Other articles on this Locker Room discuss the mechanics for positioning by the base umpire for play calls on the bases. This article will go into more detail for the quite common play – positioning for the force play at first base. Also read the companion articles, Starting Positions for the 2-Umpire System and Selecting a Starting Position, 3-Umpire System.
Routine ground balls
Statistically, the first career call for any umpire working the bases will usually be a force play at first base. This call is a building block towards developing solid mechanics, so getting it right is extremely important. This call may also be the first impression that a coach will make of you, so it should be strong, given with confidence and look like a call an experienced umpire would make regardless of outcome of that call.
Current mechanics have increased the starting position depth to allow us to see within the cone of our focus – a calling depth of no closer than 18 feet is needed to see the ball as it enters the glove of a first baseman, even when glove is extended high above her head, while at the same time being able to see the batter’s foot touch the base and the ball into the glove.
All base umpires must pre-pitch the “ground ball to the infield” situation – outs, runners, infielders’ positioning. As contact is made by the batter, read the angle of the ball and the fielder most likely making the play. Start moving into the field of play attaining a distance of no more than 18’ from first base and an angle of 90 degrees to the angle of the throw, but staying within a 30-50 degree angle to first base. How far to move into fair territory is based on the need to create that 90 degree angle to the throw. See the player field the ground ball and track the throw until it gets to about 10’ to 15’ from the base.
A ball hit to the right side of the infield may require only one or two steps to attain the proper angle while a ball hit to the third baseman will require several steps to reach that 90 degree angle to the throw. Bunts and hits that have the catcher or pitcher fielding the ball may require movement to the maximum 50 degree to first base.
No matter if the play is routine or unusual, there are three things to keep in mind on every play at first base: First, did the runner make contact with the base? Second, was the first baseman in contact with the base when she secured possession of the ball? And third, did she field the throw cleanly? Now you are ready to rule on the play.
“Flash” and “Snap/thud” techniques
Once your calling position has been established and the throw is approaching first base, use the “flash technique” to improve your call accuracy. Focus on the throw until it is twenty to twenty-five feet before the base then flash your eyes, not to the glove but to the front side of the base that’s closest to home plate where the batter-runner usually first contacts the base. Your cone of vision will also allow you to see the throw hit the glove.
Your brain now needs to process the additional help you get from another sense – your hearing. This is the “snap/thud” technique. The sound of the ball going into the glove (snap) is louder than the batter-runner’s foot touching the base (thud). If the snap beats the thud, the batter-runner is out. However, before announcing the call, quickly focus up to the glove to ensure there is no juggling of the ball. Then make the out call.
These techniques put everything into eerie slow motion so the umpire can best compare the arrival of the ball and the batter-runner at first base. Umpires who move deeper into the diamond often call too many batter-runners safe who are out because the slow motion phenomenon disappears and the ball flashes over the umpire’s shoulder as the batter-runner streaks by the base – often resulting in the umpire erroneously calling the batter-runner safe.
On any errant throw to first base on what seemed like a routine ground-ball out, the umpire must adjust. Often this will involve quickly moving to a new position and moving the eyes to a different aspect of the play.
Throw is in the dirt
If the throw to F3 is in the dirt and she does not have to lose contact with the base, the umpire may have to rule on catch/no catch by the first baseman. That requires the umpire’s eyes to go directly to the ball after the runner has reached the bag. If the throw pulls the first baseman away from the bag, the umpire’s eyes have to stay on the bag to first determine if the ball was caught before the first baseman’s foot came off the bag.
High throw, no swipe tag
Once in a while the throw to 1b is online but too high, and F3 jumps straight in the air to catch the throw. If the throw is high and F3 needs to leap for the throw near the base, the most likely decision will be whether F3’s foot returns to the base before the batter-runner touches the base. This becomes a two-element play and the umpire must move closer to the base to determine who touches the base first. This mechanic can also be used when the force play at first base becomes a race between the fielder who has the ball and the batter-runner.
As the picture shows, F3 will not attempt a swipe tag, but will instead bring her foot back down onto the base. Get in position to see all the elements (one of which is the batter-runner touching the base), slow it down, process what you see, then make the call.
F3 adjusts toward the outfield to take an errant throw
This slightly off-line throw by an fielder to first base can happen at any time and the umpire must be ready to make the adjustment. Read the ground ball off the bat and repeat your footwork to get in your initial starting position. When you are in the process of tracking the ball and realize the throw is going to take the first baseman toward right field, take a “read step” toward the first-base line to get an angle on the play. Why this movement? If the throw from the fielder is taking the first baseman toward the outfield, F3 will try to stay in contact with the base on the outfield side of the bag. When taking the “read step,” it is extremely important to stop moving and get your body and eyes set. You do not want to take the play while moving.
F3 adjust toward the plate to take an errant throw
Most of the time when the throw is to the plate side of first base and F3 must come off the bag, a swipe tag will result. This will require the umpire’s eyes to move to the ball in the first baseman’s glove. That may also require a quick read step to get a better viewing angle on the possible tag. Read the ground ball off the bat and repeat your footwork to your initial starting position. When you are in the process of tracking the ball, you realize the throw is going to take the first baseman toward the plate, take a “read step” toward second base to open your viewing window of first base. Again, when you take a “read step,” get your body and eyes set.
Also, consider this – when a batter-runner realizes there is going to be a high throw, she normally stays upright and more than likely attempts to go to the foul side of the bag and then stab her foot to contact the base. The first baseman, on the other hand, will try to swipe with a downward angle, and if she makes contact it is usually on the upper part of the batter-runner’s body, more specifically the helmet or the back. From your initial starting position, take a “read step” toward second base to open your viewing window to see the back of the batter-runner. You will have to keep in mind the following: Was a tag made? If a tag was made, did the fielder secure the ball throughout the entire process of the play? Did the batter-runner make contact with the base before the tag (one we too often miss, and call an out)?
Using Foul Ground
When you are in the “A” position, you should take as many plays in fair territory as possible. However there are times when that is just not possible. Only then is it acceptable to go into foul territory. The CCA Manual give us this guidance: “You may use foul territory only if necessary.”
When a ball is hit to the second baseman or right fielder and she has to make a play toward the first-base line, that is called “pressure” from a fielder. In that case, it is acceptable to take very few steps into foul territory to make your judgment on the play. That will allow you to track the ball from the fielder and read the throw. You do not want is to be in fair territory and have a throw from the fielder hit you in the back. Get your body and eyes set and take a “read step” if you need it.
Reminder: Also read the companion articles, Starting Positions for the 2-Umpire System and Selecting a Starting Position, 3-Umpire System.