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Subtle Changes That Make a Big Difference: Check Swings


For the past few years, Major League Baseball has been releasing old games on DVD. In 2006, a copy of the 1979 World Series between the Pirates and Orioles came out and I bought it right away. At that point, it was the oldest baseball broadcast that I had seen and I was immediately struck by how different the game looked. No, baseball rules have not changed drastically since then. The series was played in parks that no longer exist and the Pirates wore uniforms that no grown man would be caught dead in now, but other than that, there are still three strikes, four balls and ninety feet between each base. So, what was so different? Well, the game, as it was played by the two best teams in baseball that year, just looked a less refined. The players seemed to have a little less body control. Pirate starting pitcher John Candelaria just kind of flailed his arms around and somehow a blazing fastball came out of that. Another thing that struck me was how little the batters had control of their bats. There were many instances where a batter would attempt to swing at a pitch in the dirt but then decide not to swing, but went too far anyway. Even more astounding to me at the time was that umpires did not even consider those flails to be swings. Clearly, the rules for how far a batter is allowed to swing and still have it considered a “check swing” have changed. I started keeping track whenever I saw an instance of a better getting a benefit of checked swing that they certainly would not get today.

The 1960 World Series was one of the greatest Fall Classics ever. It culminated in a fantastic Game Seven in which Pirate second baseman Bill Mazeroski homered to lead off the ninth to win the series. One interesting useless fact about that contest is that is the only postseason game in which there wasn’t a strikeout. And no wonder, considering the rules at that time. In the eighth inning, the Pirates’ Hal Smith hit a three-run homer that helped set up Mazeroski’s game winner. The pitch before appeared to be a high hard one that Smith offered at. Check out the picture: his bat clearly went around for strike three. Instead, a ball was called and the rest is history.

Bill James was asked on his website when and how this change occurred. He points to about 1990 when a rule was added where players (pitcher or catcher) could ask for a check swing to be appealed. Before, it was up to the homeplate umpire’s discretion. He went to further note that:

"I think the big change…came about in my opinion because of improvement in video replay equipment.   In broadcasts of the 1970s there were replays, of course, but the replay equipment was slow and balky, and one only saw replays of the critical plays.  The computer age REALLY starts about 1980; that was when we all had computers and computers became ubiquitous as parts of other equipment.Once there was computer-driven replay equipment, that made it possible to integrate constant small replays into the broadcast, and these included replays of checked swings.When that happened, umpires watching games on television could easily see that players were being given credit for checking their swing when the bat head HAD, in fact, darted quickly through the strike zone and then recoiled.   Once they had seen that on video a few hundred times, they saw it much differently in real life, and this led to many more of the marginal swings being called swings."

The claim is interesting, although I have not been able to pinpoint an instance circumstantially that the idea of a check-swing had changed. Watching games from the 1980’s, I could still see instances of where a hitter would not be called for a swinging strike although clearly today he would have. By the end of the 1980’s, there were less and less of these such calls.

Actually, I think the definition in umpires’ minds started changing. In the 1970’s, when announcers discussed whether a batter had swung or not, they talked a lot about intent. It didn’t seem to matter whether or not the bat went all the way around. He may not have meant to swing, so a ball was called. Today, intent doesn’t matter. All that matters is whether the bat head crossed the plate or not. Again, a lot of that probably has to do with the improving technology.

Once this change in thinking occurred, the way a batter starting approaching an at bat differently. Hitters used to (again in the 70’s and early 80’s) just offer at a pitch, looking almost like they were following the ball with their bat, but without much intention of hitting the ball. They knew umpires would see it this way and a ball would called (Omar Moreno seemed to do that all the time). Now, hitters have to be much more controlled at the plate. Most any swing attempt is questioned and even a controlled half swing  could be considered a strike. It’s a subtle if not unimportant change in baseball.