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Scott Johnson of Seattle is reading the play and adjusting from his original position to get a better view of the action at first base. (Photo Credit: Dale Garvey)

Good umpiring is the ability to adjust to things that happen that you don’t expect.

Having observed many umpires, I see they have a tendency to do things “by the book” 100 percent of the time, even if it gets them in trouble. Training programs and materials that exist may have the unintended consequence of exacerbating the problem. Umpires who are involved in, or products of, those programs may have somehow gotten the message that they always need to use the “correct” plate stance when calling pitches or be in the prescribed position when calling a play on the bases. If not, they will get “downgraded” by an observer or assigner for whom they work. Necessity is the mother of invention. Applying it to umpiring, there are times when we have to adapt, sometimes in creative ways. By-the-book umpiring, in other words, only gets you so far.

Proper positioning.

Attention is given to the proper positioning to use when calling pitches. Most training materials have been developed on the theory that pitchers, catchers and batters will do things the same way throughout the game. Those materials tell umpires to put our head here, feet there and bodies in a specific position. That’s OK if the participants do things the same way throughout the entire game.

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In the past catchers routinely set up mid-plate, giving umpires a good look at pitches from the slot position. Now, more catchers work the inside part of the plate, which doesn’t allow as clear of a look at the pitch. As catchers take the slot away from us, the question is, what do we do? We make adjustments. But how do we adjust?

Thought 1.

Don’t set up too quickly. That will allow you to move based on last-second adjustments by the catcher. However, don’t move around as the pitch arrives. That makes it more difficult to call the pitch correctly. When the pitcher begins his motion, adjust and settle in, because if you don’t, your view won’t be clear.

Thought 2.

When catchers work inside, we should take a step back and work higher. The problem is that makes it harder to see the pitch at the bottom of the knees on the inside corner. The positioning will have you working over the top of the catcher’s head and the zone will change.

The slot is the ideal position when calling balls and strikes. Working over the catcher’s head should be the last resort. Umpires are doing all manner of contortions to get in the slot while working with a crowding catcher.

Some umpires set up below the catcher’s head and the batter’s hands. Not ideal, but if you can track the pitch from the pitcher’s hands to the catcher’s mitt and make a call, then feel free to use it. Other umpires use a modified scissors. To adopt that style, lean over the catcher’s shoulder and take advantage of whatever opening exists. Never work over the shoulder of the catcher opposite of where the batter is positioned. You won’t know what happened if a pitch jams the batter or whether it hit the bat or the hand. Better to work over the catcher’s head if you can’t get in the slot.

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Plays at the plate.

In the past, umpires moved up the third-base line in foul territory to make calls at the plate. But what happens if the runner slides into foul territory? Plate umpires found themselves looking through the runner’s body when the tag occurred, hurting their chances of getting the call right.

Former NL umpire Frank Pulli advocated taking plays at the plate from behind the plate because the runner and ball were coming toward the plate. Then, proper positioning was modified to third-base line extended, where most calls are made today.

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However, don’t get locked into that position. I was watching a game and, based on how the throw came in, the catcher was setting up and the path the runner was taking, I felt the umpire was about to get straight-lined from the play. The umpire positioned himself on the third-base line extended and never adjusted. The runner slid straight in to the catcher, who tagged him three feet in front of the plate. But the umpire couldn’t see it because he was straight-lined. The runner was called safe. What followed were ejections of the defensive team’s manager and catcher.

Looking back, the umpire should have moved a few feet toward first; then he would have had a clear view at a straight-in or hook slide into foul territory.

On the bases.

Now let’s move to plays on the bases. We try to position ourselves so that we have the best angle on a play as it develops and can get set so that our eyes are not jiggling up and down. That allows us to see and process more of the play. However, there are multiple factors that can affect how we position ourselves and we have to make adjustments.

Baserunners.

Know where the baserunners are. That gives you an idea of whether a steal, hit-and-run, sacrifice bunt, etc., is likely.

Fielders.

Know where the fielders are. The infielders might be playing in, hoping to prevent the runner from scoring on a ground ball. In those situations, you may need to move to a deeper B or C position, possibly behind the infielders.

Or, the infielders may have shifted, hoping to make a double play. You may be in your normal B or C position, but the middle infielders may ask you to move to your left or your right.

The outfielders might be playing deep to prevent a run from scoring on a sacrifice fly. You may need to adjust position to have a good angle on the catch/no-catch call. Also you may need to avoid infielders that come into the working area to receive a throw from the outfield. You don’t want to get knocked over or hit with the ball.

A wild throw can take the fielder away from their normal position. Taking a read step can help improve your view of the play.
No matter what, you will need to adjust so you can be in the best position to make whatever call is necessary.

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Things don’t always go according to script, so doing things “by the book” will only take you so far. Good baseball knowledge and instincts can save you more than once in a game. Those things will help you in making the adjustments on the field and help you to be in the right position to make the call.

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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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