One of the most important jobs for softball umpires is game management. And one of the most overlooked aspects of game management is giving the count.
Regardless of the level you work, giving the count is part of your repertoire. While some levels require giving the count more than others, when and how you give the count can save your bacon on many occasions at all levels. Many believe working higher-level ball is easier in this regard because of the fancy scoreboards on most college campuses. Sometimes that is true. Sometimes, however, the scoreboard operator may be a work-study student and the count on the board is wrong more than it is right. It can also give umpires a false sense of security as they think they always have the scoreboard as a backup and may not need to focus quite as much. Below are some tips and techniques when it comes to counts and how you can incorporate them in your game to help keep the game sailing along.
When you should give the count.
There are many differing opinions on when you should give the count. If you’ve umpired long enough, you’ve probably developed your own habits on when you give the count. The most important thing is to have a rhythm. One of the best pieces of advice I was given when I started was to give the count when it matters. While we may disagree on exactly what “when it matters” means, it ultimately means every time the next pitch is an action pitch, we should give the count. What that means is any time there are three balls or two strikes, we should give the count, as there is the potential for a walk or strikeout on that next pitch. This helps alleviate any confusion as to whether the next pitch is ball four or strike three. Personally, I will give the count after the third pitch of an-bat and any time after that when the next pitch is an action pitch. If I have a competent scoreboard operator or both the pitcher and the batter are in position and ready to go, I may give it less to not disrupt the flow of the game. If coaches or players are constantly asking you for the count, it means you are not giving it enough. If you notice players aren’t asking for it, you most likely have found a good rhythm and don’t need to adjust.
Other times when you should give the count are after any long delays. This includes a foul ball out of play, a change in pitcher during the middle of an at bat, after an offensive or defensive conference, after an injury or any other time there is a significant delay in play.
One specific time it is important to give the count is after a steal. We have all been in the situation as a base umpire when a runner takes off for a base, we move to make the call and after the play is over, we think to ourselves, “What was that last pitch?” If the plate umpire fails to give the count, we may go a pitch or two and not have any idea what the count is. But more important than that, what happens if the batter checks her swing, or fully swings, and it is missed by the plate umpire? If the batter has a full swing and it is missed, which can happen when the batter swings late hoping to disrupt the catcher, the defensive team may assume the plate umpire added a strike to the count. Once the next pitch is thrown, we have no opportunity to go back and change that pitch to a strike if we initially rule it a ball. The window for appealing a checked swing has passed and it remains a ball forever. If the plate umpire gives the count after that play is over, the defensive team has the opportunity to appeal and the base umpire(s) has a chance to save the crew by ruling it a strike. While we have until the end of an at-bat to correct a count (plate umpire as 2-1 and it should be 3-1 or something similar), the time period to change a ball to a strike is until another pitch is thrown. By giving the count after each steal attempt, you can help alleviate missing an obvious strike.
If you are lucky enough to work with a scoreboard, you should always give the count when the scoreboard shows the wrong count. Most times, scoreboard operators will figure out they are off when they see you giving the count. I will rotate my wrist with which number the scoreboard has wrong (left for balls, right for strikes) to hopefully clue them in to fix it on the board. However, remember that you have the official count, not the scoreboard. There is no reason to hold up the game each time the board is wrong. Simply be vocal and show the count to the pitcher to avoid confusion. If the scoreboard operator is good, you may notice you rarely need to give the count, but you should still give it in those situations described above (long delays, steals, checked-swings, etc.) to make sure the whole crew in on the same page.
How to give the count.
When it comes to showing the count, there is one question to answer: To whom are we giving the count? The answer is the pitcher. Umpires should wait until the pitcher is in position before giving the count. If the pitcher is facing the center-field fence, giving the count at that time does no one any good. Wait until the pitcher is ready to pitch and facing you before giving the count. Some umpires like to wait until both the batter and catcher are in position before giving the count. The problem with that is if you are waiting until that moment to give the count, the pitcher may delay starting her pitch because she feels you are holding her up by giving the count. It also doesn’t give your base partner(s) much time to correct the count if there is an issue or allow a coach to ask a question about the count if you happen to have it wrong.
When giving the count, the most important thing is making sure the pitcher can see it. If you are a vertically challenged umpire, standing directly behind a catcher who is standing up is not ideal when giving the count. Either wait until the catcher drops down into position or simply take a step to your right or left and give the count. The count should be given out in front of your body and your hands should be high enough for the pitcher to see them. You don’t need to have them high above your head, especially if you are a taller umpire. You also don’t need to show the count to the third-base coach, then the pitcher, then the first-base coach. I know many umpires who like to rotate their wrists so those on the sides of the field can see their fingers clearly (as dictated by NFHS and USA Softball mechanics), and that is perfectly acceptable. However, you should not rotate your whole body so the entire park can see your count. And most importantly, leave the count up long enough for the pitcher to see what you have. Use the prescribed signals in the manual for giving the count as well. When the count is 3-2, make sure you show three fingers on your left hand and two on your right. Avoid showing the double fists (this actually means a 0-0 count).
Along with showing the count, we should be verbalizing it as well. You don’t need to be overly boisterous when announcing the count. However, you should annunciate clearly. When it comes to what to say, avoid saying, “Three and two.” Instead say, “Three balls, two strikes.” And always avoid saying, “Full count.”
When it comes to verbalizing the count when one of the two components is zero, that is more of a preference to each individual umpire. Personally, I don’t verbalize the component that is zero. For example, if the count is 0-2, I will simply say, “Two strikes.” I still show a fist on my left hand to indicate zero, but I don’t verbalize it. I was taught the less you say, the better and the less of a chance someone misinterprets what you said.
How to ask partners for the count.
We have all forgotten or lost the count in our careers. Anyone who says they haven’t is either lying or in denial. It happens and can be easily fixed. If all partners on the crew are carrying an indicator and staying focused, it should be an easy fix. If the plate umpire forgets the count, you can either put both hands on your chest and wiggle the fingers while facing your partner or you can simply verbalize to your partner, “What do you have for the count?” The most important thing is to get the count correct. Typically, I will pregame with my partner(s) how to handle this situation. I prefer the non-verbal mechanic so as not to bring it to the attention of everyone in the park. However, there is nothing wrong with verbalizing, as long as you aren’t doing it multiple times a game. It just gives coaches another reason to question our focus.
Most umpires don’t think much about the count or giving it, either in the offseason or during the pregame. However, it should be something to which we provide some focus as it is a huge part of what we do during a game. Practice in front of a mirror so you know what you look like and discuss in your pregame what you and your partner(s) will do if you forget the count or what to do in those situations with a steal and a missed swing. Nailing this part of your game management can elevate your crew and garner trust from coaches. If you notice you are struggling in this area, make a conscious effort to improve in your next game and before you know it, it will become second nature.
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