On the Consequences of the New Balk Rule

On an individual-player basis, I think we can all agree that spring-training statistics suck. If you’re a reader of FanGraphs, or if you’ve even just heard of FanGraphs, you probably understand that these numbers aren’t predictive. Oh, we’ll always allow ourselves to trick ourselves. Giants fans will allow themselves to believe in Brandon Belt, and Mariners fans will allow themselves to believe in Justin Smoak. We can always trick ourselves to believe in the positive while dismissing the negative. But, guns to our heads, we’d all say “Ahh! Put that gun down!” And then we’d acknowledge that, truthfully, even the positive numbers probably don’t mean much.

But now consider spring-training statistics as a group, as a whole. What is spring training but a whole bunch of baseball games between high-level professionals? What are the numbers but reflections of what took place on the field during ordinary baseball games? Just because the numbers probably won’t tell you much about what will happen doesn’t mean they don’t tell you what has happened. That is precisely what they do. And for our purposes here, we can make use of overall, league-wide spring-training statistics.

There’s a new rule in place, that has to do with balks and pick-off attempts. You probably know what I’m talking about, but just in case it slipped your mind:

Under a rule change imposed by Major League Baseball, pitchers will no longer be allowed to fake a pickoff to third base and throw to first as a way to dupe a runner on first base into breaking for second. Next season, that move would be a balk.

This is a move that people have long thought was a balk anyway, at least based on fan reaction when it was attempted by pitchers. That move never failed to generate a ton of eye-rolls, even though every so often it did succeed in picking off a runner, so the rule change was widely met with not-anger. Few are the changes these days that people don’t get angry about. People are easily angered by change.

But not everyone was a fan of the rule change. Specifically, some pitchers are going to miss having that little move in their back pocket. We can hear from one Jon Garland:

“I’ve actually gotten a couple guys with it,” he said. “It doesn’t have to work to work, necessarily. It might keep that guy at first one step closer. Maybe on a base hit, he doesn’t hit to third. There’s little things like that that get overlooked. That’s kind of a part of controlling the game as a pitcher. If you can keep a guy at first as long as you can, one pitch can get you two outs. That’s the only tough thing for me as a pitcher.”

He continues:

“Essentially, they’re making it easier for guys to steal bases,” Garland said. “They’re saying deception, deception. Well, isn’t that what you’re trying to do with everything? That’s why you throw different pitches – deception. You’re trying to get them out and you’re trying to do the best you can. But there’s always going to be changes in sports, especially for the better. Hopefully, it works out.”

Garland thinks the new rule will allow runners to take more extra bases. He thinks the new rule will reduce double plays. He thinks the new rule will make it easier to steal bases. All because the pitcher will be less able to keep a runner by the bag. The bigger the lead, and the greater the confidence, the better the base-running, or so the theory goes.

We don’t have any regular-season data. What we do have is a month’s worth of spring-training data, which, sure, it’s good enough. Why would these games be played differently? Let’s use this spring-training data to put Garland’s ideas to the test. What do we observe in 2013, as compared to what we observed between 2010-2012, in spring training?

  • 2010-2012: 34.6% runner scoring rate
  • 2013: 35.3% runner scoring rate

This is a very simple statistic, calculated as (R – HR) / (H + BB + HBP – HR). It isn’t perfect, but it’s close enough, and what we see is a small increase in the rate of base-runners scoring in 2013. However, 2013’s rate is slightly lower than 2010’s rate, and more importantly, the league ISO this spring is .165. The previous three springs, it was .153, and with more extra-base hits, it’ll be easier for runners to score. We’re not seeing much of anything here.

  • 2010-2012: 2.15% double plays
  • 2013: 2.28% double plays

What I don’t have is double plays per double-play opportunity. That would be ideal, but this approximation isn’t showing anything different. If anything, there’s a slight increase in double plays, not that I’m buying it quite yet. The previous three springs, there was one double play per 46 or 47 plate appearances. This spring, there’s been one double play per 44 plate appearances.

  • 2010-2012: 69.9% stolen base success rate
  • 2013: 70.0% stolen base success rate
  • 2010-2012: 1.1 stolen base attempts per game
  • 2013: 1.0 stolen base attempts per game

Base-runners have taken off slightly less often, and they’ve demonstrated pretty much the exact same success rate. Last year, they were successful just 67% of the time, but in 2010 they were successful 72% of the time so we can’t look at one without the other. I’m not seeing a stolen-base effect.

For my own curiosity:

  • 2010-2012: 91.3 innings per pickoff
  • 2013: 98.9 innings per pickoff
  • 2010-2012: 192.4 innings per balk
  • 2013: 178.1 innings per balk

We don’t see a dramatic decline in pickoffs, and we don’t see a dramatic increase in balks. And we’re dealing with very small sample sizes, so the error bars here are considerable. It makes sense that there would be slightly fewer pickoffs and slightly more balks, but not to an extent that changes the feel of the game.

Jon Garland expressed some concern over the potential consequences of the new balk rule. It’s far too early to say anything conclusive, and all we’ve got for now is spring-training data, but within the spring-training data, we don’t see anything alarming. We don’t see anything, really. Which is what we ought to expect. The new rule applies in only a fraction of all game situations, and any advantage to a base-runner would be on the order of a small fraction of one second. Sometimes that can make all the difference, but most of the time that makes practically zero difference. Does the new rule make things a little easier on base-runners? Sure, probably. But this seems like a case where the game will change without the game actually really changing.

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Jeff made Lookout Landing a thing, but he does not still write there about the Mariners. He does write here, sometimes about the Mariners, but usually not.

41 Responses to “On the Consequences of the New Balk Rule”

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  1. jdot says:

    The rule only has an effect when there are runners on first and third. It seems you’d need to extract only those situations before you could determine whether or not the rule made a difference in balk rate, scoring rate, etc.

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    • But part of the point is that those situations are infrequent.

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      • Gabriel says:

        That may be the case, but you’ll bury any sound with noise if you don’t limit the scope of the exercise. It may not be possible to extract such situations from ST data, but it will be necessary if we are to make any judgements.

        As an aside, I don’t think the change will have a measurable effect at all, but I still think it was unnecessary and pointless. Baseball prospers from its intricacies and removing one unusual option from the playbook impoverishes the game. I’ll take the one-in-twenty time the pitcher actually gets someone going from first in exchange for the nineteen failures.

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      • Tim says:

        Who are you and what have you done with Jeff Sullivan?

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      • MikeS says:

        Says the guy who wrote a post about every infield extra base hit last year.

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  2. Brad M. says:

    Come on. The rule only applies to first and third situations. Looking at overall statistics from one month of play is not looking at the effect if the rule whatsoever. If your point is the rule will only affect a small part of the game, fine. But don’t claim it won’t have a big impact on that part of the game without actually looking for evidence.

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  3. Sam says:

    Shouldn’t runner scoring rate be (R – HR) / (H + BB + HBP – HR)?

    (H – HR) / (H + BB + HBP – HR) would calculate what percentage of runners that got on base got there via a base hit.

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  4. RG20 says:

    The rule may actually result in more pickoffs of run runners at first in those situations initially. Don’t fake to 3rd. Make a good pickoff move to 3rd. The runner may break to 2nd not fearing the fake and you have him.

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    • Ivan Grushenko says:

      You mean pick runners off 1-5-4?

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      • jorgath_dc says:

        Don’t knock it. I once saw (in HS) a pitcher pick a guy off third…1-5-4-5. He made a pickoff to 3rd, the guy on first went for second, the third baseman threw over and didn’t get that guy but the guy on third took a lead when he did that and the second baseman snapped it back to third.

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  5. Matt says:

    Garland may be a pitcher that relies on this more than others. Yogi said 90% of this game is mental, the other half is physical. This probably does more damage to the psyche of a mediocre pitcher scratching and clawing for any possible advantage than it will ever do to the bottom line. But good for Garland for putting so much into his craft. I’m a sales manager and even though Vermont becoming a Canadian province wouldn’t impact my bottom line much I would certainly fight for it. Great insight into the major league mentality.

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    • DD says:

      Garland needs it because, as he said in the quote, he is reliant on getting two outs with one pitch. He is a groundball artist with low K rates, so he needs to convert DP opportunities more than the average pitcher.

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  6. Jeff you are the absolute Baron of the Grand Duchy of Baseball Minutia. Fine work as always.

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  7. WahooManiac says:

    I always thought the biggest reason this was used was to see if the batter gave away that he was bunting, and if it actually turned into a pickoff then hey, bonus. A rise in suicide squeezes would be fun :)

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    • BigNachos says:

      No. If that were the case, you’d see more pickoff throws to 3rd base, which I can’t say I’ve ever seen in a MLB game.

      That move has always been used try to catch a runner stealing based on the pitcher picking up his left foot (which is normally how a runner steals off a right-handed pitcher). Eliminating that move will obviously make it easier to steal in that situation, despite the author’s pointless analysis of spring training games.

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      • Ron says:

        The situations where this move prevents runners from stealing will be small. Assuming there is an advantage, it is likely smaller against a left handed pitcher. Further, there are a bunch of players who are not going to try to steal because even with the advantage they will get caught. Also, there will be times when having a runner at first opens a hole for a lefty batter so less likely steal there. Finally, there will be times where they want a batter to hit rather than risk an out. The times this will come up next year will be very limited. It may take three or more years of data to really see any effect. if it takes that long to determine that this rule made an changes then it means it doesn’t really change the overall game.

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      • Zeke says:

        RE: Pickoff throws to third… One of the things i’ll miss most post-Wil Myers trade is the James Shields-to-diving-Evan Longoria 3B timing play, which they had clearly spent WAY too much time practicing and which was the coolest thing in the game the 1 (maybe 2?) times it actually worked.

        Of course, the ball ended up in the bullpen at least twice as often, so…

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    • joser says:

      There’s always the risk that the runner on 3rd will try to steal home during a pickoff throw to 1st. That’s unlikely (a clean throw to 1st gets thrown to home to nail the runner, probably) but without this move the odds get a bit better.

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  8. Danny says:

    I always found it odd that a right-handed pitcher could fake to third and throw to first but if a lefty attempted to fake to first and throw to third, it would be a balk. I realize a lefty wouldn’t really NEED to do this because the runner on third would most likely not be attempting a straight steal of home but I always wondered why it would be called a balk if a righty could do it the opposite way.

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  9. Frank Q says:

    I’ve always thought the point of this pickoff move was to see if there are any fans in the ballpark who aren’t there just to get drunk and actually be encouraged, or at least not discouraged, from yelling at people. The people who don’t boo the opposing pitcher after doing the pickoff move are covertly escorted out of the stadium so more fans who will spend $30 on beer can take their seat. Of course, my view may be biased as I frequent Miller Park often.

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  10. Calvin says:

    Did anybody ever do 3rd to 1st in spring training to begin with? (serious question)

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    • thirteenthirteen says:

      Someone got a balk called them just the other day for doing this. I read it and laughed, but now I can’t recall who it was. Anyone?

      P.S. I believe in Brandon Belt!!!

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  11. Hitler But Sadder says:

    I didn’t know Jon Garland even spoke English… pansy.

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  12. DodgersKingsoftheGalaxy says:

    Nobody cares Jon Garland! (Yes i’m aware he plays for my team)

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  13. I would argue that an entire regular season, while significantly more predictive than spring training, isn’t altogether that predictive

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  14. The Rajah says:

    I’m a big fan of using spring training stats to judge the effectiveness of new rules. Well done, JS!

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  15. DD says:

    Does this change really only impact RHP? I’m not remembering many LHPs making this move. Also LHPs tend to be better at holding 1B runners anyway.

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  16. Hurtlockertwo says:

    Why was this rule changed again?? (I really don’t know)

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  17. Mac says:

    Stats quibble – in the lingo: your null hypothesis was that nothing changed and from the data you failed to reject that hypothesis. This is not the same as definitively saying nothing changed.

    Your evidence points more to the notion that this rule will only minorly impact the game. Perhaps the effect is smaller even than season to season variation in base running numbers.

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  18. DowntownChico says:

    This rule only affects RHPs.

    I see the biggest difference being that the runner on 1st can now take off on first movement. Before, the pitcher had the option of making a move to 3rd after he had lifted his leg into the throwing motion, much in the same way a LHP does with a man on first.

    Let’s not understate the rule’s impact. The difference, when stealing second base, between taking off when the pitcher lifts his front foot, as opposed to having to wait until he commits towards home plate is a measurable difference. A LHP has the advantage over a RHP in keeping a man on 1st for this reason.

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    • DowntownChico says:

      Trick play option:

      You can’t fake the throw to 3rd and go to 1st, but it’s still legal to make the throw to 3rd. Why not design a play where you make the pickoff attempt to 3rd with no intention of getting that runner. Instead, the 3rd baseman crashes towards the pitcher and will be able to get the runner from 1st if he takes off for 2nd base.

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  19. joser says:

    Garland may not like it, because it’s bad for him (and all pitchers, especially RHP). But runners taking more extra bases is exciting; runners stealing more bases is exciting. Infield plays make baseball more fun — more fun than guys standing around on a bag waiting for somebody to hit a dinger, anyway. Garland may not like it, but to the extent he’s making an accurate prediction, this baseball spectator at least certainly will. Of course, he is almost certainly exaggerating the effect, which is too bad.

    We don’t have any regular-season data. What we do have is a month’s worth of spring-training data, which, sure, it’s good enough. Why would these games be played differently?

    Off hand, I can think of lots of reasons: guys trying to stick with the team trying to impress with their speed, infielders getting tried at unfamiliar positions botching the catch, pitchers ignoring runners in a game that “doesn’t count” to focus on their mechanics, etc. Now, we don’t know how much that happens but we can imagine that it does. The only way to discount that is to look at spring training stats prior to 2013 vs regular season stats, and then compare the 2013 spring training stats, no? Otherwise the “there’s no difference” conclusion might be hiding the fact that there used to be a difference which has disappeared, thus leading us to suppose there may be a new difference in the regular season.

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  20. DawgDays says:

    Rules quibble: the rule actually makes any fake to third a balk.

    8.05(b) If there is a runner, or runners, it is a balk when the pitcher, while touching his plate, feints a throw to first or third base and fails to
    complete the throw;

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    • Rick says:

      Thanks for clarifying this, as it appears everyone is not talking about the proper thing.
      I’ve noticed a couple of balks this spring b/c of this rule; twice when there was no runner on first. Specifically I recall Beckett against the A’s this spring being called for a balk for faking to third base when there was no runner on first.

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  21. YanksFanInBeantown says:

    As neither a giants nor a Mariners fan, I gotta say that it’s a little silly to equate Justin Smoak with Brandon Belt.

    Justin Smoak sucks. Brandon Belt doesn’t.

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  22. Bip says:

    Maybe, once you have more data, only look at the difference for pitchers known to use the move? Yes, by reducing the sample of pitchers, it doesn’t change the point that the rule change won’t have much of an effect, but if we find that there is a noticeable change for those pitchers, maybe we’ll have demonstrated that the move should have been used more than it was.

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