Let’s Take Check Swings Away From Home Plate Umpires

Of late, Major League Baseball has been fairly aggressive in adopting new rules to attempt to improve the game. We have instant replay now, at least for some plays and some calls. Runners aren’t allowed to run over catchers at home plate anymore. The league is even experimenting with a pitch clock in the Arizona Fall League, which could eventually lead to a reduction in the amount of time that pitchers are allowed to stand around doing nothing. The game is great, but it can still be improved upon, and I’m glad to see MLB working to try and continually make it better.

And after what we’ve seen in the playoffs over the last week, I think it’s time for Major League Baseball to consider another rule change. It’s time to officially take check-swing strike calls away from the home plate umpire.

Last night, we saw an egregious example of why this call just doesn’t need to be made by the guy behind the plate. In the 9th inning, Santiago Casilla threw a 1-2 curveball to Ian Desmond. Desmond did this.


Hunter Wendelstedt rang Desmond up, ending the at-bat, and putting the Nationals one out away from elimination. Desmond, predictably, reacted, because that’s a very borderline check-swing to get called out on, but also, because Wendelstedt didn’t even bother to ask the first base umpire for assistance on the call. Maybe you think that Desmond swung, but there is no way to think that the swing is so clear cut that the home plate umpire should make that determination without even checking down to first base.

This isn’t the first time this has happened in the postseason either. Last week, Paul Nauert decided to ring up Erick Aybar on this swing.


Like with Desmond, Aybar was batting with his team down a run in their last at-bat, and Nauert’s call struck him out on a swing that does not look like a swing. Here is Mike Scioscia’s reaction to the call.


Check swing decisions are about as subjective as anything in baseball gets, but again, how do you not at least check with the third base umpire before making that call? Is there any way to defend the position that Aybar so clearly swung that the home plate umpire could make that call without assistance?

I don’t think so, and I’m not sure home plate umpires need to be making these calls to begin with. On nearly every inconclusive check swing, it is standard operating procedure to let the base umpire make the decision anyway, so why not just codify that into the rules? Why give the home plate umpire the right to insert himself into the decision whenever he likes, when it is widely accepted that the base umpires have the better angle and are in a better position to make the swing-or-not determination?

The appeal to the base umpire is already in practice on a vast majority of check swings anyway, so officially giving this decision to the umpire down the opposite line from the batter wouldn’t slow the game down in any appreciable way. It takes a second or two for the base umpire to make the decision, and when a home plate umpire rings up a batter on a check-swing strike, we usually get an argument at the plate that lasts longer anyway.

MLB brings in two extra umpires for the postseason to try and make sure they have as many angles as possible covered for big games. We have instant replay now, as the league is trying to cut down on the number of times human error contributes significantly to the outcome of a game. There just isn’t any real reason why home plate umpires need to be making check swing decisions in the 2014 postseason, and I’m not sure I can think of a reason why they ever really need to make one.

Maybe Aybar and Desmond both would have been called out by the base umpire as well. We don’t know, because neither Hunter Wendelstedt or Paul Nauert asked for help, but it’s possible, and as long as we have human beings subjectively deciding whether a batter crossed some invisible line of demarcation, we’re going to have check-swing controversies.

But on essentially every other play in baseball, the umpire with the best angle owns the right to make the call. The home plate umpire does not have the best angle to determine whether a check swing went too far or not. He shouldn’t have the right to take that call away from the base umpire whenever he wants. Let’s officially make this the base umpire’s call. It’s what he’s there for.

Dave is the Managing Editor of FanGraphs.

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9 years ago

If it were for me, I would take balls and strikes away from them too.

9 years ago
Reply to  glib

came just to say the same thing.