THE STRIKE ZONE
THE UMPIRE’S PERSPECTIVE
Mark Hrako, Head Umpire AZMSBL
Strike zones vary at different levels of competition. For over 100 years, professional baseball has struggled with the question of what constitutes the strike zone. It is one of the most basic definitions of the game, yet is not consistent, and at times leads to controversy.
The Major League definition of the strike zone is that area over home plate, the upper limit of which is a horizontal line at the midpoint between the top of the shoulders and the top of the uniform pants, and the lower-level is a line at the top of the knees. The strike zone shall be determined from the batter’s stance, as the batter is prepared to swing at a pitched ball.
For about 9 years, Questec was the technology that was applied to measure the umpire’s strike zone against the rulebook. There was a 2 inch buffer built into the process. Thus if a baseball that is 2 1/4 inches in diameter touched the outer edge of the strike zone on either side (and within the correct height), it would be considered a strike.
The NCAA definition of the strike zone is the area over home plate from the bottom of the kneecaps to directly below the batter’s armpits when the batter assumes a natural stance. Any part of the ball passing over any part of the plate, from the bottom of the kneecaps to directly below the batter’s armpits, is a strike. The pitch should be judged to be a strike or a ball as it crosses home plate, not where it is caught by the catcher.
The Federation High School ruling of the strike zone is that space over home plate, the top of which is halfway between the batter shoulders and the waistline, and the bottom being the knees when the batter assumes the natural batting stance. The height of the strike zone is determined by the batter’s normal batting stance. The umpire’s judgment as to the natural stance of the batter supersedes a batter’s excessive crouching.
For Little League, the strike zone is from the batter’s armpits to the batter’s knees.
THE PITCHER’S PERSPECTIVE
The strike zone varies according to the player’s height and batting stance. Opposing pitchers used to complain that the vertical length of Rickey Henderson’s strike zone was less than half what it should have been. Despite what the rulebook might say, few pitches above the batter’s belt are called strikes.
How about the width of the strike zone? Since home plate is 17 inches wide, does that mean that the strike zone the 17 inches wide? A pitch is a strike if any part of the ball crosses the plate. This means that if a pitch is on the black (the very inside or very outside edge of home plate), then the strike zone is 17 inches plus the width of two baseballs—i.e.– closer to 22 inches. So is the strike zone really 22 inches wide? Depends on the umpire and the pitcher. Great major-league control pitchers like Greg Maddux and Tom Glavine have been known to get called strikes on pitches that were close, but clearly never crossed home plate. Their ability to be consistently around the corners of the plate earned them the benefit of dubious ‘strikes’.
Another important aspect of ball and strike determination is that the strike zone is three dimensional—i.e,– there is height, width, and depth that mirrors the shape of home plate. This aspect is most important on breaking balls, as they commonly don’t follow a straight path (as fastballs do). Breaking balls often ‘clip’ just the front or back of home plate, and still should be called strikes. Just as good hitters have learned to hit the curveball, the better umpires have learned to properly interpret curveballs.
In the final analysis, the strike zone is whatever the umpire of the day says it is. Therefore, it is important to know individual umpire’s tendencies, just as scouting reports on opponents are important. Some umpires have generous strike zones, some average, and some small. In terms of winning and losing, it really makes little difference, as long as both teams are getting the same calls. However, the various strike zones of individual umpires do have an effect on the scores of games; professional gamblers know about this, and track home plate umpires’ runs per game as religiously as they do batting averages and earned run averages.
The strike zone determines a great deal more than balls and strikes. It determines who is on the offense and in who is on the defense. Hall of Fame pitcher Don Drysdale commented: “Baseball is a game of counts. You win at 1 and 2, lose at 2 and 1, and the difference between these is often a fraction of an inch. The strike zone is the very heartbeat of baseball.”
THE CATCHER’S PERSPECTIVE
From Behind the Mask…
The aforementioned major-league baseball definition of the strike zone has been in effect since 1996. One might think that the concise and definitive definition of the strike zone would leave little room for interpretation or argument. But can you think of any other part of the game that causes more heated arguments and animosity between umpires and players?
When behind the plate, it is the catcher’s responsibility to set up in a good position and to give the pitcher a low target while allowing the umpire a clear view of the ball all the way into the catcher’s glove. It is also the catcher’s obligation to help the pitcher by the way the ball is received, i.e.– stiff-armed, thumb down, thumb in (a technique referred to as ‘framing’), all of which are intended to ‘help’ the umpire make the ‘correct’ call on pitches on the outer edges of the strike zone.
On every pitch, it is possible to have a different opinion between the umpire and any of three players–the pitcher, the catcher, and the batter. So, with such a simple call to make, and all of the help from the catcher, how can umpires get so many calls wrong? The breaking ball offers the biggest challenge, as it adds another dimension to the simple up-and-down, in or out, and is a source of much friction with the umpires. First, the batter has his point of view–if the pitch isn’t belt high down the middle, it ought to be called a ball. And the pitcher has his view–if the ball is catchable by the catcher without having to block it, then it ought to be called a strike! The umpire should of course have no interest other than to make the ‘right’ call. The umpire though, has the challenge of working behind the catcher, over his shoulder, and in positions that can lead to struggles with certain angles. Ah, but then the catcher, the only one on the field with the perfect position to call the pitch, is the one to whom the ball is directly thrown; as the catcher receives the ball directly at eye level, the catcher also has the advantage of anticipation, knowing the pitch that is about to be thrown.
As players, we recognize umpires who have distinctly different strike zones. One may have a low zone below the knees, another a high zone, another is reluctant to call inside pitches strikes, and yet others who are generous to the pitcher with outside calls. An umpire once told me that if he were to call strikes above the belt, batters would squawk. Naturally, pitchers love strikes to be called on the outside portion of home plate, perhaps 2 diameters of baseballs off the corner of home plate, but that’s excessive. An apparent one ball off the corner can be a strike, reasoning that a thread on the seam may have touched a corner of the plate, and so by definition is a strike.
The umpire may simply miss a pitch, just as a mistake can be made on interpretation of a batted ball that is fair or foul. There is no such interpretation as “either/or” for fair or foul balls. A ball to be called fair must be inside or on the chalk line. There is no room for equivocation as with balls and strikes; have you ever heard umpire say, “I’m giving two balls off the foul line today?” No such thing of course, and with balls and strikes, it should be the same, i.e.–the rules should be followed as specified.
So if ever there is a questionable pitch, always defer to the guy with the best seat in the house–the catcher!
THE BATTER’S PERSPECTIVE
From a hitter’s point of view, the sweet spot in the strike zone is down the middle, i.e.– the center of a grid-like box that divides the strike zone into nine squares like a tic-tac-toe game. Most home runs in the majors come from balls hit in that central box, and batting averages are the highest when balls are hit in that central box. As hitters, we’ve all been beaten by a good low outside slider that we couldn’t reach, or by a high inside heater that we couldn’t catch up to. But what provokes and irritates us the most are the called strikes with which we don’t agree with the ump. So let’s analyze why…
Whether we like it or not, the strike zone is a moving target, it is extremely subjective, and (no kidding), technology now demonstrates that it even varies within the same umpire pitch to pitch! In the umpires’ behalf however, along with perhaps a blocking versus a charge foul in basketball, it can be as tough an interpretation as there is for a human in sports. However, we now have PITCHf/x, a technologic advance over Questec, to evaluate umpires retrospectively. The results are not always pretty!
So what are pitchers aiming for and what are umpires evaluating? As has been explained previously, given the width of baseballs, the 17 inch home plate becomes at least a 22 inch wide strike zone. And that’s just side to side. Further compounding the strike zone issue is the 3D nature of the strike zone, not just a side to side structure. We all know that a curveball that’s high in the front of the strike zone may drop through the zone on the back part. And for further complexity, the umpire must readjust the strike zone in his own eyes for each batter’s specific size and batting stance. So not so straightforward and easy for these often highly-trained, but human, umpires.
Physicists, statisticians, sabermetricians, television, ESPN, and universities are all in the act now analyzing umpires’ calls as never before. Complex mathematical formulas now exist and are utilized to evaluate ball and strike calls by the aforementioned analysts with current technology. (Sabermetrics is defined as the attempt to bring scientific objectivity to baseball.) Currently, major-league umpires are scrutinized on every single pitch. For example, one study analyzed 2,800,000 major-league baseball pitches from 2008 through 2011, in 9363 games. PhD’s devote time and effort, Master’s degrees have been awarded for these studies, and sabermetric websites are dedicated to strike zone analysis. And in the best of eyes and training (i.e.– major-league baseball umpires), A) there is variation amongst umpires, B) there is inconsistency within the same umpire’s calls, and C) a substantial number of ball-strike calls are incorrect. Statistics have demonstrated that even in these major league baseball umpires’ eyes, incorrect calls are routinely made in at least 10% of pitches. It is not uncommon for 20% of calls to be incorrect, and up to 40% of some pitches (knuckleballs the worst) are called incorrectly. These statistics describe major league umpires; woe the poor umpires in our Phoenix MSBL.
And how about this?–In different counts, umpires (presumably subconsciously) change even their very own strike zones. So, for example, the 3-0 count routinely has a wider strike zone than a 1-2 court. And yes, PITCHf/x data routinely demonstrate that the strike zone enlarges on batters’ counts and shrinks on pitchers’ counts. There are even complex data about umpires’ strike zones on day versus night games, weather influences, age of the umpires, racial influences, and when the ump began his career.
Like the Hawkeye system in tennis (immediate technologic replay and assessment of the tennis ball in relation to the tennis lines), PITCHf/x now shows us fans immediately whether the umpire was “right or wrong” on ball and strike calls. PITCHf/x provides data on speed, location, and trajectory of the thrown pitch. Opinions vary as to how much to use this technology; for example, Tony Gwynn is an advocate, while Tommy Lasorda is a naysayer of the technology. While the data are not publicly available, it is known that umpires are reviewed and evaluated by major-league baseball on their ball and strike calls. The good news for umpires—since PITCHf/x evaluation became routine in 2008, the percentage of correct calls has improved annually. And lest we are now sympathizing with the plight of umpires, in major-league baseball, umpires earn $100,000-$300,000 annually, depending on experience, but likely on performance as well (though not revealed to the public).
So what are our messages as hitters? Hit that “right” pitch when possible, we hitters truly are at the whim of umpires’ pitch by pitch subjectivity, and the umpires’ job is not so easy. This strike zone issue adds to, as Ted Williams said, “The hardest thing to do in sports is to hit a pitched baseball.”
(For more information if desired: texasleaguers.com, sportsvision.com, parsons baseball.com, brooksbaseball.net, google Chris Juarez’s Master’s thesis, and the Stevens’ Institute of Technology)
SO YOU WANT TO BE AN UMPIRE?
Mark Hrako, Head Umpire AZMSBL
Many ballplayers have been around long enough to think they need only a few “pointers” to get going on an umpiring career. However, the complexities and nuances of baseball are so infinite, that ballplayers don’t realize how complicated it may be to become an umpire. If you want to know the path of becoming a professional umpire, read on.
Amateur umpires umpire for many reasons–love of the game, staying involved when their playing careers are over, and financial gain. These are all commendable reasons to umpire at the amateur level. However, for those aspiring to be a professional umpire, the road is far more detailed and complicated. It requires financial and personal commitment, as well as much studying and dedication. Age is an important factor to qualify for a career in professional baseball. Physical fitness is paramount as well. Frequently, marriages suffer, and divorce rates are high for young umpires on a path to professional umpiring. Because of their dedication to umpiring, formal education in other spheres generally comes to a halt. The surrounding temptations of life on the road compound the many obstacles a young umpire faces on the journey to professional umpiring.
The ideal candidate for a professional umpire is in his early 20s, physically fit, and mentally prepared to take on the rigors that are associated with a career in professional baseball. The beginning candidate pays several thousands of dollars to attend one of the professional schools of umpiring that is affiliated with The Professional Baseball Umpires’ Association. School commences in January, and is usually 4 to 5 weeks in duration. Typically, over 100 students attend per session. They begin their journey by studying, being tested, and learning the mechanics of plate work for six days a week, 10 hours a day. Depending on the opportunities that exist, a small percentage (usually 10%) from each school is chosen for a 2 week evaluation course in the hopes of qualifying for position in Rookie Ball at the professional level.
There are many levels of professional baseball in an umpire’s career path–Rookie Ball, Advanced Rookie Ball, low A, high A, AA, and Triple A. Each has a retention period of only 2 to 3 years. Umpires typically start out earning about $2000 a month before taxes. Salaries increase, but the risk of being released always looms. If the young umpire makes it to Triple A, he still has to be selected for the Arizona Fall League. If selected, the candidate will be considered for Big League Spring. But that’s still not the big leagues. Those who are considered for the big leagues are given a number as potential fill-ins during the major-league season. Even being called up as a fill in, does not ensure an MLB contract. There has to be vacancy from retirement or permanent disability from within the 68 umpires who are under MLB contract.
And guess what? If you have progressed up the professional umpire ladder, are in your mid-30s, possibly in debt and divorced, with only a high school education, it is still possible to be released suddenly.
Still want to be a professional big-league umpire? Lots of luck.
RULES OF BASEBALL QUIZ
1) A player has a 55 game hitting streak, one below Joe DiMaggio’s classic number. Which of the following in game 56 will sadly end the hypothetical player’s batting streak?
b) Sacrifice Fly
c) Hit By Pitch
d) Sacrifice Bunt
2) The pitching rubber is how high above home plate?
a) 8.5 inches
b) 10 inches
c) 1 foot
d) 1.5 feet
3) A batter hits a long drive to center field. The centerfielder, realizing the ball is going to get by him and two runners will score, throws his glove at the ball. What is the result?
a) Umpires’ judgment
b) Depends if the glove touches the ball
c) Ground rule double
d) Ground rule triple
*See answers at bottom of page!
ROTATOR CUFF INJURIES
Eric vanSonnenberg MD
OK, all the pitchers and hard throwers with the “cannon” arms, here’s the fear—an adversely affecting, or worse, career ending, rotator cuff injury. Pitchers in particular, and all baseball players, are at risk, given the relatively unnatural motion and repetitiveness of throwing a baseball with power. Rotator cuff injuries are more common with advancing age, but an acute traumatic injury can result in a rotator cuff tear as well.
The rotator cuff is comprised of 4 muscles with their respective tendons. The major functions of this complex anatomic structure (the shoulder) are to stabilize the shoulder joint and allow outward rotation of the arm. While any of the four muscles and tendons can be injured, the supraspinatus muscle is the most vulnerable and most important.
Although there are many afflictions that can affect the shoulder, pain is the predominant symptom. Typically, pain is worsened with overhead activities, such as pitching, throwing in general, tennis, swimming, weight lifting, and reaching into the back seat with an outstretched arm from the front seat of the vehicle. The pain is also described as aching, worsened by attempting to lift objects and abduct (lift the arm outward), and not uncommonly wakes the patient at night. Yours truly, who has had a total tear of the rotator cuff (with surgical repair), had this nighttime pain and awakening as a prominent symptom. With major tears, the patient may have trouble lifting his or her arm at all. Weakness and the inability to be able to hold the arm up usually signify a moderate or severe tear.
Currently, the diagnosis of rotator cuff tears is made by physical examination by an orthopedic surgeon. While plain x-rays may reveal indirect signs of a tear, MRI is now the gold standard for diagnosis. A “so-called” double-contrast arthrogram, typically performed by a radiologist physician, also can be confirmatory or lend further specificity to the MRI.
Rotator cuff tears vary in severity. Partial thickness tears typically are treated non- operatively with anti-inflammatory medication, topical pain relievers, and mixed injections with long-acting local anesthetic and cortisone. A balance between immobilization to ameliorate the pain and physical therapy to avoid stiffness is guided by physical therapists and orthopedic surgeons. Full thickness tears and those in which the tendons are totally detached usually require surgery. Surgery can be done either arthroscopically or “open”, depending on severity of the injury as well as preference of the orthopedic surgeon. The repair consists of the orthopedic surgeon re-attaching torn tissues together, possibly anchoring the torn tendon back to the bone, and using an artificial mesh if the tissues are severely destroyed.
A few personal comments from one who has undergone this surgery– of the literally ten surgeries that I have had done on me, this was the most painful. Like most “tough” baseball players, I thought I’d be able to withstand pain so I left the hospital the same day as the surgery; boy was I sorry, as that’s probably the most painful night I’ve ever spent. The rehabilitation is important as well, as coming back too fast can re-injure the rotator cuff and result in the need for a repeat operation. Finally, I mentioned to the orthopedic surgeon who performed the operation on me (he is one of the premier professional sports orthopedic surgeons in Boston) that the operation was so painful and debilitating, how could a professional major-league pitcher ever come back from this injury and surgery. He replied that with as severe and complete a tear as he repaired in my shoulder, no pitcher ever had come back to perform well in the majors. So a word to the wise, if you’re feeling pain that might possibly be due to a partial rotator cuff tear, be careful and smart–don’t overdo it, and avoid converting a partial tear into a complete tear with tendinous detachment from the bone.
*Baseball Quiz Answers: 1. (b); 2. (b); 3. (b)