Time to Rethink the Balk Rule?

“He’s a fucking asshole.”
Chicago White Sox manager Ozzie Guillen, on umpire Joe West

It might be the highest-profile balk call in years: after Joe West rung up Mark Buehrle for two balks and ejected Buehrle and Guillen shortly thereafter for protesting the call yesterday, Major League Baseball announced that they were investigating the incident. Given the personalities involved, an explosion was almost inevitable: Ozzie Guillen is perhaps the most combustible and combative manager in the game (Chris Jaffe has called him the modern Billy Martin), and “Cowboy” Joe West is one of the most controversial umpires in baseball. Even the photo on West’s Wikipedia page shows him ejecting Guillen, all the way back in 2007.

Joe West likes the nickname “Cowboy” — it’s the name he uses on his website, where he sells his country music CDs (“Blue Cowboy” and “Diamond Dreams”) — but detractors often argue that it describes his on-field demeanor as well. And ejections aren’t the only thing he’s famous for. Back in 1990, West bodyslammed pitcher Dennis Cook to the ground; NL president Bill White was prepared to suspend West (back in the days when each league had its own president and crew of umpires), but Commissioner Fay Vincent intervened. As Chicago Sun-Times columnist Mark Potash writes,

The guy has a habit of creating and/or exacerbating situations like this. His dismissive hand gestures, his body language, his smirk, and his attitude are more incendiary than any of Guillen’s profanity. He doesn’t get any respect because he doesn’t give any.

But the more salient problem may be with the balk rule itself. What is a balk? In the official rulebook, there’s a dizzying array of situations which may prompt a balk to be called, along with the following comment:

“Umpires should bear in mind that the purpose of the balk rule is to prevent the pitcher from deliberately deceiving the base runner. If there is doubt in the umpire’s mind, the ‘intent’ of the pitcher should govern.”

Much of the game, of course, is designed to deliberately deceive, from the pitching motion of many lefthanders, to the fake-to-third-throw-to-first play, to feints by the fielders to fake as though they’re heading to second base for a throw. The balk call is intended as a corrective to prevent certain illegal actions by the pitcher, but 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. What was different about Buehrle’s move to first on Wednesday, compared to this game in 2008, when he successfully picked off Franklin Gutierrez?

Even after watching and rewatching tape, few balk calls or noncalls are ever indisputable. (As blogger Mac Thomason has written, “Nearly all balks are randomly called by the umpires as far as I can tell, with the odd exception of a pitcher who falls down or drops the ball or something like that.”) Still, they’re an exceedingly minor part of the game. This year, there have only been 48 balks called all year in 1398 games played, and over the past four years, the numbers have been fairly steady: 138 balks in 2009, 153 in 2008, 139 in 2007, 145 in 2006. So even though they seem arbitrary, the rate at which they’re called has been fairly constant. Once this blows over, we’ll all go back to not thinking about balks much, because they’re so steadfastly rare. But that doesn’t make the rule any more sensible, or its enforcement any less prone to error.

“Cowboy” Joe West drew attention to himself on Wednesday, as he so often does. But he really should have drawn attention to the balk rule itself. This is one rule that could go out of the rulebook with no tears shed.

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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.

55 Responses to “Time to Rethink the Balk Rule?”

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  1. CSJ says:

    What I find odd is that Joe West was actually the 1st base ump in this game. Usually that guy only gets yelled at on close plays at 1st (imagine that). Is it common for the 1st base ump to call balks?

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    • Tom B says:

      Any ump on the field can call a balk, sometimes the 1st/3rd umps have a better angle at it. If the pitcher flinches forward it can be tough for the home plate ump to see.

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    • JPB says:

      Almost all balk calls involving a left-handed pitchers throw toward 1st base are called by the 1st base umpire. He’s the one in position to make the call.

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  2. attgig says:

    getting tired of these umpires.

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  3. don says:

    There needs to be some sort of balk rule, I think. If a pitcher could go halfway through the pitching motion then stop and throw to a base, stealing would be next to impossible and while it may not be a hugely valuable part of the game, it’s a fun part.

    Separate thought; Joe West needs to go. If fans know who any of the umpires are, clearly those guys aren’t doing their jobs right.

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  4. Matt says:

    West’s actions in the game were a shame to the sport of baseball.

    Not to mention that (from the clips I’ve seen) Buehrle didn’t even balk to begin with.

    Such a disgrace.

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    • Not David says:

      The real shame is that West is constantly involved in something with no repercussions.

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      • max says:

        Well, it’s possible that he is being punished, but it would be difficult for you or me to find out about it:

        From ESPN,

        “We have either an umpire supervisor or umpire observer at every game,” Watson said. “We will review all information available and make a determination on what needs to be done.”

        Watson said a decision could come as early as Friday afternoon.
        MLB does not announce disciplinary actions against umpires, although they are common. If umpires receive more than a few reports from umpire supervisors that they didn’t meet standards in the game, it could affect the umpire’s ability to get assignments such as the All-Star Game and playoffs, which are extra paydays.

        Umpires can be fined and suspended, but those situations are never announced.

        MLB does announce suspensions of managers and players, although it won’t announce fines in those cases.

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  5. Tom B says:

    “But that doesn’t make the rule any more sensible, or its enforcement any less prone to error.”

    I think Alex has his head too far down in the numbers, time to peak back up from the book and look at the game being played.

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  6. Bryz says:

    Unfortunately, if the balk rule was removed from the rule book, then I could see pitchers doing things that used to be illegal to fool runners. To build on what don said above, a RHP could lift up his left leg, then spin to a base for an attempted pickoff. Now, not only would runners freeze when a LHP lifts his leg, but they’d do the same with a RHP. As don said, stealing would become next to impossible.

    I think the rule book should be very specific when saying what is and isn’t an illegal motion to deceive runners.

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    • theWizard says:

      It is legal for a RHP to lift his left leg and spin to 2nd for a pickoff…and there’s no reason it should be illegal. As far as a balk rule, there is definitely a need. Typically it’s a 45 degree rule – if a LHP steps more towards the plate than the bag, he is deceiving the runner. Without that rule, it would be virtually impossible to get more then 5 ft off the bag against a lefty. From what I saw of Buehrle’s move, it was probably a balk by definition – don’t think it should have been called, much less tossed out of the game for “throwing his glove,” but knowing West had already called one balk, I also wouldn’t have pushed it towards 45 degrees like he did.

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      • Neil says:

        When i played (and then umped) little league, we used a 0 degree rule – if the pitcher’s front leg did not step directly toward first, it was called a balk. Which really frustrated the hell out of lefties.

        It’s rigid, but at least the room for error on the call is pretty minimal.

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      • Bryz says:

        I know about the attempt to 2nd, where the RHP must turn to his right in order to attempt that type of pickoff, but if he lifted his left leg, than spun to his left, that would be illegal. When I said “a RHP could lift up his left leg, then spin to a base for an attempted pickoff,” I meant to say that a RHP could lift his left leg, then spin to the left with a runner on 1st to prevent him from stealing 2nd. It’s currently illegal, but the removal of the balk rule would make it legal, and thus tougher to steal a base.

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      • Bryz says:

        I’ve also umpired middle school baseball, so I know about the balk rule. Yeah, it’s not like the league is prestigious, but the kids do fairly similar things as the pros.

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  7. RonDom says:

    Joe West maybe a Cowboy, but we don’t live in the old west.
    He’s a relic that never had a prime, and he definitely needs to be fired.

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  8. TCQ says:

    The above posters are right that some type of balk rule needs to exist, but what there is right now isn’t acceptable either. Problem being, the things that are called as balks are not at all the things that need to be prevented; obviously a right handed pitcher being able to pick off after lifting his leg to go to the plate would be a bad thing, but that never, ever happens. Basically, the balk rule needs to exist but never be exercised except in clear situations like the ones referenced in the original article. Seen but not heard, in other words.

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    • I completely agree. There should be SOMETHING, of course, but the balk rule at present is just so hopelessly confusing that it really needs to be rethought.

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      • I don’t find it confusing at all. What has led to this confusion and created the expectation of this particular move being legal for years is umpires NOT calling the damned thing a balk in the first place.

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  9. Circlechange11 says:

    Yet the hidden ball trick is legal, fielders faint runners routinely … And these are legal intentional deceptions.

    I just prefer a consistent philosophy

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    • Tom B says:

      The hidden ball trick is most certainly not legal.

      Technically, neither is the fielders faking catches/tags in the infield, but it never gets called.

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      • garik16 says:

        Well the hidden ball trick IS legal (and was attempted like once or twice over the last 5 years) but only if the Pitcher never steps on the rubber. Which makes it almost always tactically useless, as once the pitcher steps on the rubber he HAS to have the ball and a hitter can safely take his lead.

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      • Joel C. says:

        Jorge Cantu successfully performed the hidden ball trick at 3rd in his first season with the Marlins (2007 I believe). So it’s definitely legal, like garik16 stated, as long as the pitcher doesn’t toe the rubber.

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      • Matt WIlliams of the late 80s and 90s Giants teams, was a master at the hidden ball trick.

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      • Neil says:

        The hidden ball trick *can* be legally executed, but it’s being described incorrectly.

        It’s not just that the pitcher can’t toe the rubber – the pitcher can’t actually step on the mound itself. (There’s actually a radius distance surrounding the mound that’s given in the rulebook, but I can’t remember.)

        So this prevents the pitcher from even picking up the rosin bag and makes it that much harder to pull off, since wandering aimlessly is sure to get the pitcher yelled at by an umpire. What makes it additionally hard is that the fielder has to alert the nearest ump that he’s about to try it without also alerting the base coach or runner, since he might only get one, very brief chance to try it.

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  10. Handwasher says:

    Why not just amend it to, “pitcher cannot throw to a base without first stepping off the rubber”? So no spinning back to second for a righty once his kick starts, and no throwing to first for a lefty without first stepping off.

    Oh, and no more stepping out of the box to re-tighten gloves between every pitch. Off-topic, but it’s gotta go. My (8yo) son did it in a game the other day and all the dads at the game cracked up.

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    • Steven Ellingson says:

      Because that would make stolen bases incredibly easy. It would in turn make every pitcher pitch with a slide-step, giving an advantage to the offense. The rule is broken, it needs to be fixed, not done away with.

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      • Handwasher says:

        Most RHP pickoffs are on a step-off-the-rubber move. How often do we really see the kick-spin to second actually pay off? Or the fake to third, throw to first? 99% of the time it’s just a time-waster. There are several LHPs with good moves to first that don’t stride over, they step off with their back foot and fire.

        The players would adjust.

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  11. Circlechange11 says:

    My favorite thing to watch at MLB games are the middle IF’s they are always acting like throws get away, singles are fly outs, etc. Just the other day a SS convinced Ryan Braun that the throw on the Sb went to the OF and tagged him out the moment he made a move toward 3B. They continually attempt this type of thing.

    The “breakup slide” is the one that bothers me b/c lots of times the sliding player couldn’t touch the base and remain in contact even if he wanted to .. And that’s a situation that could easily and unnecessarily end in injury.

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    • matt w says:

      If you’re thinking of the time Andy LaRoche caught Ryan Braun off second, I didn’t think Andy was particularly deceptive. (And if you’re thinking of something different, then Braun is a dumb*ss for getting caught of second twice.) They had a big infield shift on for Prince Fielder, so LaRoche was playing in the shortstop’s position and took the throw from the catcher. As LaRoche walks forward a couple of steps to start to throw to the pitcher, Braun broke for third because it wasn’t covered, and LaRoche just stepped back and tagged him. But he hadn’t faked a throw or anything.

      The best part about it was that it was the ninth inning and the Brewers were down two. It didn’t make a lick of difference whether Braun was on second or third.

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  12. mowill says:

    More balks need to be called. Most of the so called “great” pick-off moves by lhp are balks, and would have been called that way thirty years ago.

    The steroid era so erased the need to steal and stolen base attempts umpires got out of the habit of calling balks. With steals and steal attempts on the rise balks need to be called when they occur. Buehrle has been getting away with a balk move for years. I’m glad someone finally called him on it.

    Having said that, Joe West is a disgrace and most assuredly in the 1st percentile of umpire quality. If you don’t believe that I hope you get to watch a game where he is behind the plate. Epicly bad!

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    • OhNoNotYett says:

      absolutely agree. the balk is to baseball what traveling is to the NBA. there has to be a rule – it just needs to be enforced correctly. or the rules need to be re-written like the nba did for lebron. buehrle’s move is always past 45 degrees. west should have told him between innings or before the game that he was watching for it and would call it.

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      • Brian24 says:

        I think they should just make the 45-degree rule explicit. That would solve most of the problem.

        The problem with West on this play was not the call itself. Buehrle’s move was borderline, relative to what I’ve seen called before, and therefore fair game. But calling him out for flipping his glove is ridiculous. How thin-skinned can an umpire be?

        Also, I don’t think I agree that they call the rule any differently now than they did when I was a kid 30 years ago. Got any video evidence to back up that claim?

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      • Rich says:

        “But calling him out for flipping his glove is ridiculous.”

        There’s a specific rule about throwing your glove. He had to throw him out.

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  13. Joseph says:

    Repalce them all with robots. Please.

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  14. Pete says:

    Almost every left-handed pickoff move is a balk. It just doesn’t often get called because everyone does it and calling 10 balks a game would be annoying.

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  15. Chris says:

    “He’s a $%^&ing @$$hole.”
    Chicago White Sox manager Ozzie Guillen, on umpire Joe West

    Shouldn’t that have been your opening line? I’m pro cursing, but IDK about the majority of readers.

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  16. Circlechange11 says:

    LaRoche was watching Braun out of the corner of his eye. Braun took a hard step and LaRoche spun immediately. Smart play but it’s not like he has Spidey-sense … He was looking for it.

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  17. joker24 says:

    Does anyone ever actually step in a 45 degree angle away from their target when they are throwing to that target?

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    • Bryz says:

      There are a few pitchers that throw across their bodies that are close to 45 degrees away from home when delivering a pitch. Jered Weaver is one guy that immediately comes to mind.

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  18. Circlechange11 says:

    When doing the hidden ball trick the pitcher just has to act like he’s fixing his glove, tying his shoe or whatever (just don’t ask for time$. Why a runner would wander off the bag is beyond me. Someone has to notice that a specific players does this as a tendency.

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    • Bryz says:

      But if the pitcher is doing something like that, I would think that an umpire might call time just as a courtesy, or a clueless teammate might ask for time.

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      • CircleChange11 says:

        A pitcher could also act as if they are talking to the 2nd or 1st baseman about strategy or who they’re throwing to on a double play or making sure of bunt coverage, etc.

        The important thing is that it’s *subtle* … just a brief action that doesn’t draw undue attention. You only have to distract or neglect the runner a second. It does not need to be a whole production.

        If you’re going to go on a knee and tie your shoe, it’ll be obvoius. If you just act like you’re quickly straightening the laces while taking your normal path bath to the mound after a play, that might work.

        Anything taking longer than a handful of seconds away from the normal routine, likely ain’t gonna work. Also, as someone else said … someone on the team usually tips off the ump so that they [1] are looking, [2] don’t call time as a courtesy.

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  19. Matt says:

    Joe West knows that everyone buys a ticket to see him. He’s awful.

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  20. JayCee says:

    BTW, the Boston Globe busted West for having a PR agency that emails reporters in cities where West is about to travel to, asking them if they want to do interviews. It’s illicit- MLB umpires are not supposed to reveal their assignments.Reminds me of another sociopaht, Ed Hochuli, having his own website and selling branded (his) gear.

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  21. Peter Jensen says:

    You double counted the number of games that have been played this year. If your count of 48 balks in 2010 is correct than balks are being called at nearly double the rate of prior years.

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    • I double counted the games, because each team plays them — and each team is liable to get called for a balk.

      Probably would have made more sense for me to give the actual number.

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  22. Dutch Goose says:

    Am I the only one here who thinks Joe West is a really GOOD balls and strikes umpire?

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  23. gosensgo101 says:

    The problem with the call wasn’t the balk call, it was the premature ejection.

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  24. Nelly says:

    The fact that you dont undestand the balk rule, (which is not what you published), and the fact that Joe West is pompous, and the fact that Buehrle has been getting away with this move, does not equal that the balk rule needs to be changed!

    This is the type of associative logic that this site often rails against when applied to stats.

    The balk call on a lefty is easy, if you want to make it and take the heat. Because it is always contoversial. But lefties are taught to balk, every pitching coach teaches a balk move, in fact, thats what they call it,as in “today boys, we will learn the balk move.The umps dont call it, so you can use it in place of being able to get batters ou.”

    Buehrle CLEARLY balked twice, you cant make a move towards home (clearly in balk 2) and throw to first, and you cant break the plane to 1B (clearly in balk 1). Its simple.

    The fact is that umps dont call it, and they should.

    West may be a blowhard, but he was right again here, and he was right on the Sox/Yanks.

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