The Ten Unwritten Rules of Calling Balls and Strikes
by Jim Porter

I have a philosophy surrounding my work as a plate umpire. It is not one that I invented but it is one I fully support. Calling balls and strikes can make us or break us as officials. To be a good balls and strikes umpire we must call what I like to call "the strike zone of least resistance".

What is the strike zone of least resistance? It is the zone which the players, managers, coaches and spectators all obviously want you to call. If everyone is complaining your zone is too high, in the next game lower it a little. If they complain it is too low, consider rasing it. Eventually you will find a zone that will make everyone happy. You'd be surprised. My experience has found that this zone is fairly big.

In youth leagues, where the official strike zone is at the armpit, hardly anyone wants a zone that high. Let's face it, consider what a pitch looks like crossing the plate at a batter's armpit. That's awfully high. They'll belly-ache up a storm and label you forever a bad plate umpire. I know, it's not fair - you're calling the book zone, you're true to your rules but everyone thinks you stink. Life isn't fair.

There is also an unwritten set of rules for calling "the zone of least resistance". Well I'm going to break tradition here and make them written rules. My apologies to someone out there who may have already written them.

While reading some of the following you may find yourself strongly disagreeing with this author. This is a controversial piece. It would be worth your while to consider my ideas. These guidelines have given me game after game of grief-less balls and strikes and a reputation of plate work excellence in my area. I'm not one to toot my own horn but I am proud of my accomplishments. And I know that I must continue to strive for excellence in order to continue improving to become the umpire I truly want to be.

The Ten Unwritten Rules

1. If the catcher's glove is turned down, it's too low. If the catcher's glove is turned up then it might be a strike.

To find the lower part of the zone use the catcher to aid you in determining those border-line knees pitches. This does not work every time but it will help you in the majority of cases. If the catcher must turn his glove down (webbing in the dirt) then it will look low to everyone - - if it's borderline call it a ball.

But if the catcher can catch the ball with his glove pointed up (webbing to the sky) then your borderline knees-pitch quite easily became a strike. That's right - the same pitch in the same place can conceivably be a ball or a strike depending on how the catcher catches it. There are more examples of this.

2. If the catcher's glove touches dirt, it's too low.

Even if the catcher keeps his glove up but after catching the pitch his glove touches the dirt the illusion will be that the pitch was too low. Catchers must learn to catch and hold the glove for a momentary frame. Good coaches know this too.

If the mitt hits the dirt call it a ball.

3. If the catcher's armpit gets air the pitch is too far off the plate.

When a catcher catches a pitch on his glove-hand side, his upper arm must not extend away from his body. His armpit must not get air. He must not reach out. If he does then the pitch is too far off the plate (either inside or outside).

If his armpit gets air call it a ball.

4. If the catcher's elbow crosses the center of his body the pitch is too far off the plate.

When a catcher catches a pitch on his throwing-hand side, if his glove-side elbow crosses the center of his body causing him to turn his shoulders, then the pitch is too far off the plate (either inside or outside).

If his elbow crosses the center call it a ball.

5. If the catcher drops or misses the ball then any borderline pitch should be called a ball.

When a catcher muffs the catch of a pitch it is awfully tough to call a borderline pitch a strike. It is another illusion. Everyone thinks that the catcher missed it because it was a ball. Good coaches expect you to call this pitch a ball. Good coaches expect their catchers to squeeze it.

If the catcher muffs the catch call it a ball.

6. If the catcher catches it at his head-height or above it's too high.

The catcher's head should always be used to help you find the top of the zone. If he catches it at his head or below then it may very well be a strike - - his head or above and we're looking at a ball.

Anytime a catcher must reach even slightly above his head everyone believes this to be too high despite what the rule book says.

This guideline obviously relies on the catcher's size. Use your best judgment.

7. If the batter reacts like it's a ball then it very well may be a ball.

Sometimes a borderline pitch can be decided by how the batter reacts to the pitch. If the borderline pitch looks a little inside and the batter reacts as though it is inside then you should call this a ball. If the batter ducks his head just a little the that high borderline pitch might very well be too high. If the batter steps across the plate without swinging then that outside corner pitch might have been outside and a ball.

This is not to say that we should allow the batter to make our calls. These are just guidelines to help you. There are times when a batter is fooled by a pitch - - that does not apply here.

8. Call the glove on a curve.

This is an advanced theory for levels of ball where the curves are breaking like curves.

Some umpires believe a curve can enter the strike zone and then curve down into the dirt. I'm not going to argue about that. What I will say is that even if you believe the ball entered the strike zone you should not call this pitch in the dirt a strike.

These same umpires believe a curve ball which smacks right into the center of the mitt was too high when it crossed the strike zone. Once again I will not argue physics. Just call this pitch a strike - reward that pitcher for hitting the mitt, freezing the batter and awing the crowd. Everyone wants you to!

Call that glove on a curve and stop calling your theories on ball velocity and air speed physics.

9. Pitches which are always a strike with a count of 3-0 may not be a strike when the count is 0-2.

This controversial idea has sparked debate amongst the greatest umpiring minds. Some say that you should call the same zone all the time and others say it always seems to get a little wider on 3-0 and tighter on 0-2.

No one can doubt the human sense of fairness. No one wants to see a kid get punched out on a borderline strike after seeing only three pitches just as much as no one wants to see a kid take his base on a borderline pitch after only seeing four pitches. The participants and spectators want to see baseball being played. They want to see hits and baserunners and exciting plays. No one can blame them for feeling the way they do about 3-0 and 0-2.

I'm not advocating that we should never ring a batter up on 0-2 or award a batter first base on a 3-0 pitch. What I am saying is there is a way to call a borderline pitch under those circumstances in such a way that it will make everyone happy. Consider it.

10. If the catcher's mitt moves it's always a ball.

Some catchers think they're fooling us umpires. They don't think we see them move their gloves over the plate on those borderline pitches.

If the catcher moves his glove it MUST have been a ball. Otherwise why would he have moved his glove?

There's no fooling us! That's a ball.