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Baseball is courting sweet, sweet chaos if it messes around with the strike zone

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Don’t knock it. Chaos can be a real barrel of otters.

World Series - Cleveland Indians v Chicago Cubs - Game Four Photo by Elsa/Getty Images

Baseball wants shorter games. Baseball wants more offense. We’ve been through this before: They’re a mad scientist, alone in a lab, trying to find the secret formula for exercise pie. They’ve figured out that exercise helps people stay fit, and they’ve figured out that pie is delicious, but when they combine the two, they hit a wall. It’s not looking good, but bless them for trying.

More than short games, and more than a slapdash infusion of dinger concentrate, though, what baseball wants is to be entertaining. No one would mind a three-hour game if there were constant, reliable bursts of action. Consider:

Average time of NFL game, 2016: 3:08
Average time of MLB game, 2016: 3:05

And I can’t express just how much time the NFL is wasting in those games, even compared to the watching-toenails-grow pace of baseball. It’s mostly excused, though, because football fans are guaranteed some frenetic action.

It’s mostly excused, though, because football fans are almost guaranteed some frenetic action.

It’s the action that Rob Manfred is going for with his proposed rule change, reported by ESPN’s Jayson 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.

Again, remember the stated goal of the last two seasons, which was to shorten games. A smaller strike zone means more balls. More balls mean more walks. More walks mean more time. A smaller strike zone means more hits. More hits mean more runs. More runs mean more time. This runs counter to the stated goal.

Forget about that stated goal. There’s a new goal. Get the ball in play. Get the runners moving. Stop striking out so damned much. And, sure, if there are more home runs, that’d be dandy, too. The three true outcomes — walks, homers, strikeouts — have their appeal, but if we’re to embrace the rule change, we’ll have to believe that nothing is more exciting than a runner on first, running on the pitch, or a runner on third, making the pitcher second-guess himself with everything he throws.

Could be! I’m not sure if the raised strike zone is a worthy experiment or a silly boondoggle. Not yet. I’ll need at least a half-season’s worth of evidence. Maybe a full season. I’ll need to know what happens when baseball’s fragile ecosystem is thrown off balance, what the invasive species will be, which crops they’ll ruin. Baseball wants to drop a plane full of cane toads onto the game, and the laws of unintended consequences will run wild. It’ll be fun, unless it isn’t.

The biggest difference: pitchers you thought were good, won’t be good anymore. Hitters who didn’t impress you will start impressing you. Start with the first one, considering that we have a template for surprising disappointment. The 2016 Rays were not expected to stink. They finished just under .500 the season before, and they were bringing back a rotation that was five or six deep.

Chris Archer was one of the best pitchers in baseball. Jake Odorizzi, Erasmo Ramirez, and Drew Smyly were coming into their own. Matt Moore was the weak link, statistically, but that was because he was recovering from elbow surgery. He still had the talent to thrive. Heck, they all did.

And then baseball dropped dinger toads into the ecosystem. Oh, maybe it was unintentional, a byproduct of manufacturing standards at the Costa Rican factory, perhaps. The why isn’t as important as what happened, which is that the Rays’ entire rotation, which had been thriving up in the zone, suddenly fell victim to advanced home run necrosis. Even though Tropicana Field is a tough park for hitters, the Rays allowed 210 home runs, their second-highest total in franchise history. The Rays didn’t allow that many home runs in 2001, when they lost 100 games in 2001, the peak of the Steroid Era, with Tanyon Sturtze and his 4.42 ERA clearly the staff ace.

Whatever happened to the ball last season messed the Rays up. They weren’t prepared for a livelier ball, and why should they have been? There was no warning. There wasn’t a winter for them to adjust and prepare.

The home run surge propelled the Orioles forward, though. They turned from an all-or-nothing offense into an All-Or-Nothing offense, a glorious collection of large men with fly-ball tendencies in the right park in the right season. Few people predicted the Orioles to make the postseason again, not after their lackluster offseason, but it turns out that Mark Trumbo was the perfect piece for them.

Speaking of Trumbo, we know his faults, right? Sure we do. Strikes out a ton. Not much of a fielder. Isn’t exactly a threat to steal 40 or score from first on a double. But what if we could give him an extra 30 points of batting average. Or, even better, what if we could bring the ball up and help him hit more fly balls. Take a look at what Trumbo hits on balls just below the strike zone, compared to what he hits on balls just at the bottom of the zone. Get the ball just below the zone, and he’s a 150-pound utility infielder. Get the ball in the zone, and he’s like a much stronger Mark Trumbo, just one without as many faults.

This change would affect players in so many different ways. There will be hitters who simply can’t adjust, who will continue to offer at pitches just below the kneecap because they’re permanently wired that way. There will be hitters who struggle high in the zone who will suffer because they won’t be prepared for a league that suddenly focuses their attention up instead of down. There will be hitters who have spent decades learning how to beat pitchers who live at the bottom of the strike zone, who have advanced and thrived because of their ability to pummel pitchers who did what they were told to. They’ll suddenly have to adjust. Some of them will, and some of them won’t.

Sinkerballers might hate it, unless they have the command and movement to mess with hitters, regardless. Pitchers with wonky command might hate it, unless they’re just wild enough to feast on hitters who are more aggressive because of the league-wide increase in hittable pitches.

If the changes go into effect this season, we’ll have answers for you before the next season, perhaps. This pitcher thrived. This pitcher was hosed. Kyle Hendricks is bad now, actually, unless he got even better because his command allowed him to stay one step ahead. Trumbo is now a .270 hitter with 10 extra dingers that he didn’t need, which makes him baseball’s best bargain, unless his eye is his eye is his eye, and he keeps chasing those low pitches.

The only thing we would know for sure if baseball implements these changes? Chaos. Even better, it’s not the kind of chaos that will sneak up on us throughout the year, like the rabbit ball of 2016. It’ll be something to track from Opening Day, if not in spring training. We’ll get thrashed and bobbed around by the chaos waves from the start of the season.

That’s if the changes are implemented, which they might or might not be, depending on the reaction from the Major League Baseball Players Association. We might have to wait a year or two for chaos, and that’s if we don’t have to wait until the next Collective Bargaining Agreement.

If the changes go through, though, we’ll watch players rise or fall. Licking flames will consume the best laid plans of entire organizations. That team that you thought was good? Actually, they’re bad now. Unless it’s the other way around. I’m not sure if I’m in favor of monkeying around with the strike zone, and I’m erring on the side of “leave well enough alone,” but I can’t help but be fascinated with the potential for sweet, sweet chaos.