An Inside Look at Umpiring: Talking to Brent Rice from the Wendelstedt Umpire School

Benny Sieu-US PRESSWIRE

There are many misconceptions when it comes to what the role of the umpire is in Major League Baseball, especially in the area of why certain calls were or were not made and settling or responding to disputes on the field. In an effort to gain a more thorough understanding on the role of an umpire and the training and education that goes into becoming an umpire, I reached out to Brent Rice -- the lead classroom instructor at the Wendelstedt Umpire School.

When an umpire is behind the plate and calling balls and strikes, what are some of the things that could influence how you call a pitch?

While many people believe that umpires consciously make incorrect decisions on balls and strikes, most umpires would tell you that this process is such split-second that it is almost impossible to see a pitch one way, but to call it another. Additionally, professional umpires' reputations are built on their honesty and impartiality. As the sole representatives of the league on the field, it is an umpire's job to maintain the integrity of the game. There is no career benefit to tarnishing their professional reputations. That is not to say that pitches are not called incorrectly, and there are several reasons why this might happen.

Catchers who "frame" pitches and batters who leave the box prematurely have little influence on the umpire calling the pitch their way. In fact, these actions often have the opposite effect. When a catcher frames a pitch, by their actions they are telling everyone that they believe the pitch is not over the plate. Otherwise, why would they need to move their glove? Batters who start out of the box early do not give the umpire an opportunity to see the entire picture when replaying the pitch in their head. This distortion tends to go against hitters.

There are additional things that may subconsciously affect the way an umpire calls pitches. In fact, they are the same things that influence the way players and fans look at the game as well. Contrary to belief, umpires have a good understanding of the way the game is played. Understanding that pitchers generally try to get ahead of hitters, most people would expect that a pitcher would make a first-pitch strike. Also, because of the implications of the pitch, more scrutiny is likely to be given to an 0-2 pitch than a 3-0 pitch. 3-2 pitches probably get the most focus from an umpire.

Umpires are taught to remain focused throughout the game and avoid external factors. This is usually the case as proven by the accuracy rate of the Major League staff. When umpires can see the entire flight of the pitch and use proper timing, their ability to call pitches more accurately increases. Catchers and hitters both squeezing over the inside corner and late movement by the catcher can hinder this process.

Most umpires position themselves over the inside corner of the plate. This provides them a consistent and accurate look of the entire strike (zone), and puts the umpire in the safest position to avoid being hit by pitches and foul balls. This creates a comfortable environment and this is probably the most important factor. Not having to be concerned with anything but calling pitches allows umpires to focus better, and call a better game.

What about plays on the bases? Whether a runner was safe or out on those really close plays, staying in the baselines, and so forth.

I would say that plays on the bases, particularly tags of runners, are the plays most influenced by players' reactions and the flow of the play. Unless something specific to the play dictates otherwise, players, coaches, and managers like to have the expected call made. For instance: If a runner stealing second slides into second base and does nothing to avoid the tag, and the ball beats him to the base, and the fielder puts down a tag; he will be called out 99% of the time. Now, most of the time the tag is actually applied so there is no problem. But on occasion, the tag is missed. You usually don't see arguments from managers on this type of play though, because it was the expected call.

Where you get the arguments is when you don't make the expected call, even if you're right in doing so. And because baseball is putting more and more cameras at all angles in the ballparks, and because of the expected expansion of instant replay, you will see more and more of these expected calls not be called.

Now, a tag of the runner, whether he's trying to avoid the tag or not, is required. Touching the base on the front end of the double play at second is required. Staying on the base at first is required. With umpires being scrutinized more and more, these are the calls you will see increasingly made.

There are also instances where the players' reactions will help an umpire make a call. If there is a swipe tag, the umpire goes off of what he sees, but if the play suddenly changes and he is blocked out by the runner or fielder, he may look to see what the runner's reaction is. Though he also relies on the fielder's reactions, they are almost always indicating they made a tag so the best person to look at is the runner. This requires good timing.

While many fans want the umpires to make calls immediately, not only may the play not be completed, but this also does not allow them to use all of their resources to make the best decision on the play. This becomes especially important on pitches that hit the bat or batter's hands. This is a very difficult to see, and only in rare circumstances do the umpires actually clearly see what it hit. So, they often have to use the reactions of the hitter. They will often tell you whether they were really hit, or whether they're just trying to steal a free pass.

Umpires use all of their senses to make these decisions, but sometimes even when they use everything at their disposal they still don't get the call correct. For instance: A pitch is up and in. On the slow, slow-motion replay, it shows that the ball hit the batter's hands, then hit the bat. However, the batter just stood there. With his lack of immediate reaction and the sound of the bat being heard, this may be an instance where the umpire may keep him in the box.

Some umpires have relied on physical indicators after the fact to award a batter first base. If he shows you a broken finger that is red and swollen, he probably was hit in the hand. The umpire may use this evidence to award the runner first base. This isn't always proof-positive either though.

On a situation where the batter immediately falls to the ground, writhing in pain, and he shows the umpire that his finger is mangled; this doesn't mean that he should be awarded first base. Using that slow, slow-motion again, it may show that the ball actually hit the knob of the bat and then hit his hand. In this case it should be a foul ball. But, because of the reactions of the hitter, and all the other surrounding circumstance, the umpire may award him first base.

With the decision being made to expand the use of instant replay, what is the general feeling among umpires regarding its implementation and uses during a game?

I believe that, for the most part, umpires are very open to the expansion of replay. No one likes to make mistakes, and if it is possible to boost accuracy because of replay; I think that you'll find most would be on-board. Additionally, I believe that replay will only prove how accurate professional umpires already are.

I think that there are concerns as to what plays will be reviewable, and who will be reviewing. I think umpires prefer a system where other baseball umpires are in on the decision. This would provide a consistency of what is being looked for both on the field and in the booth. I think that with the additional scrutiny umpires will be put under, and the additional pressures of ensuring the initial call on the field is correct, deserve compensation. These are all things that I'm sure will be worked out between MLB, the MLBPA, and the WUA in contract negotiations.

One thing I find interesting is that there is already a system in place that allows for an accurate calling balls and strikes, i.e., ZE System, that is only being utilized for umpire education and review. It is in every MLB ballpark, it is accurate, and it could be implemented immediately. Yet it is one thing that is apparently off the board regarding on-the-field assistance. I'm not suggesting that balls and strikes be reviewable, however, having this system call the pitches immediately is certainly a viable option. I don't think that you'll see this anytime soon though. It would not make the adjustments for external factors that we talked about earlier.

Much like the Schilling incident when QuestTech was first introduced, I could see both offensive and defensive teams wanting to smash cameras in certain circumstance if this were ever implemented. They can argue with a person, but it's hard to lodge a dispute with a light and camera.

How are umpires taught to handle disputes with players and managers?

It's funny that you bring this up in the context of what influences an umpire's decision. Players' and managers' reactions, probably more than anything, influence the way that umpires handle situations on the field. Harry (Wendelstedt) had a saying that "We don't eject them. They eject themselves." An umpire's primary job on the field is to ensure the integrity of the game. Handling situations may be the most important part of an umpire's job, but it is also probably the smallest part of their duties.

Many people think that umpires are out there to be a part of the game, to get some kind of infamous glory, or to be a part of something they can't do. All of these are incorrect assumptions. First, most umpires played, and many played at a high-level of college baseball. They understand how the game works, the unwritten rules, and have the instinct to understand when, where, and why plays develop. I would suggest they have a better, more well-rounded understanding of the game than any player, coach, or manager because most have experience playing, coaching, and umpiring.

You don't spend your life around a sport without picking up a few things along the way. I find it amusing when a manager (especially a relatively young manager) will try to tell a 30 year veteran MLB umpire that he does understand how the game works.

Secondly, I don't know of any umpires that want to be a part ESPN's SportsCenter. In fact, umpires cringe at the da-da-da, da-da-da sound. Umpires don't want to insert themselves into situations where they don't need to be, but the fact of the matter is that umpires are an intricate and necessary part of the game. They don't look for problems, but when they arise, they settle them with decisiveness and authority. They are not the stars of the field, that's for sure; but they're also not some cyborg that just pops up out of the ground at 7 p.m. either.

They work hard at their job to improve every time they go out on the field. Every umpire understands that even if they called every pitch and play correct, there is always room for improvement.

Most people would be surprised to know that we don't talk about ejections until well into our umpire school course. This is so that our students can learn and focus on the most-used traits and skills like timing, positioning, and judgment. When we do get to handling situations, students are taught how to avoid confrontations, and how to diffuse situations.

Only when the player, coach, or manager escalates things does an ejection come into play. Umpires are taught to listen to a reasonable argument by a manager when appropriate, however, there are certain guidelines that, when crossed, result in an ejection. I have included below a couple of portions of the section from our course manual that talks about handling situations.

(You can find the material referenced by Brent here.)

Lance Rinker is a writer at Beyond The Box Score. You can follow him on Twitter at @LanceMRinker.

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