By LOU PAVLOVICH, JR.
LOS ANGELES — If you go to enough baseball games on the high school, college and professional levels, one constant complaint always echoes through stadiums.
Why are pitches that touch the outside corner of the plate, and within the top and bottom points of the strike zone, not called strikes consistently by home plate umpires? I have charted over 1,000 games through the years behind the backstop of college and high school games, and this trend holds consistently.There are a number of reasons for this phenomenon, according to key people within the game.
First, the home plate umpire has been trained to set up in the slot between the catcher and batter which gives the arbiter a great look at inside and down the middle pitches. But he is not in a pristine position to see outside pitches which graze the corner. If the catcher moves his head upwards while catching a pitch, it blocks the view of the umpire to see that outside pitch.
Some catchers set up too far behind home plate which then causes strikes on the outside corner to become balls if pitches move. Sometimes umpires set up too far behind the catcher. Pitchers cause their own problems as well when they nibble on the corners instead of pitching in the strike zone.
Compounding this problem is that few baseball coaches ever chart umpires to find what their strike calling strengths and weaknesses are. On the Major League level, they are completely aware of how home plate umpires are calling games from series to series thanks to the charting efforts of Inside Edge.
But if you ask 100 college and high school coaches if they chart home plate umpires to find out what each arbiter’s strike zone is, chances are that one or two might do this.
Yet coaches constantly preach that the home plate umpire’s strike zone dictates the winner of games. If you have a powerful hitting team, you obviously want a small strike zone. But if you have pitchers with great command, the bigger the zone the better.
Brent Mayne, a 15-year catcher in the Major Leagues, feels the professional strike zone has shrunk over the years.
“I think you’ve got to start with Greg Maddux,” said Mayne.
“He had a huge impact on the size of the strike zone. To make a long story short, there was a long period of time when he was getting a very generous zone. There was a backlash, and a couple of things happened that contributed to the shrinking zone.
“First off, many players complained, and two, the electronic ball/strike video evaluation came to be. That machine made umpires accountable. It was the first time that an umpire could be graded and his strike zone evaluated. These two things meant buckling down and making a strike zone that went more by the rule book.
“Thus, no more generous corners. As far as catchers setting up too far back behind home plate, it happens. And there are a few things that are bad about that. One, it makes pitches, especially 12-6 breaking balls and balls with a lot of tilt, appear to finish out of the strike zone low.
“Second, if the catcher is set up too far back, so must the home plate umpire. It leaves him farther from the zone which is not good.
“Third, and I’m not sure why, setting up too deep is asking for foul balls off the body. When you set up under the hitter, the biting foul balls that nick you tend to go right on by.”
Mayne then discussed framing by catchers and if that would allow more outside corner pitches to be called strikes.
“I don’t teach framing, and I don’t like framing. I believe it looks high schoolish, and don’t think it works. What is the point any way? Basically framing means you’re taking a pitch that is not a strike and trying to trick the umpire into thinking it is.
“One of your main jobs as a catcher is to get along with and work well with umpires. How can you work well with them if they can’t trust you? Instead of framing, I teach kids to make sure that when your glove and the ball meet, the action stops. In other words, the movement of the ball does not drag your glove around and out of the strike zone. I’m not saying you can’t trick an umpire, especially when you really need it.
“However, there are much more tactful ways of doing it besides framing.”
Williams Chimes In
One of the most respected umpires in the history of college baseball is Dale Williams, a 41 year veteran who has worked eight College World Series. He was asked why umpires are inconsistent with outside corner pitches.
“First of all, the umpire is taught to set up in the slot between the batter and catcher,” said Williams.
“So his view changes from left and right handed batters. He does not set up in one spot all the time. Good umpires make sure their eyes are in a position so they can clearly see the outside corner well while working in this slot.”
Williams said that home plate is 17 inches wide.
“But the actual width of the strike zone is about 23 inches. Keep in mind the diameter of a ball is about three inches. If the edge of the baseball touches the outside edge of the strike zone as well as the inside edge, you can add about six inches to the width of the zone.
“This is one thing I always harp about with umpires who I work with. Any part of the baseball that touches the outside or inside edge of the strike zone is a strike.”
Williams said that allowing strikes to be called beyond the 23 inch width is not fair to the hitter.
“You don’t want to reward unhittable pitches that aren’t strikes.”
Williams added that he has witnessed some umpires who set up too far behind the catcher which causes problems calling precision strikes.
“I feel being closer to the catcher and closer to home plate is better. It gives you a better view. The farther away you are, the tougher it gets.”
Williams was asked if he feels umpires should be charted by coaches to give their teams an edge.
“If a coach knows what the precise strike is by umpires, how could it not help his team? We have a policy in the Big West Conference that umpires must not be assigned to teams more than twice in a season. In rare instances, an umpire may work three times. But that is unusual.
“Having a chart on what each umpire utilizes as his strike zone would undoubtedly be helpful to coaches.
“Once the game started, it might cut down on complaints by coaches because they know what they are getting in the form of a tight strike zone, wide zone or one that is by rule book definition.
“One umpire may have a lower strike zone than others. Everybody is a bit different even though we try to have everyone call the same zone.”
Williams said the biggest complaint he has with umpires now on the West Coast is not calling the high point of the strike zone a strike.
“The NCAA Rules Committee has been on this for years now asking umpires to call the high strike. And more umpires are complying. I tell umpires all the time that people complain about the length of games. Well, why not call the strike zone as written in the book? Calling that rule book definition of the high strike will speed the game along. It’s a real plus for an umpire.”
Fear Of Failure
Jerry Weinstein, a coach with the Colorado Rockies and a Hall of Fame coach for years at Sacramento City College, is one of the top pitching coaches in the history of the game.
He feels that more strikes were called years ago.
“The biggest problem I see is that pitchers simply don’t want to get hit,” said Weinstein.
“Consequently, every pitch is just a strike or a ball. Ask a dozen pitchers the following question. When you throw a pitch, do you want it hit?
“If they are honest, they will tell you no. That is the crux of the problem. Every pitch is thrown incredibly fine.
“Now all the other stuff which includes poor catching techniques has been an issue. The biggest thing now is that pitchers throw away from contact. They don’t want pitches hit.
“So they end up being so fine that the umpire must make a decision whether the pitch was barely a strike or a ball. In general, when it is a close pitch, the umpire will call more strikes balls than the other way.”
Weinstein said pitchers must develop the ability to throw strikes down over the middle of the plate.
“Almost every pitcher develops his ability to corner pitch before he can throw it down the middle with consistency.
“Trying to make perfect pitches is a difficult proposition for pitchers. The reality is that the majority of balls hit in the Big Leagues are outs.
“So pitching away from contact is bad strategy. You obviously have hitters you would want to pitch around if there is an open base. The man in the on-deck circle might dictate that you pitch to the current batter than him. There are all sorts of scenarios that come up like this. But that is a small percentage of the pitches thrown in a game.”
Weinstein said that people should watch batting practice.
“Watch how many balls are actually hits and how many are outs. I’m talking Big League right on down. Here we are throwing 60 mph fastballs from 55-year-old coaches, and every pitch is the same speed. Yet, a large percentage of them are outs. Then we get in a game, and we pitch just the opposite. You learn how to pitch by throwing batting practice because you learn what they can hit and what they can’t hit. Subtle changes in movement, speed and location really causes hitters fits and destroys timing.”
Kenny Kendrena of Inside Edge provided Collegiate Baseball with interesting data taken from the 2009 Major League season.
The nine zones of the strike zone were broken down to show actual called strikes for umpires during the season and taken pitches.
When you divide the called strikes by pitches taken in each zone, it gives you a percentage of strikes with those two factors.
As far as fastballs to lefthanded hitters, the low outside pitch was 20 percent (3,044 called strikes divided by 15,043 taken pitches) which shows this is a hard pitch for hurlers to get from umpires.
The percentage dipped to 10 percent (1,164 called strikes divided by 11,615 taken pitches) on non-fastballs that were outside and low for lefthanded hitters.
The figures remained consistent with righthanded hitters.
The fastball percentage was 31 percent (10,316 called strikes divided by 33,621 taken pitches) for low outside pitches for righthanded hitters.
The percentage dipped to 15 percent for non-fastballs (4,106 called strikes divided by 28,167 taken pitches) for low outside pitches to righthanded hitters.