Zoned Out – Techniques for Rough Days Behind the Plate

Every umpire has had a rough game behind the plate. We have all had moments, or games, where we are struggling to decipher the balls and strikes. It happens at all levels and to veterans and rookies alike. External factors – bad pitching, catchers who shift late, etc. – may be a factor, but often our problems are our own making. What can an umpire do when it is a rough day behind the plate?

Take inventory

The first step is to revert back to the basics.
• Are you using a consistent stance for every pitch?
• Are you dropping to your set position too soon or too late?
• Are you going to your set at your normal pace or are you speeding it up because of being tense?
• Are you placing your head at the right height based on the current batter?
• Are you keeping your head steady as the pitch comes in?
• Are you tracking the pitch all the way to the catcher’s glove?
• Is your timing too fast on your ball/strike calls?
• Are you using the techniques we learned in our sessions with the vision consultant we had at one of our annual meetings?

If you feel that you are not having your A-game, it might be a good idea to check with your partners in between innings early in the game. Another correction technique – let your crew know during your pre-game that you are working on your low zone; ask them to give you a non-verbal signal of raising their pant leg when you call a too-low strike. For every low strike call look to your partner. This “immediate feedback” will help you to get back on track.

Do not experiment

If you decide you want to change anything about your mechanics behind the plate, make sure your first game for this experiment is not a college game; do the experimentation at a lower-level game at least twice before bringing it to the college level. So, if you want to try a box stance after years of the heel/toe philosophy…or trying new sunglasses…or anything else which might affect your strike zone – do it at the travel ball or high school game before trying it at the college game.

You have developed a stance and routine that have produced good results in the past. Do not change things if the going gets rough; mid-game is not the time to experiment. Instead, try to analyze what you are not doing that you usually do.

When you are working another softball code and need to practice NCAA mechanics, be mindful of what game you are working and who is watching. Do not disrespect the code you are working by not complying with their mechanics. Yes, you probably can practice your NCAA mechanics while working a Junior Varsity High School or youth league regular season game, but you cannot implement NCAA mechanics if you are working a playoff game or National Tournament. Good umpires respect and adjust to the mechanics of each code they support.

Relax and Focus

It is normal for human beings to tense up a bit when struggling; the more we mess up, the more rigid we get. If you sense this, slowly take a deep breath and exhale; feel the tension ease out of your body. Do not fidget between pitches; use your normal routine – call the pitch, step back one step, breathe, step back in with the attitude – this is the most important pitch in the game.

Sometimes we are not focusing as well as we should (spectators, coaches, job, family, the person who cut you off when traveling to the game, etc.). The remedy is to concentrate 100% on every pitch, taking every pitch as a new opportunity to make the best possible ball/strike call. Force yourself to block everything out and focus on the optic yellow ball.

Do not anticipate and do not be too fine

Do not anticipate that the 3-0 pitch will be a strike; do not anticipate the 0-2 pitch will be a ball. Do not anticipate the next pitch will be a change-up because the pitcher has been having success with it. Take every pitch as a whole new experience. Use the philosophy – when a ball leaves the pitcher’s hands, it is a strike until you are convinced it is a ball. Call strikes on the borderline pitches, but they must be borderline – not too high/low or in/out. If you are having a bad day, ask yourself if this is the problem.

Trust your catcher

We have all had games where the pitcher or catcher are struggling or they are not on the same page with some pitches; we are glad we have our gear to protect us. Maybe the catcher is misplaying some pitches or not blocking the pitches in the dirt. Sometimes it is the pitcher who is having a bad day and scattering her pitches in all different directions; we begin to think we are playing dodge ball. We may even be at the point where we have lost confidence that the catcher will deflect or block the pitches from contacting us, which causes us to flinch or jump. When you notice that your confidence level in the pitcher or catcher wanes, leading to you flinching or jumping on pitches, be aware of this and have a little talk with yourself. Use the same technique mentioned above – step back, take a deep breath, and then step back in with renewed trust that the catcher is aware of what is happening and will do their best to keep the ball from reaching you.

Have a short memory

When you miss a pitch (yes, we all do at times), quickly turn the page. Too much thinking about the one that got away from you makes it more likely that you will boot the next one. Do not let it affect the rest of your game, or even the next pitch.

If you start worrying about things that have happened in the game and they continue to remain in your thoughts, write them down on your lineup card. This will remind you to address them after the game, but it lets your mind forget about them since they are now written down.

Use your resources

Read the other articles in this section of the Locker Room – Mechanics Corner/Plate/Pitches. They have tips for working with your catcher (a separate article for the left-handed catcher), adjusting to see the strike zone, tracking the pitch…

Talk to your mentor or respected veterans and find out what they do when struggling behind the plate.