One Umpire’s Perspective on a Batter’s Approach at the Plate

Photo taken from Google Images

When I was younger I had a great eye for pitches thrown for balls & strikes. I almost never got called out on strikes, but over the last 2 seasons (and over 20 years later) in my over 30 baseball league I have been called out on pitches thrown on the outside corner (some teammates agree that some of these were off the plate, too). That brought me to ask my friend, professional umpire Perry Lee Barber for some pointers. So I asked her if I should stick to my guns or start swinging at anything close with two strikes on me? I’m leaning towards swinging more times than not on those pitches even though I may end up with similar results (a swinging strike 3 rather than being called out looking). Here was her reply…

In brief, my philosophy is this: baseball is a game of adjustments, for both players and umpires. And now for the not-so-brief, my typically long-winded way of explaining my thinking about this particular question. Umpires’ adjustments do not come in the form of adjusting to a pitcher’s strike zone, or a batter’s; rather, in the form of constant recalibrations of movement, positioning, and focus so as to make the best, most accurate determinations of the outcomes of pitches and plays. The adjustments a batter must make in order to maximize his or her success potential at the plate and on the bases should, and often MUST, take into account multiple factors, including the propensities of plate umpires to call a wide strike zone or one the size of a pinhead, or something in between. Failing to do so will run the risk of resulting in, as you point out, being called out on strikes or otherwise making out (sometimes two!) when just a microscopic and momentary re-tooling of one’s philosophy, batting stance, bat grip, focus, position within the batter’s box, et al., can mean the difference between a strikeout and a base hit. I tell batters all the time: plate umpires will NOT adjust to YOU; it’s your job, and greatly to your advantage, to adjust to US.

Think of it this way: in my capacity as an umpire, specifically a plate umpire, I call an average of 250 to 300 pitches per game. For those pitches, I see a minimum average of, say, twenty different batters multiple times during any given seven-, nine-, or extra-inning game. Each of those twenty batters sees the SAME plate umpire, me, back there for every at-bat during a single game – so who do you think it makes more sense to assign the job of “adjusting” to changing factors and circumstance, the hitters or the plate umpire? if I as the umpire regard it as my job to do the adjusting, I’d be doing it every at-bat, every time a new batter comes up to the plate. This would place an “adjustment” burden on me that would be nearly impossible to bear, as my focus needs to be on the PLAYS, not the playERS. Conversely, a player who routinely comes to the plate an average of four times per game must make a batting adjustment only during each of those at-bats, and based on far more limited parameters than an umpire would have to deal with if it were he or she doing all the adjusting. So it just makes sense for hitters to adopt a philosophy that allows them to adjust to an umpire’s known style of identifying balls and strikes (for instance, I’m a “pitcher’s umpire,” as I steal every strike I can – although I do so within the restrictions of the rule book definition of strike – so hitters familiar with my umpiring “style” know to be swinging the bat when they come up to the plate.) I use as much of the plate, including the black, or the “corners,” as I can to determine whether a pitch is a ball or a strike. I also tend to call a “higher” strike than many umpires, and hitters will sometimes complain or look shocked when I call a strike above the belt – but the good ones, the smart ones, will incorporate this information (“Okay, she calls strikes a little above the belt) into his or her arsenal of baseball knowledge and use it to, say, protect the upper outside corner, especially with two strikes, or otherwise formulate a slightly recalculated strategy for getting on base or driving in a run, or whatever it is he or she hopes to accomplish during the time at bat. I see this all the time! A batter will get angry that I’ve called a strike he considers “too high,” and rather than using the information to his own advantage, making the necessary mental and physical adjustments (which are, for the most part, as I already pointed out, microscopic in nature as opposed to any grand re-figuring of an attitude or a stance,) he will allow his flash of anger to control what he does for the remainder of his at-bat, and will, in many instances, wind up striking out looking or swinging, or flailing ineffectively at pitches and making out some other way. And then, of course, blaming ME for his failure. (“You took the bat out of my hands!”) I always wonder why a hitter would wish to deliberately invest such power over his performance in an umpire; it’s the same thing as saying, “What I as a hitter do out there doesn’t matter; the only thing that matters is what the plate umpire does.” On the other hand, an intelligent hitter will think, “Hmmm, okay, she’s calling that pitch a strike,” make the necessary adjustment, and wind up smacking a double down the line or driving in a run with a sac fly. I can’t tell you how satisfying it is to me as an umpire to observe this phenomenon at work, and how disheartening it can be to learn that some hitters are just constitutionally incapable of making the adjustments that would serve them so much better than an unyielding adherence to a “my way or the highway” type of philosophy. One of the best, most consistent hitters I ever saw was Rod Carew; when I first fell in love with baseball, my mom and I would drive to Anaheim from her home in Palm Springs whenever the Angels were home and watch him at work in the batter’s box. It was an amazing revelation, seeing him make all these mental calculations and adjusting his stance, his position in the box, the way he held his bat, the angle at which he held his HEAD, tiny little things like that, not just from one at-bat to the next one, but from one PITCH to the next. And with a .328 lifetime batting average, I’d say Carew is a pretty good barometer of whether adjusting to a pitcher or an umpire, or both, can make an appreciable difference during a hitter’s time at bat.

Here’s a little story for you. When I was umpiring in the Atlantic League, Sparky Lyle was the manager for the Somerset Patriots. He loved this one relief pitcher he had named John Briscoe, who had seen some limited ML time with Oakland during the 1990s, but I absolutely hated him because he would throw this slider at the knees that would wind up too low as it crossed the plate for me to call it a strike. (Bottom of the knees is as far as I go, I tell catchers if they ask.) I refused to reconfigure my strike zone to accommodate the fact that Briscoe’s best, “out” pitch was this knee-high slider that tailed downward, and Briscoe refused to adjust his pitching philosophy to adapt to “my” strike zone. So we were always at odds whenever he would come out of the bullpen, and I’m sure he wound up believing I’m the world’s shittiest umpire because I wouldn’t call as many strikes for him as other umpires did. Sparky hated me too, for that reason and others too numerous to go into, but we had a sort of love-hate relationship anyway, not just over the Briscoe thing. He loved to fuck with me when I was on the bases and he’d come out to make a pitching change, waving his right arm weakly or surreptitiously, then claiming he’d signaled for the lefty or some such nonsense, although he eventually got it that his shenanigans were hurting him a lot more than they did me. Twice when he pulled this stunt I told him the pitcher he originally signaled for (the righty) wouldn’t be able to pitch later on, as he was already officially in the lineup and switching him with the lefty, the one Sparky claimed he allegedly signaled for, would eliminate him from the lineup for the rest of the game. (Not to mention which, the righty, the one he claimed he didn’t want, would be required to pitch to a batter or get an out before he could legally leave the game.) Anyway, Briscoe never seemed able to adjust; Sparky eventually did. Guess which one is still in baseball? (Sparky’s held the Somerset managerial job since the league’s inception in 1998.) And one more short story for your elucidation: the best advice I ever heard a dad give his son, who was about to pitch a game for which I was the plate umpire? The dad was giving the son a pep talk before the game started, and saw me standing there in my plate gear getting ready to call the managers to the plate for the pre-game conference. As he walked away, the dad looked at me, turned to his son the pitcher, and said: “THROW THEM WHERE SHE’S CALLING THEM.” Wow. I felt like running over and kissing that dad! Not, “Throw your game,” or “Stick to your best pitch” or anything like that: it was, throw it where she’s calling it. So simple, so brilliant – and yet….

A little parable for your edification, with my compliments, Peter. In essence, I would advise you to be willing to adjust to multiple factors during any given at-bat; but don’t go up there fearing that if you don’t swing at everything you’ll be called out on strikes. Stay within yourself, but always reach farther than your grasp? Sort of paradoxical, I know, but that’s one of the beautiful and mysterious things about baseball. Go up there looking to swing at strikes or pitches you like, the ones that are within your “zone,” and occasionally an umpire will call you out looking on a pitch that isn’t a true strike, but more often than not you will achieve some measure of success, whether it’s by actually hitting the ball or by learning something valuable you can use later on to help you hit the ball. And isn’t going down swinging at a bad pitch you thought the umpire might call a strike less traumatic than being called out looking at a pitch that’s off the plate anyway? At least by swinging the bat, it’s YOU who controls the outcome of the play, not the umpire, whether you miss it or hit it.

So there you have it boys and girls, a professional opinion to my problem, and one that I’m sure many of you might benefit from as well!

Play Ball!

I’d like to thank Perry once again for first answering my question and then allowing me to post it here for all our readers to benefit from. Let’s see if I can hit .300 in 2012, my third year back in the game.

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3 Comments

  1. hilarie

    December 26, 2011 at 4:44 pm

    Based on Perry’s honest and illuminative remarks, I have one comment: Eliminate strike-ball calls by plate umpires. In the past only humans could call pitches. Now it’s been shown that humans are bad at doing that. An expanding/shrinking/wobbly/weird strike zone should not occur. Ever. The rules of baseball do not allow for it any more than they allow for runners leaving the base path to plow into catchers. Yet the greybeards do allow both because … well, because in their imaginations and nostalgic dreams that’s how it’s always been. Just use PitchFX. Pitchers and hitters could rely on a strike zone that is actually a defined zone, not a free-floating fantasy space, every ab. Kill the ump. Every second any interaction with an umpire consumes is wasted, stupid, non-baseball time. Let the players play and let the safe, out, foul, fair, ball, strike calls be made by whoever is most competent — which does not happen to be umpires.

  2. Ralph

    June 27, 2012 at 3:19 pm

    Sorry, this comment is a little late. I just found this story today (6/27/12).

    Although I won’t disagree that the player must learn to adjust to the umpire’s ball and strike calls, I will state that the umpire needs to adjust to every batter that comes up. A 6’2 player has a different strike zone than a 5’8 player. A player that crouches very low can have a different strike zone than a player that stands more upright.

    I sense a little umpire arrogance here.

    Do you not have to adjust your thinking when there are runners on base? Tagging up? Infield fly? Etc.? Different game situations call for minor adjustments in what you are dong out there.

    Also, getting to know the way umpires call games (balls and strikes) is a useful practice for players. Its also too bad that it needs to be done. If every umpire called it ‘by the book’, there wouldn’t be (as many) players complaining that you “took the bat out of their hands”. Everyone that has been around the game knows there is a very big difference between a 2-0 count and an 0-2 count. Two questionable ball/strike calls and the at-bat has been greatly tilted in the pitcher or batters favor.

    I speak from experience on both sides.
    I have been a player for over 30 years and an umpire for 11 years.

    As an umpire, I stay as consistent as possible while adjusting to the ever changing situations during a ball game.

    As a player, I only expect an umpire to call it like the rules are stated. This way, I already have a good idea of what is a ball and what is a strike when I get to the batters box.

  3. Perry

    June 29, 2012 at 9:20 am

    Thanks for the comment, Ralph – it’s never too late to jump into these discussions. I hope the “arrogance” you detect in my remarks springs from a slight misinterpretation of them rather than any attitude I actually carry out there with me. At the very beginning of my discussion, I say “…baseball is a game of adjustments, for both players and umpires.” We are required by definition to adjust to each hitter’s height and knee height in order to judge a strike, and I don’t think I implied otherwise anywhere in my comments. We have to constantly adjust for other things too, such as an off-line throw that requires us to peek around a play to be able to catch any obstruction, interference, swipe tag, pulled foot, etc. We have to be able to make an adjustment when a fielder is on the foul line directly in front of us, blocking our view of the ball as it lands; in that instance, we have to move off the line in order to see the fair/foul even though the proper mechanic when judging fair/foul is to always be on a line. Adjustments such as these and the ability to make them easily are a necessary component of every umpire’s arsenal of skills and tools. And you’re right about the lack of uniformity by umpires in calling the strike zone being a factor in the outcome of at-bats or games when it really shouldn’t be, but robots are not the answer to the puzzling conundrum of human inconsistency. A better, fairer, and more efficient selection process right at the beginning of a pro umpire’s career, rather than demoting or “retraining” later on when bad habits or attitudes have already become entrenched, would go a long way towards improving the efficacy and accuracy of every professional league’s umpiring staff. That includes getting women, many more women – because currently and for the last five years there have been ZERO – into the mix of candidates in the pipeline that leads to jobs in pro baseball, which are the umpire schools. Judging by all the critical comments posted daily on the internet, we certainly couldn’t do any worse than the men.

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