Basic strike zone mechanics
Should the word “basic” be included in any article posted to this college umpire website? Are not college umpires expected to know the basics? Yes, but the strike zone mechanics for college umpires are different than other codes; perhaps some of us do not realize this, especially if you are new to umpiring at the college level.
Any fast-pitch softball umpire is familiar with the slot position when working a game as the plate umpire – behind the catcher, aligned slightly inside the inside corner of the plate and outside the perimeter of the strike zone. The CCA Manual states that we set up in the slot position regardless of the approved stances we use (see below). The rationale for this position, as explained in the various softball organizations’ umpire manuals, is to enable the plate umpire to see the entire plate and the ball as it moves from the pitcher’s hand to the catcher’s glove and to be able to accurately judge whether the ball passed through or out of the strike zone.
But the slot position is only one aspect of the approved plate stance. Other codes have detailed instructions for the required plate stance. For example, in other codes, the positioning of the feet requires heel/toe placement with the heel of the foot closest to the batter in a straight line with the toe of the foot closest to the catcher. The instructions continue with a detailed discussion on multiple pages on exactly how a plate umpire must be positioned for calling balls and strikes. It is a lot to remember when you are trying to prepare for the next pitch.
Fortunately, college umpires are not burdened with these excruciating details. College mechanics are more attuned to the plate umpire choosing a stance that is comfortable, athletic, and repeatable. This results in having an accurate and consistent strike zone – to use the wording directly taken from the CCA Manual – “Prioritize an accurate zone over exact foot placement.”
The approved plate stances for college are
• Box Stance
• Gerry Davis
• Modified Gerry Davis,
See the brief section for each of these stances in the CCA Manual. The Scissors Stance is not permissible.
This is not an approved stance:
Working the plate mechanics
The CCA Manual emphasizes that the plate umpire be able to see the outside corner of the plate with an unobstructed line of vision of the entire ball from the pitcher’s release point through the strike zone to the catcher’s glove. Use the same stance (mirror image) on both sides of the plate and do not touch the catcher. Specific mechanics:
• Work the slot; adjust as needed to not be blocked out by the batter or catcher (see later section Adjusting to see the strike zone).
• Set the head height in a position that allows a total view of the strike zone.
• Chin should be no lower than the top of the catcher’s helmet.
• Tilt the head down slightly so that the lower bar of the mask is in line with the top of the batter’s knees.
• Use a balanced comfortable stance that allows you to drop to a solid set and to see the entire strike zone and to exit the plate area quickly.
• Develop a rhythm such that you are set before the pitch is released but not down in a set position too long.
• Track the pitch with your eyes, moving your head slightly to allow both eyes to focus on the ball.
• Do not indicate pitch location with body movement.
Where Did My Slot Go? Adjusting to see the strike zone
As any umpire knows from game experience, being able to see the plate and strike zone from the slot can become more complicated by the positioning of the catcher and/or the batter. Sometimes the physical size of the catcher and batter can make it more difficult to achieve an unobstructed view from the slot position. Perhaps the catcher is a left-hander and lines up differently than a right-hander. Once in a while the plate umpire might encounter a catcher who moves into the slot or rises from her crouch as she receives the pitch, interfering with the umpire’s view at the last instant. Note: for left-handed catchers, read the article Left-handed catchers in this same section of the Locker Room.
When these situations come into play, the umpire must often adjust to maintain an unobstructed view of the strike zone. You cannot call what you cannot see. If the catcher blocks the plate umpire from seeing an inside pitch, it is a ball. If you must, explain it (the catcher’s movement) to the coach. You must be able to keep the strike zone in perspective, especially to position your eyes at the top of the strike zone in relation to the batter when going to the set position. When the batter or catcher is squeezing the slot, one thing you can do is look over the catcher to see the delivery of the pitch. You have now raised your view of the strike zone, so quickly glance at the outside parameters of the zone, and mentally make the adjustment.
To maintain focus while adjusting in the slot position, reinforce in your mind whether a pitch is a strike or ball before making your verbal call. The slight delay helps with call accuracy. Slow down!
• Try to adjust upward and over, then mentally review strike zone again
• Do the best you can to see the pitch and the plate
Inside and Outside Pitches
Inside pitches should be the easiest ball/strike call for the plate umpire when the slot is not blocked as this slot position enables a great view of the inside corner. The very action of tracking the pitch moves the umpire’s eyes to clearly see any dirt between the plate and the ball.
• Pitch is in the vertical zone and umpire sees no dirt – strike
• Pitch is in the vertical zone and umpire sees dirt – ball
• Pitch is not in the vertical zone – ball
Even when the slot is not blocked, the inside pitch can sometimes still be a tough call. As mentioned above, there is a lot happening at once and there are a lot of moving parts – catcher trying to frame the pitch, batter starting to swing by moving into the pitch, etc. But it does not have to be difficult if you use proper techniques and become reliant on the same system for each pitch as explained above.
Outside pitches are the most challenging pitches to call especially when they are on the corner or very close to it. At the highest levels of competition, it may be fractions of inches determining the outcome. This is the weak spot and main deficiency of the slot position – difficulty calling the outside corner pitches, both high and low. In the slot position, your eye is at or near the top-inside corner of the strike zone. This makes low and away the farthest point from the eye. Also, pitches up-and-away are the farthest from your primary reference points (plate, batter, catcher).
Another contributing factor may be catchers who set up too far behind home plate which then causes strikes on the outside corner to become balls if pitches move. Adding to this are umpires who set up too far behind the catcher. More than any other pitch, up-and-away requires that you know it every bit as much as you see it. And that just takes practice.
High and Low Pitches
Properly seeing and recognizing the pitch entering the strike zone on a rise-ball or drop-ball is becoming increasingly important as pitchers are improving over the years. Setting your eyes at the top of the strike zone allows the umpire to judge that any pitch requiring the eyes to look upward is not a strike. Tilting the head down slightly and lining up the bottom bar of the mask at the batter’s knees allows the umpire to judge that any pitch that appears to go under the bar of the mask is not a strike. Therefore, any pitch that crosses over the plate under the eyes and over the bar is a strike.
Judge low pitches at the front of the plate, high pitches at the back. Strikes are your friends. Every pitch is a strike until it proves otherwise. If not, batters will look for walks, the game will not be fun and will last an eternity.
Outside the box adjustments (this is a pun)
There are other methods of improving your strike zone that have been taken over the years. Use the ones you think will work for you.
Experiment with which body part you are most comfortable lining up with the inside corner of the plate. There are some different preferences in which body part to align.
• Use the right eye for a right-handed batter, therefore allowing you to see the pitch coming either to your right as a strike or the left as a ball.
• Use the nose as a reference point, putting your nose between the corner of the batter’s box closest to the plate and the inside corner of the plate works well. With this method, an umpire can then determine that any pitch at or to the right of the nose on a right-handed batter (at or to the left of the nose on a left-handed batter) had to have caught some part of the inside corner.
• Adding proper head height and a calm, comfortable stance to the mix will make all pitches on the inside of the plate much simpler to judge.
• Eliminate unnecessary head movement; allow the ball to enter the zone — do not move the zone to the ball. The best way to eliminate doing so is to drop into your stance early enough to see the release of the pitch and follow the ball all the way to the glove.
• If you feel like you are being rushed on pitches or you are not seeing the pitch all the way through, you most likely are dropping late. Get set early enough so you can see all elements of the pitch and it will help you have an accurate zone and will also help on the other rulings that come with an inside pitch.
Use the material in this article to ensure you have a consistent and accurate strike zone.