Photo Credit: Dale Garvey

“Ariddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma.”

While Winston Churchill certainly wasn’t describing the actions in a softball game when he made this famous quote, he very well could have been if he was trying to decipher what some batters were doing in the batter’s box. While it can be difficult to determine whether or not a batter checked her swing, softball is unique in that umpires must also determine if the batter is bunting at the ball or slapping at it. The two are distinctly different and have very different outcomes, especially when the batter has two strikes.

Using rulebook language, umpires can help themselves identify what it is a batter is doing in a particular situation. The four codes all agree a bunt is a legally batted ball not swung at but intentionally tapped (NFHS 2-8; NCAA 11.7.2; USA Softball 1 – Bunt; USSSA 3 – Bunt). While that seems simple enough, batters have become very adept at moving their hands at the last minute, not to mention while moving through the batter’s box, which can cause an umpire to pause and think about what just happened.

One of the best ways to decipher what a batter is doing is to watch her hands. If the batter is performing a slap, she will keep her hands together and have an actual swinging motion toward the ball. If she is bunting, usually she will move the top hand down the bat toward the barrel to give herself better bat control, keep the bat still and try to tap the ball. Where this can get tricky is if the batter is trying to perform a drag bunt. A left-handed batter performing a drag bunt will look eerily similar to a batter trying to slap for a hit. The difference, however, is the motion of the hands. The hands will stay together on a slap while the hands, generally, will separate when she is attempting to bunt. The one exception is if the batter simply puts the bat over the plate and runs through the box. The only motion of the bat is in conjunction with the batter’s forward movement and there is no swinging motion.

When you are the plate umpire, this can be a lot of information to try to decipher all at once. First, you must judge whether the pitch is a ball or strike. Then you need to decide if the batter was attempting to bunt the ball or was slapping at it. After that, you have to decide if the batter made contact with the ball. Then, if she did make contact, you must decide if she was legally in the batter’s box upon contact. Finally, you must decide if the catcher caught the ball on a potential foul ball/tip situation or on a potential dropped third strike.

That can all seem overwhelming. And more than likely, a coach is going to ask you to go for help if there is any question whether the batter was attempting to bunt or swing at the pitch. As a base umpire, it is imperative to focus on every pitch and make a determination in your head if the batter was attempting to bunt or hit, even if your plate partner doesn’t come to you for help. By focusing on every pitch and making that determination, you will be ready if your partner does come to you.

As a base umpire, you are not responsible for calling balls and strikes. In a situation where the batter starts moving through the box, focus your eyes on her. Watch the movement of her hands and the motion of the bat. This will help you make a determination on what she was doing on the play. If you try to track the pitch from the pitcher’s hand to the glove you will find yourself having to bring your eyes and head back to the batter and you will miss those key indicators of what she was doing to help you properly rule on the play.

This is especially true with two strikes on the batter as the outcome can be the difference in an out or simply a foul ball. If the batter makes contact with the pitch and the ball is an uncaught foul, the plate umpire needs to determine if it was a bunt or a swing. If the ball goes sharply from the bat to the glove and is caught, whether it was a bunt or swing doesn’t matter. Either way, the result is a foul tip and the batter is out. If the ball is not caught, the crew needs to know if the batter bunted the ball or swung at it. If it is ruled a bunt, the batter is ruled out for bunting a third strike foul. If the batter is ruled to have swung at the pitch, it is simply a foul ball and she remains at bat.

It is also important to know the definition of an attempted bunt in each code as there is a unique situation that could catch an umpire off guard. In NFHS, NCAA, and USSSA, if a batter leaves the bat over the plate on a bunt attempt, even if she doesn’t move it toward the pitched ball, it is considered a bunt attempt and a strike. In USA Softball, leaving the bat over the plate is not considered an automatic strike. If the pitched ball is out of the strike zone and the batter does not move the bat toward the ball, it is not a strike.
At the end of the day, know the definitions and let that verbiage dictate your decision making. If you are new to umpiring softball, watch as many clips as you can and focus on the batter’s hands until you feel comfortable knowing the difference between a bunt or a slap. And in no time, you will be able to nail this call 100 percent of the time with the utmost confidence.

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