Tuesday, April 10, 2012

I've Been Framed!

For over a hundred and fifty years players have searched for baseball's version of the Holy Grail: the secret to making umpires call strikes on borderline pitches. There are several theories on how to gain this advantage. Recently Baseball Prospectus, The Economist, and SB Nation renewed the public discussion by examining MLB catchers and their receiving skills. Several of these articles discuss "fooling" the umpire on close pitches: in other words, getting a strike call when a ball call is appropriate.

I'm here to tell you the secret code, the bit of wisdom that can mean the difference between as many as a half-dozen strike calls per game. Here it is. . . get ready. . .

How the catcher receives the ball matters.
Below is a short essay I wrote last year in a fit of frustration. I never thought it would be published, but I thought it appropriate in light of the prevailing ignorance of non-umpires writing these articles. So here it is, the secret book of:

How to Get More Strike Calls
A short essay by a frustrated umpire to aspiring catchers

I'm going to espouse a little. Some of what you will read is the result of frustration. Some of it is a desire to educate. Some of it may even be hogwash. Therefore, "caveat lector!"

Before diving into how to get more strike calls, let’s identify a strike. Most casual baseball fans (and a few "experts," including managers and coaches) believe that a strike is whenever any part of the baseball passes over any part of the plate between the knees and the letters. If you believe this definition of a strike, strap yourself in 'cause it’s about to get bumpy!

Defining the Strike Zone
First, the strike zone differs from rulebook to rulebook. For instance, the major league rulebook describes the strike zone as the area over home plate and judged by the batter as he is prepared to swing at the ball, between the midpoint between the top of the uniform pants and the top of the shoulders, to the hollow beneath the kneecap. The NCAA rulebook describes basically the same area, but uses "bottom of the knee cap" instead of the "hollow beneath the kneecap" as its lower end of the strike zone. High school describes the strike zone as halfway between the shoulders and the waistline to the knees. The high school strike zone is also judged when the hitter assumes his natural batting stance.

Defining a Strike
While there are subtle variations of the strike zone from rulebook to rulebook, defining a strike is much more difficult. The major league rulebook says that a strike should be called when the ball "passes through" any part of the strike zone. Most umpires add "substantially" to the phrase "passes through" when interpreting a strike. Otherwise a splitter that just clips the front end of the plate at the knees, but bounces in the dirt is a strike. Most players and coaches would agree that is not a strike because it did not "pass through" the strike zone, although this is sure to get some objections from pitchers. Likewise a big breaking roundhouse curveball that passes at head level at the front of the plate, but falls to the midpoint level at the back of the plate has not "passed through" the strike zone.

You may not agree with the above definition of a strike, but many umpires have been trained using this definition. It is as good a starting point as any for identifying a strike.

A Strike Call is a Cooperative Effort
Now that we have a basic understanding of what a strike is, let’s discuss how a strike gets called. A strike call is actually a cooperative effort. A strike call is the result of three individuals successfully performing their individual jobs to attain a commonly desired objective. The pitcher wants to throw a strike. The catcher wants a catch a strike. The umpire wants to call a strike. When all of these individuals adequately perform their duties, a strike call often results.

While there are individual responsibilities involved in the strike call, the three individuals also must work as a team to attain a strike. Keep this in mind while you read the description below of the individual jobs.

The Job of the Pitcher
First, let’s look at the job of the pitcher. The pitcher's job is not simply to pitch the ball within the strike zone. Anyone who has ever played high school baseball knows that a pitcher may occasionally get a called strike for a pitch outside the strike zone. No, the pitcher's job is to pitch to the catcher. A strike must look like a strike. Take the following example: the catcher sets up on the low inside corner, but the pitch is at top of the strike zone over the outside of the plate. The pitch has “substantially passed through” the strike zone, but the catcher had to reach across his body to catch the ball. His reach may have even turned the catcher's shoulders. It just looks ugly! No experienced umpire will call this pitch a strike. It doesn't look like a strike to the benches or to any other observer at the park. The pitcher has failed to “hit his spot,” or, in other words, the pitcher has failed to pitch to the catcher.

Umpires are fond of reference points when calling strikes. Pitching to the catcher is usually a matter of delivering the baseball within those reference points. For instance, many umpires use the catcher's shin guards as a point of reference. Many umpires will not call a pitch a strike if it is caught outside of the shin guards. Additionally, some umpires will not call a pitch a strike if it is above the batter’s belt (or a ball or two above the belt - depending on the level). Others may not call a strike that is above the catcher’s face mask. The pitcher and the catcher must work together to discover the umpire’s reference points and work within them.

The Job of the Catcher
The catcher has a tremendous amount of influence over the strike call. A bad catcher may cost his pitcher a half dozen close strikes a game. A good catcher may “buy” many close pitches each game. How? Let me explain.

It is the catcher's job to "present" the ball to the umpire. Not frame, not hold, "present." Presenting a pitch is sticking the pitch out in front of the body with no glove or body movement, and giving the umpire a chance to call a strike. A close pitch that is stuck looks like a strike to onlookers. If the catcher does not move, the pitcher appears to have hit his spot. It looks like a no-brainer strike and the umpire has to find some other reason to not call the pitch (like it’s a foot outside).

Upper level catchers are taught to move slightly laterally in order to get in front of the pitch and eliminate reaching. This is an advanced technique that requires training and practice. If you have neither training nor practice in the technique, my advice is to not attempt it until you are trained. Contrary to some advocates, the umpire does notice this adjustment. The effectiveness of this technique depends on the skill of the receiver and how slight and subtle the movement. Movement by the catcher during the pitch is also distracting to the umpire. An unskilled receiver may end up costing his pitcher strike calls.

A pitch that is caught with movement towards the zone does not fool the umpire. In fact, this amateurish behavior has the opposite effect. The glove movement informs the umpire that the pitch was outside the strike zone and must be moved inside the strike zone. All that is accomplished with techniques like dropping the glove or pulling the pitch is it annoys the umpire. It also shows up the umpire because it actually does fool onlookers since the glove ends up in a place that looks like a strike. Consequently, fans and benches start chirping at the umpire over his calls. Some umpires will penalize the catcher for such behavior, defensively and sometimes offensively. Known as a FYC ("*** you call") in umpire parlance, this response is an unprofessional way some umpires deal with catchers and teams employing childish tactics.

A catcher may also cost his pitcher a low strike by flipping his glove over. No upper level umpire will call a strike if the glove is flipped. A flipped glove tells the world that the ball was low. Yes, even the big breaking curveball will not get a strike call if the glove is flipped. Move up and stick the ball if you want that call.

Since presentment is the catcher's chief responsibility, it is important to stay low and give the umpire a good look at the entire strike zone. Most umpires work "the slot," a space between the catcher and batter, just over the catcher's shoulder. A catcher who stays high forces the umpire up and makes low pitches, especially that low outside call your pitcher wants, difficult to see and call.

Catchers can earn points by blocking pitches. The umpire wears substantial protection, but as every good catcher knows, the ball ends up finding you. If the umpire is hit, give him an opportunity to recover. Go talk to your pitcher. If it was a substantial hit, ask if he's ok. Remember, you are trying to win his influence! You want him healthy and happy!

Knowing the Umpire
Want to become a better catcher? Go do some umpiring! It will give you an entirely new perspective of the game of baseball. It will also force you to learn the rules and provide an understanding of the umpire’s job.

Here is a secret about umpires: we want to call strikes! First, we are trained and encouraged to call strikes. A popular saying among umpires goes, "a pitch is a strike unless I am convinced it isn't!" Here are a few ways that a pitch convinces me that it isn't a strike: 
* It is obviously outside the strike zone.
* It hits the dirt.
* The pitcher misses his spot and forces the catcher to reach.
* The catcher botches the presentment (drops the ball, drops his glove, carries the ball outside the strike zone, etc).
Give me a chance to call a strike, because I want to! Strikes are fun! I practice my strike call during the off-season. I like ringing the batter up! Strikes also make the game go faster and more entertaining. Coaches, fans, players, everyone likes strikes! Nobody ever celebrated a 20 walk game, but a 20 strikeout game makes SportsCenter. Da-da-da, da-da-da!

How the home plate umpire sets up at home plate can tell you a lot about where he likes to call. The umpire that sets up high in a box stance is more likely to call a higher strike zone. An umpire that likes to use the scissors stance and set up low may prefer a lower strike zone. Case in point, for many years the National League umpires used balloon protectors while their brothers in the American league used the inside protector. Consequently, umpires in the American League were forced higher and the AL was known as a high strike league, while the National League was known as a low strike league because the umpires with the inside protectors could set up lower.

Sometimes the umpire's strike zone moves as the game goes on. Usually, the zone gets smaller. That’s a common occurrence. Sometimes the umpire will miss a pitch. We all make mistakes. Its life, move on.

Building a solid rapport with a local umpire may also be worth a few strikes a game. Learn the names of your local umpires. Introduce yourself at the beginning of the game and use the umpire's name during the game. It makes it easier to personalize your questions:

"Pete, was that one pretty close?"
"Yeah, Johnny. You might get that one if you stick it next time."

Umpires recognize YOU because we sit behind you all game. We know the complainers, the catchers with poor attitudes, and the catchers with poor mechanics. We also know the good ones. We also talk about you to other umpires and sometimes to college coaches. Remember, just because umpire Pete is calling your local high school game doesn’t mean that he won’t be on a major college field later in the week.

Keep a book on the local umpires and where they like to call. Isn't it good information to know that Pete doesn't like to call the curve over the outside corner, but favors the high strike? Do you think your coach would appreciate that information?

Give this some thought: you stick a close pitch and hear "ball." What should you do? Learn from it! First, ask yourself whether the umpire called that pitch a strike earlier in the game. If the answer is yes, you may want to ask, "Was that one pretty close?" Maybe the umpire just missed it. If he hasn't called it previously, where is he calling?

Here are a few don’ts that will get you into trouble with an umpire:
* Never, ever turn on an umpire. An umpire will generally answer your question if you do not turn your head.
* Never, ever repeat something an umpire says to a coach
* Never, ever show displeasure over a strike call
Finally, never, ever throw the umpire under the bus to your coach. Case in point, coach to his catcher Johnny:

Coach: Johnny! Where's that pitch?
Johnny: It’s right down the middle!

First, this is arguing balls and strikes and the coach will either get warned or tossed for this behavior. The umpire may also warn or toss you (depending on the age of play). Second, you have thrown the umpire under the bus in front of the teams and the spectators. Remember, you want the umpire on your side. You, your pitcher, and the umpire are working together to get strikes. You can't get a strike call without the umpire! Do you think throwing him under the bus helps him do his job more effectively?

It is a shame that coaches do not teach these basic lessons to their catchers. A skilled catcher is worth several strikes each game, often meaning the difference between winning and losing ball games. Practice these simple techniques and you will get more strike calls.


Anonymous said...

Great article. But I believe it was NL umps who had the inside protectors while the AL stuck with the balloon.

Pete Reiser said...

Ah, yes! I stand corrected!

Now where is my damn fact checker. . . IGOR!!!

Anonymous said...

Nice read Pete. Good rants are important!

Dont mean to nit pick, but for clarity re-read the AL vs NL breakdown on CP's. The information in the two sentences appear to conflict one another.