Turn me loose, on umpires.
I remember in the 80’s a group called Loverboy had a song where the lyrics were “Turn me loose … I gotta do it my way … or no way at all.” Well, I’m turning myself loose today on Appalachian League Umpires.
First thing, I realize that many of these umpires are kids similar in ages to the kids playing baseball. Maybe even their first job. Being an umpire for 30 years, I’m probably over critical, but I am letting it loose.
On a positive note, I’ve been impressed with the positioning of the umpire group as a whole. All of them know where to be and when to be there. I’ve seen lots of “handing off” of the home plate umps coming up to 3rd and the field ump going home. Their positioning to make an out or safe call has been impeccable. I feel they are always in the right place to make a call, although some of the calls have not been accurate in my opinion. When I’m in the field, I’m using two senses when making calls, my eyes and my ears. I’m looking at a play and using 1st base as an example, I’m also using my ears to hear the slap of the ball in the glove and the foot hitting the base. Which one rules? I might surprise you to say my ears, and my eyes confirm what I have heard. Being in a press box with a set of headphones on announcing a game does cause me to lose one of those senses, my primary one, so my perception is limited to sight and the angle from which I see things.
The biggest inconstancy I see is what the different home plate umpires define as the strike zone. I do have a good perception from the booth, and don’t need my ears for that call. Some home plate umps use the dirt between the plate and the line to the respective batter’s box as a strike, and that is dead wrong. The left and right hand strike zones are defined by the 17 inch plate, no more and no less. Sliders from righties and lefties can leave some judgment as to the ball coming into that 17 inch zone but it has to be that zone. Let’s talk about the inside and outside part of the strike zone.
Home plate umpires should be positioned on the catcher’s shoulder nearest the batter, so over the left hand shoulder for righties, and over the right hand shoulder for lefties. That makes the inside part of the zone impossible to miss. The umpire should be looking right at it. No excuses for missing an inside pitch.
The outside part of the strike zone … is more left to judgment. What I do is look at how the catcher is standing at the plate while in a crouch. For most catchers, the inside of the knee will suffice as the outside corner. If the catchers shift inside or outside, then keep the “box” visually in the same place. As an ump, I never move and follow the catcher. It’s the same concept as keeping your eye level the same as a pitch is coming in to a hitter.
We have the inside and outside part of the strike zone set. Now let’s frame up the top and bottom, and we’ll start with the easiest, the top of the zone. Years ago when I was first taught, it was the armpit. Today that’s about a ball to ball and a half lower depending upon the height of the batter at chest level.
Three sides down, one to go, the bottom of the zone. That has not changed over the years, at the knees. I line it up with the catcher’s knees again. I see what the difference is between the catcher’s knees and the batters knees, and I frame in the bottom of the strike zone.
Fastballs and change-ups usually require little or no judgment on where they hit, just watch the catcher’s glove … and ignore how catchers try to “steal” a strike by quickly bringing in and outside pitch soon as it’s caught. Sliders and curves do require some judgment. Knuckleballers are surprisingly easy, as most catchers are more frustrated from catching a knuckler than arguing where the pitch is a ball or strike.
Lastly consistency. It is imperative that a home plate umpire call the same locations for righties, lefties, and for both teams. When the location changes during the game, there is an unfair advantage to the pitcher. When the strike zone changes, it’s one of three things … the home plate umpire wants to get the game over, the home plate umpire is favoring one team, or the home plate umpire is fatigued. Hopefully it’s the latter.
That’s it baseball fans, a page and a half synopsis of all the things I’ve been taught over the years. Feel free to use it as you wish, but please give me credit.
Like Mike Holmes says on his HGTV show, “Make it Right.” I instruct young umpires, be in the right position to make the right call and call it consistently. Learn from your mistakes, because we will all make them, but learn from them quickly. If you’re in it to give an unfair advantage to one team, walk off the field.
All umpires coming out of training in January should be taught the same strike zone, and they should not adopt their own zone.
Wow, I do feel better after getting all that off my mind. Feel free to get some baseball frustration off your mind and leave us a comment, please. We welcome it.