The most important job in a game, and often the most difficult, is calling an accurate strike zone. In order to be accurate, you need to be able to see the entire zone on every pitch for seven innings. It can be both physically and emotionally taxing. In order to ensure you give yourself the best opportunity to be accurate, make sure you work hard to get in the slot and stay there.
The slot is defined as the area between the catcher’s inside shoulder and the batter when the batter is in a natural stance and the catcher is in the normal crouched position behind the plate. The slot affords the umpire an excellent line of sight for seeing the zone, checked swings, hit batters, illegally batted balls and catch/no-catch by the catcher.
Too often, umpires set up in the center of the plate right over the catcher’s head. While this may give you a centered look at the strike zone, it also puts you in a lot of danger. First, foul balls will have a way of finding your head if you center yourself over the plate. For your health and safety, you should never start in this position. Second, if the catcher rises at the last minute or pops up early, you will have a great look at the back of the catcher’s head, but a terrible look at the strike zone.
Instead, work to get yourself into the slot so you have the best look at every pitch. By being in the slot, you should be able to see the outside corner clearly. If you are unable to see the corner, you either are too far behind the catcher or you aren’t truly in the slot. In order to accurately and consistently call the outside pitch, you need to be able to see it. Otherwise, it just becomes a guessing game, which isn’t good for anyone. Use the warmup pitches prior to the start of each half-inning in the first inning to see where the catcher sets up and work to make sure you can see the zone clearly. Use those pitches wisely so when the first pitch of the inning happens, you aren’t caught off guard. Set the tone early.
Once you are in the slot, you should have an unobstructed view of the pitch from the time it leaves the pitcher’s hand until it arrives in the catcher’s glove. If the catcher slides over or raises a bit, simply raise a little higher so you can see the entire play. While we have all had a catcher jump up on us and had a coach then complain when we called a pitch a ball, you can only use that excuse so often. At the end of the day, it is our job as plate umpires to do everything we can to see each pitch and rule on them. Some catchers will require you to work harder than others.
Remember, calling balls and strikes is only one of your responsibilities as the plate umpire. You also have several other responsibilities that require you to have an unobstructed view in order to get the call right. The first is whether the ball hit the batter on a pitch. Being in the slot allows you to track the ball all the way to the catcher’s glove. If you are not in the slot, chances are you are going to get blocked out by the catcher or her head.
The same goes for balls low in the zone. If a batter swings at a low pitch, you need to be able to see if the catcher is able to catch it (or if you have a dropped third strike), or if the batter nicks the ball, you need to know if it is a foul ball or a foul tip. Being in the slot allows you to see the ball all the way back to the catcher and accurately make these calls.
It also allows you the ability to see when a batter makes contact with the ball when starting to run to first base. The slot allows you to get a much better look at whether batters are still in the box when they contact the ball a second time or if they are outside the box. When directly behind the catcher, you will notice you are often obstructed by the catcher and unable to see what happens in front of the plate. These plays happen very quickly and if you are in the slot, it gives you a much better view of these plays.
The slot also allows for much easier movement once the ball is put in play. It will allow you to nail those calls when the ball goes directly off the batter’s foot after contact as opposed to guessing whether it hit a foot or the dirt. It also allows you to quickly clear a catcher when you are responsible for trailing a runner to first base or when you have to get to third to cover the bag. If you are directly behind the catcher, you will find yourself either being stepped on repeatedly by the catcher or bumping into the catcher when you take your first step. Being in the slot allows you to pivot and create space.
If you are struggling with your strike zone or not feeling comfortable with seeing plays that happen near the plate once the ball is contacted, chances are your initial setup is not correct. Work on getting into the slot and finding an unobstructed view. You may feel a little unprotected at first, but once you get comfortable, you will never go back to your old ways.
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