floated in the past and really, it won't have much impact. There were 932 intentional walks issued in 2,428 games last season. It works out to one intentional walk every 46 1/3 innings or so. Changing the rule won't increase the pace of play that much.
As for raising the strike zone, that could have a significant affect on offense. Research by Jon Roegele of the Hardball Times has shown the strike zone has grown in recent years, mostly downward below the knees. Not only are pitchers getting more strike calls in those spots, but hitters also have to protect against those pitches, and it's really hard to drive a pitch down below the knees.
Raising the zone an estimated two inches, per Stark's report, would lead to more favorable counts for hitters and ostensibly more well-hit balls in play, increasing offense. Run-scoring did tick up around the league in 2016, though it's still down considerably from where it was in the early-to-mid 2000s.
Any rule changes would presumably have to happen very soon. MLB and the MLBPA will want the new rules in place by the start of Grapefruit League and Cactus League play so players could get used them before the regular season. Spring training games begin in nearly three weeks.
I am pro raising the strike zone -- hooray more offense! -- but anti-automatic intentional walk. I say make the pitcher execute the pitches because there's always a chance for a wild pitch or a mistake pitch, like this one:
There simply aren't enough intentional walks throughout baseball these days for the rule change to have much of an effect. It's a competitive play and the pitcher (and catcher) should have to execute it. Don't automate it.