One of the attributes of a successful plate umpire is the ability to work with catchers. This defensive player 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. One such aspect, overlooked by many catchers but very evident in the good catchers, is that of working with the plate umpire.
A Team Effort – developing rapport
There are as many philosophies among umpires for how to work with the catcher as there are umpires. Some work hard to build a good relationship so the catcher – perhaps she will work harder to protect them if they are on good terms. This may even include calling a smaller strike zone when she as at the plate (do not do that!). A good relationship is OK as long as it does not break the inherent boundaries that exist between team personnel and umpires.
Some umpires may try to become “buddies” with the catcher by talking their ears off. This can be distracting to the catcher. And if this “buddy system” includes complete honesty including comments like “shoot…I missed that pitch…” it could very well come back to bite the umpire. The umpire could very well be sold down the river with a close called third strike call on the catcher. Guess what she will tell the coach after returning to the dugout – “that pitch was outside; that umpire has admitted to me about missing some pitches.”
Another group may adhere to the attitude that they are not our friends. These umpires barely say a word during the game and may even lay down the law at the beginning of the game – “we need to work together, so do not pull pitches or turn around if you disagree with a call.” The whole attitude of this group of umpires is a cold relationship, which most catchers recognize immediately. This is probably mentioned to her fellow players and the coaches – the plate umpire is a jerk.”
All umpires have their unique personalities – gregarious, easily distracted, high or low maturity level, all-business… We cannot be completely devoid of personality during the game. Some rapport with the person two feet in front is necessary or it can be a long day behind the plate. Try to charter a middle course – be amiable and share a comment or quip once in a while but keep the interaction on a professional level.
Do not complicate the catcher’s play
Do not place your hand on the catcher or bump her in any way. This may happen once inadvertently but if it does the umpire should say something to the effect “sorry about that, I will give you a little more room.” Some catchers tend to move as the pitcher is releasing the ball. Be watching for this, and if the movement is often backward, set up a little deeper.
Foul balls behind plate – umpire should not look up in an attempt to find the ball. A seasoned umpire will watch the catcher’s shoulders, then pivot with an opposite drop-step away from catcher and let the catcher take them to the play. This is called the “clear the catcher”
Common courtesy with the catcher
If catcher gets hurt by a foul ball most umpires will take their time sweeping the plate, even if it does not need it. If it might be a more severe injury, another method is to get the ball yourself, then walk it to the pitcher. Let the trainer and/or coach talk to the catcher for a short time.
Manage technical violations
If the pitcher is on the borderline with a minor “technical” violation, the umpire should try to work with the catcher to resolve it before calling an illegal pitch. Examples – quick pitch, hands together before the batter is ready, does not pause on the plate with the hands apart. Umpires should subtlety tell the catcher to go out and talk to the pitcher.
It may be an old philosophy but a good one and should still be adhered by all umpire regardless of age – discourage the catcher from turning around, either while still in the squat position or after standing up. The first time it happens, in a friendly manner ask the catcher not to do this. If questioned – tell the catcher it just looks bad, for the catcher and the umpire. If it continues then explain to the catcher that this action is widely recognized as a disagreement by the catcher with ball/strike call. If necessary, eventually issue a warning to the catcher and and explanation to the coach
Framing versus jerking a pitch
Umpires really like a catcher who has learned to frame a pitch – catch it softly and with a very slight motion of the glove. Jerking a pitch over the plate is a bad habit must be stopped. Use your preventive umpiring techniques to stop this – perhaps, “when you move the glove that much, you are telling me it is not a strike.” More detail about this a little later…