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 the zone that is set. You can actually use an umpire’s strike zone to your advantage if you look at it as an opportunity instead of disadvantage…
All you can ask is for an umpire to be CONSISTENT with his zone and whatever he is calling
As a Pitcher…
There is a lot a pitcher has to think about during a game. Pitch calling, setting up hitters, what a hitter saw her last at bat, what a hitter hit her last at bat, situational pitching, etc. To add to that list, it’s important for a pitcher to understand the zone behind the plate. You recognize it, understand it, and work with it. You are seeing with your own two eyes what IS and what is NOT being called. Is the umpire’s zone wide? (calling a lot OFF the corners of the plate or up/down in the zone). Is the umpire’s zone small? (squeezing you, not calling a lot of pitches you think are strikes). Recognize it. Don’t be fearful of it. Rise to the challenge – this is a great time to prove yourself. This is your time to bring out the competitive mentality that sports is all about.
You are definitely going to come across umpires out there who will have a smaller zone. Realize on the day you throw to these umpires, you will probably get hit a little bit more than you’re used to. Honestly, this is a tough challenge for a pitcher, especially one who is inexperienced with this type of situation. Consider it an opportunity to get better, not a disadvantage. An umpire with a smaller strike zone is making you tougher mentally and physically. Can you handle it? Look at it positively rather than negatively. An umpire with a smaller zone is challenging you to get more accurate and precise than you ever thought you would need to be. When you have a small strike zone, work on the plate to try to establish the strike zone early in the at bat, then as the count goes on and you get ahead, work more off the plate.
Work inches. Have you heard this term before? “Working inches” as a pitcher means to not make MAJOR adjustments at first with your location to try to find the strike zone. Work on bringing your pitches a little bit higher in the zone (if the umpire is not calling a low zone) or a little bit more on the plate (if an umpire is not giving you much off the corners). See how far you can still live on the corners and get the umpire to call it a strike. If an umpire is not calling a certain placement of a pitch a strike, STOP THROWING IT THERE! It’s not rocket science! Don’t go from throwing a pitch a little bit off the plate to throwing it right down the middle when you are trying to adjust to the strike zone. WORK INCHES to find the zone. Try to find the pinpoint spot that makes an umpire happy. Remember, he’s not going anywhere. It’s your job to adjust to him, not his job to adjust to you.
It’s important with a smaller strike zone to challenge the hitter. Still make them earn their way on (i.e. put the ball in play, get a hit). Try to limit your walks, as when you have an umpire with a small zone, walks usually increase. Challenging the hitter means on a 3-0 or 3-1 count, you come more on the plate, even if it means throwing it closer to the middle of the plate, so that you do not walk the hitter. Challenge them to hit a strike. When you are challenging a hitter, think in your head how a hitter is meant to fail (remember a good batting average is around .300-.400, which means 6/10 or 7/10 times a hitter does NOT get a hit).
What is even more important, is not to get frustrated and show it with your outward appearance – your body language, facial expressions and overall presence. First and for most you are a leader on your team, and your team feeds off of your energy. If you show them that you are frustrated with the strike zone, they are going to get frustrated with you and play tight back behind you and up at the plate. If you show them that everything is under control, they will play more relaxed (aka stronger) defense back behind you — you will need it as hitters usually put more balls into play when there is a smaller strike zone because you have to come more on the plate to the hitter. Not only do your teammates feed off of the energy you are giving off, either positively or negatively, in response to the umpire, the opposing team recognizes your body language, confidence and attitude towards the zone. Don’t give the opposing team any ammunition to use against you as they will try to push you further down than you already are if you are showing emotion. And finally, the umpire is looking right at you for most of the game. When he sees your attitude and body language, that’s not really going to give him a reason to have more calls go your way. In fact, it’s probably going to have the opposite effect because you are embarrassing him and pretty much calling him out when you are showing emotion for not getting your way. Don’t make balls and strikes about you.
A wide zone should be in every pitcher’s dream. A wide zone should help a pitcher dominate a game. Understand how/when the umpire is widening the zone – Is it a certain count where he/she widens it up? Is it a certain pitch? Is it a certain location (up/down, in/out?) Analyze the strike zone! Analyze the umpire! If you are given a wide zone to throw to, there is no even point of coming on the plate with your pitches, unless it’s a 3-0 or 3-0 count. Why would you? See how far you can push the limits of the zone. Don’t come with a pitch on the plate unless you absolutely have to! When you have a wide zone, you have the ability to work off the plate first, then come back onto the plate later, only if you absolutely need to.
Notice the furtherst distance you can pitch off the plate (or down) and still get it a called strike. Live there until the hitter proves they can make an adjustment to hit that pitch. Honestly, most hitters will never be able to adjust to the wide zone, and you will be able to live on a corner or live on a certain pitch. Trust me on this! (Something extra to pay attention to is if a hitter makes adjustments as to where they are standing in the box based on the strike zone at hand).
With a small zone, you work inches to come back onto the plate. With a wide zone, you work inches to move the ball off of the plate.
Use a wide zone to your strategic advantage. A hitter is going to feel like they are going to have to defend the plate when there is a wide strike zone. They are going to be more defensive than offensive. With that being said, when you have a pitchers count, 0-2, 1-2, a hitter is going to be more likely to chase. The hitter is aware of the wide strike zone, just like you are. When she is aware of it, she is going to be more likely to swing at something out of the zone, especially with 2 strikes, because she doesn’t want the umpire to strike her out with his crazy calls.
Be proactive in your approach to understanding strike zones. Practice on your own by pitching “innings” to your catcher at lessons or your own practice time. Pitch to fake hitters in a line up and keep track of the count and outs as you try to work through the innings. Be your own umpire and challenge yourself. Work on a wide zone, where you are able to give yourself a lot of calls off the plate. Work on a small zone, where the umpire is squeezing you and you have to challenge up. Both of them are important to work on so that when it comes game time, you feel like you already have experience under your belt in dealing with adversity.
Don’t ever blame the umpire for not getting results you want in a game. The only person you can blame is yourself. There is always some kind of adjusting you must be doing as the game goes along, and adjusting to an umpire is something that can make or break your game and possibly even make or break your pitching career.
How do you practice dealing with umpires? I’m interested to hear other ways you guys have either practiced this situation or how you made adjustments in the middle of the game!