Category Archives: Rules and Umpires

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


My Advice to Softball Parents: Lighten Up, Francis


Anyone who has seen the movie “Stripes” knows the reference in the headline. If you’re not familiar with it, it’s a great scene where the new recruits are just getting to know each other, and one of the guys starts a serious rant about what he’ll do to the others if they call him Francis instead of Psycho, or do some other stuff. His drill sergeant, Sgt. Hulka, is not impressed. You can see a condensed version of this very funny scene here:

So why am I bringing up this random movie reference? Because it seems like there are more and more parents these days who could use Sgt. Hulka’s advice.

While it doesn’t always hold true, it does seem like the craziness of parents today is in inverse proportion to the age of the players. In other words, if you really want to see crazy, check out a 10U game.

Not sure why that is. Maybe by the time players get to 18U the parents have figured out that the outcome of a softball game isn’t worth risking a potential heart attack and have mellowed out. Or maybe all the players with crazy parents have been weeded out, or have told their parents, “Hey, I’ll drive myself to the game, why don’t you see if you can find a hobby that makes you less likely to find you sitting in the parking lot dashing off angry emails to whoever will listen?”

Of course, that’s not to say you don’t see that behavior at the older ages. I have been at D1 college games at major schools where parents are yelling things from the stands at the umpires, and the coaches, as though there were still back playing rec ball. But that’s more the exception.

Here’s the thing, though. All that crazy yelling and stomping around and getting into fistfights is really a waste of energy.

I know all this stuff seems critically important at the time. Especially today, when so many parents believe their daughter is D1 athletic scholarship material and don’t want any idiot umpire/coach/league administrator/whoever screwing up her chances.

Really, though, it’s not. I’ve been involved in fastpitch softball for more than 20 years. I had two daughters play at some level from the time they were 10 until they left high school. I’m sure I got worked up pretty well from time to time myself, although I did manage to keep my crazy in check as I recall.

But whether things went well or not during a game, none of it really mattered in the big scheme of things. My daughters played, then they didn’t, then they want on to become fine human beings and productive members of society. Even if some blue was occasionally squeezing the zone on them.

If you really want to see how crazy it is to let the crazy out, try this experiment. At your next tournament, go watch two teams you couldn’t care less about play. Sit or stand somewhere you can hear the parents and watch the same game they’re watching. Then count how many times people get angry about something that just makes you shrug your shoulders.

The reality is, a softball player’s career is short, which means your time to enjoy watching your player(s) as a parent is short. It’s not life-or-death. It’s just a game.

Next time you feel your blood beginning to boil and the urge to express yourself loudly, just remember the immortal wisdom of Sgt. Hulka: Lighten up, Francis.


Where have all the officials gone?

There has been a decline in sports officials nationwide

If you’ve been thinking lately that it’s a tough time for officials in a number of sports including fastpitch softball, you’d be right. As this infographic from Ohio University demonstrates, the number of officials nationwide is on a steady decline.

That’s bad news for everyone involved in youth sports, because even though you may not always like their calls, and in some cases may think they are biased/blind/complete idiots, umpires and referees are still essential for competitive sports. You could play without them, I suppose, but if you’re counting on all the coaches and players to be completely honest about close calls you’re bound to be sorely disappointed.

Where are they all going? Well, like the rest of the workforce, older officials are retiring. Unfortunately, not enough people are stepping up to replace them. It seems that players who are either finishing or have finished their playing careers aren’t exactly stepping up to stay involved in softball by becoming umpires. Although there are some exceptions.

The opportunities to advance from high school to college officiating aren’t exactly abundant either, which may discourage some. The pay isn’t exactly great, the hours can be long and inconvenient, and so forth.

Then there is the issue of the hostile environment these days. More and more, youth sports contests are beginning to sound like political debates on Facebook. This has led more than 85% of current officials to “consider terminating their services if (the) environment worsens.”

What’s the consequence? According to the infographic, potentially it could mean fewer games, fewer opportunities at the lower levels in high school, and perhaps some sports being dropped altogether at some schools.

While the infographic doesn’t get into travel/club ball, fewer officials could mean even shorter games in an effort to cover the same number of games, or perhaps bringing in unqualified or untrained volunteers to pick up the slack. Yes, I know there are some bad umpires out there even with training, but the situation could get a whole lot worse.

So what’s the solution? I can think of a couple of things.

One is to be sure coaches, parents, and players treat officials with respect rather than imitating the bad behavior they see on TV. That not only gives current officials a reason to stay in it; it also encourages current players to stay in the game by officiating when their careers are done.

As part of that, coaches and players should shake the officials’ hands after every game – even if you think they blew a call that cost you the game. Just that act alone can mean a lot.

Stiffer penalties for those who verbally or especially physically abuse or threaten officials should be put in place and enforced vigorously. No official should ever have to wonder if he/she will be confronted by an angry coach or parent after a game.

Officiating organizations should also make an effort to reach out to high school and college players (and their parents, for that matter), encouraging them to sign up when they’re done playing. Sometimes all it takes is asking someone. They should do more than send an email. They should actually show up in person and present, in my opinion.

Those are just a few ideas I had. What about you? What do you think we can do to turn the tide and swell the ranks of quality officials?

A player gives back to the game

Been meaning to write this post for a little while because I just find this story to be so cool. It’s about a player named Ashley Lambert who clearly appreciates the opportunity she’s been given to play fastpitch softball. Ashley Lambert gives back to the game by becoming an umpire.

First a little background. Ashley definitely comes from a softball family. She’s been playing since she was tiny, strongly supported by her parents Drew and Tricia. Dan was her summer coach for all but I think one season (when she played for me), and you can keep up with Ashley’s softball exploits by following Tricia on Facebook. That’s where I learned about this story, in fact.

Ashley is in college now, playing third base and catching for Beloit College in Wisconsin. She’s #15 in this photo. Often college players will stay involved over the summer by helping coach a younger team, or maybe doing some teaching or clinics. But Ashley went a different route – she decided to become an umpire!

How cool is that? Umpiring is a tough job. I did it as a kid, and have done it in a pinch as an adult when there wasn’t anyone more qualified to do it. But being a real umpire is both physically and mentally wearing.

The physical side probably isn’t so bad for Ashley. As a catcher she’s used to wearing all that gear in 90+ degree heat and 90% humidity. Heck, it probably feels like home to her.

But then there’s the other side – putting up with coaches, parents and fans who all think they know better but have no interest in gearing up and getting out there themselves. She’s a sweet girl, but I’m guessing when she has the uniform on she doesn’t take a lot of guff. I’ve heard umpires say if both sides think they’ve favored the other team at the end of the game they know they’ve done a good job.

I think it’s great that Ashley is spending her summer making sure that when younger girls want to play a little softball that the game is played safely and fairly. I’m very impressed and proud to know her. I wish more former players would consider donning the gear while they’re playing or when their careers are done.

As a player, you might get a whole new appreciation and respect for the role umpires play; they really aren’t going out of their way to call you out. My guess is you’d certainly know the rules better because you’d have to.

If you’re done playing it’s a way to stay involved in the game, and as the title of this post says give a little something back to the game that gave you so much.

So kudos to Ashley for skipping the more fun and easy route of coaching and instead filling a very pressing need. You are an inspiration and a credit to your coaches, the game, and most of all your parents!

ASA finally eliminates the helmet chin strap

In case you haven’t already heard, the Amateur Softball Association has finally eliminated the rule requiring fastpitch softball players to use a chin strap on their helmets at all levels of Junior Olympic play. If you’re not up on their lingo that basically means everything from 18U on down. The new rule takes effect January 1, 2016.

All I can say is it’s about time. Someone from ASA must have finally gone out to a game or two and seen how silly the rule was. While there probably were a few, I can’t recall ever seeing any player in the last few years who had the chin strap snugged up on her chin in a manner that would keep her helmet on.

Most times, they were sagging well below the chin line, like a bunting on the Fourth of July. If the helmet came off, the player was probably in more danger of being choked by the chin strap than being hit in the head with an errant throw.

Probably wouldn’t hurt to keep the chin strap in your bag just in case you run into a tournament or organization that still requires them. But it’s good that this rule, at least, has finally caught up to reality.

By the way, ASA is also now allowing hitters to use on-deck hitters to use either on-deck circle. That’s great, because it’s always been a safety issue.

Maybe not in Oklahoma City or other areas where big tournaments are held. They have plenty of distance between the on-deck hitter and the plate.

But in community ballparks all across the US, and I’m sure other countries as well, often times the next hitter up is about 10-15 feet away from getting slammed with a foul ball.

Many tournaments already allowed it anyway as a local rule. But now it’s official – on-deck hitters can warm up behind the current batter, no matter which bench their team is occupying.

Glad to see both of these rules enacted, even if it should’ve happened a long time ago. Better late than never.

A sign that I’m learning

The other night I was out watching a high school softball game (no surprise there) when I ran into an interesting situation. I was watching with some guys I knew from outside the left field fence, pretty much looking down the third base line.

At one point, a bouncing ball was hit down the line, then crossed over into foul territory where it was snagged by the third baseman. “Foul ball” cried the umpire. Then some blowhard parent who was also out there said “That’s not a foul ball. It has to hit the ground in foul territory.” I’m pretty sure he said it because he was rooting for the team in the field and the third baseman made a great play to grab it and make a throw.

Anyway, at that point I decided to correct him for the benefit of everyone out there. “No, it’s foul,” I said. “It doesn’t matter where the fielder is standing. If the ball is touched in foul territory it’s foul.”

A few minutes went by and the guy decided to pipe up again. He again insisted the ball had to hit the ground in foul territory to be foul, and he was pretty belligerent about it.

I was about to argue with him again, but then realized it was pointless. Without a rulebook in my hand there was no way to prove I was right, so I just decided to let it go. A sign of maturity, right? I’m sure Mr. Blowhard Parent was convinced that he’d won the argument because A) he was louder than I was and I didn’t argue again.

But no matter how loudly you proclaim your point, the rules are the rules. When I got back to my car I looked it up, just to be sure.

So to you, Mr. Blowhard Parent, I say look up Rule 1 in the ASA Softball rulebook, the one that’s for definitions. It clearly says that a foul ball is defined (among other things) as a ball that has hit the ground (regardless of being fair or foul) and is then touched by a player when the ball is in fair territory.

Ok, guess I haven’t matured as much as I thought since I felt compelled to address it here. But there’s no doubt I was right – again. So ha!

Softball pitching – when movement fools the umpire

Had a kind of frustrating day today at our fastpitch softball tournament. Actually the first two games went well. But in the third game we ran into a bit of a problem pitching/umpire-wise. I’m curious to hear if others have had the same issue.

Our pitcher, who is also one of my students, was really moving the ball tonight. I couldn’t see it from the dugout, but I got that report from my catcher and some of the parents behind the plate. They said she was really on.

Yet she struggled, because the umpire we had apparently couldn’t deal with left-right movement in particular. She throws a curve ball and screwball that actually break, a drop that can actually drop. But despite crossing the plate, they were being called balls. It got so bad she had little choice but to throw fatties, and started getting hit. Her catcher was frustrated too — so much so she asked me to call the pitches because she couldn’t figure out what the umpire wanted.

Of course, from the dugout all I knew was balls and hits. I eventually had to take her out and put in another pitcher. It wasn’t until after the game that I learned how well she had actually pitched.

She was frustrated too. But I guess it’s a compliment, really. She was moving the ball so well she was fooling the umpire. Not saying there’s a direct comparison, but I wonder if Cat Osterman ever had the same problem when she was 14?

Enforcing the rules v. impacting the game

So there I was, watching the Purdue v Michigan fastpitch softball game last weekend on the DVR. Early in the first inning, the Purdue pitcher gets called for an illegal pitch. Her stride foot landed outside the markings for the pitching lane. N

Once that happened I started taking more interest in that particular call. It seemed like she was outside the lane a lot. I know the angles can be deceiving on TV, but it seemed pretty clear that this was not a random occurence.

Later in that inning, Michigan had a runner on third and I clearly saw the Purdue pitcher land outside the lane again. No call, though. She did it several times, in fact, and didn’t get called for it.

So it makes me wonder. Have the umpires been told not to call it if it means scoring a run? Was it this particular umpire perhaps being unwilling to make a call that would affect the game?

What do you think? Should an umpire call an illegal pitch even if it means advancing a run home? Or is that going over the line? What if the pitcher is gaining a big advantage by making the ball run in too much on the hitter? And if you don’t call it does it penalize the other pitcher for pitching within the rules?

Let me know your thoughts on this. I don’t have an answer myself so I’m interested in yours. Except you spammers. You guys can take your garbage somewhere else.

The rules on hit batsmen

Ok, this is for all the parents who are new to travel ball, having just moved up from rec ball. It’s also for those umpires who are allowing themselves to be bullied into make the wrong call.

In ASA and as far as I know every other sanctioning body, there is no limit to the number of batters a pitcher can hit, whether in an inning or a game. I repeat, there is no limit, other than how many baserunners the defensive team’s coach will allow to be on base.

I understand you hate to see your daughter be hit by the ball, especially by a pitcher who is throwing hard. You also don’t want your daughter to have to face that pitcher in case she might strike out. Better to get that pitcher out of there any way you can.

Again I say to you, there is no limit to the number of batters the pitcher can hit. So quit complaining and demanding that the pitcher be taken out. And you young umpires out there, quit letting those parents talk you into it. Read your rulebook, both for what’s there and what’s not. It’s your responsibility to know.

There. I feel better now.

It pays to know the rulebook

So there we were, at the ASA 14U Northern Nationals, engaged in a very tight game. We were in the top of the sixth with the score tied 1-1 and one out when our opponents managed to get runners on second and third. In such a tight game one run was very meaningful, so we decided to intentionally walk the next hitter (who had driven a ball into the gap her previous at bat) in order to load ’em up and create a force at home instead of a tag play. Pretty much baseball/softball 101.

On the first pitch of the intentional walk, the umpire throws his hands up, calls an illegal pitch and advances the two runners. That, of course, scored one of them, making the score now 2-1. Not exactly what we’d been hoping for in the exchange.

I started to go out to find out what was illegal, but then remembered I was not the head coach. So I went back into the dugout and told the head coach she would need to do it.

She went out, and came back to report the umpire said our catcher did not start in the catcher’s box when the pitch was thrown. I told her I would take it from here and went out to talk to the home plate umpire. It was what I suspected, by the way.

When I went to talk with him he repeated that the catcher did not start inside the catcher’s box. I said yes she did, and explained that the catcher’s box extends from the outside of one batter’s box to the outside of the other. It’s not like baseball, where the catcher must start behind the plate due to the size of the box there. I knew it from the rulebook, and also from one of the NFCA classes I took where they covered this topic and warned that many umpires don’t know this particular rule very well.

After a brief discussion the home plate umpire said, “Let me check with my partner.” He went out to the field ump and they conferred for a few minutes. Then he came back and said the ruling stands — illegal pitch. At that point I said I wanted the umpire in chief brought in. Surprisingly he agreed to it quickly. But instead of the UIC another Blue brought over a rulebook. The three of them looked at it for a few minutes, and then it sort of turned into My Cousin Vinnie. They knew what they had to do, all they had to do was say it out loud. The runners were returned to their previous bases and play resumed.

As I walked back to the dugout our parents cheered. Loudly. When I got back I said to the head coach, “That’s the last call we’ll get today.” We finished the intentional walk with the catcher behind the left-hand batter’s box and it was game on.

I would love to report that the strategy worked and we got out of the inning. But that’s not what happened. The next hitter managed to dink a ball in front of second base, just out of reach of a diving second baseman, and the run scored — legitimately this time. That broke open the game and we went on to lose, knocking us out of the tournament.

Bummer. But at least knowing the rules kept us from losing due to an umpire’s erroneous call. At the beginning of every season I make a point of reading the rulebook cover to cover. It definitely paid off this year.

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