Wednesday, June 1, 2011

The Strike Zone

The Strike Zone

It is essential that we understand the rule as it is written in the rulebook before we heckle the home plate umpire for missing a pitch or two. With some home plate umpires you would think it was the plate that was moving and not the ball.

Rule7, Section 4a of the (Softball/Fastpitch/Slowpitch w/stealing) rulebook states: a strike is called by the umpire for each legally pitched ball entering the strike zone. Slow Pitch each legally pitched ball passing through the strike zone before touching the ground and the batter does not swing.

Rule 1, Definitions for the Strike Zone. That space over any part of home plate, when a batter assumes a natural stance adjacent to home plate, between the batter’s (Fast Pitch) Arm pits and top of the knees. (Slow Pitch) Back shoulder and the front knee.

Why is it so difficult calling balls and strikes for Major League umpires? The rules clearly state what is and is not a strike. Is too much being left for the individual umpire’s interpretation? There is even a diagram that has planes rising up from the 17” front-of-home-plate (part that faces the pitcher’s plate) as well as from the points (of the plate) facing the catcher. Both sides being 12” in length. The rulebook “strike zone” is multi-dimensional. Now, taking what the rulebook is telling you and what you know from when you played baseball, there is no excuse for interpreting the strike zone as some arbitrary place where balls pass through.

My suggestion to those umpires who constantly battle what they rule to be a strike is to get access to a pitching machine. Get a cardboard cut-out, or ask one of your umpire buddies to stand in the batter’s box. Go to the pitching machine with plenty of baseballs and begin loading them into the machine so you can see from the pitcher’s perspective what a strike looks like. After so many pitches, say 1,000, go back behind the plate and have someone load the machine with baseballs and watch another thousand pitches go over the different portions of the plate where the ball enters the strike zone so YOU can get a full understanding of what a strike is so the next time it’s your job to call balls and strikes, the strike zone doesn’t fluctuate from batter-to-batter or inning-to –inning. Remember, all anybody wants from you is consistency.

Why is it so difficult to calls balls and strikes for nine (9) innings? For some umpires the strike zone becomes intermittent, disappearing and reappearing as the umpire struggles to decide if he wants to call the high strike or the low strike. The inside corner or outside corner of the plate. With some umpires you get the feeling they don’t know what to do with all the possibilities of what a strike is and in their mind they just cannot decipher what is and isn’t a strike for whatever reason. Say the batter is over six feet tall and has an unusual stance. You can’t let that aspect of calling strikes interfere with how you perceive where the ball crossed before entering the catcher’s glove. Because it isn’t where the catcher’s glove is when he catches the ball, it is where the ball crossed the plate. It’s bad for the game. Usually, the pattern is, when you cannot determine what a strike is the zone will change throughout the game. This is referred to as a “floating” strike zone.

Furthermore, it is just as important to know who the umpiring crew will be when you are facing a particular team. Just as it is important to know which pitcher’s will be going up against your squad. The same way you will have match-up issues with the batter versus the pitcher, certain pitchers may have histories with the home plate umpire. A manager has to know these things so he can adjust the lineup accordingly. (The umpires rotate, from first base to home to third to second base.)

An umpire will issue a warning against a pitcher for throwing at a batter but what happens when an umpire displays poor sportsmanship towards a pitcher? Nothing. Perhaps it is just an idle threat. Mentioning the umpires and how proficient they may be at calling tag plays and how quickly they respond to an unusual play that requires a fast determination based on what the rulebook says should be done. But I believe this is something that is done to appease the players, coaches, and or managers. They think that something actually might happen to reprimand the umpire. Personally, I think a player, coach, or manager needs to call the League’s bluff once in a while to see what happens next.

Major League baseball is like any other big business in that it has its idiosyncrasies and hypocrisies. When it comes to how they handle the arbiters of baseball the powers that be may be considered eccentric. When a player, coach, or manager complains about the poor umpiring that was displayed during a recent game the league can’t fine the person fast enough. Even if there is proof supporting the accusatory claimant. Umpires can be consistently inconsistent, have an attitude in need of adjustment and just think they have to play the part of a buffoon. The stereotype of how most people think of umpires. You would think the umpires would want to change that stereotype once and for all. But, unfortunately, because there is no accountability for umpires they generally do whatever they feel is appropriate.

We should all be so fortunate as to have a vocation of autonomy. A rulebook to an umpire is like the Bible to a clergyman. Their livelihoods depend largely on how they interpret the meanings in each of these books. And yet with the umpire there are rules spelled out that seem to go unnoticed by their fellow umpires and their immediate supervisors. Example: No umpire shall wear sunglasses because at some angle or point of view the sunglass may distort the ability to see the ball which would mean the umpire would be unable to make a call. This goes especially for fair or foul balls down the line that have a tendency to get lost in the tint of the glass.

Baseball is America’s pastime. Everything about this wonderful game oozes in the daily lives of many people. The clich├ęs and catchall phrases that both relate to baseball and everyday life are innumerable.

When you have a game like baseball you cannot be so conditioned to want to add or delete rules unless the times have changed to a point that the rules have become antiquated. Occasionally something happens, out of the blue, that you just have to file under, “out of the blue.” While other times something continually occurs to the point that it is not out of reason to consider rule changes. Especially if modern technology can lend a helping hand to the situation. Because in the world of officiating, it is all about keeping the game fair and getting the calls right. Not how long it took to come to a conclusion but that the conclusion that was arrived at was accurate. We don’t want to see robots who were made for the sole purpose of calling balls and strikes because that would lose the human element of the game. And we don’t want other professions to take note and invest in their own mechanically- built suitable substitutes to replace human beings. We just want umpires to do the job they were hired to do. To be in position to make the call. Not be so upset when someone has a suggestion with how they can correct the situation (using decorum, of course). AND TO HAVE A SIMILAR STRIKE ZONE TO EVERY OTHER UMPIRE. The strike zone interpretation should not be worlds apart the way they are in major league baseball. What you see in the rulebook definitions is what their guidelines should be and nothing else. This is a rule, not left for interpretation. The only amendment that should be applied to the rule is how each individual umpire adjusts his body to better see the ball cross the plate.

I want to live to see the day that it doesn’t matter who yells, “Play ball!” Because the strike zone will be as it is in the rulebook. Of course, some people put much more attention to detail into the things they do in life. That cannot nor should it be changed. Ultimately, the goal for the powers that be who run the beautiful game of baseball, is to hire the type of person who follows the rulebook by the letter. The type of person who interprets the rules as they are written and not the type of individual who interprets things in a manner that best suits their needs. Baseball needs people who are willing to sacrifice their personal needs for the sake of maintaining the integrity of the game.

Kevin J. Marquez