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Checked swings make cameo appearance in the Yankees’ postseason

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A number of big moments in the 2020 postseason have hinged on check-swing calls

MLB: New York Yankees at Boston Red Sox Winslow Townson-USA TODAY Sports

Checked swings and whether MLB umpires accurately call them is subject to debate, and there have been plenty of them during this 2020 postseason. The AL Wild Card Series, ALDS and ALCS all featured checked-swing calls that were deemed borderline or questionable.

A pivotal moment in the Yankees’ 2020 postseason hinged on one, too: the Yankees advanced to the Division Series after Aroldis Chapman struck out Cleveland pinch-hitter Austin Hedges on a checked swing.

Here are a few more checked swings from the 2020 postseason:

Jose Altuve strikes out in the 9th inning of ALCS Game Three between the Astros and Rays:

Randy Arozarena strikes out in the 6th inning of ALCS Game Four between the Astros and Rays:

The rules governing checked swings are notoriously vague, which leads to their broad interpretation. In thinking about umpires and the way they approach check-swing calls, I decided to take a closer look at the Official Baseball Rules. I was especially curious if the rulebook identifies any points of reference to consider in deciding whether or not a batter checked his swing.

The short answer is no. The rulebook offers no guidance on when a batter should be ruled to have swung at a pitch. No definition of a swing and no description of what constitutes one appears in MLB Official Baseball Rules.

Should MLB rules provide more clarity on what a swing is?

Standardizing the criteria used to judge if a batter checked his swing (or not) could make umpires’ calls seem less arbitrary. More clearly defining what can and cannot be considered a swing would mitigate some of what seems to be ubiquitous confusion surrounding these calls. Adding an appendix to the rulebook would accomplish this. NCAA baseball rules do this and MLB could potentially adopt something similar.

Players know and can estimate where the strike zone ought to be, even if it is the home plate umpire who ultimately decides on its perimeters. Checked swings lack that kind of reference point. Visual parameters which are currently used to distinguish a checked swing from a take—clues like “breaking the wrists” and “crossing the plane of the plate”—are insufficient, simply because no two players, batting stances, nor swings look exactly alike.

Curious to better understand an umpire’s perspective on the matter, I asked retired MLB umpire Dale Scott about his approach to calling checked swings during his career. “I can tell you it’s a call that you get a better feel for the more you see, year after year,” Scott wrote in a Twitter DM. “It’s one of the toughest calls we have because of the lack of rule clarity and it happens very quickly.”

Scott elaborated on some of the nuances of identifying checked swings and described how the physical movement of the bat can be deceiving.

“Sometimes the bat moves very little but [the player] offered, other times it moves a lot but [the player] in fact checked it (didn’t offer),” Scott said. “It comes down to judgement, something everyone has but can vary wildly.”

What would the overall goal be in providing more clarity on checked swing calls? Aiming for exactitude and eliminating human error sounds appealing. I also consider what might be lost in such a mechanized game.

Many interactions among players, coaches, and umpires unfold over the course of nine innings. MLB must balance its desire for umpires to make accurate calls with its focus on using new tools to quantify baseball and make it more precise. There must be ways to reap the benefits of technology without eliminating the humanity and spontaneity which make the game great.