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Umpires: The Dilemma of Priorities

The No. 1 rule of umpiring is 'Watch the Ball.' Other rules or axioms that an umpire can hang their mask on are, in no particular order:  


  • Keep the ball, the base, the runner and the fielder in front of you.
  • Try to get a 90-degree angle from the tag on a tag play and from the flight of the ball on a force play.
  • Move parallel with the runners.
  • Stop. Set. See it.
  • There is always a job to do.
  • Adjust.
  • Work in priorities - first this, then that.

Working in priorities is what I want to key on in this article. There is no arguing that an umpire must make one call before making another. It is understood that an umpire is expected to give his or her full attention to each play. If he/she hedges on one call in order to be better prepared for the next call, then both calls only get half the concentration and neither call can be made with certitude. The dilemma that arises is that many violations or things in need of the umpire's judgment can and do occur simultaneously or nearly simultaneously. (The following situations are numbered only for ease in referencing as welater talk about how an umpire should prioritize on each.)

1. A simple fly ball to the outfield close to the line requires an umpire to prioritize. The umpire must first determine fair or foul and then catch or no catch. If the umpire is so intent on the catch, which is subsequently dropped, that he/she has not seen where it was first touched, then there is a problem.

2. An umpire is responsible for judging whether a pitched ball enters the strike zone but sometimes before the pitch arrives at the plate, the batter makes some attempt to swing. Then the umpire is supposed to make a judgment on the batter's action but if no swing is judged, then he/she must try to get back on the pitch to pass judgment on it.

3. The umpire never knows if the batter will connect with the pitch but if they do, the umpire must determine where the batter's feet were when contact was made.

4. If, in their haste to get to third base for a possible play on the lead runner, an umpire abandons the trail position too soon, then they are of little help on a pulled foot, may completely miss a lane interference and will have no credibility on a ball possibly thrown out of play.

5. The umpire must watch the pitcher's hands, windup, delivery and see the release of the ball. Then as the ball is hurling towards the plate, the umpire is supposed to see what the pitcher does with the foot with which she steps forward.

6. With bases loaded, which runner should the umpire watch for leaving the base before the ball is released?

7. On an extra base hit with multiple runners on base, can an umpire really make sure each runner touches each base? What about two outs, runner on first and what should be an out at first . . . but is not?

These are just some situations that happen many times every game. They illustrate the crucial need for umpires to prioritize how they work. First, an umpire must be aware that these situations not only do exist but are actually quite common. Second, an umpire must rank the importance of each of the responsibilities. Third an umpire must determine the impact of misruling on any part of a play situation.

1. On a fly ball to the outfield, an umpire must get quickly to the line and as far down the line as possible yet be set when the ball is first contacted. This puts the umpire in the best position to make a fair/foul judgment but only if he/she remembers that is the first priority. Quite often the first contact is also the catch at which point the fair/foul status of the ball becomes moot. It is on the routine fly balls close to the line that an umpire should practice awareness of priorities. Always record in your mind the fair/foul status of the ball before making an out signal on the catch. This discipline then becomes habit and serves the umpire well when the unusual happens. If the ball is dropped after being juggled or mishandled, the umpire must immediately indicate whether it is a fair or foul ball. This signal must be instantaneous and decisive but can only be so if the umpire was working in priorities.

2. We say that an umpire should always go for help on a checked swing. But how is this different from any other judgment call where we generally do not want umpires seeking help? The difference is the priority of the job.

On an ordinary judgment call (i.e. a play at a base), the umpire has one judgment to make. He/she moves to the best possible position, gets set and gathers all the information necessary to render a judgment on a singular action.

Each pitch of the game is like a play on the bases in that it demands the umpire's complete and undivided concentration. So, on a pitched ball, the umpire gets the best possible position behind the catcher, gets set and is prepared to gather the necessary information in order to make a judgment on the pitch (i.e., does it enter the batter's strike zone while over the plate?).

The checked swing attempt now creates a whole different play (conc. The umpire has no time to alter his/her position for a better look. If the umpire does try to move to see the checked swing attempt, then he/she is moving as the action occurs and will not get the most desirable look.

The pitch provides no needed information for making the judgment on the swing. Yet if the action by the batter is not judged to be a swing, then the umpire is still required to make a ruling on the pitch. If he/she has shifted his/her attention from the ball, there are less than nanoseconds remaining to get back on the ball and make an accurate judgment of its exact location as it passes through a 12-inch space traveling at upwards of 50 miles an hour.

If the ball moves - even slightly - in any direction other than forward (curves, drops, rises) while near this 12-inch space, it is impossible for the umpire to make as accurate a decision as he/she would have been able to make had he/she known the priorities of this call and maintained focused concentration on the pitched ball.

The checked swing is not the umpire's primary call and therefore it is not only acceptable but recommended that the umpire seek help on making the judgment if he/she is not absolutely certain.

As an aside here, we must remember that the base umpire also has a series of priorities in which he/she should be working on every pitched ball. With no runners on the base, the umpire should be focused on the pitcher's feet and as the pitcher steps toward the plate, the umpire also steps forward. If no violation is determined with the pitcher's feet, then the base umpire tracks the pitched ball to the plate and should focus on what the batter does as the pitch is arriving.

Once the pitch passes the batter, the umpire's attention then shifts to the catcher (clean catch, dropped catch, foul tip, foul ball). With runners on base, the base umpire must include in this series of priorities the job of watching when a runner(s) leaves her base. If the runner is stealing, then another facet is added to the base umpire's job. Even if the base umpire is prioritizing well, he/she may not always be in the best position to see a checked swing precisely.

3. Now let's have this checked swing turn into a full fledged swing and the ball actually hit. Remember, the umpire is prioritizing on the pitch, he/she then gives secondary priority to the possible swing. If the swing is successful and the ball is contacted, the umpire now is required to see two separate actions at the same instant, i.e., the bat/ball contact (Does it hit the batter as she is swinging? Before she swings? Does the catcher obstruct the batter?) and the feet of the batter.

The priority is anything that happens on the swing. The feet are a secondary priority. The lines of the batter's box may be scuffed or gone completely. Should the umpire be focusing primarily on the batter's feet and miss an obstruction or hit batter or dead ball strike? The impact on the game of not ruling correctly on any of these is far greater than the batter getting away with being a few inches out of the batter's box.

4. On a batted ball, with no one on base or a runner on first base only, where there will be a play at first base, the plate umpire should move out from behind the plate (to the left of the catcher) and to and down the first base line approximately 15 to 20 feet. This movement forces an umpire into position to prioritize the sequence of his/her jobs on such a play.

This priority position forces an umpire to see a pulled foot, a swipe tag or a three-foot lane interference and puts the umpire in a ready position to go with an overthrown ball that may become blocked or go out of play. It is difficult to maintain this position if the play began with a runner on first base and the umpire knows he/she is responsible for a subsequent play at third base. However, if any of the aforementioned things happen at first base, it is highly unlikely that any play will occur at third base and there is no need for the umpire to even be there.

It is far better for the umpire to stay put, really know what happens at first and then hustle to the angle for the call at third, than to be set and ready at third base for a play that never happens because the ball was overthrown at first base and may (who knows?) have gone into the dugout. The rationale for the priority here is that if something happens at first and the call is made . . . or is not made . . . there usually is no subsequent play at third. It also drives home the fact that hustle is the trademark of a good umpire.

Any time there is a runner beyond first base and the play will go to first base, the umpire still must work in the same priorities except that he/she will not trail down the first base line but rather move slightly backward to what would be the first base line extended beyond home plate. This position affords the umpire the same angle and view of the action at first as well as the bigger picture of the actions of the advanced runners whether scoring or moving to third. The priorities of working the situation remain identical.

5. This situation is similar in many ways to both Nos. 2 and 3. The priorities for the umpire here are watching the pitcher engage the pitcher's plate, the hands while taking the signal, the motion after the hands separate, the release of the pitch and finally tracking the ball to the plate. In order to determine exactly where the non-pivot lands, the umpire would have to shift his/her focus at the time of release since the release and step are very nearly simultaneous. Should the umpire do this and the pitcher's step is legal, he/she would have to try to quickly switch back to pitch and then be hindered with the variances of perception that occur when one bursts in on the action as opposed to watching it develop from beginning to end.

The umpire's preferred choice of priorities here is to stay with the pitch and maintain the consistency of his/her strike zone. A gross violation such as the pitcher stepping completely across her body would be noticed peripherally and can be called with ease. A negligible violation of inches may or may not even be able to be determined with accuracy from behind the plate (there are no lines on the field marking the 24 inches) and any advantage gained by a pitcher from such action impacts the game far less than a roving, inconsistent strike zone.

6. The answer to this one is of course: all of them. But is this really possible or even preferable? It is possible from the position behind the shortstop to look straight forward (to where the first base dugout normally is) and peripherally see all three runners and the pitcher (you are actually looking through the pitcher). But seeing and making a hairline judgment on four separate actions at the same instant are quite different things. Therefore, an umpire must figure what are the priorities and the ramifications of missing an infraction. The runners at first and second cannot go anywhere even if they get a questionable jump off the base as long as the runner at third is still at third. But, if the ball is hit and the runners got a questionable jump off the base, they might score or advance farther than they would have without the questionable jump.

The umpire has already had a chance to look at the base-leaving styles of the runners on second and third base, and knows if either are close to being illegal. After factoring in all this situational specific knowledge, the generally accepted priority is to focus more on the runner at third who can actually advance and could gain the greatest advantage from leaving early on a ball not hit. A second priority would be to familiarize yourself with the leaving style of the runner on first.

Likewise, with runners at first and third, the runner at first is more likely to leave early since she has a base to advance to and would want to get in a better scoring position.

The priorities will differ from situation to situation but always, the work must be done in priorities.

7. Obviously, the umpire should watch all runners touch the bases that he/she is responsible for watching. The more umpires on the field, the easier this becomes. When shackled with only two umpires, the more difficult it becomes. Once again it is necessary for an umpire to determine the priorities. It is not a good choice to make sure the runner is seen touching second base and miss the entire play on the batter runner at first base. Even if the runner did miss second and the defense did see it, they are going to forget all about making an appeal after they get through chewing you up and spitting you out over not seeing the call at first.

So naturally if the umpire is needed to rule on a play involving the ball, it is possible to miss some infraction off the ball. This is a good sense of priorities. However, when the ball is away and if the umpire has acknowledged the need for priority work, there is no reason to not see what is the umpire's job to see.

The runner on first is going to get the quicker jump to second than the batter in the box is to first. After watching the batted ball and determining that it is a hit, it is quite easy to see the runner touching second and then glance over and see the batter runner touch first. As a plate umpire, we know that runners must pass third before coming home so we watch in that order. But what if the umpire must move out to get a good look on a fly ball that the fielder dives for and the umpire rules that the ball is trapped and meanwhile a runner has scored? No, the umpire did not see her touch the plate . . . but what would it matter if, in exchange for seeing her touch the plate, the umpire did not know whether the ball was caught or trapped?

I have only brought up these few situations out of the many that exist to illustrate the necessity for umpires to think and work in priorities. These specific ways for working a ball game are not written out in any umpire manual. They are the things umpires learn from experience . . . often painful. If an umpire does not learn these things, it is unlikely he/she will survive in umpiring. Know your priorities. Respect the very difficult job that you do.