One of the more bizarre plays I’ve seen by a pitcher occurred during Saturday’s tilt between the Oakland Athletics and the Detroit Tigers. With Daric Barton on first base and David DeJesus batting, Justin Verlander appeared to hit DeJesus with a pitch. However, a look at Verlander’s footwork revealed something very odd, and confusion ensued. Due to MLBAM’s arcane rules regarding video, I cannot embed the video here, but you can see it at this link. (And now in .gif form from Chad Moriyama of Memories of Kevin Malone!)
Although you can’t tell from the end of the video or the befuddled announcing crew, the result of that play was actually a balk, resulting in Barton moving over to second base and the at-bat resuming with a 2-1 count. Let’s dive into the video and examine just why the balk was called here, with the help of some screenshots.
First off, for reference, we need to take a look at Verlander’s initial position on the mound. This still is from the three second mark of the video.
If Verlander’s initial intent was to pickoff to first base, his first mistake was picking up his front foot, which we can see in this still from the five second mark (note the knee bend as well).
Once a right-handed pitcher picks up his front foot with only a runner on first base, he must throw a pitch to home plate. If there is a runner on second or third, the pitcher can use a slow pickoff move, turning around and throwing to second or using a lefty-style move to throw to third base. However, in this case, the only runner is at first base, and so Verlander must throw a pitch or else it will be a balk. Verlander apparently realized he had balked by the time he finished his turn for the pickoff move, and attempted to throw to the plate. You can tell it was meant to be a pickoff to first by the footwork he employed.
Here, he’s in an interrupted form of the quick move that right handed pitchers use to throw over to first base. At this point, he has initiated the pickoff move to first by stepping off the rubber and as a result the move or pitch or whatever happens next is a balk. He attempts to stop and throws home instead of throwing to first, which is why his body is squared to the plate in such an awkward fashion. But why did Verlander even bother to throw home? He may have hoped to fool the umpiring crew into the idea that he had tried to employ the slower move used by right-handed pitchers, in which the pitcher steps off the rubber with his back foot and then throws to first. In this case, as soon as the pitcher steps off the rubber, he becomes a fielder and not a pitcher, so he can throw the ball wherever he wants without a balk being called. The ball would have remained live, and after hitting DeJesus and bouncing to the backstop, Barton could have advanced at his own risk. Instead, the umpires correctly called the balk, and Barton was awarded second base.
The play probably wouldn’t have ended so oddly had Verlander not attempted to save face and then hit DeJesus in the attempt. In most occasions, the play would’ve been recognized as a simple balk. Instead, it turned into a bit of a farce in which the announcers had no clue what was happening and an umpire meeting was required. Maybe we shouldn’t be surprised – in a century-and-a-half old sport with a variety of nearly incomprehensible rules and regulations, the balk rule may be the most confusing. This play was merely another example.
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