I wish I could remember the date. One of my favorite pastimes is looking at the box scores of games I attended that were meaningful for some reason. I was there when Johan Santana struck out 17. I saw Carlos Gomez score from second base to win Game 163 of the 2009 Twins season. But, for the life of me, I can’t remember the date of this game. It was at Target Field — I know that. I was with my wife and two family friends, Abbey and Andrew. We were in the upper deck overlooking left field. Right next to me, a man — a Twins fan, I discerned from his hat — was watching with a companion from England.
From what I could overhear, this companion had never seen a baseball game before, and the other man was trying to explain the basic goings on of the on-field action. He was teaching her how baseball was played, ostensibly. And he was doing a fine job, I remember. He would slowly and assuredly explain how the runners moved, the idea of balls and strikes, tagging up, foul balls, etc. Basically, everything a newcomer to the game would need to know. I don’t even remember who the Twins were playing — the Royals? This is bothering me. But sometime later in the game, just as the English spectator was starting to recite what happened back to her friend in a way that signified that she was beginning to understand, it happened. Just when the traveled fan must have felt pretty good about his lesson, he was shouldered with the unenviable task of explaining just what the hell a balk was. That poor so-and-so.
I could quote the rulebook and explain just how MLB views exactly what is and isn’t a balk. That wouldn’t do any good. One hundred fans would explain the balk rule one hundred different ways. It seems like, at many times, even umpires have varying definitions. As a wise man once said, these are the breaks. But we get the gist of it. It’s a rule put in place to try and protect the hitter by negating sneaky moves by the pitcher. It’s to ensure that there is a clear, distinguishable motion to the plate. Or maybe it isn’t. It’s the weirdest rule. But MLB helped us out a little bit by instilling a new rule that brought at least a little clarity through addition. Starting this year, any pitcher that does that whirling-dervish move of faking a throw to third, then throwing to first will be called for a balk. That seems easy! An easily-identifiable balk! The baseball gods, in all their infinite wisdom, are smiling on us this day indeed. It was easy for us to speculate how this might change the game, but now, with the assistance of play-by-play data, we can know for sure.
There have been a few rule changes here and there the past few seasons, but the balk rule actually has a direct effect on the game, more so than making the base coaches wear helmets or the Maddon rule, for instance. If a player is called for a balk with a runner on third, that runner advances. To home. For a run. Plus, with a runner on third, it’s a high-leverage situation — especially in the later innings. One wrong move could spell a loss for a team. This rule becomes less of a friendly suggestion and more of a detrimental punishment.
This would be an opportune time for me to embed some GIFs of pitchers getting caught using this move. I can’t do that, however, because it seems as if no pitcher was punished with a balk for the fake-to-third-throw-to-first motion in 2013. I looked at video of every play with runners at the corners (or bases loaded) that resulted in a balk, and none of them were because of the banned move. Not one. Not one grizzled old pitcher who always kept that move in his back pocket momentarily forgot the new rule and was called out on it. James Shields got ruled against for a straight fake to third, but that’s the closest I got. I won’t embed that. It would seem desperate.
In fact, for what its worth, balks in total were down quite a bit in 2013, the lowest in ten years. I should note here that I only looked at data for right-handed pitchers since the rule really only applies to them. Though it would be fun to see a lefty try and pull this move off. Expanding the definition of what constitutes a balk did not create more balks. Disappointing. That must mean that the number of pickoff attempts (again, by RHPs) was down in 2013, yes?
Yes. Pickoff attempts were down a five-year low in 2013. This makes way more sense than the other chart. This was a natural result, it seems. Its negative reinforcement — punishing people for doing something will lead to them doing it less or deter them from doing it all together. It’s why most of us don’t steal cars for a living, and how I got my dog to stop peeing on the floor. We can take solace in this. For if the results were different, it might prove our system to be flawed, and perhaps rip a hole in the fabric of our society. Just to be safe, let’s do our due diligence and check the number of pickoff attempts with runners occupying first and third.
Oh dear Lord. Civilization is crumbling! Raid the banks. Hide your kids. Hide your wife. It’s every man for himself! This data, obviously, doesn’t include the third-to-first move. Well, technically it might, but only if that move wasn’t called for a balk (since there were no third-to-first balks called in 2013, remember?), which would be weird considering it should be a rule fresh in the umpires’ minds. It’s just odd how the only situation that can kick that rule into effect has skyrocketed in the very first year.
In Jeff’s piece that I linked above, he quotes Jon Garland making some quips about how the new rule would hurt pitchers — how they would be less able to keep runners on and how it would lead to more stolen bases.
Holy moly. Steals have plummeted in 2013 to the lowest they’ve been since 2005. This is in stark contrast to Garland’s comments, and is probably worth its own article in the not-to-distant future. I will not get into it now, however, since I’m deeply ensconced in the laugh-a-minute world of balks. It is odd, though.
Let’s recap. The ways a pitcher can get called for a balk have increased by one, but the number of balks have gone down. Pickoff attempts were somewhat-predictably down this season. Conversely, pickoffs with runners on the corners had spiked upward in a drastic way, though that can’t possibly include any third-to-first moves since there were exactly zero balks called on said move this past season. I feel like we’ve accomplished so much, yet so little. But, hey, no third-to-first moves. So, despite all the other numerical inconsistencies, it seems as if the rule is doing its job. So … good job? Good job. If it does ever happen, at least that guy can call up his friend from England and tell her definitively why that was, indeed, a balk.
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