A discrepancy that comes up in about 90% of all games is the umpire’s strike zone. Pitchers complain about it. Hitters shake their heads in the box about it. Coaches whine about it. And parents in the stands let the umpire know exactly what they think about the zone.
An umpire’s strike zone should NEVER be used as an excuse of not performing well.
Can you control the umpire’s zone? No. What can you control? Keeping your emotions in check to be able to adjust to his/her zone. What are you going to choose to do about it DURING the game? An umpire should establish his/her zone within the first two innings. All you can ask of that umpire is to be consistent with what he is calling, and as a player, it’s your job to pay attention to his/her zone. You can actually use an umpire’s strike zone to your advantage if you look at it as an opportunity instead of disadvantage…
As a hitter..
Recognize if the umpire has a wide zone (calls a lot of strikes) or small zone (doesn’t call a lot of strikes). You can recognize this by paying attention to the first couple of innings when you are in the dugout or out in the field. Even when you are not up to bat, you always need to be paying attention to your surroundings. If you do not hit at the top of the order, or if you are a hitter who did not start the game, your job is to pay attention to your teammates at-bats and recognize where exactly the umpire is calling strikes, and where he is not. Sometimes one side of the plate might be wider than the other side. Sometimes he may be an umpire that has a lower strike zone.
A game should be controlled by the offenses when there is a small strike zone. Games with small zones usually lead to higher scoring games. When there is a small zone being presented, it’s your job as a hitter to have patience at the plate. With a smaller zone, you change your game plan and approach to not be as aggressive, especially in an important situation. You want to challenge the pitcher to throw strikes. Don’t help her out until she proves that she can find the umpire’s strike zone consistently. With a smaller strike zone, comes more walks. It’s important to pay attention to the hitter in front of you. Did the pitcher just walk that hitter on 4 straight pitches? If she did, then you probably should not swing at the first pitch of your at bat, since clearly that pitcher is struggling to find the strike zone.
Finding a way on base is critical in our game. Realize that a walk is just as valuable as a hit. It may not seem the same to you as a hitter statistics wise, but taking that walk puts you 60 feet closer to scoring than you were before you started your at bat. Have patience at the plate, and definitely challenge yourself not to swing out of the zone.
When you’re up to bat, look for a mistake in your at bat. With a smaller strike zone comes more added pressure to the pitcher, not the hitter. With added pressure, a pitcher is more likely to be more tense and frustrated. She will probably start aiming the ball a little bit more trying to find the strike zone, and she is going to be more likely to come over the heart of the plate. LOOK FOR THIS MISTAKE. Don’t fall asleep at the plate just because a pitcher is throwing more balls than strikes. Be ready to hit.
In the dugout, be paying attention to the pitcher’s body language. If she is getting down on herself and showing that she is not confident with what she is throwing, then it’s even more important to not help her out in your at bat. Don’t give a pitcher any confidence when she is struggling to find the zone by helping her out and swinging at a pitch that is not a strike. That gives her a little bit of positive energy and could be exactly what she needs to get back into her groove. When a pitcher is struggling, offensively, it’s your job to keep her struggling.
A wide strike zone can be a hitter’s worse nightmare. If the umpire is going to have a wider zone, you can be a little bit more aggressive. You still never want to get out of your true strike zone. If an umpire strikes you out on a pitch that was clearly not a strike, don’t get discouraged or consider it a failure. Don’t let that at bat take you out of your next at bat, and more importantly, don’t let the wide strike zone carry over into the next game and get you out of your zone.
When I was playing and there was an umpire with a wide zone, I made it my goal to get not get 2 strikes. I wanted to hit a strike early in the count so that the umpire didn’t even have a chance to strike me out! YOU can control hitting early in the count. You CAN’T control the umpire calling you out on a pitch that is out of the zone. So be aggressive early in the count so that you get a better pitch to hit, and you don’t stand a chance of getting struck out on a pitch that is out of your zone.
Also, if an umpire has a wider zone, DON’T SHOW EMOTION. Players show emotion at the plate when they get strikes called against them just to make sure everyone else knows who’s watching that they didn’t think it was a strike. Control your emotions. Don’t let your opponent know that something is wrong with you – that fuels them and let’s them think they have you right where they want you. If you’re showing body language (i.e. rolling eyes, shaking head) after a certain pitch, and I am pitching against you, I am probably going to throw you that exact same pitch again, since you just clearly showed me disgust after the umpire called that strike against you. Why would I throw you anything else? Clearly you are not looking to hit that pitch that you were just shaking your head about…
Understand which part of the plate the umpire is being “wide” on. For example: Is it the outside pitch to a right handed hitter that he’s calling way off the plate? If this is the case you have 2 options: 1) Go up looking for an INSIDE pitch, if the pitcher is still showing you that she is working on that side of the plate. 2) If the pitcher is controlling the outside corner because that of where the umpire keeps calling it, crowd the plate the very most you can, and take away that outside pitch so that it doesn’t seem as far outside to you. The same can be applied for the inside corner by backing way off the plate and looking for that pitch. If an umpire has a higher strike zone, it’s important to not swing at pitches that are too far high and out of your zone. Something I did when facing a pitcher who threw higher pitches in the zone was to hold my hands a little bit higher when I was in my stance before the pitch was thrown; this adjustment helped me keep my hands on top the ball so that I was not as likely to pop up. This was a small adjustment on my part to be able to able to win the “battle.” Your job is to win the battle and do whatever it takes to come out on top – no excuses necessary.
The best players are going to be able to adjust during the game, no matter what is thrown at them! Softball is a game of adjustments.
Instead of complaining about a wide zone, be proactive in practicing during the week about the approach you will take as a hitter or as a team if you come up against an umpire with a wide strike zone. It’s going to happen, it’s just a matter of time. By practicing this, you’re turning what some think as a disadvantage, into something you can feel more confident about at bat when it happens in a game. Have the discussion before it happens about how your approach changes at the plate when facing different umpires. An umpire is never the one who comes away with a win in the win column at the end of the game. By letting the umpire beat you, you indirectly are letting the other team beat you. Quit the excuses, and use an umpire to your advantage when you’re up at the plate by adjusting how YOU approach YOUR at bat.