The Slot

All good umpires in the USA work what is called the slot. If you do not work the slot, you will be perceived as inferior, regardless of what your actual results are. If you don’t work the slot, start today, or realize that you will always work low level baseball. The slot is the space between the batter and the catcher. Many umpires line up their nose on the inside corner of the plate, with the bottom of the chin no lower than the top of the catcher’s helmet.

Some umpires line up even farther inside (3 or 6 inches) so that they never have the problem of a strike coming straight at them. Something coming straight at you often explodes in your face. This is why umpires often grossly miss pitches that are obvious to the coaches and fans. Lining up this far inside presents another set of problems, which will be touched on later.

Again, the box is something that an instructor will have to show you in order for you to get it right. Briefly, you walk up in the slot with you feet together. (Assume a right hand batter here.) You kick your left foot out past your left shoulder so that the toe of you left shoe is even with the back of the catcher’s feet or rear end. Then your right foot moves out past your right shoulder so that it is pointing up the catcher’s rear and the toe of the right foot is in line with the heel of your left foot. This is called heel-toe alignment and it is critical to getting in the proper position. Your nose ends up being lined up with the inside corner of the plate or slightly to its left, but never over the plate. Your body, because of the heel-toe alignment is facing the second baseman and pro school teaches that the head should be square to the pitcher. You are now in a position to accept the pitch. As the pitcher winds up you snap down so that the bottom of your chin is no lower than the top of the catcher’s helmet.

What are all of the things that can go wrong here? A whole lot. Here are some problems and some solutions:

Head Height

A major error umpires make is that their head is too low.* Thus, they cannot see the outside corner of the plate because the catcher’s head is in the way. The bottom of the chin should be no lower than the top of the catcher’s helmet. If the catcher lines up inside then the height of the head may be even higher.

Tracking

The next part of calling balls and strikes is keeping your head still. Your eyes are like a box camera and a box camera cannot take a good picture of the ball if the box is moving. Many umpires move their head without realizing it. We often have to literally hold our students’ heads still because they cannot tell themselves that their head is moving.. The eyeballs (as opposed to the head) follow the ball from the pitcher’s hand and see it all of the way into the catcher’s mitt.* This is called tracking. It is not easy and it is unlikely that amateurs who have not been specifically schooled in this will do it correctly.

Tracking is not natural or instinctive. Here are some problems and proposed solutions:

TIMING

The ball must be seen all the way into the catcher’s mitt and then your eyes locked onto it for about one second before you make a decision – ball or strike. Let your "after-vision" make the call for you. See the pitch a second time in your mind’s eye. This also helps with seeing the dropped third strike and other weirdness around the plate. Good umpires wait .75 to 1.15 seconds after the ball hits the catcher’s glove until they call the pitch.* We call this "timing". As a new umpire, you should be nearer the 1.15 seconds. Good timing is rarely seen in amateur umpires and adopting it is as close as you are going to get in finding a silver bullet in this article. There is probably no one thing that you can do which will immediately improve your performance as quickly as adopting good timing.

Adopting good timing will produce other payoffs, which I will discuss in the next section, but for now we are going to go into a few helpful hints on how to accomplish the above:

Summary of the Basics

We have now covered the basics of good ball and strike calling. To put this all into practice will take a good athlete at least a year, the rest of us 3-5 years, and this is only if one has access to instructors who can correct bad habits along the way. At this point, many people reading this are saying that they umpire for fun and this sounds like too much work. It is hard work but just remember the basics. Proper position – box in the slot, head height, tracking, timing, and concentration.