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Pre-pitch preparation is a key to success for every umpire at every level. Eric Hutchinson, Lancaster, Calif., must run through his checklist before each pitch to stay mentally focused throughout the game. (Photo Credit: Bob Messina)

An old British Army adage known as the “7 P Rule” originated during World War II. The gist of the rule is that proper prior planning prevents poor performance. The seventh P is not suitable for print. While the adage is true in the military, it also relates perfectly to officiating, and umpiring in general.

Over the course of a seven-inning game, umpires will have, on average, 200 pitches to focus on. It can be difficult to maintain focus and stay mentally in tune to the game, especially when working the bases. One way to stay in the moment is to pre-pitch prepare before every delivery. One way to do this is to think about the game as a one-pitch game for seven innings instead of focusing on the game in its entirety. This requires umpires to develop a mental checklist and run through those items prior to every pitch.

Below is a list of things umpires should add to their mental checklist in order to be prepared and help minimize unexpected issues during a game. The more an umpire practices this technique, the more routine it becomes.

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Chase area/position of outfielders/location of partners

It is vitally important for base umpires to know what area of the field constitutes their chase area. Whether working as a two-, three- or four-person crew, umpires need to know which area belongs to them in order to avoid multiple umpires chasing, or even worse, no umpire chasing on a difficult call. Before each new batter, base umpires should turn and see where outfielders are positioned. It is important to know if they are playing shallow or deep, shaded to one side of the field and if a left- or right-handed batter is up to know which way the ball will slice or hook off the bat. Umpires should also make sure to check the outfield alignment throughout the count. Do the outfielders shift when there are two strikes and move dependent on whether the pitcher is ahead or behind in the count? Knowing this information and planning before the pitch comes will allow base umpires to get a good jump if the ball is in their chase area and prevent late chases, which could foul up rotations or potentially put other umpires out of position.

Knowing the position of the outfielders can help base umpires determine if they need to chase a ball or stay in. If the outfielders are playing deep, a shallow ball to the outfield may not need chasing. Likewise, if the outfielders are playing shallow, a fly ball that lands on the warning track in the gap with no hopes of being caught doesn’t need to be chased either. If umpires fail to realize where the fielders are positioned, they may unnecessarily chase and take themselves out of a play for no reason. They may also not chase thinking a play is routine and the play ends up being an extremely difficult one for the plate umpire. Umpires should also know where they will go if they choose not to chase and where they will go if a partner chooses to chase.

All umpires should pre-pitch their movement regarding where their partners are located and whether or not there is a chase. Umpires should be able to react when the ball is hit, and that is only viable if the umpire has pre-pitched the situation. If umpires have to stop and think about what their partners are doing, they will be late to their destination and potentially late to making a call. It is extremely important to know movement prior to the ball ever being put in play.

Count/outs

Before every pitch, base umpires need to know the count and how many outs there are. Once a batter has two strikes, the likelihood of a bunt diminishes and umpires can spend less time pre-pitching what to do in that situation. However, with two strikes umpires need to pre-pitch their movement in case of a dropped third strike.

When the count is in the batter’s favor, umpires need to know that a potential hit-and-run may be coming if there are runners on base or a potential bunt and need to know what to do if those situations come to fruition.

Knowing how many outs there are is extremely important, especially when there are two outs. Umpires must keep their antennae up for timing plays and know that teams may be more aggressive on the basepaths to push a run across. Teams are also less likely to bunt with two outs, however teams with a lot of speed may use that as an element of surprise.

Late-game situations also dictate a lot of decisions regarding pre-pitch preparation. If the winning run is on third base and there are less than two outs, chances are the defense will play in, trying to cut down the run at the plate. Teams may also try to get in a rundown to score a runner from third. Thinking about those scenarios before they happen will keep umpires from getting caught off guard.

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Signals

Communication is the strongest tool umpires can use to prevent disaster. Using the proper mechanics and using the umpire-to-umpire signals prescribed in the manual can help immensely with prepitch preparation. Umpires should be prepared to give and return the signal in an expedient manner and should be led by the plate umpire. If the plate umpire forgets, the other umpires should communicate with each other and try to give the signal to the plate umpire to help clue the plate umpire in.

The most common signal used between umpires is the infield fly signal. Umpires should give this signal to each other before every batter when the situation is on. This allows each umpire to be cognizant of the situation and helps to get the mind thinking about what to do if there is a fly ball in the infield or short outfield. Umpires should also give the wipe-off signal when the infield fly is no longer possible to remind each other to not call it.

Another signal that needs to be communicated pre-pitch with each other when working an NCAA game is the two-out timing signal. The signal helps remind each other the need to pay attention to runners scoring as the plate umpire may need to either count a run or take a run off the board.

NCAA umpires also need to be prepared to give the dropped-thirdstrike signal when there are two strikes. Forgetting to give that signal could lead to major ramifications, and it is important for base umpires to remind themselves with two strikes they may need to give that signal. The plate umpire should not have to guess on a ball that may short-hop the catcher and the umpire should be able to quickly glance at the base umpire for assistance.

Checked swing

Base umpires need to be aware when they are the go-to umpire regarding a potential checked swing. This may require movement to a better position to see the plate area to get a better view to help in those situations. When there are two strikes on the batter, the base umpire needs to be prepared in case the plate umpire comes to him or her quickly with a checked swing request as to not put either team at a disadvantage. In the two-umpire system, the base umpire will always be the go-to umpire. In the three- and four-umpire system, it is important to pre-pitch before every batter to know which umpire will be called upon to give help.

Steals/pickoffs

Umpires need to be prepared for the potential of stolen bases or pickoff attempts. Umpires should pre-pitch who the runners are, where the runners are located and if the defense is aggressive in trying to pick off baserunners. An umpire who is caught flat-footed will be unable to get to the correct position to make a call. It is vital to pre-pitch all the potential scenarios when runners are on base.

Plate umpires need to pre-pitch these scenarios as well. The plate umpire needs to make sure to not interfere and needs to know where to move to assist with a pickoff throw or get in position for the advancement of a runner on a steal.

Interference/obstruction

Another area umpires need to pre-pitch deals with the potential for interference and obstruction. Base umpires need to know where fielders are playing and prepare for potential plays involving those fielders and baserunners. It is important to know if middle infielders are playing in or staying deep and know where the first baseman is playing when there is a runner on first. If an umpire fails to pre-pitch these situations, mayhem could ensue if there is a collision on the basepaths.

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Plate umpires also need to be aware of these situations. They are responsible for running lane violations and can also help with potential obstruction and interference calls, especially in the two-umpire system when the base umpire is on the other side of the field.

Slapper/bunter

All umpires need to pre-pitch what they are going to do when a slap hitter or known bunter comes to the plate. The plate umpire needs to be aware that a slap hitter may step out of the box or a bunter may step on the plate. Umpires also need to be prepared for a pitch that comes inside while the batter is moving, as this can be a difficult call for an umpire who isn’t prepared for it. Pre-pitching this situation allows an umpire to be mentally prepared for it when it happens.

Successful umpires must run through this checklist quickly before the pitch. While it may seem like a lot, it shouldn’t take more than a few seconds to run through it. With no runners on base, the list is much smaller. As more runners get on base, the checklist gets longer and more intensive. Running through this checklist will keep you focused and in the game, and more importantly, prevent poor performance.

Brad Tittrington is an associate editor for Referee. He is a collegiate and USA Softball umpire. He also officiates women’s college and high school basketball as well as high school volleyball.

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Note: This article is archival in nature. Rules, interpretations, mechanics, philosophies and other information may or may not be correct for the current year.

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