LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. - A first look at a strike zone as defined by the rule book produced a mixture of reactions among hitters and pitchers Tuesday morning.
While manager Bobby Cox and pitchers John Smoltz, Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine and Mike Remlinger watched from behind a second base screen, major league umpires Laz Diaz and Jeff Nelson called balls and strikes during batting practice.
Chipper Jones, who hit against Odalis Perez, said Nelson called strikes on pitches that were "three to four inches" above the belt. "But until we get into a game, it's impossible to tell," Jones said. "I refuse to believe the strike zone is going to be universal."
Nelson and Diaz worked on the main diamond and in the bullpen and discussed the strike zone change with a half-dozen players. Diaz told catcher Paul Bako the zone "will go up five to seven inches", and he informed pitchers Kevin Millwood and John Burkett "those pitches off the plate are no longer going to be strikes."
That's bad news for Maddux and Glavine, who have fashioned Hall of Fame careers by working the outside corner and beyond. Both pitchers were reluctant to discuss the changes, though Maddux said, "What is called in March isn't a guarantee of what's called in April."
In this case, it probably is. The umpires insisted the strike zone will be called as it's defined in the rule book, meaning pitches from the knees to the letters will be called strikes, a change intended to help pitchers and speed up games.
"The strike zone is going to be called as it's written. That's the message getting out," Nelson said.
"They're going to have to throw it over the plate," Diaz said. "Everybody is going to adjust, but I don't think it's going to hurt either (Maddux or Glavine). Most balls that are hit for home runs are high pitches."
Cox is lobbying for the corners, primarily for Maddux and Glavine's benefit, suggesting the pitches just off the corners that have been called strikes for years still should be strikes.
"If they squeeze (the zone), numbers will go sky high again," Cox said. "I think all managers want to see strikes called, but I don't want to see anyone called out on a strike at the neck. If they go up one or two inches above the belt and don't call in and out, what have we achieved?"
The change might be hardest on the umpires. They have defined the strike zone throughout their careers, and now they are being asked to make a major adjustment.
"It's a definite challenge," Diaz said. "It's like retraining mental muscles."
Reach Bill Zack at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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