In previous articles, we've discussed the strike zone with relation to the graphics used to try to display some sort of representation of each pitch and how inaccurate and flat out wrong they are. We now will delve into the topic of the check swing so that you are properly educated on that as well.
If you read the Official Baseball Rule Book, there is actually no language that specifically defines what is or is not a swing. Commentators will try to give you an idea of what umpires use to determine swings, but none of them are actually rules. All the rule book states is that it is the job of the home plate umpire to declare each pitch that the batter does not attempt to hit either ball or a strike (obviously excluding hit batsmen and all other situations, etc.). Further, it also states that if the home plate umpire declares a pitch a ball and that a batter did not swing at it, then, in the event of a check swing, where a batter starts and stops his swing, the catcher or other defensive player or manager may request an appeal to the requisite base umpire to ask if the batter swung.
There is nothing about whether the bat crossed the front plane of the plate, or if the bat head went through the strike zone. There is nothing about if the wrists of the batter "break" or "roll over." A swing is defined by the batter's intent to strike a pitch. That's all we've got.
Put simply: umpires have to judge the intent of the batter to strike a pitch. How they do it is up to them.
If you're a thinking person, you may be thinking, "Hey, isn't every check swing an intent to strike a pitch?" The answer is yes. So by that logic, even if a hitter "checks" his swing, you could make the argument that the hitter had intent to strike the pitch at some point, which would qualify as a strike, no matter how far the bat head goes. You can imagine how many more upset players, coaches, and fans we would have if this is how swings were adjudicated.
Now, let's go back to fact for a moment and introduce more rules. In the baseball umpire manual, it is clearly noted that it is the responsibility of the home plate umpire to determine if a batter swings at a pitch. He is the first "line of defense" when dealing with the gray area of check swings. If he does not declare it a swing and the pitch is declared a ball, only upon the request of a member of the defensive team may be determine whether or not to ask a base umpire for an appeal.
Translation: the plate umpire makes the call, and he does not have to go to a base umpire unless he decides to. So don't get upset when the plate umpire makes the call himself and refuses to ask for help.
That same thinking person is probably wondering, "How can the plate umpire see both the pitch and the swing at the same time?" Great question: he probably can't. However, umpires are taught to stay with the pitch until he is sure the pitch cannot be a strike, at which point he can move his eyes to the swing. If the pitch is in the dirt and bounces before home plate, good umpires will be trained to move their eyes to the potential swing immediately after the bounce.
It is in these situations where an umpire cannot watch both which explains why the option for the appeal is necessary. But it is also necessary that we emphasize that the home plate umpire is not required to ask for an appeal, even if requested by the defense. It is equally important to mention again (if it hasn't been made clear enough) that the home plate umpire cannot ask for an appeal once the swing has been called by the home plate umpire and the strike has been assessed.
If you really want to bake your noodle (is that the expression?), consider this. In most forms of baseball below Major League Baseball, a four man umpiring crew is not always available. The most common permutation is the two man crew with one behind the plate and one on the bases. A three man crew is considered a luxury in many forms of baseball. And unfortunately, many leagues consisting of kids younger than 10/11 years old only ask for one umpire per game in order to save money.
So if the standard is to ask the first base umpire for help with a right handed batter's swing, as well as conversely asking the third base umpire when a lefty is up, what happens when less than four umpires are working a game and umpires are in different positions that are not directly down the foul line?
Answer: a lot of checked swings.
For example, let's say there are only two umpires working a game. With a runner on first base, the base umpire moves to the "B" position, which is approximately halfway between the dirt on the pitchers mound and the dirt of the infield on the first base side, using the tangential line from the back corner of home plate to the edge of the dirt on the mound as a guide as to where to line up. How can that umpire see a right handed batter check his swing (or any batter, for that matter)? It's the same thing in that same game with nobody on and a left handed batter up. Although the base umpire is in the "A" position down the first base line in foul territory, he cannot clearly see the lefty check his swing.
In these situations, umpires are taught that they are to determine the batter checked his swing (as in he did not swing) unless they are 100% sure and have clear and convincing evidence that the batter swung. It's a good thing we have sub-varsity time limits in my county!
So the next time you listen to an uninformed commentator explain what he thinks is a bad call, or the next time you feel short-changed when you or your kid is called out on a swing, remember that umpires are asked to gauge intent to strike the pitch and have nothing else in the book to help them. In fact, they're doing YOU a favor by not calling every questionable swing a strike! After all, doesn't every half swing have intent?