Brian Hertzog umpired nine seasons in professional baseball from Single-A to Triple-A across the Pioneer, South Atlantic, California, Arizona Instructional, Texas, Venezuela Winter, and Pacific Coast League.
Q1. How did you decide you wanted to become a professional umpire? Did you have an “aha” moment?
I’ve never thought of it as an “aha” moment, but yes, I suppose there was! I remember sitting behind the home plate at a Mariners game with my dad and talking about going to 5-week umpire school in Florida. Pro school is the one-and-only route into the Minor Leagues for umpires, but it means spending $4-$5k on school and expenses and having a job that will allow you to be away for five weeks. My dad quickly eliminated the monetary excuse for me by telling me that he’d readily loan me the money, and that the hardest part would actually be convincing my wife! Oh yeah… that.
Q2. How much of an impact does the catchers receiving ability and stance have on the pitcher’s ability to get strike calls?
Quite a bit! I’d love pitchers to communicate this to their catchers more and more, but great catchers already know this to an extent. Umpires are going to hear it from both dugouts regardless of how accurate he actually is during any given game, it’s part of the job description (check the fine print umpires).
I know when I’m struggling, I know when I’m #nails, and I know when a Manager is arguing situationally or if the dugouts are chirping just to hear themselves talk. What I’m not going to do is invite extra arguments by calling pitches as strikes when the catcher pulls a pitch back 2-3” or can’t “handle” a breaking pitch at the bottom.
It’s preventative umpiring/situation management at its core. It’s also why a computer can call a 100% accurate strike zone, but a human umpire will still call a better strike zone.
Q3. As an umpire, how quickly are you able to determine if a pitcher has command, control, or wild? Do any of those take more or less time to determine?
If a warmup pitch hits me, it’s never a good start to the day, lol.
While I have no hitter for reference on the vertical locations, I still like to take warmup pitches thinking, “is this pitcher in control of himself?” I’m definitely not going to let this first impression control my own game management for an entire nine innings, but it’s important to me to get an initial feel for how much control you have as a pitcher, as well as meet [or reconnect with] my catcher.
When it comes down to it though, I think the first time I can really tell if you have control or not is when you test one of the outer-limits of the zone and I call it a ball. If you make an adjustment to bring it back the next pitch (or the next time you’re trying to hit that location rather), I’ll believe you’re in control of your stuff. If I don’t see that pitch again until the next inning, but you take the time to ask me [Q #5 for example, in between innings talk], I know you’re already working on that control within your own head.
Q4. How significant can a pitcher’s body language affect future calls? Whether he has a right to be upset or not.
Poor body language can affect future calls, but not nearly to the level that pitch receiving/presentation does with catchers. In saying this, I’m not trying to imply that umpires are intentionally going to call pitches balls that they know are strikes. Simple psychology remains the same though… humans are humans with the same human tendencies, player, coach, fan or umpire. Poor body language or disrespect on the field is bound to make its way into a split-second decision that I need to make. I may even realize that I missed a pitch, sometimes you just know right away. I think the natural tendency for most umpires at that point it to provide more leeway during a situation that follows a pitch we feel was a “miss”.
As a pitcher, do you care that I immediately realize a missed pitch? Or would you rather eliminate one more variable (poor body language) that could have negatively affected that call? Which part of this equation falls under, “control what you can control?”
Now that you’ve fixed this part of your body language, if you want to take it to the next level then flip the thought process around on hitters. I remember a game in Little Rock, AR in which I rang up a hitter for the last out of both the 1st and 3rd innings. When we talked after the second called strike three in between innings he asked, “that’s really not inside?” We had a good working relationship over a couple seasons at this point, so I responded, “Not only was it not inside, it was the same pitch he threw for your first called strike three. If I were him though [the pitcher], I would’ve gone right back to that location too… you practically threw a hissy fit after the first one, so why not?”
Q5. For a HS, collegiate, or professional pitcher, is approaching an umpire after or before an inning to discuss strike zone, balk, or any other issue encouraged or frowned upon?
I’d actually go so far as to say the higher you go in this game, the more it will be expected that this is done properly. This is because it can [very much] be interpreted as either a negative or a positive depending on the situation and the umpire.
Sometimes an umpire will naturally end up on one foul line or the other at the end of the inning because of a rotation or position we needed to be in for whatever play ended the inning. Sometimes we’re on a specific side of the infield for preventative umpiring purposes, keep in mind that it may have nothing to do with you. We’ve got two entire teams to consider with every bit of our own body language and positioning in between innings.
I would break this down into two extremes, and you’ll need to learn what’s proper for each and every situation as you advance higher and learn more intricacies of the game…
1. If an umpire ends the inning on the same side as your dugout and you guys didn’t have a huge situation during that inning, feel free to ask a balk-type question or inquire about a pitch location you feel you’ve been getting as you pass by.
2. If the umpire is on the foul line opposite from you and you just had a big league type stare-down with the guy during the inning over a check swing… maybe pick another time to talk with him.
The higher you go and the more respect you show on the field, the better chance you have that I’ll go the extra mile to take out my lineup cards and make it look like I’m checking on something. I have more time to legitimately answer your question without it looking like an argument that way.
If talking with the umpire will appear to look like you’re trying to continue an argument, it might be an appropriate time for you [both] to regroup.
Q6. Over the course of your 9 year professional experience, what vertical location in the strike zone would you say deems the most successful outcomes (I.E. weak contact or OUT) for a pitcher when the ball is put in play?
Down, down, down… but I also think it’s the hardest pitch to be the most consistent with as an umpire. Since we’re talking about the ball being put into play [for weak contact/out] in this question, if you can locate 2-3 pitches at the bottom early in the game for called strikes, the hitters will have to take notice. I want to miss zero pitches as an umpire, I don’t know that I’ve ever accomplished that. If you throw enough pitches, I’m going to miss one at some point. If I see 600 pitches, I’ll probably miss twice as many pitches as I would during a 300-pitch game.
Remember, I’m back there for every pitch, both sides, regardless of whether you’re a starter, mid-relief or closer. I’ve seen the 600-pitch mark, and I’d prefer to never see it again! Putting all of this information together, I would think that commanding the bottom of the zone early would give me less opportunity to miss that pitch later in the game. If you can lure the hitter into a swing with weak contact before I have the chance to miss a pitch… you win that battle with the hitter. Force hitters to take notice.
Q7. Gut response, is there a discretionary strike zone?
Is this a good first time to use, “No comment!?”
I’d be going against my gut if I said there wasn’t, but I really think it’s simply more of the perceived view of any given umpire, and less of an actual individual choice from Umpire A to Umpire B. I may think I’m consistent with exactly how the strike zone is written and with every other umpire out there. The fact of the matter is that, like a position player viewing pitches from different positions on the field, it’s a very different look from when I’m umpiring 2nd base to when I’m working behind the plate. That’s the position that matters to me, because all I can control is the work I put into seeing that pitch from the same POV every time when I’m back there.
Q8. Does your called 3rd strike call have a special name?
I doesn’t, but I might have to think of a name for it after hearing this question for the first time!
There are general names for different mechanics within the umpire/officiating community, such as “The Hammer” (basic called strike mechanic that looks like an out). If it’s a well-known umpire within the officiating community, such as an MLB guy, you might hear someone refer to a strike three mechanic using their name to describe it (i.e. Tom Hallion, or Dutch Rennert dating back into the 80’s – Google “Mark Grant Umpire” for the San Diego Padres reliever with the best plate umpire impressions).
I’ve never heard of anyone giving a strike three mechanic a name, but I would also think it’s like any great nickname… you can’t think of it yourself, you gotta let your friends take the reins on that one!
Brian’s company Official Business LLC brings an officials unique view of the game over to player development. To learn more about the brand, follow Brian on Twitter @OffBizHybrids or visit his site Official Business.