Baseball Umpires’ Learning Blog

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How’s YOUR strike zone?

Most of you have now worked enough games to be getting into a bit of a groove. Some of you may even be recovering from a bit of a slump struggling a bit judging some pitches. Your head position, timing, and reaction to plate area situations should be second nature, so now is a perfect time to analyze and work on your strike zone. Is your strike zone accurate enough to spot pitches (designate exactly where they were)? Can you compare one close pitch several innings ago to the last pitch you just called . Isn’t that the best definition of “consistency”?

Inconsistent pitching will always play a big role in whether a game was called “consistently”. However, given a pretty good catcher and consistent pitchers, it should be relatively easy to be consistent. Pick apart your personal plate work and ask for feedback. Ask your partner(s) where they thought a particular pitch crossed the plate.

Seeing both the start and the finish of a pitch play a big part in your ball/strike decision. You must be acutely aware of the approach and the finish of a pitch to be an excellent umpire. Some umpires are very good at borderline high pitches because they see the high pitch very well while they may struggle with low and quick breaking pitches because they don’t see the ball finish (going all the way into the catcher’s mitt). Obviously, the opposite is also true.

Do you know your strengths and weaknesses? That’s your job in moving yourself closer to better understanding your strike zone. The more you know about your “ZONE”, the more you can be consistent. When your zone coincides with the strike zone stated in the rule book, you are good! The best feeling you I have ever had as a sports official is when I would call a “close to perfect” game between two pitchers throwing off their best “stuff”.

 Umpire Head Position


HEAD POSITION:
A dedicated local umpire recently told me that he realized he was working lower in a game when he noticed his head even with the catcher’s head when he called “ball”. Are your legs loosening up and allowing/making you move lower as the game progresses? Eyes must stay high enough and in a consistent position relative to the plate. Adjust up and toward the batter when you feel that you are struggling with consistency (seeing the pitches well).

Without taking sides, but admittedly being biased, as an umpire and experienced parent/coach, I am a bit tired of players and parents blaming umpires for called third strikes. “It’s time to hit! Swing those bats guys! The pitching isn’t that good!

Finally, remember to have good timing! Inconsistent timing leads to inconsistent strike zones. Also, good timing is necessary if you wish to cover check swings properly. The check swing is the primary responsibility of the home plate umpire so do your best to see bat action. You should see most “check swings” pretty well. Remember what you saw and what your partners called upon appeal to gain the valuable experience that will directly benefit your umpiring. Call the swings when the ball is not a “called” strike! Appeal to your partner , “Did he go?”, even if you stated, “No Swing”. BASE UMPIRES WAIT UNTIL YOUR PARTNER COMES TO YOU. Plate umpires make sure you realize when a manager (head coach) or catcher want you to check with your partner. Have you as a base umpire ever made a call when they weren’t asking for help on a check swing? Oooh sooo, embarassing . . . . been there, done that!

Work on that soft, flexible part of your strike zone! Keep up the good work! You must always remember that you and your partner(s) are the best team out there. Getting better makes you even more worthy of being humbled later by an upcoming tough call. We are only as good as our last call! Let’s make our last strike/ball call be correct!

June 24, 2007 Posted by | Commendations, Commentary | 5 Comments

Umpire Interference or Not?

A close friend who used to take care of me during my Triple A series in Toledo saw the following play and emailed me looking for an answer.  It seems like a good one to share with our readers.  Click comment below and share your ruling and reason(s) for coming to that conclusion.  Thanks for being involved.

Jim LaBuhn writes: While watching the Tigers a few night ago this play happened and I thought it was a dead ball.  So here it is RULES man………Tigers have men on 1st and second, no outs, Sheffield is at bat.  The umpire working second base was on the infield grass behind pitcher’s mound.  Sheffield hits a screamer that hits the second base umpire in the back of the calf and the ball bounces away.  The fielder still tried to make a play at first but Sheffield was safe. I thought that if the umpire is in front of the fielder(s), the ball is dead and the batter is awarded a single.  If you have your rule book it looks like it is 5.09 section!

I realize that we were not there (and we are not trying to second guess the umpires), but let’s share our thinking.

June 23, 2007 Posted by | Knotty Problems, Rules | 31 Comments

Where do we begin when coaches and players do not know the balk rule?

What is the balance between enforcement and teaching? Does it depend on the level of baseball? Absolutely, but in all my years, I have learned that I can offer no advice that will make it easy to teach coaches and players how to pitch legally without getting them upset or taking time for longer discussions before or after games. Despite the responsibility of knowing the rules being upon the coaches, teaching is an umpire duty whether we like it or not.

The following comment came from an experienced umpire north of the border. Recently, we have received several comments from around the world stating that this blog is helping individual umpires improve. Learning never ends! Thanks John for getting me back on track. I have been a bit busy lately.

Hey all, I am a senior ump here outside of Toronto and in doing MANY high school games this year, balks are getting out of hand. Pitchers and coaches up to this level have no idea what is and isn’t a balk. You hear ’em screaming from the bench when a pitcher steps off the rubber and his arm goes towards first. Almost in stereo the balk roars come from the crowd. Any ideas on education tactics?

John, thanks for reading the blog and asking your question. I remember right after my pro umpire career ended I offered to assign all the local Little League Junior League games for 13-14 year-olds. When I went to watch the first game, I was amazed that the pitchers were balking on almost every pitch. I was assigning newer umpires that I had trained or worked with from our local umpire association. What a tough way to learn the balk rule, how to enforce the balk rule, and how to help players and coaches to play within the rules! After this first game as the experienced and respected umpire, I told the coaches of one team, Stephen King (yes, the famous horror author who provided our area with a beautiful stadium) and his close friend Dave Mansfield, “Those pitchers are balking on almost every pitch. They don’t know the difference from the windup or stretch position.”

To my surprise as naive as I was about 13-14 baseball at that time, their response was, ‘When can you teach them how to pitch (legally)?” After spending many hours trying to find umpires and answering the dozens of questions almost daily, I was shocked thinking that my young umpires would have to figure out the balk after having limited training and little experience.

I know that this is not John’s situation, but ignorance of the balk rule happens at all levels including varsity high school and pro baseball. Coaches teach pitchers what they can and can’t do and then those comments become the balk rule for those students of the game who will then innocently pass the same information along to others.

I suggest that we make an effort to:

  1. first and foremost, use the terminology used in the rulebook when teaching and discussing balks (without common language coaches and players will never truly learn the rules),
  2. teach/enforce how pitchers can legally get on and off the rubber,
  3. share how the pitching motion must be a continuous motion toward the plate,
  4. share when/how pitchers commit themselves to pitch to the plate,
  5. share how pitchers (lefties and righties) must move to make legal pickoff attempts, and
  6. finally, ask coaches (only if you sense their respect and will to learn; this works if you see the same people in the same league regularly) to allow you to make decisions on the balk and then you can have brief, learning discussions between innings and after the game so the coaches and kids can learn this rule.

I have watched local umpires do a very good job by taking a moment between innings close to the dugout or as the manager/coach heads to coach the bases informing him of the minor balks that were not called but need his attention. However, good intentions somtimes don’t work out as easily as it sounds here.

Obviously and unfortunately, if your games are highly contested and competitive, you can only teach the rules by enforcing them including enforcing the proper behavior of the coaches. Don’t allow them to continue to make comments about balk calls or the lack thereof. If they can act appropriately and kindly asking for your interpretation whether coming onto the field or not, they can get the best benefit of all–true and accurate knowledge from the horse’s mouth. If they cannot be respectful and model good behavior for their players and all spectators, they get to go home looking like the other end of the horse.

I wish I could help you more. Short of having your local interpreter or experienced umpires meet with all coaches in a particular league prior to the league opening to discuss some of the more difficult rules including the balk, you teach by calling the balk just as one teaches young basketball players what a traveling violation is by calling the violation. Many good umpires have commented in this blog that we should use a lot more discretion in calling balks below the high school varsity level. Sometimes this approach can work against us preventing the learning from taking place. It all sounds easy, but when you are the arbiter, you have to make the decision. That is why they employ/assign us to the games.

This is a tough situation. I appeal to other readers to share your experiences and words of wisdom. Just click on the “Comment(s)” below.

June 19, 2007 Posted by | Balks, Rules | 12 Comments

Just When You Think You’ve Got It All Figured Out…….

It’s time to change playing rules from NFHS rules to Pro rules used in summer ball.

What do you think is the hardest adjustment to make when making the change?

For me I would have to say it’s the little things like the DH rule, not getting too excited when I see the catcher come out with a mask without a throat guard.

June 17, 2007 Posted by | Rules | 2 Comments

New Online Resources — MyReferee and NASO ONline

Referee Magazine and TheArbiter.net, an online officiating assignment service, haved teamed up to present information and resources for sports officials. Go the website below to sign up for your free access.

http://www.referee.com/arbiter/myreferee/learnmore.html

 

Any officials that already receive assignments on TheArbiter.Net can access this resource by clicking on “My Referee” in the bottom left corner on the start page after logging into your Arbiter account. Otherwise, just register by giving some personal information. I will eventually add the link to the blogroll.

NASO ONline is another resource that I discovered today. It seems like it will be especially helpful to those who are involved in leading associations. Click on the logo below to go to NASO ONline.

NASO ONline

June 7, 2007 Posted by | Association Improvements, Commendations, Reading Resources | Leave a comment

EMBUA Photos Available for Download

It wasn’t easy, but I have finally uploaded a large number of the umpire photos that I took at Hermon High School baseball games this spring of 2007. Most of the pictures were taken at my son’s JV games, but there are also some taken at Hermon varsity games.

You can see these photos at http://www.flickr.com/photos/kimballs. You can click on the “Umpire Photo” set so you don’t have to sort through some of our personal photos.

At this point there are 143 photos. They can be seen and downloaded free of charge. I know that many umpires never get to see good quality pictures of themselves. The camera takes 8 megapixel pictures and you can save them to you own computer, order copies of the pictures that you want right on the website, send them to your favorite photo finisher to make prints for you (4 x 6 or even posters), and/or burn them to a CD and then take them to Wal-Mart or Sam’s Clubs where you can even do some editing before requesting prints.

June 5, 2007 Posted by | Photo & Video | 2 Comments

Umpire Education–What works best?

This is a new post to try to elicit your ideas on how we might be most effective in the education of new umpires. In an earlier comment responding to how one can become an umpire, a local umpire who attended one of the professional baseball umpire schools and who is going to be training the local newbies next year, was looking for some suggestions. I think umpires worldwide could benefit some of the umpire training idea that we can share here in the blog.

We may remember what seemed to work best for us personally when we began our umpiring careers, but for many of us that was a long time ago. With better teaching materials, a larger variety of potential teaching methods, and cool, new technological tools now available, we can gather lots of ideas and even create some new models for teaching beginning umpires. If you are new to the umpiring ranks, this is a time for you to get involved in the discussion on this learning blog. You are the experts now so tell us what worked best and what did not work for you as you learned how to effectively umpire.

Some umpire associations provide excellent training sessions & refreshers for their members each year. These activities may also work for beginning umpires. Please share the teaching methods/drills that worked, or still continue to work for you. Make sure that you preface your remarks stating whether your remarks are suggestions for beginning, intermediate (2-5 years), or experienced umpires (5+ years).

Here is an incomplete list of suggestions that came to mind as I looked back on my training, the clinics that I conducted around the country during my minor league umpire career, and my time spent teaching the local beginner class for the local EMBUA group. My classroom teaching experience also proves to be valuable in understanding learners and potential teaching methods that might make a difference.

  • Beginners
    • Don’t spend too much time on the rules as there is so much to learn and never enough time. Too many rule sessions/situations can overwhelm those who are not familiar with baseball rules or rule books in general. However, rules are what umpires are hired to enforce so rule knowledge is paramount. Definitions are a great starting point. Spread the learning out over time. I would suggest homework and quizzes to teach the rules so classtime can be more than reading the rulebook aloud.
    • Basic positioning and the reasons for being there are paramount to a successful start in umpiring.
    • Make sure that your teaching don’t not spend too much time on “knotty problems” as they rarely happen in baseball games.
    • Focus on the things that happen all the time.
    • Lots of gym and field time (on the field is best, but weather in northern states forces us to begin indoors). Work on basic positions, the mechanics of making calls, actually calling of plays at first, doing pivots, “timing’ work, teamwork (covering situations such as going out, rundowns, 1st to third, time plays, etc.)
    • Use pitching machines and batting cages to work on plate mechanics.
    • Find a way to incorporate video in your training (some learn better with video vs. lecture method).
    • Record beginning umpires in the learning process and during their first games so they can self-evaluate. There is nothing like seeing yourself in action.
  • Intermediate
    • More in-depth rules discussions and learning including lots of official interpretations.
    • Introduction to rule differences between different levels of play (Little League, NF, NCAA, OBR-pro baseball, Babe Ruth, American Legion) depending on what the local umpires are working.
    • Increased awareness of rules and coverage of balks, interference, obstruction, check swings, and awarding bases.
    • Working on mechanics of calling plays at first, pickoffs at all bases, time plays. More rules work surrounding batting out-of-order and substitution rules.
    • Discussions related to successfully managing the game and dealing with coaches and players.
    • Discussions of actual play situations in games.
    • Increased involvement with mentoring program.
    • Continued use of video instruction and using actual game video of others and self.
    • Experienced
      • Higher level rule discussions including tough situations and “knotty problems”.
      • Use of video to help umpires correct bad habits.
      • Training to teach experienced umpires to be successful mentors.

    What do you think? You must be able to think of at least one suggestion that will help best serve aspiring umpires. What videos are available for us to use in the training process? Please share your comments by clicking below.

    June 5, 2007 Posted by | Commentary, Mechanics, Rules | 6 Comments