The home plate area commonly refers to the 26-foot circle surrounding home plate. In modern professional baseball, it includes home plate, two batter’s boxes, the catcher’s box, the umpire’s area and the surrounding skinned area.
Professional baseball regulations state the batter’s boxes are to be laid out as diagramed, at 6 feet long by 4 feet wide, with the inside edge beginning 6 inches from the side of home plate. The catcher’s box is 8 feet long, as measured from the point at the back of home plate, by 43 inches wide. A lot of people think it’s the same width as the batter’s box and set it up that way. In the past two to three years, MLB has required that the boxes be marked consistently. It’s now the requirement for college and professional level play, and many high schools are doing it, too. (Dimensions change for younger players. Check the official governing body for rules at each level of play.)
MLB regulations state that this marking should be done with “wet, unslaked lime, chalk or other white material.” In the U.S., some people use lime, some prefer chalk and some use paint. Match the application equipment to the type of material. There are templates available to help with the layout for any type of material. Chalk boxes are good tools for quick chalk application.
While much has changed in baseball rules and regulations over the years, the shape of home plate has remained the same. It’s a five-sided slab, a 17-inch square with two of the corners removed so one edge is 17 inches long, two adjacent sides are 8.5 inches and the remaining two sides are 12 inches and set at an angle to make a point. In 1885, it was stipulated that home “base” be made out of white rubber. (In the Caribbean, many of the home plates are all black. According to the locals, a white ball going over a black plate is much easier to see—and call.)
MLB regulations stipulate that the home plate be set in the ground with the point at the intersection of the lines extending from home plate to first base and to third base. The 17-inch edge is to face the pitcher’s plate, and the two 12-inch edges are to coincide with the first and third base lines.
The top edges of home plate are beveled. Regulation home plates for professional baseball are white on top with the beveled edge in black. You need to run the string line for all measurements at the point where the black edge and white section meet.
Suppliers offer different types of home plates. I prefer the all-rubber style with a waffle-like bottom. These are about 3 inches thick. You fill the back with clay and set it in the ground. Some styles have a stem, like the bases, that attaches to an anchor in the ground. This type of plate moves a bit, so it’s not as desirable. Another style has five spikes that screw into the rubber. I’ve used these for practice areas, but had to build a wooden base under it to get the stability I wanted.
Establishing home plate
Establishing the home plate location is the first thing you do whether setting up a playing field or building a ball park. The entire stadium is built based on measurements from the back tip of home plate. When setting up home plate for the first time, place a very fine point, such as a finish nail, into a wood stake deep into the ground at the tip point that will stay in place to guide you. Often, a block of concrete is placed several inches under home plate with a nail inserted that shows where the home plate point should be.
For professional baseball, the home plate area is a 26-foot circle with a 13-foot diameter measured from the back point of home plate. Some folks like to make the home plate circle bigger, extending it to 28 feet or so. If the circle is 26 feet, those standing around the area are standing on the grass; if it’s 28 feet, they’re standing on the clay. The larger circle helps the wear and tear on the grass, but you have to make sure that deviation fits with your governing body.
You’ll use three types of clay material within the circle, and all those are maintained differently. The batter’s box and catcher’s box are a harder clay mix similar to, or the same as, the material used for the pitching mound, depending on your preferences. A typical mix will be about 40 percent sand, 40 to 50 percent clay and 10 to 20 percent silt. Any of the commercially bagged, vendor-provided mound/home plate mixes are heavy in clay and work well for these areas. Some prefer working with the hard clay bricks, which are packaged moist, ready to go into the ground. Others prefer the bagged mixes, which allow more flexibility in establishing moisture levels.
The area in front of home plate from foul line to foul line takes a second type of material. Most field managers start with their usual infield mix, but make that area softer, so if a ground ball is hit, it doesn’t hop over the third baseman’s head. You can incorporate soil conditioner to reach the degree of softness you’re after. Some use a vitrified-type soil amendment. Or, you can work the area consistently, keeping the top .5 inch of soil very loose to deaden the ball where it hits.
The area within the circle, but outside of those areas, is generally the same as the base path clay material, typically about 60 percent sand, 30 percent clay and 10 percent silt, and is maintained like the infield.
Gather the necessary tools and materials, including a measuring tape, nails (short and long), a string line, a 6-foot level, a 12-foot-long board or metal stud and a bubble level that clips onto the string for measuring. You’ll also need a plate compactor, hand tamp, landscape rake, shovel, hose and a water source, home plate and the clay materials you’ve selected.
If home plate is in place, you can create the entire circle with regular infield mix. Then, run a string line and level to place the pins in the ground to mark out the areas you’re going to replace with harder clay, and then pull out the existing home plate. The string line that crisscrosses the back tip of home plate can be removed, but be cautious to not bump those pins since they will guide you when reinstalling the new plate. You can reinsert home plate when you’ve finished inserting the material and rerun the strings to ensure everything is accurate and level.
As you look at the entire circle area, the section with home plate, the two batter’s boxes and catcher’s box form a “T.” You’re first going to “cookie cutter” that section, excavating down to grade within the entire “T.” If you are going to use clay bricks for a new construction, plan on using two layers, which means excavating to about 5 inches deep. I’d go to a similar depth using bagged clay mix for the first time.
The batter’s box extends across the 29-inch width with home plate and the two 6-inch spaces beside it, and the 4-foot width of the batter’s box on each side. The other area extends from the front edge of the batter’s boxes to the back edge of the 8-foot-long catcher’s box. In a lot of ballparks, the players step outside the batter’s box or put their foot on the line, so it’s important you extend the harder clay an additional foot beyond the sides of the batter’s boxes.
Establishing the right moisture content within the clay mix is just as important in constructing this section of the home plate circle as it is in building the mound. Talk to the players. The catchers will like their catcher’s box a certain way; the batters will like the batter’s box a certain way. Try to accommodate their requests.
You’ll want the clay consistency just a bit drier than Play-Doh. You’ll constantly adjust the amount of water needed to get the consistency you want in continually changing weather conditions. Build up the area in 1-inch increments, with the clay just tacky enough so the new layer will adhere to the previous one when you compact each level. Wrap the tamp with a towel or piece of landscape fabric to keep it from sticking to the clay. Check the level with string lines and the bubble level, then reinsert the plate and check again.
Work the area in front of the plate to reach the consistency you want there. Check the remainder of the circle with the string line and bubble level and make sure there is a smooth transition to the surrounding areas.
Many people prefer using the heavier mound-type clay within the entire home plate circle and then putting a topping of infield mix on the other areas. If you want to keep the entire circle one color, you can top the harder areas with soil conditioner.
When you do the maintenance, you’ll have to sweep off that layer of conditioner in the harder areas. Once swept, wet the area of damage and do the patching for repair. Use moist, hard clay, adding it a little at a time and tamping it into place. When you’ve finished, put the layer of conditioner back on. You’ll use screen drags, cocoa mats and water to work the other areas of the home plate circle, just as you do for the base paths.
Once the home plate area is set up, cover it with a tarp to protect it and retain your moisture level. During batting practice, use hitting mats (synthetic turf-type products that look like the home plate and batter’s boxes). The only time home plate should be uncovered is for postgame repair, pregame preparation and the marking of the lines and during the game. Following these practices will reduce the amount of maintenance needed at home plate.
Murray Cook is president of Brickman Sports Turf Services, a division of the Brickman Group. He’s a frequent overseas traveler on behalf of Major League Baseball and the International Baseball Federation.