One of the attributes of a successful plate umpire is the ability to work with catchers. The catcher is a major factor in a team’s success while in the field. A top-notch catcher will be involved with almost every aspect of the game.
Not every umpire has the luxury of working with that good catcher. What does a plate umpire do when the game unfolds with a cantankerous battery-mate, or one who is oblivious to the finer points of working successfully with a plate umpire?
Crowding the plate.
The umpire must see the pitch from the time it leaves the pitcher’s hand until it crosses the plate. Two impediments to that happening include a catcher who takes away your slot and a batter who crowds the plate.
If the catcher is taking away the slot at the start of the pitch, try to adjust upward and move your head above the catcher’s head so you can see the pitch all the way to the glove. That may require a set position a little earlier than usual. Do it early enough so you can make the mental adjustment and visualize the strike zone from the new position. Realize that the adjustment may cause a ball at the top of the knee to appear too low or a high pitch to be a strike, so incorporate those facts into your visualization of the strike zone from the higher slot position.
If a late movement by the catcher takes you by surprise and blocks your view, do your best to adjust accordingly and see as much of the pitch as possible. Sometimes the catcher’s movement occurs early enough that your adjustment will allow you to see the ball before and as it enters the strike zone. Call the pitch as you see it.
We have all had incidents where either the batter’s or catcher’s last-second movement blocks your view and the ball explodes into your vision as it crosses the plate. When that happens, a slight hesitation coupled with your brain’s ability to digest something you have seen thousands of times before, like the ball crossing the plate, will allow you a better chance to call the pitch correctly. That hesitation may be evident to the players and coaches and you might hear some feedback from them, but the important thing is to get the call correct.
There are different opinions as to whether the plate umpire should talk to the catcher when her movements are making it difficult for you to see the strike zone. If the catcher is setting up early in the slot, I see no harm in a courteous comment such as, “If you set up that far inside, you make it difficult for me to see the pitch all the way into the plate.” If that does not work, perhaps at the end of the inning you can mention to the coach that the catcher is preventing you from seeing the entire pitch. Most of the time the coach or the pitcher will tell the catcher to stay still.
There are some catchers who insist on moving their glove into the area over the plate after they catch the ball outside the strike zone. That “pulling the pitch” is an effort by the catcher to convince the umpire the pitch is a strike. But good umpires will not be fooled. You must see the pitch into the strike zone over the plate, decide what you saw, hesitate and then call the pitch.
The catcher’s glove movement should be happening after you have made your decision but perhaps before you make a verbal or signal. If that becomes a constant event, tell the catcher she is telling you the pitch is not a strike. Most catchers will take the hint. Once in a while a coach will comment to you in between innings about not getting the corners. You can tell the coach the same thing.
I have had the good fortune of working the plate behind some of the best catchers in the world. Many of them have perfected the art of framing the pitch, which is very different from pulling the pitch. As the pitch is approaching the plate, the catcher will move her glove just outside the spot where she intends to catch it. With a very slight, single movement she will catch the pitch and curl the glove closer to the plate. An umpire may be influenced on a borderline pitch when that is done correctly. I know that I have, and if you are of the common philosophy of having an accurate yet aggressive strike zone, that pitch is very often a strike already.
Turning around after a close pitch.
A catcher should not turn around to the plate umpire after the pitch is called a ball. The catcher may do that while asking where the pitch was located. Tell her and then tell her that in the future if she wants to ask that question, she must do it without turning her head. If the catcher does it again after you have warned her, call time and while dusting off the plate tell her, “I have told you not to turn around to ask that question. Do not do it again.”
Gestures/comments that indicate a disagreement with the call.
If the catcher makes any overt gesture or theatrics that indicate he or she is unhappy with the call, you need to handle it the first time. As with holding the glove longer than necessary or turning around, those actions are indicative of arguing balls and strikes and showing you up.
I once worked an NCAA Division I regional game during which the catcher made a big show of coming up as if to throw “strike three” to first base, heard the “ball” call and made movements with her head and shoulders that indicated unhappiness with the call. The plate umpire did nothing. I have known umpires who have ejected catchers for such actions.
Many coaches will shout to their catcher after a close pitch is called a ball, “Where was that pitch?” The catcher will usually give the coach an honest answer. But once in a while a catcher may yell back, “In the strike zone,” or something similar to indicate disagreement with the call. Tell the catcher, “The pitch was outside and the next time the coach asks, you need to give an honest answer.” After the inning when the catcher tells the coach what you said (and the catcher will tell the coach), tell the coach you will no longer tolerate being constantly asked about pitch location and the catcher responding in that manner. You must make it clear that you consider that arguing balls and strikes, and that is the only warning to stop.
Working behind a catcher who knows what she is doing and who appreciates the challenge of a plate umpire’s job is a situation that does not happen often enough. When you are working with a catcher who has some bad habits, try using some of the techniques that are covered in this article. You may find that with a little convincing you will get the catcher to work with you in a more productive way for you and her pitcher.
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