Are You Solid at the Plate?
Every umpire at every level strives to be a better plate umpire tomorrow than they are today. Given this truism, let’s talk about some tips that may help improve your performance.
First and foremost, a good, comfortable stance that will allow for an unobstructed view of the strike zone is imperative. Your stance should be a combination of balance, comfort, head height and a locking mechanism.
Additionally, this stance must be maintained, while you position yourself in the “slot” between the catcher and the batter. Initially, this seems like a lot of variables to be concerned with all at once. So we’ll deal with each one somewhat separately and then bring them all together to form a workable starting point.
Let’s begin with balance. In order to establish a firm foundation you will need to distribute your weight so that you are not teetering when the pitch is delivered. An excellent starting point (assuming you are using a box type stance), is to spread your feet slightly more than shoulder width apart and allow your weight to transfer to the balls of your feet by flexing your knees slightly. Be careful not to get up on your toes. Now, have someone give you a slight push on your back or one of your shoulders. If you don’t need to reset your feet in order to avoid falling, you have found your balance point.
Next on the agenda is your comfort level, both physical and mental. Your mental comfort level will increase with experience. The more games you work as a plate umpire, the more relaxed you will feel about it. Your mental comfort level will also increase as you learn to trust your protective gear, and learn to always face the pitcher. If you are set up on even the slightest of angles you are unnecessarily exposing yourself to pitched and batted balls. That is NOT a comfortable feeling. Finally, learn to relax between pitches. Avoid staying locked in your stance for extended periods of time. Move your feet between pitches and don’t lock in until the pitcher is ready to release the ball.
Head height is an important factor as it relates to seeing the outside portion of the strike zone. If your head is too low, the catcher’s mitt, his head and/or his shoulders are screening that part of the zone. There are an awful lot of strikes out there, but you won’t know that if you can’t see them. And try as you might, you really can’t look into a catcher’s left ear and see out through his right one. A simple rule to follow is to never let your chin get below the crown of the catcher’s helmet. That’s a minimum height; you may find that working a little higher is better. As a drill, set yourself behind a catcher and have your partner place a small object on the outside corner of the plate and see if you can identify it without moving your head (I use a two-colored disc for this drill and students to tell me what color they see). If you can’t see it you may want to raise your head to locate the outside corner.
The final piece of a solid plate stance, which may be the most important, is also the most often over-looked. The “locking mechanism” will guarantee a consistent head height, aid you with your balance and increase your comfort level. Too often plate umpires fail to lock in for the pitch. This leads to erratic head height, wobbly foot work, a general feeling of uneasiness behind the plate and a floating strike zone. A locking mechanism can be as simple as placing both of your hands on your knees, similar to the set position for a base umpire. It might be resting your forearms on your thighs. It is a simple concept of placing bone on bone to ensure stability, since your arms won’t increase or decrease in length during the game. This simple step will keep you head at the same level in the last inning as it was in the first.
For a visual demonstration of these points I would strongly suggest that you visit the Umpires Resource Center at www.littleleague.org/umpires/urc.htm or just go Little League’s Home Page and click on the Resource Center button. It’s a free source of invaluable information.
Obviously, this article has not dealt with all of the facets of working the plate. Subjects such as timing, tracking the pitch with your eyes, working with the catcher and positioning for plays at the plate will be addressed in the future. These are just some things to think about and try out during the offseason.
Remember that it’s a lot easier to call them as you see them when you really do see them.
By Tom Rawlings
2011 Little League Baseball World Series Umpire