Balls and Strikes Question

I had a question in a comment and when going to answer it, I started to wander a little bit further than the question desired, so I decided to make a whole post out of it.  So bear with me as I ramble through a few different thoughts.

Hey, Mr. Umpire, I had a question related to the dozens of pitching changes today. Does the ump give the pitcher any indication of what the likely calls will be as he warms up, or does he have to rely on his catcher/outgoing pitcher/coach/whomever?

Thanks, I’ll hang up and listen.
Other Chris

The umpire usually tells the pitcher 2 things when a pitcher enters the game:

  1. “You’ve got 8.” (eight warm up pitches)
  2. “Play Ball.”
  3. If its in the middle of the at bat, he may get the count, but only if it’s announced to the whole field.

Officially, all umpires should have the same general zone. If the catcher believes anything different, he usually will chat with the new pitcher after the warm-ups to make sure the pitcher knows the strike zone, outs, and signs.

As an umpire, I know my zone sometimes can be a little tight or a little low, I’m working on that, but I would never admit that in a game.  That’s just asking for trouble from coaches.  If the coaches think you have even the slightest lack of confidence in your calls, you’ll get hounded all game over the most trivial ball or strike calls, and that’s just not worth it.  It makes you think too hard about if you’re getting calls right when you should be just calling the game.

For me, much of the balls and strike portion of umpire is getting into a rhythm of see it, read it, call it.  I see the pitch in, I think to myself “that’s a strike” or “that’s a ball,” then make the call.  If I get to second guessing the corners, it throws off the whole rhythm.

Umpires will sometimes drop hints to the catcher about things being close, but the general consensus I get from more experienced umpires is don’t say anything unless the catcher asks you. As a catcher in high school, my coaches always told me never to ask the umpire about pitches unless the coach yelled at me from the dugout to ask. That way the umpire wouldn’t blame me for insinuating that I thought his calls were incorrect.

My personal philosophy, again, having been a catcher and now an umpire, is that the umpire and catcher rely on each other too much to piss each other off. A catcher doesn’t want to say the ball was over the plate to a coach when the umpire calls the pitch a ball (whether it is or not) because that makes the umpire mad, potentially losing some of the borderline strike calls. The umpire doesn’t want to hose the catcher as the catcher is the only thing keeping a fastball from crashing into the umpire’s body.

Continuing why I wouldn’t tell the pitcher anything, I, the umpire, don’t care about the pitcher.  He doesn’t protect me, if anything, he’s the guy putting me in danger.  He gets no help.  Plus most pitchers are a bit flaky (see Bull Durham).  It may be the old catcher in me, but you can’t tell a pitcher anything without confusing them or pissing them off.  Catchers are the smart ones.  They manage the pitching staff, so you, the umpire, let them know what’s up and everything will be fine.

The only other time that I really interact with the players outside of the catccher is when the game has gotten out of hand. Our run rules don’t kick in until the 5th inning; if a team goes up by more than 10 runs in a clear blow out, I’ll tell the hitters, “If you’ve got less than 2 strikes on you, and if I can get away with calling it a strike, it is going to be a strike. I won’t ring you up for anything questionable, but with less than 2 strikes, swing the bat.” For most of the high school subvarsity games, these happens often and is generally acceptable just to move things along.

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6 Responses to Balls and Strikes Question

  1. Other Chris says:

    Terrific answer, and I should have known the catcher was the key. However, sitting behind the plate at the Fish it *seems* like different umps have different visions of the strike zone. It’s not that guys vary throughout games — generally they are pretty consistent — it’s just that the “prism” of the plate seems to extend upward and downward differently for some than others (if that makes any sense at all).

  2. formerlyanonymous says:

    Yeah, the strike zone is under extensive study at the MLB level with the new strike zone evaluator. Most umpires view the plate as a 2D model, and if a ball breaks their plane, its a strike. The way the rule is worded though, it is actually a 3D model over the depth of the plate. It’s really hard to model that depth when you’ve got a 80-90 mph pitch coming at you and breaking one way or the other – much less the 75-80 mph stuff I see occasionally.

    The top of the zone is pretty ambiguous too. While the rule states its half way between the top of the shoulder and the top of the pants right as the batter swings (as in, not during his crouch, but as he extends his arms), the call can be affected by the batter having an unusual motion or a good catcher making a frame.

    What makes the high pitch a little easier is the batter’s propensity to swing wildly at it. Those pitches look like giant watermelons ripe for the picking. As players mature into college and the pros, they chase fewer and fewer, but its still hard to lay off them.

  3. Interesting stuff. I work for WCBN and we were wondering if you’d be interested in calling in (via Skype — we’d give you the info) to one of the game broadcasts to give your thoughts on both umpiring and the Michigan baseball team?

    Let me know,

    Jeremy Kreisberg

  4. Other Chris says:

    “The new strike zone evaluator” — that sounds like it’s from the future. I imagine some sort of lasers shining up from the edges of the plate or something. The ball breaks the beam and a siren goes off — strike!

  5. formerlyanonymous says:

    While the hockey siren would make an “interesting” sideshow, I don’t think purists would allow that to happen. The NY Times had an article (http://tinyurl.com/cbdphj) discussing it from both a retired umpire and players. The change is the addition of cameras to track the ball more effectively than QuestTec did earlier in the decade. The MLB hopes to use it as a tool to help umpires learn their tendencies. Mixed bag on my feelings. I’d like the ability to coach up my flaws, but at the same time, I feel like its extra pressure on umpires. The NY Times article didn’t give me a good stat to compare the QuestTec findings. The number of strikes per 100 pitches doesn’t matter as much as how many calls were missed.

    HT: Midwest Ump (http://tinyurl.com/c6otrv)

  6. Other Chris says:

    Thanks, that was interesting, if not as game-changing as I’d imagined.

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