THE STRIKE ZONE: Location, Location, Location
The “strike zone” is the one area of baseball and softball that causes the most discussions, disagreements, concerns and frustrations. The strike zone is defined by the rule book “as that space over home plate which is between the batter’s armpits and the top of the knees when the batter assumes a natural stance.
The most important part of that definition is “over home plate” meaning that the strike zone will always remain over home plate and it doesn’t matter where in the batter’s box the batter stands.
If the batter is standing either in the very front or very back of the batter’s box, the umpire MUST take the batter’s normal strike zone to the area over home plate and not call the batter’s strike zone where he/she is standing. This is what causes a lot of misconceptions about whether a pitch should be called a “ball” or “strike.” The strike zone is where the pitch crosses through the batter’s normal strike zone, or is caught by the catcher in relationship to where the home plate area is located.
The batter’s normal stance should be determined when the batter swings at a pitch or takes a practice swing. The umpire should be aware of a batter who tries to give the impression of a small zone by squatting. Once the umpire determines the batter’s normal stance, he/she should call that strike zone no matter what the batter may do to alter his/her stance and zone.
Umpires should always “think strikes” and make a ball convince you that it is a ball. Borderline pitches should always be called strikes, this will encourage the batters to be more aggressive at the plate and swing the bat. This is not showing favoritism because the teams switch sides each half inning.
A called strike is a pitch that is not swung at, and in which any part of the ball passes through any part of the strike zone. This is a very important concept for all Little League umpires to learn and remember as there are theories being taught that to be a strike the pitch must pass through the majority of the strike zone and look like a strike. Calling balls and strikes under this theory and manner, in my opinion, does a real disservice to the pitcher and can result in many very long games, discussions and frustrations on all sides. The umpire should call the strike zone as stated regardless of where the catcher catches the ball or as happens in many Little League games, doesn’t catch it.
As we approach the Little League Tournament season, we as umpires are sometimes our own worst enemies. At the beginning of the season, the pitchers are struggling so we expand the strike zone to keep from having a “walkfest” and a very long ball game. There is nothing wrong with calling a more generous strike zone in the early season games, but as the season progresses we should start to tighten up the strike zone so that by the final part of the season we are requiring the pitcher to throw strikes in the strike zone that is described in the rule book.
What happens is that a lot of umpires do not tighten their zone through the season and they actually do their Tournament teams an injustice because as the teams move through the Tournament, they experience umpires who are calling a true strike zone and pitches that were being called strikes all year are now being called balls and the pitcher may have a tough time adjusting. When this happens it upsets and frustrates the pitcher and manager, and causes everyone to complain about the umpire when he or she is calling a good, consistent game.
Calling balls and strikes is one of the toughest things you will ever do in a game. It was once said of professional umpires, that you could tell who had the plate because he was the one in the foul mood. So, if you develop a good, consistent “by the book” strike zone that is the same in the last inning as it was in the first inning you will earn respect of all the participants and you will find that umpiring is a very rewarding experience.
Our main goal out there is to help the children have fun and learn to play baseball and softball within the context of the rules. Remember as umpires we are expected to be perfect at the start of the game and get better as the game progresses.
By Mike Messick