Social Distancing Adds New Complications to Fastpitch Pitching

Learn to see in video, not photo

One of the keys to success in pitching in fastpitch softball or baseball is figuring out the umpire’s strike zone. While the rulebook offers certain parameters that should be universal (armpits to top of the knees, any part of the ball crosses any part of the plate, etc.) we all know even under the best of conditions it doesn’t always work out that way.

One of the keys to success in pitching in fastpitch softball or baseball is figuring out the umpire’s strike zone. While the rulebook offers certain parameters that should be universal (armpits to top of the knees, any part of the ball crosses any part of the plate, etc.) we all know even under the best of conditions it doesn’t always work out that way.

Many a pitcher (and a pitcher’s parent) has complained about umpires having a strike zone the size of a shoebox. And that shoebox is rarely in an area that contributes to pitchers keeping their ERAs low.

Shoes not included.

Instead, it’s far more likely to have the zero point on its X and Y axes about belt high, in the center of the plate. You know, that area that pitchers are taught they should see a red circle with a line through it.

You know, this one.

Of course, these are anything but ordinary times. Here in the fall of 2020, in the midst of the worst pandemic in 100 years and with no relief in sight, teams, tournament directors and sanctioning bodies have had to take extraordinary steps to get games in. One of those is to place umpires behind the pitcher instead of behind the catcher in order to maintain social distancing.

It sounds good in theory, I’m sure. Many rec leagues using volunteer parents for umpires have had said Blues stand behind the pitcher. Sure beats spending money on gear.

But while it does allow games to be played, the practical realities have created a whole new issue when it comes to balls and strikes.

When the umpire is behind the plate, he/she is very close to that plate and thus has a pretty good view of where the ball crosses it. Not saying they always get it right, but they’re at least in a position to do so.

When they are behind the pitcher it’s an entirely different view. Especially in the older divisions where the pitchers throw harder and their balls presumably move more.

For one thing, the ball is moving away from the umpire instead of toward him/her. That alone offers a very different perception.

But the real key is that by the time the ball gets to the plate, exactly where it crosses on the plate and the hitter is much more difficult to determine. I don’t know this for a fact, but I’m sure the effects of parallax on vision has something to do with the perception.

Because it is more difficult to distinguish precisely, what many umpires end up doing is relying more on where the ball finishes in the catcher’s glove than where it actually crosses the plate. Not that they do it on purpose, but from that distance, at that speed, there just isn’t a whole lot of other frames of reference.

If an umpire isn’t sure, he/she will make a decision based on the most obvious facts at hand. And the most obvious is where the glove ends up.

This can be frustrating for pitchers – especially those who rely more on movement than raw power to get outs. They’re probably going to see their strikeouts go down and their ERAs go up as they are forced to ensure more of the ball crosses the plate so the catcher’s glove is close to the strike zone.

There’s not a whole lot we can do about it right now. As umpires gain more experience from that view I’m sure the best of them will make some adjustments and call more pitches that end up off the plate in the catcher’s glove. Most will likely open their strike zones a bit, especially if they realize what they’re seeing from in front of the plate isn’t the same thing they’d see from behind it.

Until that time, however, pitchers, coaches and parents will need to dial down their expectations in these situations. It’s simply a fact of life that hopefully will go away sooner rather than later.

In the meantime, my top suggestion is for coaches to work with their catchers to ensure their framing, especially side-to-side, is top-notch. Catching the outside of the ball and turning it in with a wrist turn instead of an arm pull may help bring a bit more balance to the balls-and-strikes count.

Pitchers will have to work on the placement of their pitches as well, at least as they start. This is a good time to work on tunneling – the technique where all pitches start out on the same path (like they’re going through a tunnel) and then break in different directions.

The closer the tunnel can start to the middle while leaving the pitches effective, the more likely they are to be called strikes if the hitter doesn’t swing.

On the other side of things, it’s more important than ever for hitters to learn where the umpire’s strike zone is and how he/she is calling certain pitches. If it’s based on where the catcher’s glove ends up, stand at the back of the box, which makes pitches that may have missed by a little at the plate seem like they missed by much more when they’re caught by the catcher.

If the umpire isn’t calling the edges, you may want to take a few more pitches than you would ordinarily. Just be prepared to swing if a fat one comes rushing in. On the other hand, if the umpire has widened up the zone, you’d best be prepared to swing at pitches you might ordinarily let go.

Things aren’t exactly ideal right now, but at least you’re playing ball. At least in most parts of the country.

Softball has always been a game that will break your heart. This is just one more hammer in the toolbox.

Accept it for what it is and develop a strategy to deal with it – at least until the Blues are able to get back to their natural habitat. You’ll find the game is a lot more enjoyable that way.

Shoes photo by Karolina Grabowska on Pexels.com

About Ken Krause

Ken Krause has been coaching girls fastpitch softball for nearly 20 years. Some may know him as a contributing columnist to Softball Magazine, where he writes Krause's Korner -- a regular column sponsored by Louisville Slugger. Ken is also the Administrator of the Discuss Fastpitch Forum, the most popular fastpitch discussion forum on the Internet. He is currently a Three Star Master Coach with the National Fastpitch Coaches Association (NFCA), and is certified by both the Amateur Softball Association (ASA) and American Sports Education Program (ASEP). Ken is a private instructor specializing in pitchers, hitters, and catchers. He teaches at North Shore Baseball Academy in Libertyville, IL and Pro-Player Consultants in McHenry, IL.

Posted on October 2, 2020, in Pitching, Rules and Umpires and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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