Boston’s Rafael Devers was not happy when he was called out on strikes in a July 18 game between the Yankees and Red Sox. His manager Alex Cora had to take him off the field to ensure he didn’t get ejected for arguing.
As a Yankees fan, it’s hard for me to defend one of Boston’s rising stars. But Devers’ exasperation reminded me of a gripe I’ve long held with other baseball fans.
As a teenager, I umpired little league games in Toronto, going through Ontario’s first two levels of umpire training. While much of that time now feels like a distant memory, one of the old lessons still rings crystal clear.
Our instructor explicitly taught us that whether a swing is “checked” or not does not come down to a physical standard (i.e. the batter “breaking (extending) their wrists”) but whether the batter intended to swing at the pitch.
Outside of those umpiring classes, however, I’ve regularly heard the “broken wrists” standard applied. This language is used by commentators, fans and players alike. And there’s good reason why so many hold this belief.
For one, if a batter’s swing drags out long enough, there’s a good chance they did intend to chase the pitch. Secondly, in NCAA baseball, check swings are in fact defined as “the barrel head of the bat cross[ing] the front edge of home plate or the batter’s front hip.”
MLB’s rule book, however, does not contain a definition of check swings. It does, however, define “swings” as “an attempt to strike at the ball.”
Yankees: Was Rafael Devers’ check swing called right?
So how then do major league umpires think about check swings? According to a New York Times piece by David Waldstein, Joe West, along with many of his colleagues, defines a check swing as coming down to whether a “batter offer[ed] at the pitch, or held the bat up.” In other words, West affirms what I was taught in my own umpire training: what matters is not the size of the swing, but the intent of the swinger.
West’s definition makes sense. The most glamorous element of baseball may be (successfully) swinging, but having the discipline not to swing at bad pitches is a key part of the game in its own right. When a batter is given a strike for swinging at a bad pitch, they are not truly being penalized for the miss. Rather, they are being penalized for their lack of discipline (if they were truly expected to hit the ball, it wouldn’t be considered out of the strike zone in the first place).
Furthermore, West’s approach seems consistent with the reality of major league swings. As a casual viewer, I’ve seen many check swings that would probably be called as strikes in little league games. Is this because major league hitters are given even more slack than children? No, it’s because once a heavy bat is set in motion against a 90+ mph pitch, it is inevitably going to look like it moved substantially, even when a hitter checks their swing in due time.
Many hitters might not be familiar with this interpretation of the checked swing rule, but I suspect many of them at least believe it on an unconscious level. Is it possible Devers could have been angered because of how far he thought his bat moved? I suppose. But it seems far more likely that his anger stemmed from the umpire’s reading of his intentions being so out of line with his mental reality.
When ESPN commentators Matt Vasgersian and Alex Rodriguez watched replays of the Devers swing from overhead, they treated it as a close call.
When they switched camera angles to one that showed Devers’ face, they instantly changed their tune. Devers’ expression made clear that he was not at all interested in the pitch that he allegedly swung at.
The ambiguity of what constitutes a check swing has long been a part of baseball, and I see no reason why it shouldn’t continue to be that way. Umpiring is as much a craft as pitching or hitting, and I enjoy watching a sport where an umpire’s discretion is part of the on-field narrative.
But while the rule is fine, baseball’s TV coverage of it is not. The instant replay of Devers’ face taught far more about the meaning of check swings than did the countless overhead shots of swing motions, or broadcaster arguments about “broken wrists.” As a Yankees fan, I’m relieved that Rafael Devers struck out. But as a baseball fan, it’s equally important for me to know that, just in that small moment, our rivals were bitterly robbed.