Working the Plate

  1. Introduction
  2. This article is addressed primarily to the amateur umpire who wants to get better. Each of things that I present may or may not work for you. There are no silver bullets. If you are looking for quick fix, you are not going to find it here. It took me years to implement many of these ideas and lots of hard work. As an assignor and evaluator in my organization, I have observed 500-600 umpires work over the last 8 years. I have studied what the good ones do and what the bad ones do. The observations that I am sharing here are based on real experiences and not on dogma or tradition which I have often found to be wrong or just not suited to the amateur game.

    Working the plate consistently is more psychological than a matter of mechanics. The first part of this article will be devoted to mechanics; the second half will be devoted to the head game. The information in the second half is what is so often lacking in writings about the amateur game.

    *You may be wondering what the asterisk is for. Everywhere in this article where a particularly important nugget of information is disclosed, I have place an asterisk. If you want to find the important stuff, just look for the asterisks. While I will cover the basics of calling balls and strikes, I will concentrate on things that are not generally discussed in umpire books. I have enjoyed uncovering things that most people think are true which actually turned out to be false and vice-versa.

    It may be difficult for a new umpire to understand what is being presented here; you need to see this demonstrated in order to get a good grasp of the basics. If you want to get the basics down in a hurry, go to one of the umpire camps. If you have five weeks and $2500+ go to pro-school. If you have two weeks and about $1000, Harry Wendelstedt will let you come to just two weeks of his five week school which is more than adequate for a beginner.

    (A note about the pro-schools is in order here. The methods that they teach are suited to an 18-25 year old body in good physical condition who is also a natural athlete.* Anybody can get in good physical shape but a natural athlete’s ability comes from God. Less than 10% of those going to pro-school even get a shot at the minor leagues. Although the people who run these schools will deny it, less than thirty percent of the people who walk through the door on the first day even have a shot at a job because of their physical limitations. That being said, I myself have been to pro-school and I got a lot out of it. The instructors spent just as much time with me as they did with the star performers and I got what I came for.)

    The following article modifies many of the things that are taught in pro school to adapt it to the older umpire, the uncoordinated umpire, the umpire in less that optimum physical condition and especially to the amateur game. Many of the most important nuggets of information to be found in this article are along these lines.

  3. The Basics

Overview of the Basics

The following information sounds simple. It is not. It will take lots of hard work to get it right and requires the input of instructors. In my own organization, we spend about 20 hours training new umpires on the basic mechanics of calling balls and strikes. Even then, all but the most athletic are barely competent. Almost all fall back into bad habits without repeated coaching and correction. I will repeat this again: Getting regularly checked out by instructors is mandatory if you want to improve!

Position: Box vs. Scissors (and Knee)

There are three basic positions for working the plate, box, scissors, and knee. The box is the easiest to learn and is the only one taught at pro school. The scissors is best suited for good athletes who can be continually checked out by their peers because it is so easy to get into bad habits with the scissors.* The knee is no longer acceptable for top level amateurs. If you are not already at the top and want to get there, do not tilt at this windmill. Two reasons given by the experts are that you cannot see the outside part of the plate because of the catcher’s head and you cannot bust out quickly to carry out your other responsibilities in two man mechanics. An unstated reason is that it looks lazy and unprofessional. So for this discussion we will talk about the box. You should master this method before you try any other. (Exception: If all that you work is 60 foot baseball, the knee is acceptable. The kids are so short that one can still see over the catcher’s head.)

The Slot

All good umpires in the USA work what is called the slot. If you do not work the slot, you will be perceived as inferior, regardless of what your actual results are. If you don’t work the slot, start today, or realize that you will always work low level baseball. The slot is the space between the batter and the catcher. Many umpires line up their nose on the inside corner of the plate, with the bottom of the chin no lower than the top of the catcher’s helmet.

Some umpires line up even farther inside (3 or 6 inches) so that they never have the problem of a strike coming straight at them. Something coming straight at you often explodes in your face. This is why umpires often grossly miss pitches that are obvious to the coaches and fans. Lining up this far inside presents another set of problems, which will be touched on later.

Again, the box is something that an instructor will have to show you in order for you to get it right. Briefly, you walk up in the slot with you feet together. (Assume a right hand batter here.) You kick your left foot out past your left shoulder so that the toe of you left shoe is even with the back of the catcher’s feet or rear end. Then your right foot moves out past your right shoulder so that it is pointing up the catcher’s rear and the toe of the right foot is in line with the heel of your left foot. This is called heel-toe alignment and it is critical to getting in the proper position. Your nose ends up being lined up with the inside corner of the plate or slightly to its left, but never over the plate. Your body, because of the heel-toe alignment is facing the second baseman and pro school teaches that the head should be square to the pitcher. You are now in a position to accept the pitch. As the pitcher winds up you snap down so that the bottom of your chin is no lower than the top of the catcher’s helmet.

What are all of the things that can go wrong here? A whole lot. Here are some problems and some solutions:

Head Height

A major error umpires make is that their head is too low.* Thus, they cannot see the outside corner of the plate because the catcher’s head is in the way. The bottom of the chin should be no lower than the top of the catcher’s helmet. If the catcher lines up inside then the height of the head may be even higher.

Tracking

The next part of calling balls and strikes is keeping your head still. Your eyes are like a box camera and a box camera cannot take a good picture of the ball if the box is moving. Many umpires move their head without realizing it. We often have to literally hold our students’ heads still because they cannot tell themselves that their head is moving.. The eyeballs (as opposed to the head) follow the ball from the pitcher’s hand and see it all of the way into the catcher’s mitt.* This is called tracking. It is not easy and it is unlikely that amateurs who have not been specifically schooled in this will do it correctly.

Tracking is not natural or instinctive. Here are some problems and proposed solutions:

TIMING

The ball must be seen all the way into the catcher’s mitt and then your eyes locked onto it for about one second before you make a decision – ball or strike. Let your "after-vision" make the call for you. See the pitch a second time in your mind’s eye. This also helps with seeing the dropped third strike and other weirdness around the plate. Good umpires wait .75 to 1.15 seconds after the ball hits the catcher’s glove until they call the pitch.* We call this "timing". As a new umpire, you should be nearer the 1.15 seconds. Good timing is rarely seen in amateur umpires and adopting it is as close as you are going to get in finding a silver bullet in this article. There is probably no one thing that you can do which will immediately improve your performance as quickly as adopting good timing.

Adopting good timing will produce other payoffs, which I will discuss in the next section, but for now we are going to go into a few helpful hints on how to accomplish the above:

Summary of the Basics

We have now covered the basics of good ball and strike calling. To put this all into practice will take a good athlete at least a year, the rest of us 3-5 years, and this is only if one has access to instructors who can correct bad habits along the way. At this point, many people reading this are saying that they umpire for fun and this sounds like too much work. It is hard work but just remember the basics. Proper position – box in the slot, head height, tracking, timing, and concentration.

 

Peter Osborne is an assistant assignor of 8 years for Mid Atlantic Collegiate (MAC) Officials Association and a member of its affiliated union, Northern Virginia Baseball Umpires Association. Many of the above observations come from MAC owner, John Porter, and the union training committee. The training committee had already had 32 training dates in 1999. Much of this is to check out the plate mechanics of each umpire.