Rewrite the Balk Rule, Don’t Expand It

Demonstrating a commitment to modernity, baseball’s rules committee has spoken: “The fake-to-third, throw-to-first pickoff move” is now a balk. As of now, implementation is uncertain as baseball waits for the Major League Baseball Players Association to consider the rule change. But as far as MLB is concerned, you can’t do that any more.

So here’s the current rule, which is on the cutting block:

A pitcher is to step directly toward a base before throwing to that base but does not require him to throw (except to first base only) because he steps. It is possible, with runners on first and third, for the pitcher to step toward third and not throw, merely to bluff the runner back to third; then seeing the runner on first start for second, turn and step toward and throw to first base. This is legal. However, if, with runners on first and third, the pitcher, while in contact with the rubber, steps toward third and then immediately and in practically the same motion “wheels” and throws to first base, it is obviously an attempt to deceive the runner at first base, and in such a move it is practically impossible to step directly toward first base before the throw to first base, and such a move shall be called a balk. Of course, if the pitcher steps off the rubber and then makes such a move, it is not a balk.

Got that? (If not, then Ben Lindbergh made fun of it over at Baseball Prospectus, and he has a ton of animated GIFs that should help.)

I don’t like the balk rule. And I think it needs to be reconsidered or completely rewritten, rather than simply expanded. As I wrote two-and-a-half years ago, while the balk is clearly intended to protect baserunners from deception on the part of pitchers, “it’s not clear that any of the motions it prohibits are any more successful in fooling baserunners than the motions it permits — and moreover, it’s not clear that the motions it prohibits are all that distinguishable from the motions it permits.”

The balk rule, as written, is a bit of a catch-all. It is mostly used as a punishment for pitcher actions, but not exclusively. Rule 4.03(a) states that a balk is committed by a catcher who, on an intentional walk, leaves the lines of the catcher’s box before the pitch is thrown. Rule 7.07 states that, on a squeeze play or a steal of home, a balk will be charged if anyone tries to block the plate without the ball. What’s more, rule 8.02(a) provides that, if a pitcher is charged with throwing an illegally doctored ball — “what is called the `shine’ ball, `spit’ ball, `mud’ ball or `emery’ ball’” — the batting team will be given the option to accept the play as it occurred, or not accept it, in which case the ball is dead and a balk is assessed.

So a balk is a penalty for illegal behavior. Other than the exceptions I mentioned, most instances of the balk rule are set out in rule 8.05, which set out a stringent set of prohibitions. You probably know all of this already, but basically:

  • If a pitcher “swings his free foot past the back edge of the pitcher’s rubber,” he has to throw to the batter.
  • If a pitcher makes a motion to first, he has to throw there.
  • A pitcher has to step toward a base before throwing there.
  • A pitcher can’t fake or throw to an unoccupied base unless there’s a play there.
  • A pitcher can’t throw a quick-pitch before the batter is set in the box.
  • A pitcher can’t pitch to the batter when he isn’t facing him.
  • A pitcher can’t make any part of his pitching motion when he isn’t touching the rubber.
  • A pitcher can’t unnecessarily delay the game.
  • After coming to a “legal pitching position,” a pitcher can’t remove a hand from the ball unless he is going to pitch or throw to a base.
  • A pitcher can’t drop the ball while touching the rubber.
  • A pitcher can’t throw an intentional ball while the catcher is not in the catcher’s box.
  • A pitcher can’t pitch from the set position without coming to a stop.

If there were no balk rule, it would be much harder for batters to take a lead, and there would be many fewer stolen bases. Of course, during the steroid-Moneyball era, there were many fewer stolen bases to begin with. I’m not sure how much baserunners need to be protected from deception when so much of the game revolves around deception and gamesmanship. From infielders deking baserunners on balls hit to the outfield by pretending they’re about to get a relay — the play that famously tripped up Lonnie Smith in the 1991 World Series — to the ancient hidden-ball trick.

This particular move doesn’t have a lot of significance in itself. As Boone Logan told a reporter in May, when the move was originally being discussed, “How often does it work? Maybe once in never.” The significance of the move, such as it is, is it creates one more thing for which the penalty is a balk, and I would have thought there were already enough of those.

It seems strange to prohibit a move that almost never works, but at least this is one case where we can be pretty sure that the balk rule will always be called. It can be hard for an umpire to figure out what constitutes a pitcher’s “pitching motion,” because it’s different for every pitcher, and that’s a big reason that balks are so infrequently called. But it’s awfully easy to tell when a pitcher fakes to third and then tries to throw to first. I wish baseball would come up with a balk rule that could actually be applied as written.

Instead, as Craig Calcaterra notes, they passed a rule that “must be aimed at bloggers and color commentators, who will now no longer be able to say `that move rarely works, so I don’t know why they do it.’”

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Alex is a writer for FanGraphs and The Hardball Times, and is a product manager for The Washington Post. Follow him on Twitter @alexremington.

23 Responses to “Rewrite the Balk Rule, Don’t Expand It”

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  1. Eminor3rd says:

    I bet they did it because pitcher’s use it to delay the game, and it never works so it was no big deal to take away.

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    • Justin Ruggiano says:

      Pitchers use it to see if the batter is going to bunt and to see if the runner is moving on first movement, not to delay the game.

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  2. attgig says:

    Seems like this was the ONE trick a righty could use, but a lefty couldn’t. Disappointed that they took this one away.

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  3. MikeS says:

    Jack McDowell is saddened by this.

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  4. Alan says:

    I seem to recall Turk Wendell getting this move to work twice in one inning. He would be sad, too.

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  5. Alan says:

    Game was May 16, 2000. Happened in the 11th inning.

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  6. Mr Punch says:

    If it’s sneaky, stupid and time-consuming, it qualifies as “conduct detrimental to the game,” so punishment is in order.

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    • MikeS says:

      You just described any number of pitchers that feel compelled to take a lap around the mound before throwing each pitch. Or batters who must re-lace their shoes after each checked swing.

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      • Matt says:

        True, but still, banning it can only be a good thing. Eliminate a few extra wasted seconds.

        Now they just need to ban the other unnecessary laps around the mound. And you get one chance to adjust your batting gloves per at bat, that’s it. Sheesh.

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    • bobabaloo says:

      the move really isnt used to pick anyone off. its to make sure the runner at first isnt getting a jump off the first move. this seems to be lost on everybody talking about this new rule.

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  7. Baltar says:

    I whole-heartedly agree that the balk rule needs to be rewritten. It is so confusing and nonsensical that umpires have largely substituted their own rules for it anyway.
    However, I give three cheers for the elimination of the annoying and boring fake-to-third throw-to-first move.

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  8. jauer says:

    Don’t like the rule change. Is there any evidence the fake-third throw-first works at a significantly lower rate than any other type of pickoff move? Of course it rarely works: it’s a fucking pickoff move.

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  9. AJ says:

    Balkin’ Bob is happy.

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    • 4233 says:

      Damn, you beat me to it…Also doesn’t “Cowboy West” call alot of balks?? They are probably the ones who suggested the new rule

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  10. glassSheets says:

    Can you fake to third and throw to second? Thus if the runner is going the pitcher can toss it to the SS. Then it will be still be used to see if the batter is bunting without risking the free base to the runner.

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    • glassSheets says:

      Or are all fakes to a base without throwing the ball now a balk? Including the lift your leg and spin move to second? Or does that now only apply to third?

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  11. jono says:

    i didn’t care to read the whole article (so if this was discussed, I apologize), but doesn’t this eliminate the wheel move to second as well (the inside move). It is simulating a pitch and done to deceive the runner. Like the third to first it should be ineffective, though possibly done to unveil a bunt attempt, but deceptive nonetheless

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  12. Eric Cioe says:

    Max Scherzer has had that move work a few times in the last few years.

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  13. Corey says:

    I don’t understand the obsession with this move at all, this move only does 2 things 1) gives some hints about offensive strategy to the defense, 2) forces the runner not to go as soon as the pitcher’s leg comes up. It’s purpose isn’t really to pick someone off at all, if that were its purpose it would be stupid to ever do it, but the very fact that runners know a pitcher CAN do it slows down a steal of second a tiny bit. I can’t conceive of any argument for banning this.

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  14. Corey says:

    Having read the new rule, thought about it, and simulated this move a couple of times, I can’t figure out what exactly they’re banning. The way I always did that move, and the way I see everyone do it appears to me to be legal.

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  15. Youthful Enthusiast says:

    The mid 90′s Pirates used this a ton and got a guy or two every year.

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  16. This is crazy. Simply enforce the part of the rule that demands that a pitcher step *towards* third base. So many pitchers pick up their foot, put it down, then wheel to first base. Not actually stepping towards third base is the balk.

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