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Common Umpiring Problems

Original Article:

Common Umpiring Problems

By Mike Fitzpatrick

(Editor's note: This column stems from an audio tape transcript of veteran supervisor Mike Fitzpatrick's presentation at an NASO convention. It is edited for content and space.)

In my dealings with baseball umpires, I have seen many plays, rulings and calls. There have been countless correct calls and there have been some incorrect ones. The incorrect calls seem to all come under one of a handful of themes: my common umpiring problems.

When a base umpire has a problem, the umpire generally has to get better at "pause, read and react." When kids are brought into the game, they're taught that once the ball has been hit, they've got to move. It's not so in umpiring, and that's what makes the pause, read and react technique so hard to comprehend. Many umpires have a mentality that they must move at the crack of the bat. The proper technique is actually to hesitate for a split second, pick up the ball and pick up the outfielders before making a commitment about whether to go and pivot, come into the infield and pivot or go out on the ball. The umpire who puts his head down and races to a spot without pausing, reading and correctly reacting has difficulty.

Timing is another big part of proper base work. If you don't have good timing, you're not going to get the plays right. By having good timing, umpires avoid making calls too quickly. See the play, decide out or safe, then utilize the appropriate signal. Jumping the gun will cause problems.

Being set for play is vitally important. Getting the proper angle on the basepaths is also important, but once you've got the angle you must get set for the play. I never want an umpire to make a call on the run, no matter what the play is. We do a tremendous amount of drilling with umpires, making sure they stop, get set, square to the play as best they can and make the call. Repetition is the key.

Young umpires who are just starting out often expect to have a solid, consistent and well-sized strike zone in their first game. It's just not going to happen. It takes an umpire many games working the plate to develop a good strike zone that he's not only comfortable with but that will allow him to be successful. Many umpires feel that it's going to come easily and be there at the beginning. It's not.

I'm happy with the design of the lower levels of baseball and the fact that they have two-person crews. Having two-person crews allows the umpires the opportunity to get behind the plate and work every other game. That repetition is necessary. It's very important for an umpire to work the plate and develop a good, solid, consistent strike zone that will carry him throughout his career.

Another problem I have noticed is plate umpires' inability to see the ball until it reaches the catcher's glove. I relate that back to improper head height. Young umpires, and some veterans, develop bad habits. Their head height is too low; consequently, they get blocked. That happens on pitches down in the strike zone or away. Umpires must make sure that their head height is appropriate and that they're in position to see the ball the whole way.

Umpires need to ask themselves if they're seeing the ball all the way into the catcher's glove. If the answer is yes, the umpire's head height must be OK. The umpire really needs to be honest with himself and make sure he is seeing the ball. If he's not, he needs to make the adjustment so he does see all of the pitch.

Finding the slot and keeping it is another problem for younger umpires. Experienced umpires find the slot and can see the ball well. In lower-level leagues, less experienced umpires have a difficult time with the catchers in trying to establish that slot area. They think they have the slot and then, just before the pitch, the catcher moves and it disappears. It's difficult for less experienced umpires to make the adjustment quickly enough after the catcher moves to be in position to see the pitch. Experience is the best teacher for adjusting to regain the slot once it's lost.

What separates the men from the boys is the ability to handle situations. That's a saying I've heard used to describe separating the top officials from the average ones in many sports. In baseball, what separates a good umpire from the rest is the ability to use the resources at the umpire's disposal. It is also the ability to defuse volatile situations. We may not be able to change a player's or manager's mind, but we need to defuse their anger so that it won't lead to an ejection.

Umpires have to understand how to deal with managers. There is nothing wrong with letting the manager tell what he saw on a play. The umpire can listen to the explanation, explain the reasoning behind his call and then maybe listen to manager's side again. At that point, the game must go on. Having a back and forth argument - "He was out." "No he was safe" - doesn't accomplish anything. It's better to say, "If that's the way you saw it, Coach, maybe I missed it, but the game is going to go on." That's one way to end an argument. A successful umpire will allow the manager to get his last say in but not to cross over the line or delay the game.

Those common problems are committed by many umpires. People who want to succeed in umpiring realize that those problems exist and work on correcting them. Look at your umpiring game and see if you have committed any of those errors. Correcting them will make you a better umpire.

(Mike Fitzpatrick, Kalamazoo, Mich., is the director of field supervision for the Professional Baseball Umpire Corp. In that capacity, he observes, rates and trains professional minor league umpires. He worked as a minor league umpire from 1965-78.)

This article originally appeared in Referee magazine in November 2000.



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