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 crew 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.
When you should give the count
If you have umpired long enough, you have probably developed your own habits on when you give the count. However, college umpires are required, per the CCA Manual, to give the count after these situations:
• Steals or pickoffs
• Checked swing requests
• Most delayed dead ball situations with an option – for example: illegal pitches, illegally batted balls, batter interference, leaving early on the pitch; see the rule book for a list of delayed dead ball situations (6.10 in the 2022-2023 book)
• Timeouts, dead balls and after long delays – 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.
• Action pitches (3 balls or 2 strikes)
Have a rhythm
The most important thing is to have a rhythm. Many umpires have established this rhythm:
• After the third pitch of at-bat
• Any time after that when the next pitch is an action pitch.
If there is a competent scoreboard operator or both the pitcher and the batter are in position and ready to go, it may be appropriate to give it less so as 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 are not asking for it, you most likely have found a good rhythm and do not need to adjust.
Steals and Checked swings
It is important to give the count after a steal or pickoff attempt. We have all been in the situation as a base umpire – 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.
Another critical time is after 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. If the plate umpire gives the count after that pitch, 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. 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. While we have until the end of an at-bat to correct a count (plate umpire has 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 – see the companion article in Rules Corner/The Game/Umpires section – Changing the Count. By giving the count after each steal and checked swing attempt, you can help alleviate missing an obvious strike.
Working with the scoreboard
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. You may want to rotate your 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 is 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. 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 does not 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. The CCA manual states – “…your fingers are above your eyes.” Some umpires will rotate their wrists so those on the sides of the field can see their fingers clearly 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.
Along with showing the count, we should be verbalizing it as well. You do not need to be overly boisterous when announcing the count. However, you should annunciate clearly. When it comes to what to say, the CCA Manual specifically states that we do not say “two and two.” Instead say, “Two balls, two strikes.” And always avoid saying, “Full count.”
How to ask partners for the count
We have all forgotten or lost the count. Anyone who says they have not is either lying or in denial. It happens and can be easily fixed. Both plate and base umpires must use the signal listed in the CCA Manual.
• What is the count – place both opened hands against the chest; you may verbalize the request – “Partner, what count do you have?”
• Response – display the appropriate fingers on the chest; if a verbal request is made, respond verbally in addition to displaying the count.
It is vitally important that all umpires on the field have the correct count at all times. If you are not sure, either as the plate or base umpire, you must use the above signals. Do not let play resume if there is a discrepancy in the count. If this is happening too often as a crew, it must be included in the post-game discussion – why is it happening, why are we losing focus, what must we do to correct this. To prevent this from happening, 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.