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“Steeeeeriiiiiike 3!!!” If you have attended a baseball game in person you have probably heard that expression being bellowed by an umpire behind the plate. Have you ever wondered how an umpire decides what is a “ball” and what is a “strike? Keep reading to learn more.
In this post we will cover what the strike zone is, how the strike zone has evolved over time, and the role that an umpire plays in determining what is a “ball or a “strike”.
What is a “Ball” or “Strike”?
A pitch is considered a strike if it passes through the strike zone (regardless if the batter swings at the pitch or not) and travels over home plate. A pitch is considered a ball if it does NOT pass through the strike zone and the batter does NOT swing at the pitch.
According to mlb.com, “The official strike zone is the area over home plate from the midpoint between a batter’s shoulders and the top of the uniform pants — when the batter is in his stance and prepared to swing at a pitched ball — and a point just below the kneecap.”
What is a “Foul Ball”?
A foul ball is when a batter swings the bat and makes contact with the ball, but the ball does not land onto the field of play. This constitutes a foul ball and is counted as a strike.
However, the batter gets an unlimited number of foul balls. He or she cannot be called “out” unless a player on the defense catches the foul ball. This is the general rule for all baseball leagues and even some softball leagues.
See Also: Can You Foul Out in Baseball?
History of the Strike Zone
Now we will cover the history of the strike zone and how it has evolved in baseball over the years. In the late 1800’s the strike zone measured from the top of the batter’s shoulders to the knees. The rule remained the same all the way up to the year 1950 when the strike zone was edited to cover from the batter’s armpits to the top of the knees.
Major League Baseball changed its mind in 1963 and decided to go back to the original strike zone from the late 1800’s. Therefore, it was back to the tops of the batter’s shoulders to the knees.
Major League Baseball changed its mind yet again in the year 1969 and was switched back to the batter’s armpits to the top of the knees. It was also during this year that the mound was lowered in order to help the hitters. Major League Baseball executives worried that some fans would lose interest due to the low number of runs being scored.
In the year 1988 the strike zone was edited again. This time it covered from the midpoint of the shoulders to the top of the knees.
Probably the best summary of the strike zone is expressed on mlb.com where it states, “The vertical specifications of the strike zone have been altered several times during the history of baseball, with the current version being implemented in 1996.”
Strikeouts vs. Walks
Now we will take a look at what constitutes a “strikeout or a “walk”. A strikeout occurs when a batter has three strikes called on him by the umpire. A strikeout can also occur if a batter swings and misses at three pitches. A strikeout is counted as an “out”.
First base is awarded to the batter if he does NOT swing at four pitches that are outside of the strike zone. This is called a walk, or the proper term is “base on balls”.
The Role of the Home Plate Umpire
Now we will discuss the role of the home plate umpire and how he or she decides on whether to call a pitch a ball or a strike. He or she must make a judgment call as to whether each pitch (that is NOT swung at by the batter) is a ball or a strike.
Each umpire has their own unique mental picture of what the strike zone is supposed to entail. This often leads to the “human error” occurring at times. Unfortunately, the human error is prevalent in all of sports and baseball is no different.
The Difficulty of Umpiring
The home plate umpire has ultimately one of the most demanding jobs in the game of baseball. Can you imagine how difficult it would be to squat down behind home plate with five pounds worth of protective gear on for up to four hours and have to make a judgment call on each pitch? And then let us throw in the fact that most baseball games are often played in hot, uncomfortable summer climates.
Not to mention that umpires must deal with disrespectful fans, coaches, and players. All this to say, be NICE to these folks and think twice about booing them. They are simply trying to do their job the best they can.
Will Baseball Move to Automated Balls and Strikes?
Major League Baseball seems to realize how hard the home plate umpire’s job is. They are toying with the idea of automating the ball/strike call on each pitch. Commissioner Rob Manfred has made positive comments about the new technology.
The new automated strike zone was tested during the Arizona Fall League for the 2019 season. The results were mixed for both players and fans alike.
According the sports.yahoo.com, “Those against it don’t want to see the human element minimized even more in baseball. Those in favor are more interested in the calls being correct or at the very least consistent. Consistency is not something that’s afforded when a human is judging the zone.”