This month Referee magazine, a publication of the National Association of Sports Officials (NASO) published an article titled A Mathematical Dive Into the Strike Zone. It’s a good, quick read and I encourage you to follow the link to review it.
As I read the article, I started to think about how we envision the strike zone. Of course we have to be in the slot to see the entire plate, but beyond that, what visualizations do you use to imagine the strike zone? Or do you not use any? I’m curious about your techniques and I invite you to leave comments below to share with others.
For coaches that may read this, what do you tell your players? How do you help them recognize a pitch and what techniques do you teach them to help them analyze if a pitch will be a ball or strike?
We know that player height varies, as does their stance…and they don’t stand still. Some players get set later than others and it’s our job as umpires to get our eyes set at the top of that player’s strike zone when they’re in their stance. How many times have you had a player get set, you set your stance to be looking at the top of the zone, then when the pitch comes, the crouch lower? Heaven forbid you call a strike at the top of the previously set zone when that happens. The player may roll her eyes or sigh, coaches display their frustration…then there’s the fans. Of course you’ll hear from them too.
Once the player is set and establishes the strike zone with their stance, and you get set, that’s it. The zone height doesn’t adjust because they crouch more or stand taller. The same is true with a slapper. They’re constantly moving, let alone running parallel to the ball in the opposite direction. As they run forward to slap, their bodies bouncing up and down with each step, you really have to rely on being set eye-level at the top the zone they established and when in their stance.
So, where IS the strike zone?
The height varies from player to player, but we know the width isn’t changing. It’s the width of the plate (17 inches), plus the diameter of the ball (3.82 inches) on either side of the plate, for a total of 24.64 inches.
As umpires, we also move between governing bodies. One day you may be doing a 12u summer game, the next day an NCAA game, and later that week a high school game. That can make it difficult. Luckily, almost all non-NCAA organizations have a very similarly defined strike zone: armpits to knees (though NFHS and USSSA say the “front armpit”). NCAA sets the top of the zone at the bottom of the sternum, so the zone is typically a few inches shorter than other organizations.
Call a high strike in an NCAA game and you’ll certainly hear about it, especially if you keep calling it there.
So the question persists: As you take your stance and lock in your height at the top of the zone, what do you visualize to help you track that pitch toward the strike zone and make your determination on ball vs. strike?