The One-Year Effect of the New Balk Rule

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.

balksrhp

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?

pickoffattempts

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.

pickoffattemptsrunnersatcorners

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.

stolenbases

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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David G. Temple is the Managing Editor of TechGraphs and a contributor to FanGraphs, NotGraphs and The Hardball Times. He hosts the award-eligible podcast Stealing Home. Dayn Perry once called him a "Bible Made of Lasers." Follow him on Twitter @davidgtemple.


33 Responses to “The One-Year Effect of the New Balk Rule”

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  1. Anon21 says:

    In the decade before the move was banned, how many pickoffs would you guess it was directly responsible for? Maybe like five? It was a terrible, time-wasting move, so I’m not surprised that banning it has had little discernible effect.

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    • IHateJoeBuck says:

      Just because it resulted in very few pickoffs, doesn’t mean it wasn’t an effective move. The runner on first had to hold just a fraction of a second longer. Now they can go on the first move of a RHP. A fraction of a second is the difference between a SB and CS, or even a better secondary lead.

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      • chuckb says:

        “Now they can go on the first move of a RHP.”

        Which might be one reason why pickoffs were up last year — runners breaking too soon.

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        • GMH says:

          But if the runner on first breaks when a right-handed pitcher begins his leg kick, then he can’t be picked off. The pitcher has to throw to home plate or third base.

          The spike in pickoffs may be just noise. But if there is a correlation to the new balk rule, then it is probably due to baserunners on first taking more aggressive leads on first and third situations, in anticipation of being able to get a great jump on the pitcher once he begins his leg kick, since the runner knows the pitcher can’t fake the move to third.

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      • Anon21 says:

        That was the argument, anyway. But I don’t see why a right-handed pitcher with a good pickoff move can’t fool a runner with a regular pickoff. If it were actually the case that runners could always break on first movement, you’d expect stolen base totals to have gone through the roof last season, but they didn’t.

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        • Jay29 says:

          Runners still can’t just break on the first move because a RHP can throw to 3B and the 3B can throw out the runner at 2B. Exactly how running on the first move by a LHP gets you gunned down by the 1B’s relay most of the time.

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      • Zen Madman says:

        I’m not arguing with your first point. It’s valid. But there were 900 pickoff attempts with runners on the corners this year. I don’t the the guy on 1B is safe to run on first movement.

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    • joser says:

      Back when this rule was proposed, somebody went and did that search. You’re not far wrong: turns out it was about 6 a year (successful). Which isn’t much, but certainly it is more than I would’ve guessed (and more than most people thought, I suspect). I’ll try to find a link to that study, but that number stuck in my head because this question came up so often during that offseason.

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  2. Joewho112 says:

    Negative reinforcement and punishment are two different things. Negative reinforcement is when you reward an action by subtracting a negative stimuli (e.g. if you get all A’s on your report card, you don’t have to clean the cat’s litter box). Punishment is when you discourage an action by adding negative stimuli (e.g. if you get an F, you are grounded)

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    • Michael says:

      Not to nitpick, but grounding or “time-out” punishment scenarios are often regarded as negative punishment, in which a positive stimuli (i.e., being allowed to hand out with friends) is removed upon the occurrence of an undesirable behavior.

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  3. Bad Bill says:

    Some sloppy editing here detracts from an otherwise interesting and well-researched article. First, the suppressed zero points on the plots makes all of these effects look larger than they are. I would expect that kind of sleight of hand from a political commentator trying to make a partisan point, but on FanGraphs of all places, it’s out of place. Second, it is important to distinguish between pickoffs and pickoff attempts. There is absolutely no way that 15,000 pickoffs occurred in MLB this year. That would amount to more than three pickoffs per team per game, when in fact successful pickoffs were rare birds. What happened three times per team per game were pickoff attempts — throws to a base whether they succeeded or not. This analysis should be repeated with a count of actual (i.e., successful) pickoffs if you wanted to see how the new balk rule affects the pitcher/runner dynamic. Otherwise it concentrates on things that are full of sound and fury, signifying nothing, since a very small proportion of the throws to first have enough zip on them to have a realistic chance of nailing a runner.

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  4. Brandon Firstname says:

    Usually I care about the data.

    But I just wanna see GIF’s of balks. I don’t care what the article’s premise is.

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  5. Josh says:

    Good stuff.

    Just spitballing here, but could the spike in pickoffs be because runners at third are thinking, not thinking of the new rule change “Oh he’s just faking me out and going to fir-OH MY GOD HE JUST THREW OVER HERE”.

    No idea.

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  6. dave in gb says:

    So lets say if the pitcher fakes a throw to 3rd and off the corner of his eye notices the runner on 1st still keeps the lead or expands it. Can he try to pick the runner off under this new rule or is the pitcher limited to only one move?

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    • Krog says:

      “Major League Baseball has changed rule 8.05 (b) to now require a pitcher to throw to third the same as to first (i.e. a pitcher is no longer able to fake to third)

      (1) A pitcher, when in contact with the pitcher’s plate makes a move (i.e. a step or an intent to throw) towards third, must now complete the throw in the same continuous motion similar to making the move to first. Failure to do so will result in a BALK.”

      You must complete a throw to third or it is a balk.

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  7. David says:

    Could it be that pick-off attempts with runners on the corners were up this year because they actually had to just throw over rather do that fake-to-third-look-to-first thing that was so common? Is that double look that doesn’t actually result in a throw to a base also banned? If so, that might explain the spike in pick-off attempts.

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    • dougiejays says:

      Yeah, this. Half the time the fake-out didn’t even result in a throw, but without that in their arsenal pitchers felt the need to make more typical throws to first. As for pitchers not doing the fake-out…well, it was a pretty complicated move, and it would take a pretty big brain fart for someone to “accidentally” pull it off knowing it was illegal. It’s not a balk like forgetting to come set is a balk, it’s more like winding up and not throwing the ball at all, which doesn’t happen very often.

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  8. Scott says:

    Great stuff, David, but the main question this left me with was actually “what the hell caused RHP balks to go up by over 30 from 2009 to 2010?”

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  9. Corey says:

    This makes perfect sense to me. Pitchers can no longer use the 3rd to 1st rule, which gives a tremendous advantage to runners attempting to steal second, not because the 3rd to 1st pickoff is particularly deceptive, but because the possibility that a pitcher might do it slows runners down. With the 3rd to 1st move illegal runners can run as soon as the pitcher begins to lift his leg, that’s a significant change in the jump a runner is able to get.

    Pitchers understand this and in order to slow runners down have dramatically increased their pickoff frequency. The change in pickoff frequency has had the desired effect of slowing runners down. The ability to turn to the 1st to 3rd pickoff move made pitchers lazy, giving runners a bit of an advantage because pitchers didn’t think they had to throw over.

    Runners respond to number of pickoff attempts, pitchers felt more secure to just pitch due to having the ability to do the 3rd to 1st pick. With that threat removed, pitchers increased their pickoff attempts and runners stopped running.

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    • Eric F says:

      But runners on 1st can’t just go on first movement now, the pitcher is still able to make a straight pickoff attempt to 1st, which the runner still has to respect.

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      • MGL says:

        Once a RHP lifts his front leg or even so much as twitches it, he is required to go home (not to his house, but pitch the ball to home plate), or if there is a runner on second or third, he can throw there only if he steps directly towards that base.

        Now, the way around the new rule, as the commenter above states, is to actually throw to third rather than fake to third. However, I have my doubts that the third baseman will be able to throw the runner out at second base. Too much time to go from pitcher to third to second.

        Cory above is 100% right. Now that the runner on first can indeed take off on first move, the pitcher has to hold him close by throwing over to first a lot more than when the fake to third was allowed.

        The interesting question, which was not addressed in this article, I don’t think, is whether more steal attempts occurred with runners at the corners, and what was the success rate compared to in prior years. Who cares about the overall stolen base rate? Any stolen base attempt not involving runners at first and third has nothing to do with the new rule.

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  10. Tom says:

    For Red Sox fans, this rule change is known as “The Frank Castillo Rule”. He must have tried that fake 100 times and caught exactly 0 people. I’d swear I did see someone called for this when playing against the Sox in 2013.

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  11. James says:

    Pick off attempts must’ve been down because Clay Buchholz was hurt for most of the season.

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  12. Patrick says:

    Just a quick note. As a follower of the Tigers, I recall, not very fondly, Game 163 of 2009. It was absolutely played on the astroturf of the Metrodome, not Target Field.

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