Was Fuentes’s Move a Balk?

Discussing balks is different from discussing almost every call made by major league umpires. For balls and strikes, there is an objective rulebook strike zone; for fair and foul, the line is clearly drawn; for base-out calls, if either the player or the base (if a force play) is tagged before the runner touches the base, he is out. All of these plays are objective. However, the balk call is more of a subjective animal.

The balk is dealt with throughout Rule 8 of the MLB rulebook, which deals with the pitcher, but specifically in rule 8.05. Much of it is, in fact, objective, such as 8.05 (f), which states it is a balk when “The pitcher delivers the ball to the batter while he is not facing the batter,” but the comment on rule 8.05 is where the subjectivity comes in: “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.”

With that in mind, let’s take a look at another play from the Dodgers-Angels game from last night: Brian Fuentes‘s pickoff of Matt Kemp in the top of the 9th inning. Watch the video here.

As soon as I saw this play, I felt it was a balk, but feelings were mixed. Given that the balk rule is very complicated – rule 8.05 has 13 subheadings and a comment with two more subheadings – I figured that I should really analyze this closer to make sure. However, I believe rule 8.05 (a) clearly defines this pickoff move as a balk.

If there is a runner, or runners, it is a balk when —
(a) The pitcher, while touching his plate, makes any motion naturally associated with his pitch and fails to make such delivery

First, let’s take a look at a snapshot of the motion in question.

Now, let’s take a look at another Fuentes pitch, this one taken from the final at-bat of the game.

These are two remarkably similar images, and I would say that this for certain violates rule 8.05 (a) and the penalty should be a balk.

There is also a convincing argument to be made that Fuentes violated rule 8.05 (c) as well, after the jump.

If there is a runner, or runners, it is a balk when —
(c) The pitcher, while touching his plate, fails to step directly toward a base before throwing to that base;
Rule 8.05(c) Comment: Requires the pitcher, while touching his plate, to step directly toward a base before throwing to that base. If a pitcher turns or spins off of his free foot without actually stepping or if he turns his body and throws before stepping, it is a balk (emphasis mine).

Take a look at these two pictures from an angle behind home plate. He begins his motion:

And now he spins:

This one doesn’t appear to be as cut and dry – to me, it appears that he spins without actually stepping, although he does eventually step to finish the play and he does execute the step before the ball is released. Still, this spin seems, to me at least, to be in violation of rule 8.05 (c) as well.

Regardless, there was a clear violation of MLB Rule 8.05 (a) in this pickoff, as the beginning of this motion was effectively a carbon copy of Fuentes’s typical pitch delivery. There is no doubt in my mind that this play should have been called a balk. Instead Matt Kemp was called out, costing the Dodgers just over 20% in win probability in a tight game.



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James Kannengieser
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6 years 3 months ago

I vote balk. Also, I like FanGraphs w/ pictures. Incorporates the human element!

Miles
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Miles
6 years 3 months ago

Agree on both accounts. Graphics really liven up the article and add a few natural breaks to the article. Good stuff.

Carson Cistulli
Editor
Member
6 years 3 months ago

Which is funny, as it’s well known that Jack Moore is the pseudonym for a computer being designed in the labs of the Univ. of Wisconsin.

Matt Defalco
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Matt Defalco
6 years 3 months ago

That’s exactly what I was thinking when I saw the replay.

The Dodgers got robbed.

David M.
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David M.
6 years 3 months ago

What about the comment on 805(a)?

“8.05 If there is a runner, or runners, it is a balk when—
(a) The pitcher, while touching his plate, makes any motion naturally associated with his pitch and fails to make such delivery;
Rule 8.05(a) Comment: If a lefthanded or righthanded pitcher swings his free foot past the back edge of the pitcher’s rubber, he is required to pitch to the batter except to throw to second base on a pick-off play.”

That seems to introduce some wiggle room, no?

Matt Defalco
Member
Matt Defalco
6 years 3 months ago

The main problem I saw when I watched it was the fact that he started to go towards home (his delivery to the plate) and then spun around on his back foot which unfairly deceived Kemp.

Balk!

CircleChange11
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CircleChange11
6 years 3 months ago

I haven’t seen the full slow motion video, but do you realize how difficult it is to “start to go home” at game speed and then turn and spin 180-degrees to the complete opposite direction?

Matt
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Matt
6 years 3 months ago

“In disengaging the rubber the pitcher must step off with his pivot foot and not his free foot first.”

More at the bottom.

CSJ
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6 years 3 months ago
Mojowo11
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Mojowo11
6 years 3 months ago

Not really. The pitcher there lifted his leg and then rotated it backwards toward second (behind the rubber) while bringing it down — that’s pretty much universally accepted as a legal pickoff move. What Fuentes did was lift his leg, drop his leg to just above the ground (still in front of the rubber), and then spin around to throw to second.

Mojowo11
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Mojowo11
6 years 3 months ago

Here’s a screenshot — you can see that the pitcher (Westbrook?) has rotated his lift leg backward and set the foot down on the ground behind the rubber. By rotating his front leg behind the rubber at setting it down, he indicates that he is moving toward second base.

In the pictures above, you can see that Fuentes lifts his leg, brings it down to just above the ground in front of the rubber, and then does a leaping spin to throw toward second. He actually becomes totally airborne before his lift leg ever touches down. It’s pretty silly, really.

J. B. Rainsberger
Guest
6 years 3 months ago

Borderline balk. Tough to tell from that angle whether the pitcher stepped down on or behind the rubber.

What Fuentes did, though, was jump off the rubber towards the batter, then turn around and throw to second base. You can’t jump off the rubber /towards/ the batter, you can only jump/step off the rubber /away/ from the batter.

bfos7215
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bfos7215
6 years 3 months ago

This move also appears to violate this comment in the rule, because in that same motion he neither pitched nor threw to second.

“Rule 8.05(a) Comment: If a lefthanded or righthanded pitcher swings his free foot past the back edge of the pitcher’s rubber, he is required to pitch to the batter except to throw to second base on a pick-off-play”

Handwasher
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6 years 3 months ago

Aren’t all left-handed moves to a base balks? Make them step off no matter where they throw. This needs to be fixed or called more consistently.

J. B. Rainsberger
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6 years 3 months ago

No. Most LHP step towards the base they’re throwing to, and many umpires do now call more vigorously those who try to step closer to home plate than first base.

Kent C
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Kent C
6 years 3 months ago

I agree that this is a balk, but based on 8.05(c), from above:

“If there is a runner, or runners, it is a balk when –
(c) The pitcher, while touching his plate, fails to step directly toward a base before throwing to that base”

If you watch the video, Fuentes does not step directly toward second. He kicks his foot toward first base before stepping toward second base.

Matt
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Matt
6 years 3 months ago

I agree that it’s a balk, but couldn’t you find better images? I don’t understand how you can say those two images are “remarkably similar.” They are remarkably different when I look at them.
On Father’s day, during the Giants game they were showing footage of Lincecum when he was like 12 side by side with him this year, those deliveries were remarkably similar.
In this one, in the top he has his leg way out, his glove close to his chest, and his arm pointed more towards third base. In the bottom one his leg is much more closed, his glove further from his chest, and this arm pointed almost straight back at 2nd.
Now, this all could come from them being different points in time from his delivery, but that just solidifies my point more: The only similarity in those two images are that they are both pictures of Fuentes on the mound.

Neil
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Neil
6 years 3 months ago

Not about balks, but I need to take a poke at one of Jack’s comments about the ‘objectivity’ of safe/out calls. Because if you’re going to call the rule objective – and I would argue that it’s, in fact, ambiguous – you need to at least get it right:

“for base-out calls, if either the player or the base (if a force play) is tagged before the runner touches the base, he is out”

This isn’t the rule, actually. The rulebook says that the runner has to beat the ball – whether it’s a tag or a force – to the base. It’s a subtle but notable difference, insofar as it *implies* that a tie should be an out. (Whereas your paraphrase of the rule implies the opposite.)

Now, conventionally, we give a tie to the runner. But, technically, this is wrong – so convention has trumped the objective rule, unknowingly, in the minds of most baseball fans and players. Additionally, I say that it’s not objective because umpires – and I know this because I’ve talked to a minor-league umpire about it – are themselves divided about how the rule should be interpreted: either ties are outs, or else there is no such thing as a tie.

Regardless – it’s just as unresolvable and ambiguous as the balk rule.

Bryz
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6 years 3 months ago

Correct, nowhere in the rule book does it say that a tie goes to the runner.

Llewdor
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Llewdor
6 years 3 months ago

The rulebook doesn’t say a tie goes to the runner explicitly, but it does say that the runner is out only if the tag lands first. By extension, if the tag lands simultaneously, the runner is safe (because the tag wasn’t first).

Mojowo11
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Mojowo11
6 years 3 months ago

If you ask a major league umpire about the tie rule, their response will be that there is no such thing as a tie.

Mojowo11
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Mojowo11
6 years 3 months ago

The balk rules are a mess. If it’s illegal to “make any motion naturally associated with his pitch and fail to make such delivery,” why is the inside move to second allowed at all? Or the third-to-first? Or the lefty pickoff to first base? The whole POINT of those moves is to make it look like your delivery until the last second.

I was always taught, as a pitcher, that the rule was that when you reach the apex of your leg lift, you either need to start moving it toward second on the drop or you have to go to the plate. Fuentes lifts his leg straight up, puts it straight down, hovers above the ground, and then does a crazy spin move.

I think what Fuentes did was a balk — the problem is that I’m not sure the rulebook agrees, and I think the balk rules are a complete mess. MLB should really decide what they think is a balk and rewrite those rules to be much more explicit.

J. B. Rainsberger
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6 years 3 months ago

I think that umpires let RHP get away with too much on the third-to-first move. As recently as 15 years ago, pitchers actually stepped towards third base. Now they just pick their foot up and put it down. I yell at the TV every time. That’s a balk.

alskor
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alskor
6 years 3 months ago

I would say no balk.

Its close, sure. I certainly don’t think it was a clear cut balk, as some argue.

By the rules you can certainly interpret it as a balk – and if they had called it as one I wouldn’t argue too strongly against it. Bottom line, this happens all the time, pitchers constantly do this and its rarely/never called a balk. It would be an injustice to enforce it here just because its a close game against two rivals.

Bryz
Guest
6 years 3 months ago

I feel that it’s a balk. Fuentes lifted up his leg, then brought his leg down towards home plate (actually, it was more a lift and drop in the same place, but it was still in a direction other than to the base he was throwing). If his foot had touched the ground, I bet the umpires would have called a balk.

Jon S.
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Jon S.
6 years 3 months ago

If his lead foot touched ground in front of the rubber before the throw to second, there would have been hell to pay if there was no balk call.

Greg
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Greg
6 years 3 months ago

Does it help the case for a balk at all that in the course of wheeling around towards second, he had to hop on his plant foot to keep his balance? To me, this made it a stone cold balk. In order to wheel around from the delivery and throw to 2nd, it has to be a continuous move. This was anything but.

wayne
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wayne
6 years 3 months ago

I completely agree. That was my first impression on seeing the video–he hesitated and came almost to a stop in the middle of his spin as he did a little hop. To me, that’s a cut-and-dried balk under 8.05 (a). Probably 8.05 (c) as well, since you could count the hop as a failure to step and throw after halting his delivery.

Reds Stats Nut
Member
Reds Stats Nut
6 years 3 months ago

But if you watch the video of Westbrook posted above (from Reyes injury against Indians), his move is anything but fluid. He actually steps twice before throwing the ball. No balk on that call. I think this move is a balk for other reasons – namely, his front leg / kick leg definitely moved toward home plate. In the move by Westbrook, from the peak of the kick leg’s movement, he was going toward second base, no doubt.

Good article – great debate, too.

marshen
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6 years 3 months ago

It is not a balk unless the umpire calls it a balk. Joe Torre din’t even wake up from his nap long enough to come out and argue the play. Mike Scioscia is a brilliant manager for calling this play and Brian Fuentes is a hero for pulling it off.

Ivdown
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Ivdown
6 years 3 months ago

Don’t you love idiotic bias?

rfs1962
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6 years 3 months ago

If throws off the mound to bases were considered pitchouts, we wouldn’t need the balk rule. A win-win.

spindoctor
Member
spindoctor
6 years 3 months ago

I like this.

J. B. Rainsberger
Guest
6 years 3 months ago

An interesting idea, but that contravenes the rule that pitches must be delivered towards the batter. If you remove that rule, then we’re back to intentionally walking the batter by playing catch with the first baseman.

Llewdor
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Llewdor
6 years 3 months ago

Definitely a balk.

I always support the rulebook call, regardless of how the rule is typically enforced. If Jeter tomorrow gets called on the phantom double play, I will applaud. If a catcher blocking the plate tomorrow gets called for obstruction, I will applaud.

Bobby
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Bobby
6 years 3 months ago

If his leg moves remotely towards the plate it is a balk.

I like how the rulebook calls decieving a runner a balk when that is exactly what lefties do to pick guys off first.

bigyaz
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bigyaz
6 years 3 months ago

Wrong. Nowhere does the rulebook call deceiving a runner a balk. Obviously it’s the pitcher’s job to deceive the runner to keep him from getting a big jump.

It’s when you commit one of the 13 ways to balk in an effort to deceive the runner that it’s a balk.

Yours is a common misconception.

J. B. Rainsberger
Guest
6 years 3 months ago

8.05(c):

“…However, if, with runners on first and third, the pitcher, while in contact with the rubber, steps toward third and then immediately and in practically the same motion “wheels” and throws to first base, it is obviously an attempt to deceive the runner at first base, and in such a move it is practically impossible to step directly toward first base before the throw to first base, and such a move shall be called a balk….”

8.05(m), approved ruling (a):

“Straddling the pitcher’s rubber without the ball is to be interpreted as intent to deceive and ruled a balk.”

I would recommend checking the text of the rule before making an assertion about its content.

WY
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WY
6 years 3 months ago

Good post.

Ivdown
Guest
Ivdown
6 years 3 months ago

That is a gigantic ass balk. Awful non-call by the umpires. But the umps did a good job of screwing up calls in favor of the Angels all night, so why change the status quo?

Pete
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Pete
6 years 3 months ago

Not a balk. His front leg never moved toward home plate (it actually moved towards first) and so you cannot assume he is commited to throwing home. It is certainly AWKWARD-LOOKING which is why pretty much everyone here is saying it’s a balk, but it isn’t. The only way it would be a balk would be if the umpire(s) felt he had commited to throwing to first (which would be stupid because first was empty) because you can’t fake a throw to first base with your foot on the rubber.

J. B. Rainsberger
Guest
6 years 3 months ago

If Fuentes stepped towards first, but didn’t throw there, then that’s a balk.

If Fuentes stepped towards first, but threw to another base, then that’s a balk.

je
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je
6 years 3 months ago

First base wasn’t empty…..

CircleChange11
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CircleChange11
6 years 3 months ago

From the pictures ….

[1] The side of his foot is moving toward the catcher. This would be the “first move of the pitch”.

[2] It’s obvious that the top of his oot is moving”up”, indicating a spin move, not a move toward home.

The side of the foot is the key, which is why the “lefty balk” move to 1B works so well. We can lower our leg and then start the side of our foot toward home, and then glide it to 45 degrees (or 65 degrees, grin) on our throw to first.

You can’t do that to 2B.

CircleChange11
Guest
CircleChange11
6 years 3 months ago

Sorry, comment 1 is for picture #2, and comment 2 is for picture #1.

What is decicvng people is [1] Fuentes brings his arm back like he does when he delivers to te plate, and [2] he’s looking home.

IMO, it’s pretty weak (and naive) for folks to be screaming balk. Deceiving? Yes, that’s what makes it a good pick-off move.

It’s as if folks expect pick-of moves to be deliberate and obvious. Get real.

CircleChange11
Guest
CircleChange11
6 years 3 months ago

in this pickoff, as the beginning of this motion was effectively a carbon copy of Fuentes’s typical pitch delivery.

The problem is your definition of “beginning of motion”. You’re using the arm when you should be using “foot”. Once the foot moves toward the plate or the foot/knee breaks the plane of the back leg, the motion of delivery to home has begun.

You’re focusing on the pitcher’s arm action and where his eyes are.

tom
Guest
tom
6 years 3 months ago

Uh, no. This was Fuentes’ move that he has used for over 5 years. Nice try though.

J. B. Rainsberger
Guest
6 years 3 months ago

Bert Blyleven balked on almost every pitch in the 1987 World Series. That’s why MLB umpires called a record number of balks in 1988. Your argument just doesn’t hold.

J. B. Rainsberger
Guest
6 years 3 months ago

Of course, that’s “almost every pitch with runners on base”.

J. B. Rainsberger
Guest
6 years 3 months ago

I don’t know why this is so hard.

You can spin and throw to second base. You can jump off the rubber and throw to second base, but you can’t spin then jump off the rubber. If you have to jump off the rubber to throw to second base, then you didn’t step towards second base.

Balk.

CircleChange11
Guest
CircleChange11
6 years 3 months ago

It’s not difficult because there was no motion TOWARD home plate, not because of any of the gymnastic you are bringing up with jumps and spins. I don’t want that to be interpreted as rude.

But, Fuentes only “simulated” a pitch in the author’s view because [1] his arm came back the same as it does when he is going to deliver the ball to home (brilliant), and [2] he was looking at home plate (common).

He did not make a move toward home, hence no balk. If the side of his foot started out toward home and then he raised it and looped it toward second, it would be a balk … and a rather flexible front leg.

Fuentes can do this move where others cannot because he brings the ball back very early. Most pitchers bring the ball back as the front foot (side of foot) is moving toward the catcher (called “equal and opposite”). So, this is going to be a situation unique to Fuentes.

Pokey
Guest
Pokey
6 years 3 months ago

Well said, CircleChange.

That is also why none of the Dodgers or Torre disputed the call!

J. B. Rainsberger
Guest
6 years 3 months ago

I should make one thing clear: I think it’s a balk for different reasons than the author of this article.

When other pitchers make this move to second base, they swing their leg around, step down towards second base, then throw.

By contrast, Fuentes swung his leg around, stepped down essentially on top of the rubber (not towards a base), then jumped around and threw. At a minimum, I think it’s a balk because he didn’t step towards a base. This matches my complaint about RHP and the third-to-first move, because so many of them don’t actually step towards third base, which I think means they balk.

This just feels like 1987 again, when the umpires had stopped making pitchers stop during their motion in the stretch, and MLB finally had to intervene to force them to enforce the rule. Fuentes’ move is an example of umpires getting lazy on a certain type of balk call.

giantsrainman
Guest
giantsrainman
6 years 3 months ago

I have to disagree.

First with regards to 8.05 (a) there is a big difference in these two motions that these two pictures show that you fail to see. In the pickoff move his right foot is headed towards 1B while in the pitch it is headed towards homeplate. What he does with his arm and where his head is looking is not what matters. what matters is where he is stepping.

Second with regards to 8.05 (c) there is no limit on how long the step can take. In the pickoff move he is clearly stepping towards 1B not home he can do this a slowly as he likes while looking anywhere he likes as long as the step is continuously towards 1B and he throws to 1B only after he completes the step.

Tom
Guest
Tom
6 years 3 months ago

Watching it last night I thought Fuentes had to make a second move after his inside spin in order to gain ground towards 2nd base to make the throw. Not being able to gain ground towards the base after the initial spin to me would signal a balk, but I would have to watch it again.

In any case, on a 3-1 count to Martin there’s no excuse for Kemp to be picked, balk or not.

EDogg1438
Guest
EDogg1438
6 years 3 months ago

I was screaming balk at the TV when this play happened!

Fuentes clearly lifted his foot then dropped it toward home before changing his mind into a leaping ballerina move to 2nd. I’ve seen the inside pivot move to 2nd and this was clearly not that. He lifted his foot and then started to drop it toward home…this is a balk….

And Torre almost never leaves the bench to argue so that’s a moot point that he didn’t argue after this play. He was probably already asleep on the bench.

Jim
Guest
Jim
6 years 3 months ago

Not only it is clearly a balk, it is practically the textbook definition of a balk.

“any motion naturally associated with his pitch and fails to make such delivery” … he made several such motions. He even faked like he was going to put his foot down towards home, but stopped at the last instant, and pulled a full ballerina move.

Matt
Guest
Matt
6 years 3 months ago

Don’t know if anyone is still reading this, but no one has seemed to bring this up:

“In disengaging the rubber the pitcher must step off with his pivot foot and not his free foot first.”

Fuentes clearly does not follow this. He moves his free foot, towards first (riding that fine line that all lefties do), he doesn’t finish stepping to first (if he did he’d be required to throw), then to spin to second, he steps off the rubber with his hopping spin move, then plants and throws to 2nd.

What he does is kind of a modified version of the step to third throw to first, which would be legal except that he disengages the rubber with his free foot first, which is not allowed.

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