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Wieters' ejection highlights MLB's checked swing problem

The checked swing rule, or lack thereof, is a mess. MLB needs to fix it.

Evan Habeeb-USA TODAY Sports

Last night, Matt Wieters was ejected for arguing with home plate umpire Dan Bellino after a strikeout. Wieters attempted to check his swing on a two-strike pitch in the dirt, and Bellino called a swinging strike three on his own, without checking with the third base umpire.

Obviously, the Orioles ended up winning, so this call and subsequent ejection didn't cost the team a game. I'm actually not even convinced it was a bad call, so it may not have even cost the team an out (although it did cost them their catcher). This may not be the best example, but it highlights two things in the MLB rulebook that I've had an issue with for years: the lack of a clear definition of what a swing is, and the fact that there is no good reason for a plate umpire to ever make the call on a borderline checked swing.

First of all, let's look at the swing:

It was pretty close. I could see this call going either way, so let's check the rulebook for some clarification. Here's the relevant definition of a swinging strike:

"A STRIKE is a legal pitch when so called by the umpire, which: (a) Is struck at by the batter and is missed;"

Well, OK, that's not very specific. Surely, there has to be an explanation of what is considered a strike and what is a checked swing. In fact, there are zero mentions of "checked swing" and only one mention of "check swing" in the entire rulebook: the batter's box rule. This is the relatively new "pace of play" rule requiring that batters keep one foot in the box at all times to speed up the game; one of the exceptions to the rule is when "an attempted check swing is appealed to a base umpire."

That is the ONLY mention of "check swing" in the entire MLB rulebook. It's never defined or clarified, it's just casually dropped into the batter's box rule as if you should know what it means. All those rules of thumb you've heard about "breaking the wrists," or the bat "breaking the plane" - none of them exist. What constitutes a swing is completely subjective and nothing in the rulebook prevents umpires from having completely different opinions of where a checked swing becomes a swinging strike.

How is this possible? This is a league that added a rule this year to clarify that if the hanging laces of the glove are the only thing to touch a runner, it's not considered a tag. The official rulebook is 172 pages long! It's well past time to just pick a definition of a swing and put it in there. If the bat goes past the point of being parallel with the front of the plate, it's a swing. Boom. Simple. Objective. No more guessing and (theoretically) no more inconsistency.

Now, can we address the issue of plate umpires making these calls? First of all, I can tell you from my own umpiring experience, the plate umpire cannot see the play well enough to make that call. He just can't. The first or third base umpire has a better angle on virtually 100% of these situations. Unless a fielder or runner blocked his view or he had to sneeze, the base umpire should be making that call every time.

I also can't come up with a good reason for why the plate umpire would ever even want to make the call himself. The only argument I can see is on a dropped third strike; if it's called a ball and overturned on appeal, that would deprive the batter of the chance to run to first. In theory, the plate umpire jumping in to make that call quickly gives the batter a chance to take off running and beat the ball to first base.

As a batter, though, wouldn't you rather the umpires get the swing call right? I'd gladly trade the miniscule chance of making it to first on a ball in the dirt for a better chance of getting the checked swing call and keeping the at bat going. The first goal should be to get the call right, and the base umpire has the best chance to do that.

As I said before, the Wieters play from last night is not the best example of the problems with this rule. It wasn't a particularly egregious call, and the Orioles won the game anyway. For some better examples, check out this article by Dave Cameron of Fangraphs.

In the 2014 postseason alone, two of these calls costs a team an out in the ninth inning. In both cases, the team was down by a run. And in both cases, the calls were awful. Seriously, look at the GIFs in that article, especially the Erick Aybar "swing". But then again, how can we criticize it? Maybe the umpire's interpretation of "striking at the ball" is just different from ours. There is nothing in the rulebook that says those two calls were wrong.

Major League Baseball has shown recently that they're willing to make significant changes to the rules to improve the game. Just in the past few years they've implemented instant replay, eliminated collisions at the plate and a take-out slides at second base, and created rules to speed up the game. As those two examples from the playoffs clearly show, these checked swing calls matter.

The league needs to get rid of the guesswork and create a clear definition of a swing. They also need to strongly discourage plate umpires from making these calls, or even make it mandatory to check with the base umpire.

This rule, along with the plate umpires' insistence on making the calls, has been an issue for too long. It's time for MLB to fix it.