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Rewrite the Balk Rule, Don’t Expand It

Posted By Alex Remington On January 17, 2013 @ 12:00 pm In Daily Graphings | 23 Comments

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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