Publisher’s Note: CBP reprises this article, originally appearing in the Winter 2004 edition of “Officials’ Quarterly,” for it’s common sense approach to umpiring behind home plate, particularly working at the youth league level. The skills, mechanics and philosophy the author discusses are timeless and thus relevant to game applications today. At the time of its first publication, the article’s merits springs from the author’s extensive and impressive umpiring resume which included recreation, scholastic, and college level competition, including Texas Class 3A and 4A high school games for the Southwest Officials Association, national AAU Championship games in Florida, and successful completion of the Jim Evans Academy of Professional Umpiring in 1997. As explained in OQ, Mr. Wiederaenders seeks the truth while exposing the myths regarding the various plate mechanics that an umpire needs to master in order to effectively call a game. He handles with class and professionalism discrepancies between Jon Bible’s advice to college level umpires and his own maxims to novice umpires at lower levels. Likewise, CBP strives, through its Ask The Ump features, for common sense approaches to umpiring youth leagues games and tournaments in the 21st century’s growing obsession with travel team events and venues. Editorial privilege is taken to add pictures and a bullet list to aid clarification and no attempt is made to reflect macro- or micro-distinctions between professional or lower level clinic instruction from the time of the original article to present levels of training for umpires, particularly at the scholastic and recreation/travel team levels.
Attend a mechanics clinic at the high school level and the instructors will be umpires who have found some degree of success at a higher level of ball, perhaps even retired Major Leaguers. These seasoned instructors are more than happy to show their current mechanics and their present version of basic mechanics to willing novice and newbie umpires, apprentice students and dedicated clinic attendees. Good instruction is a premium commodity.
One of the mechanics taught is the plate mechanic: first, where the umpire’s position is located relative to the players; second, how to place the umpire’s body and head to see the pitch; third, how to see the pitch from pitcher’s hand to catcher’s glove; and fourth, how to make the strike/ball announcement. Let’s go through these four items and find the truth while exposing the myths taught.
First, where is an umpire supposed to stand relative to the catcher and batter? One common belief is that the umpire is to find the “slot” – that space between the plate and the batter – and get into the middle of that space. That’s not entirely accurate. The truth is that the umpire needs to center his head on the inside edge of the plate.
That sounds simple enough until the slot disappears. In that situation, the student is counseled to move up higher and back farther. That’s not always possible, however. Up-and-back work if you are tall enough, but what if you are not so blessed? The truth is that the umpire has two choices at this point. He might ask the catcher to move. But that is a difficult request if the catcher is a “one position” catcher and has not learned to assume more than one position behind the plate and use his glove to properly frame the pitch. Or, the umpire might ask the batter to move his feet further from the plate to another legal position. The truth is, the umpire has one more choice. He is also able to move to the catcher’s opposite shoulder. That is a more exposed position, but the view is also wide open. Although not a widely accepted mechanic, it is a possibility.
To do this, the umpire chooses a stance which positions his feet more than two feet behind the catcher. The reason cited is “why not start there if you’re going to end up there?” This is a mythical assumption. Young umpires need to learn to adjust to situations, rather than become rigid in their chosen mechanics.
Moving out of the slot to the other side of the plate is a creative, controversial and new idea. It has not gained universal popularity yet. However, for the time being, it is a valuable option that can be used. If the coach does not appreciate the calls the umpire offers from the other side of the catcher, the coach can always tell the catcher to move to open the slot again for the umpire.
Moving out of the slot to the other side is also opposed because allegedly the umpire is changing his view of the plate. The idea will be further below in point No. 3. For now, it is sufficient to say that just as players must adapt to umpires, so also umpires must adapt. If you are unable to adapt and learn, how do you expect to perform and produce?
Second, the essential of head position is explained to the novice umpire. Always attempt to view the strike zone from the same position is the instructor’s mantra. However, this ignores the innumerable variations of batter and catcher sizes in the high school and lower levels of the game. It’s a myth that the umpire can assume one position which will allow him to view all situations with a consistent, uniform stance. At the more advanced levels, NCAA and professional, the slot disappears with far less frequency than in high school ball.
Your head always goes where your feet lead it. The “heel-toe-heel-toe” method of body placement forces the umpire to begin body placement at the catcher’s heel. This method is taught only at the best of the schools and clinics.
The myth of body placement teaches that the umpire steps into his stance from the rear of the box. It doesn’t matter how far behind the catcher you stand, according to the “locked in” methodology. Just make sure you can see the pitch, even if you cannot see the entire plate. If the catcher moves, with this mythical method, the umpire is suddenly out of position. At the last second the umpire must adapt his starting point to the catcher’s stance. Late movement is exactly what an umpire does not want.
At this point, and only at this point, does it make sense to decide which stance is most comfortable for the individual umpire, whether the box, the scissors or the knee. Each stance begins in the same way, at the catcher’s feet, not at some point in the rear of the catcher’s box. The umpire steps into his stance. He does not step up or forward into his stance. The step-up method will leave the umpire standing so far from the plate that he cannot see it at all.
The next question is what is to be done with the umpire’s arms. The locked-in method, especially in the scissors stance, has the arms extended in front of the umpire with palms resting on the front knee closest to the catcher. The arms are rigidly, stiffly “locked” into this position so that the same stance is imitated for every pitch and situation. That this “locking” is preferred defies the laws of physics that state when a flying object hits a stationary object, something might break. Conversely, when a flying object hits a more relaxed and flexible object, less damage is done. The conclusion is plain, “locking” in this fashion might get you hurt.
The solution is easy. Use the heel-toe method in the scissors stance. With a right-handed batter, the umpire’s left foot toe is placed in the close vicinity of the catcher’s left heel. When the pitcher comes set, the umpire simply drops his head in a crisp fashion to a position above his left knee, extending his right leg straight out behind him. This is a far more stable stance than the “locked-in” stance that starts far behind the catcher. Further, in this stance, the umpire places his left arm across and close to his exposed belly while his right arm can be placed at the right side protected by the catcher’s body. Mask shots are more easily absorbed and the back has less strain placed upon it. This is, by far, a stance that allows the umpire to balance himself, getting ready for the inevitable move of clearing the catcher.
If you prefer the “locked” position, mounting your stance from the rear than from the catcher, you should consider losing some weight or use the more basic box stance.
Third, the “proper use of eyes” method proves more effective than the other methods of “eye catching” or “tunnel vision” or pausing a second before announcing the strike/ball. An umpire with a stable, still head, placed just above the catcher’s head, in a position to see the outside edge of the plate, must use only eye movement to track the pitched ball from pitcher to catcher. Any head movement skews the judgment. Moving to the catcher’s opposite shoulder, when the slot disappears, does not change the umpire’s view of the zone because he is not concentrating on the zone. He’s not looking at an imaginary box through which the pitch must pass for him to properly yell “strike.” Instead, with proper use of eyes, an umpire will watch the entire flight of the ball, not just when it gets to the plate area or in the catcher’s glove.
Furthermore, with the proper use of eyes method, the umpire’s timing will be automatic. He will be forced to take time to see the ball in the glove. He will be forced to assimilate all information available. Then he will be able to make. A most accurate call, first mental and then verbal.
Fourth, the discussion automatically progresses to how an accurate strike/ball decision is made. With proper use of eyes method, an umpire has time to decide what exactly happened on the pitch. That’s the key. Give yourself time to decide. Simply teaching the novice umpire to go more slowly tells him nothing, because he wants to know HOW to go more slowly. What is the methodology? Not rushing tells him little. HOW does he not rush? The answer is straightforward.
Once the umpire realizes that making the strike/ball call has two parts, he’s on the way to better timing. The first part of the call is mental. When he gives himself time to first see what just happened, by the time he gets around to announcing that decision, he’s got good timing. He won’t rush the announcement because he’s more relaxed. He’s more in control of the situation. He’s not surprised and confused. Those are the umpire’s worst enemies, by the way.
The “NCAA Baseball Instructions to Umpires” contains good advice for high school umpires too. Jon Bible uses the term “locked in” position to explain that the umpire
- “does not drift side-to-side or up-and-down with the pitch;
- does not flinch on swings or foul tips;
- keeps feet stable throughout, providing solid base;
- maintains proper spacing from the catcher so as not to become entangled if the catcher moves quickly and unexpectedly;
- holds eyes horizontal to the ground, not letting them dip as the game wears on;
- keeps head at proper height to allow unobstructed view of the entire plate;
- works in the ‘slot,’ not over the top of the catcher or to the outside.”
The generalized directive “works in the slot, not over the top of the catcher or to the outside” works best at the NCAA level. At the high school level, play is not as refined as it is at higher levels. A high school umpire (and CBP adds recreation/travel tournament umpires) must adapt to situations far more than at higher levels.
As with every plate mechanic taught, there are going to be disagreements. We are not perfect in all situations, nor in all mechanics taught. If you don’t move or adapt enough or don’t know it or won’t admit it, you are headed for a fall. If you are honest and open and circumspect, you will be able to deal with almost every situation. You won’t get surprised! You will adapt and succeed!
The developing umpire has a choice. He may either begin with the basics and advance, or he may begin with the advanced ideas and forget the basics. Then, when things go wrong he will have no basic reference to fall back on. Call ‘em as you see ‘em!