Not every game affords the luxury of working with a good catcher. What does a plate umpire do when the game unfolds with a cantankerous battery-mate, or one who is oblivious to the finer points of working successfully with a plate umpire?
Catcher sets up blocking the slot
The umpire must see the pitch from the time it leaves the pitcher’s hand until it crosses the plate. Three major impediments to this happening are: 1) a catcher who takes away your slot and 2) a catcher who moves into the umpire’ vision at the last second, and 3) a batter who crowds the plate.
If the catcher is taking away the slot at the start of the pitch, try to adjust upward and move your head above the catcher’s head so you can see the pitch all the way. This may require you to go to the set position a little earlier than usual. Do it early enough so you can make the mental adjustment and visualize the strike zone from this new position. Realize that this adjustment may cause a ball at the top of the knee to appear too low or a high pitch to be a strike, so incorporate these facts into your quick visualization of the strike zone from this higher slot position.
Catcher moves very late
If a late movement by the catcher takes you by surprise and blocks your view, do your best to adjust accordingly and see as much of the pitch as you can. Sometimes the catcher’s movement is done early enough that your adjustment will allow you to see the ball before and as it enters the strike zone. Call the pitch as you see it. You might have to explain to the catcher, or eventually the coach, that you cannot call a strike if you cannot see the pitch enter the strike zone.
We have all had numerous incidents where either the batter’s or catcher’s last-second movement blocks your view, and the ball explodes into your vision as it crosses the plate. When this happens, you must give yourself a little extra time to let your brain decide what you actually saw. A slight hesitation coupled with your brain’s ability to digest something you have seen thousands of times before, i.e. the ball crossing the plate, will allow you a better chance to call the pitch correctly. This hesitation may be evident to the players and coaches and you might hear some feedback from them, but the important thing is to get the call correct.
There are different opinions as to whether the plate umpire should talk to the catcher when her movements making it difficult to see the pitch enter the strike zone. If the catcher is setting up early in the slot, perhaps a courteous comment such as “if you set up that far inside you make it difficult for me to see the pitch all the way into the plate.” If the catcher is moving at the last second and blocks your view of the pitch at the plate, you might mention to the catcher that her late movement is blocking your view of the strike zone and you cannot call a strike unless you see the pitch enter the zone. Most catchers will work with you on this. If this does not work perhaps you can mention to the coach or the pitcher at the end of the inning that the catcher is preventing you from seeing the entire pitch. Most of the time the coach or the pitcher will tell the catcher to stay still.
Batter blocks the slot
Regarding the batter’s actions which impede your vision of the ball leaving the pitcher’s hand, which may include the batter leaning over the inside part of the plate, as long as the batters’ feet are on or within the lines of the batter’s box there is not much you can do. You will need to make the same adjustments that must be made when the catcher takes away your slot.
There are some catchers who insist on moving their glove into the area over the plate after they catch the ball outside the strike zone. This “pulling the pitch” is an effort by the catcher to convince the umpire that the pitch is a strike, but good umpires will not be fooled. You must see the pitch into the strike zone over the plate, decide what you saw, hesitate, and then call the pitch. The catcher’s glove movement should be happening after you have made your decision but perhaps before you make a verbal or signal. So now you have a “ball” call and a catcher who is holding the ball within the strike zone limits.
If this becomes a constant event you should tell the catcher this action is serving only one purpose: she is telling you that the pitch is not a strike. Most catchers will take the hint. Once in a while a coach will comment to you in between innings about not getting the corners. You can tell the coach the same thing. “Coach, the pitch was outside, and your catcher is confirming my judgment by moving her glove.”
Another action by the catcher which should be corrected if it is happening a lot is the catcher’s holding the pitch longer than normal. This should be considered questioning your judgment since it is an obvious display of disagreement with your call. Tell the catcher: “that pitch was outside, and you know it. Do not hold the pitch that long or I will consider it arguing balls and strikes.” You can tell the coach the same thing if she gets involved.
If you have worked plates behind some very good catchers, you know that many of them have perfected the art of framing the pitch, which is very different from pulling the pitch. As the pitch is approaching the plate the catcher will move her glove just outside the spot where she intends to catch it. With a very slight, single movement she will catch the pitch and curl the glove closer to the plate. An umpire may be influenced on a border-line pitch when this is done correctly. I know that I have, and if you are of the common philosophy of having an accurate yet aggressive strike zone, this pitch is very often a strike already.
Looking around at you after a close pitch
It is an unwritten theory that a catcher should not turn around to the plate umpire after the pitch is called a ball. This can be construed by most people as the catcher disagreeing with your judgment. The catcher may do this while asking where the pitch was. Tell her it was outside/inside/low/high as appropriate and then tell her that in the future if she wants to ask this question, she must do it without turning her head. In lower levels and sometimes even in higher levels the catcher may not get the hint. If the catcher does this again after you have warned her, call time and while dusting off the plate tell her “catcher, I have told you not to turn around to ask that question. That is considered showing up the umpire (or arguing balls and strikes). You must not do it again or I will have to take the appropriate action.”
Gestures/comments that indicate a disagreement with the call
If the catcher makes any overt gesture or other theatrics that indicate she is unhappy with the pitch call, you need to handle that the first time it happens. Just as holding the glove longer than necessary or turning around, these actions are indicative of arguing balls and strikes as well as showing up the umpire. A quick comment to the catcher should be made: “I saw what you did, and you must not do it again. I consider that showing me up and I will not allow that.”
Many coaches will shout to their catcher after a close pitch is called a ball “where was that pitch?” The catcher will usually give the coach an honest answer and say “outside.” But once in a while you may have the delight of working behind one who will shrug or some similar gesture to indicate disagreement with the call, or even blatantly yell “in the strike zone”. Tell the catcher: “the pitch was outside, and the next time the coach asks, you need to give him an honest answer or I will have to take the appropriate action.” After the inning when the catcher tells the coach what you said to her (and she will tell the coach), you will probably now have a coach with whom to deal. You should tell the coach that you will no longer tolerate these actions of him constantly asking where the pitch is or the catcher responding the way she is responding. You must make it clear that you consider this as arguing balls and strikes, and this is his only warning to stop it.
Working behind a catcher who knows what she is doing and who appreciates the challenge of a plate umpire’s job is a situation that does not happen often enough. When you are working with a catcher who has some of the bad habits outlined in this article, try using some of these techniques. You may find that with a little convincing you will get the catcher to work with you in a more productive way for you and her pitcher.