Let’s Strike Up a Conversation
This article has been updated as of Monday, December 16, 2013
You know, the strike zone is thoroughly defined in the rule book under Definitions - Rule 2.00., or is it? By definition, the strike zone is that space over home plate which is between the batters armpits and the top of the knees when the batter assumes a natural stance. The umpire shall determine the strike zone according to the batter’s usual stance when that batter swings at a pitch.
What does the rule say, or more important, what does the rule not say about the zone?
Let’s talk about the ball first. A strike shall be called whenever any part of the ball, not necessarily the whole ball, travels through any part of the strike zone. A ball that travels along the side of the plate and any part of that ball travels inside the vertical plane of the side of the plate is a strike.
Of course, a ball can enter anywhere along the plate as long as it travels over any part of the plate. This will constitute a strike.
The batter’s strike zone, as defined, is that area over home plate between the batter’s armpits and top of the knees when the batter assumes his/her normal stance. Crouching down as the pitch is delivered is not a normal stance when hitting. This fact must be determined by the umpire prior to the batter stepping into hit. How does the umpire determine this? Observing the batter taking his/her practice swings before entering the box is a very good indication of what their normal stance is.
This all seems very cut and dry and cannot cause any problems, right? Then, why is there so much criticism of the umpiring when Little League games are televised. When Major League Baseball televises games, they utilize a rectangular graphic that shows the strike zone. The graphic is set up at the midpoint of the plate, where the sides of the plate begin to taper to the back. The batter’s zone is calculated and set up on the rectangular box. From here, we can get a reasonably good view of the strike zone. Of course there may be some discrepancies, but this graphic helps to discourage criticism.
We do not use this graphic during televised Little League games. Here’s where the Little League umpire becomes open for criticism. First of all, the only tool that the viewer has to view the strike zone is the point at which the catcher secures the ball. If the catcher allows the ball to come to the glove and not reach forward for it, this is a pitch that very well could have gone through the majority of the zone but was secured farther back and gives the impression that the pitch was out of the zone. Where is the batter? If the batter is up in the box, the upper pitch that passes in the batter’s zone, at the plate, will appear high. Conversely, with the batter at the back of the box, the knee-high pitch, at the plate, will appear low to the viewer.
I can remember, a few years ago, taping the Championship Game of our regional for later review. During that game, the home plate umpire did an exceptionally good job. My view of the game was directly behind home plate.
When I got home and played the game again, some pitches seemed off the plate and others appeared low. I didn’t see that at the game. How did this occur? Consider this fact. The outfield camera, which gives a very good view of the whole field, can cause some problems with what occurs at the plate. For example, the outfield camera is not directly in centerfield. It is usually off the pitcher’s right shoulder by as much as 20 feet. This can give a distorted view of the outside pitch to a right-handed batter.
In addition, the lefty pitcher, who usually has a pitch that falls away from a right-handed batter, now appears to be outside with the close pitches. In addition, and probably more visible, is the low pitch in the zone, which is distorted by the fact that the camera is between 15 and 20 feet up in the air. This will make the ball appear low, when, in actuality, the ball did go through the majority of the batters strike zone at the plate.
This discussion is not meant to be critical of any technology that we utilize, but, is meant to compliment the fine men and women who dedicate their time and energies for the youth of our Little League programs and sometimes are left to be second guessed. It is not an easy job to spend years umpiring before a handful of spectators, and, in a heartbeat, be in a game with 40,000 watching in person, and millions seeing it on TV.
Umpires do understand that they are now at a different level of play, where the skill, ability, and degree of accuracy required of the players also require a more discerning interpretation of the strike zone by the umpire.
There is one last point that we should address.
Certainly, the called third strike should be slightly more emphatic than all other strikes, but the excessive theatrics have no place in a game of 12 or 13 year old children. It only over emphasizes that fact that the batter got caught looking and feels bad, and tends to irritate managers, coaches, parents and fans. Yes, emphasize the called third strike, but let’s not exaggerate it to the point that it becomes an irritant.
Good luck this season and have fun. Remember, you are amongst children, striving, competing and playing a game.