Before we begin, we must note that the scope of this page focuses strictly on positioning for plays at the plate and is not meant to address the forthcoming rule change eliminating collisions at home plate. Umpires will be briefed on that at a later date.
Umpires should prepare for a play at the plate by starting at the point of home plate before adjusting left towards first baseline extended (1BLEx), or right towards third baseline extended (3BLEx), depending on the throw, position of the catcher, and the path of the runner. Typically, umpires want to work from 1BLEx on plays where the ball arrives well ahead of the runner and the catcher will be blocking the plate, and from 3BLEx on closer plays where the catcher will be attempting a swipe tag. Umpires should be no further than 8-10 feet away from the tag, but are cautioned from getting too close as well. As a guideline, it is 8 feet from the point of home plate to the back line of the catcher’s box. Umpires must adjust according to the play to prevent the body of the catcher or runner from coming between the umpire and the tag attempt. Each play at the plate therefore has a “wedge” between the body of the runner and the body of the catcher that the umpire should be positioned within in order to see the play. Each play has an optimal sightline and that is typically right in the middle of this wedge, although sometimes it may be off-centre, depending on how the play unfolds. For most plays, the best method of getting into the wedge is to work off of the catcher’s left hip. The easiest way to visualize this concept would be to imagine the umpire’s chest is tethered by a rope to the left hip of the catcher. This concept will be demonstrated by several videos below
Our first video is a routine play at home where the umpire begins at the point of the plate and subsequently adjusts to 3BLEx for a swipe tag, as the runner attempts to go around the catcher. This is a textbook example of proper starting position and subsequent adjustment. Note also that since the tag is occurring up the line, the plate umpire scoots forward in the same direction to make the call.
This video demonstrates your most common swipe tag scenario. It is virtually a certainty that whenever the catcher must move towards / up the 1B line to receive the throw, the play at the plate is going to be a swipe tag. Here, Scott Barry executes a proper adjustment and maintains proper distance to the play.
In situations where a swipe tag at home is going to be close and the runner attempts slide around the catcher in foul territory, 3BLEx may not be the optimal position. Over the course of the next several videos, you will see examples where the plate umpire works off of the catcher’s left hip, properly rotating beyond 3BLEx towards the 1B line in order to gain an optimal view of the play. You will notice a few videos where PU is right on top of the play – this is completely acceptable, and recommended whenever PU will not be at risk of being in the path of a runner’s over-slide.
In some cases where the throw takes the catcher up the 3B line and the timing of the play is such that he will be reaching behind him in an attempt to tag the runner, the umpire will need to rotate all the way to the 1B line in order to get a proper angle on the play, as in this video
As you can see from these videos, the “wedge” for a swipe tag play at the plate with a runner sliding to the foul side of home plate typically stretches from 3BLEx to the 1B line, with the optimal spot most often somewhere in the middle, depending on how the play unfolds.
However, swipe tags may also occur on runners sliding to the fair side of home plate when the catcher must retreat towards foul territory in some manner to field the throw, requiring different positioning and a different direction of adjustment.
As you saw in the video, 3BLEx is an appropriate position to observe this play. However, our second video shows a good adjustment by the 1B umpire, covering the plate on a rotation, to move back towards the point of the plate so as to not be blocked out by the runner’s arm / shoulder in order to make the call.
As you have seen, every video we have shown so far has been a swipe tag with the umpire working from the 3BLEx side of home plate. Even before the new anti-collision rule, the majority of plays at home were swipe tags. We only anticipate this to increase. Therefore it is vital that umpires become familiar with this type of play and the various adjustment required to get the call right. It is also perfectly acceptable to consistently “cheat” towards 3BLEx, given the high likelihood of a swipe tag play. Should an umpire begin adjusting to 3BLEx and realize they have misread the play and should be at 1BLEx because the tag will originate in front of the catcher, in front of the plate, simply continue rotating to the 1B line, as it gives the umpire the same look at a blocking / collision play, merely from the reverse angle.
There is one other caveat to positioning for plays at home: notice that nowhere have we said that the umpire must be completely set to see the play. While being set is ideal, it is imperative that umpires recognize the dynamics of a play at the plate are constantly changing and it may not be possible to get into the correct position without moving right up until the runner either touches the plate or is tagged. If late adjustment is required to properly see a play, do it! We would rather have you moving and in position then stationary and out of position. Below is Saskatchewan’s Stu Scheurwater, Canada’s first AAA call-up in 12 years, demonstrating exactly that.
No Tag, No Touch of Home
In a situation where the catcher misses the tag and the runner subsequently missed home plate, the umpire at home will do nothing. The following video is a textbook example of handling a “No Tag, No Touch” situation, with great mechanics by Jordan Baker, one of MLB’s seven new full-time umpires for 2014.