Life and Times of the Umpire

Watching the second game of the Rockies doubleheader with the Marlins, I found myself watching home plate umpire Rob Drake rather closely from the 3rd inning on. If you've ever wanted to see an exhibition of all facets of umpiring mechanics, Drake is the perfect guy to watch. He is a very unique umpire behind the plate. Not knowing the depth of umpiring knowledge or interest of the Rowbots, I thought that I'd give a little help to the followers of this site. Now, I should note that I've never umpired a game myself. I coach youth and high school baseball and softball, and I wanted to become better educated on umpires and the way that they do things during a game. It can be very useful when disagreements arise.

Much of the info in this post is taken from a tremendous book that was released earlier this year, available in hard cover in bookstores around the country. The book is entitled As They See 'Em: A Fan's Travels in the Land of Umpires. Written by NY Times columnist Bruce Weber, it is probably the most comprehensive piece of literature regarding umpires available anywhere. Weber takes the reader through the career of an umpire, covering virtually every facet of the umpiring ladder, including incredible detail on umpiring mechanics.

In researching the book, Weber first attended the Jim Evans Academy of Professional Umpiring in Kissimmee, Florida, then went on to work games at the amateur and professional levels, including a 3-inning intrasquad game during spring training in 2007. He also follows the travels of a number of umpires that attended the school with him and were fortunate enough to be hired on as professional umpires, as well as interviewing nearly 50 current and former MLB umpires. It is a great book for anyone interested in the unnoticed facets of the game of baseball.

Before I talk about umpiring mechanics, I think that it is a good idea to explain a little bit about how umpires climb to the major leagues. Each professional umpire is selected from one of two schools for professional umpiring. Both schools are located in Florida, both are run by former MLB umpires, and both run five-week courses in January and February every year. One is run by former umpire Jim Evans. The other is run by former MLB umpire Harry Wendelstedt, along with his son, current MLB umpire Hunter Wendelstedt. Students attend the class in the winter, where 50 students are selected from each school every year to attend the evaluation camp of the Professional Baseball Umpiring Corporation - PBUC, or "peabuck" - where they are evaluated and selected for professional umpiring. While in school, students attend classes on rules, dress in traditional umpire regalia, and are trained in every phase of umpiring, from basic mechanics on down to handling disputes with players, coaches, and managers. PBUC supervises both schools.

PBUC serves as the main supervising body for umpires up through AA ball. It is PBUC's call on who moves up, which umpires are assigned as partners (lower minor leagues use a 2-umpire system, AAA uses a 3-umpire system), umpire schedules, pay, and any other detail in the life of a minor league umpire. After graduating from AA, pay increases substantially - AAA umpires usually earn between $20,000 and $40,000, while lower levels are usually $5,000-$15,000 - and umpires cease to be supervised by PBUC. MLB supervises AAA umpires, in an effort to garner the best talent in the rare occasion that an MLB job opens up. Minor league umpiring is ruthless and unforgiving, and umpires are usually working with partners that they don't know, and always working with partners that they are competing with. There are 68 full-time MLB umpires, and jobs rarely come open, though replacement umpires such as Todd Tichener and Chris Guccione are guaranteed 100 MLB games each season. The most tenured MLB umpires earn upwards of $400,000/year, and their jobs are almost like those of Supreme Court justices; they are essentially there until they retire (or resign, as happened in 1999).

Watching Rob Drake behind the plate is what sparked this entry. He is very sound mechanically, as all MLB umpires are, but his mechanics are interesting. He is very pronounced in his stances behind the plate. To start, there are two stances that umpires will employ. The Evans school teaches "the crouch". The crouch is designed to have umpires look over the catcher rather than around the catcher when calling balls and strikes, and it is also supposed to be easier on an umpire's knees. In the crouch, the umpire stands behind the catcher, often with a hand on the catcher's back, places the toes of his left foot even with the heel of his right foot, and waits for the pitcher to deliver the ball. When the pitcher is set to deliver, the umpire will crouch down to where his chin is level with the top of the catcher's head. The other stance is called "the scissors". When using the scissors, the umpire adjusts for right- and left-handed batters. If a right-handed batter is up, the umpire places his left foot forward, taking his stance in "the slot" between the batter and the catcher. He places both hands on his left knee, and almost kneels with his right foot back when the pitch is delivered. He is said to look "around" the catcher. The stance is reversed with a left-handed batter. The Wendelstedt school teaches both stances, but most umpires prefer the crouch. One crew is somewhat interesting this year; Gary Darling (CC) and Bruce Dreckman both use the crouch, while Bill Hohn and Paul Emmel both use the scissors. Umpire Gerry Davis is said to be the only MLB umpire today that calls balls and strikes with his knee on the ground in the scissors. Rob Drake, though, utilizes both stances depending on the batter's stance and where the catcher sets up, and when he's in the scissors, he places his knee on the ground.

In the second game today, there was a play in the 6th inning with Dan Uggla at first base. The batter hit a long fly ball to Brad Hawpe, and Hawpe threw behind Uggla, nearly doubling him off of first. You may have noticed that it was the home plate umpire Rob Drake that made the call at first base rather than first base umpire Jeff Kellogg. Umpires are taught to rotate on fly balls. Normally, the second base umpire runs out to watch the flight of the ball and determine whether the ball is caught or whether or not the ball gets over the fence for a homerun, as well as other occurences such as fan interference. The rotation varies depending upon the situation, but normally, the 3rd-base umpire will cover 2nd base, the home plate umpire covers third base, and the first base umpire will cover home. With the situation that arose today, it was the plate umpire's responsibility to cover first base, as there was a potential for a play at 2nd, so the second base umpire had to stay put while the first base umpire ran out into the outfield. Confusing? I know. It's just one of the hundreds of scenarios that umpires are schooled on that, when you pick up on it, will substantially increase your appreciation for these guys.

This brings us to the part of the game that we all love to hate - the home plate umpire and his interpretation of the strike zone. We all have a vision of what the strike zone is supposed to be, and the umpires are no different. The best that we can hope for is consistency in the umpire's calls on that day, and for the most part, these guys are really, really good. It's interesting to examine the strike zone through the years, though, as the "official" strike zone seems to change every few years due to complaints by either pitchers or hitters. It has become more consistent through the utilization of the Questec umpire evaluation system, but it is still up to interpretation, and the "rule book strike" is actually rarely called. For demonstration purposes, does anyone really know what the strike zone is defined as? Officially, the strike zone is defined rather vaguely. The upper and lower limits of the strike zone are supposed to be just below the uniform letters and just above the knee cap, respectively, but it varies from umpire to umpire, largely depending on the umpires stance. You may be surprised to learn, though, that the term "paint the black" is actually a flawed term. The width of the strike zone is officially defined as "the width of a 17.5 inch plate of white rubber", meaning that "the black" is actually not part of the strike zone at all.

I may be unique, but I like to try and get to know the umpires so that I can know what to expect when a certain guy is behind the plate for a game. For my money, the best crew this year is the aforementioned crew of Darling, Dreckman, Hohn, and Emmel. Bill Hohn also has the best mustache in professional baseball. Brian Runge is notoriously slow with his ball-strike calls, taking time to stand up out of his scissors stance before signalling. Angel Hernandez is notorious for his "floating strike zone". Tom Hallion throws uppercuts with both hands and delivers an emphatic "Aaaggghhhh" on a strike three call. (As an aside, Hallion was one of the seven umpires that didn't get his job back after the mass resignation in 1999. Two of them still haven't made it back. Hallion went back to working Rookie-level games and worked his way back up before making it back to MLB in 2007.) The few things that I have discussed here don't even begin to scratch the surface, but I find that knowing some of the intracacies of umpiring can make the game more enjoyable as a fan, and it can make my job a little easier when I'm coaching. As They See 'Em is a tremendous resource and a very entertaining book. Your game-watching experience won't be the same after reading it.

Eat. Drink. Be Merry. But the above FanPost does not necessarily reflect the attitudes, opinions, or views of Purple Row's staff (unless, of course, it's written by the staff [and even then, it still might not]).

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