Advanced Ball and Strike Calling

If you have gotten this far in the article you are probably a serious umpire or at least want to be. In this section, we will discuss some advanced things that you can do to improve your performance. There is a lot in this section for the casually reader and student of baseball as well as the recreational umpire. Much of what is presented is controversial. It is based on observations of 1300+ baseball games worked or observed, most of them involving 15 year olds to adults. As an evaluator of umpires, I have developed into a keen observer of umpires and especially their interaction with those around them. Some of these observations are those of our senior evaluator, John Porter, who no longer umpires baseball, but probably has observed 2500+ games over the years, either sitting in the stands or as a coach. When you read something, do not dismiss it as outrageous just because it goes against conventional wisdom. There is a lot of careful observation backing it up.

CHECKED SWINGS

Checked swings are part of calling balls and strikes. Many macho umpires try to get every one from behind the plate. This is encouraged for appearance sake and the fact that the base umpire in "B" or "C" position does not have a good view of the checked swing. However, good ball strike calling is not about getting every pitch right; it is more about avoiding gross misses.* Do you want to ruin a good plate game in a hurry? Say, "Yes, he went." when in fact the bat barely moves. The base umpire, although he may not have a great view, is much less likely to have a gross miss. Five or ten marginal misses are to be preferred over one gross miss. A gross miss tells everyone that you are incompetent and can send a good game south in a hurry. So, use your base umpire for the checked swings when you are in doubt. This goes against conventional wisdom but I have used this with great success over the years. If you are tracking the ball properly, you will not see the checked swing on a low outside pitch. (This is the number one trouble pitch that we talked about earlier.) As a measurement tool, if you have to go to your partner more than 2-3 times per game, then you need to take corrective action. You should see most check swings accurately but never, never guess on this. Here we need to alter a mechanic that is taught in pro school. Their mechanic on a checked swing where the batter held up is " Ball! No, he didnít go". Drop the "No, he didnít go" and just leave it at "Ball". There is a myth in the baseball community that "No, he didnít go" is a secret signal between umpires. Do not play around with secret signals on checked swings. The coaches are smarter that you think. Tell your partner that he can overrule all of your checked swings if he wants. Remember, thatís more strikes and he will take all of the heat.

The concept of avoiding gross misses is important for later discussions and you may be wondering what the definition is. A gross miss is a call that both teams know was wrong. A gross miss is a call that makes an umpire evaluator, sitting in the stands, want to hide.

Before we complete the discussion of checked swings, a note to base umpires who have to make the final decision is in order. Despite the joke above, (to call all checked swings strikes if you want), this is a foolish way to go. Intuition would indicate that gross misses on checked swings are split 50/50 between "Yes, he did" and "No, he didnít". This intuition is wrong. Gross misses are weighted about 10 to 1 in favor of "Yes, he went".* Therefore, if you are not 90% sure, the correct call if you want to avoid gross misses is to agree with your partner. You have a much better shot of avoiding the gross miss, which is an important goal. This also prevents the following additional problem from developing. Recently, I was doing a top level game of the week in our area. An undefeated high school pitcher had more than a dozen scouts in the stands as well as 300 fans. Early in the game, I called "Ball" on a checked swing. I was asked to get help. My very experienced partner indicated "Yes, he went." This was a gross miss. How do I know? One of the defensive teamís fans said, "That was a good break." An independent scout in the stands commented to another that the pitcher being observed had just gotten a gift. If that was all that had happened, we would not worry about it. However, now every time that the batter flinched, I was asked to get help. Each team hoped that my partner would make another error in their favor. This being federation baseball, where going to your partner is optional, I was able to shut this down.

The Philosophy of the Strike Zone

Much has been written about this subject and the answers depend a lot on the type of baseball to be worked.

You may wonder why this subject was not first in this section. After all, we are talking about calling balls and strikes. Checked swings were first, in order to develop the concept of "gross misses". It is important to understand this concept as it influences how to deal with the strike zone. You do not want to have any gross misses in your game. A single gross miss undermines both teamsí confidence in the umpire and leads to arguments, ejections, and more gross misses. A deteriorating situation produces inconsistency and consistent ball strike calling is what this article is all about. Assuming that you have the basics down, and that is a big assumption, how do you go about developing consistent ball/strike calling?

Physical Aspects of Working the Plate

Calling balls and strikes consistently through seven or nine innings is a physically challenging task. You must be in reasonable shape to have a shot at success. In pro school, one is taught to hustle everywhere on the ball field so as to make a good impression on the coaches and players. Minor league umpires hustle everywhere and this works fine for four or five innings. Then, especially on hot days, they start to make minor mental mistakes that only another umpire would spot. Mental mistakes can lead to gross misses and we know where a gross miss leads. Now, if even these 22-29 year old athletic bodies in excellent shape cannot keep up the pace for 9 innings without making a mistake that will lead to problems, what chance has the average guy got. (Note: The minor league umpires will vehemently deny that they tire and make mistakes, but close observation shows that they are engaging in self deception. We will talk more about self deception under mental aspects of ball strike calling.) So, hustle for the first inning and call your strikes emphatically, likewise in the last inning in a close game, in order to show everyone that you care. Conserve energy in between. Hustle to get in position but slowly walk when the play is over. If a fly ball is hit down the left field line, bust out as far down the line as you can to make the call. However, unlike the minor league umpire who trots back to the plate when the play is over, slowly walk back to the plate. You do not want to be winded when you have to call the next pitch.

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.