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August 14, 2013

Pebble Hunting

The Balk: The Black Sheep of the Baseball Rulebook

by Sam Miller

“I never called a balk in my life. I didn't understand the rule.” Ron Luciano, former major-league umpire

For all the talk about how complicated the infield fly rule is, it’s got nothing on the balk. The balk is, as I’ve always heard it said, more of a philosophy—“Don’t deceive the runner”— than a strict set of rules. Which is nuts, because deception is part of the game and always part of the pitcher’s attempt to hold a runner on. Varying how many looks a pitcher takes at the runner is deceptive, for instance, but certainly no balk. So “don’t deceive the runner in particularly defined ways” is more appropriate, but if these ways are particularly defined … well, now we’re out of philosophy and into a strict set of rules, after all. Do the rules make sense? Are they understandable, identifiable? Can we understand them and identify them? Let’s GIF* it a shot.

I looked at 50 of the 86 balks called across baseball this year. You should rightly suspect that I intended to look at 86 of 86 balks called across baseball this year, but that around 43 I started to think about all the sun shining outside that I would never get back, and I determined that 50 makes for a better headline and probably covers everything. What follows is everything.

1. The First Type
(I’m not going to name the types until later in each section, just because I want to give you all a chance to play umpire and see if you can spot the balk in real time. In most cases, I think the answer is yes, and in some it’s terrifically obvious.)

Violation: Spun to throw to a base without stepping off, but failed to throw to base.

Rule book wording: Not found.

Deception? No. There’s no deception involved in this play at all. There is no pitch being thrown, so the batter can’t be caught unaware; there’s no pickoff being thrown, so the runner can’t be tricked into being tagged out. This is a move that has absolutely no material effect on either the runner or the hitter. The furthest you might stretch is that it makes the runner dive back unnecessarily, but if the pitcher simply lobbed the ball to first it would be the same basic premise and it would be totally legal. This does not fit in the “don’t deceive the runner” paradigm.

Level of controversy, based on pitchers’ reactions: Very low. Pitchers who violate this display shame and regret. In this case, Steve Delabar immediately put his head down and walked 25 feet or so behind the mound. This is not a balk where a pitcher is “caught” so much as one where a pitcher’s brain stops working for a moment.

Frequency, within our 50 balks:

2. The Second Type

Violation: Dropped the ball

Rule book wording: “The pitcher, while touching his plate, accidentally or intentionally drops the ball.”

Deception: It’s conceivable that this movement would cause a runner to think the pitcher is going to the plate, and take off, though the fact that he hasn’t come to a set position yet makes that unlikely. Dropping a ball does not help a pitcher pick off a runner. Dropping a ball does not help a pitcher throw to the plate more quickly. No useful deception.

Level of controversy, based on pitchers' reactions: None. Mendoza puts his head down and kicks at the dirt.


3. The Third Type

Violation: LOL

Rule book wording: “The pitcher, while touching his plate, makes any motion naturally associated with his pitch and fails to make such delivery.”

Deception: Obviously, there’s no actual attempt at deception here. This is an accident, an athletic failure, no different than if the ball slipped and he threw it into his own knee. But this is a failure that resembles what would certainly be deceptive, a fake pitch. You could argue that intent should matter, and the rulebook does argue that intent should matter: “If there is doubt in the umpire'’s mind, the “intent” of the pitcher should govern.” That clause right there might be the most ignored in the sport. As we’ve seen so far, the first three kinds of balks are all accidents. Meanwhile, pitchers get away with deliberate balks all the time. With what seems to be increasing frequency, in fact, pitchers are attempting (and getting away with) the Fourth Type, which we’ll get to in a second.

Level of controversy, based on pitchers’ reactions: None.


4. The Fourth Type

Violation: Probably a knee-pop, an extremely subtle move that Will Woods detailed beautifully in this article. Jose Fernandez was probably called for this one, too; after watching the replay, the announcer concluded, “to be honest, I have no idea.” This is the classic example of a balk that nobody, including most announcers, identifies.

Rule book wording: “The pitcher, while touching his plate, makes any motion naturally associated with his pitch and fails to make such delivery.”

Deception level: Completely deceptive. What’s striking is how rarely it is called. If you want to write a screed against the balk rules, it’s probably better to focus on the balks that aren’t called than the ones that are.

Level of controversy, based on pitchers' reactions: High. So far a good rule of thumb is: If the pitcher accidentally balks, in a way that gives him no advantage whatsoever, the call is non-controversial. When a pitcher purposefully balks, in a way that is designed to give him an advantage, he’s stunned, just shocked, that he has been accused of violating a rule.


5. The Fifth Type

Violation: Didn’t stop.

Rule book wording: “The pitcher, following his stretch, must (a) hold the ball in both hands in front of his body and (b) come to a complete stop. This must be enforced. Umpires should watch this closely. Pitchers are constantly attempting to “beat the rule” in their efforts to hold runners on bases.” Enjoy, for a moment, how out of tone this rule sounds. Whoever wrote this rule took a brief moment to bash pitchers as dishonest scoundrels always trying to destabilize authority. “Keep your eye on these little punks,” basically. And he also took a moment to imply that umpires are dumbly incompetent and miss everything. This rule is basically a fast food manager telling his moron employees to quit letting teenagers take too much ketchup.

Deception level: Clearly intended to deceive. Do it without runners on base, in fact, and it’s a ball for deceiving the batter, though that’s called much less often. What’s great about this one is that a) a pitch is thrown, and with everybody focusing on the pitch the balk call doesn’t get as much attention (i.e. play doesn’t stop); so b) the announcers sometimes have no idea at all. Here’s a roughly paraphrased transcript of the Nationals announcers after this pitch:

Bob Carpenter: Runner goes, the pitch is taken. There is no throw.
F.P. Santangelo: No throw and nobody even there to cover the bag.
F.P.: This friggin team with its friggin mental errors
F.P.: This has been happening way too much.
Bob & F.P.: [on and on and on for a few pitches about dumb Nationals fielders not covering]
Bob: And there’s ball four.
Bob: Wait, why isn’t he going to first?
Bob: I thought it was ball four. The scoreboard had it as ball four.
Bob: Apparently we don’t know the umpire’s strike call.
Bob & F.P.: [on and on about the umpire and the count, until the next batter comes up and I quit watching and they still haven't figured out that there was a balk.]

In a Giants/Diamondbacks game, the announcers didn’t notice that runners had moved up from first and third to second and dugout. It wasn’t that they didn’t know why they had moved up; they didn’t notice that they even had moved up.

Level of controversy, based on pitchers’ reactions: Moderate. Lot of confused, who-me? looks. Tend to be ticky-tacky violations that are inconsistently called.


6. The Sixth Type

Violation: Fake to third, throw to first move.

Rule book wording: The revocation, this season, of this allowance: “It is possible, with runners on first and third, for the pitcher to step toward third and not throw, merely to bluff the runner back to third; then seeing the runner on first start for second, turn and step toward and throw to first base. This is legal.”

Deception level: Clearly deceptive.

Controversy, based on pitchers’ reactions: Escalona looked confused, because Escalona doesn’t read the news. Charmingly, his catcher, Wilin Rosario, lends his confused support.


7. The Seventh Type

Violation: Didn’t step toward the bag he was throwing to. This falls under an umbrella of rules we all sort of know but have a hard time identifying because violations aren’t called unless it’s really egregious. The pitcher’s foot can’t cross the imaginary line 45 degrees between home and first, is what you’ve heard, though nothing about this appears in the rule book. Basically, the throw can look like a pitch but not too much like a pitch. This shouldn’t be a murky rule but, in application, it is, which is why everybody hates balks.

Rule book wording: “At any time during the pitcher’'s preliminary movements and until his natural pitching motion commits him to the pitch, he may throw to any base provided he steps directly toward such base before making the throw.”

Deception level: Clearly designed to deceive, though Scott Rice’s move was pretty mild. Ron Darling acknowledged that he didn’t technically step toward the base, but “have I seen that 1,000 times? Absolutely.”

Controversy, based on pitchers’ reactions: Tends to be high. This is a move that pitchers want to get as close to violating as possible, so they are all used to getting away with about one-tenth of an inch less than this.


8. The Eighth Type

Violation: Uhh. He did something funky with his feet, like he turned too far or not far enough or he spun around before he... Honestly, I think in this case he just looked gawky. Occasionally, a pitcher just gets called for a balk because he looks balky. This was balk on account of balkiness.

(Note: See the comments for the obvious correct answer)

Rule book wording: Dunno. The only mention of this sort of play in the rulebook addresses only the legality, rather than illegality, of spin-and-throws. “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.” But there’s something about where his foot was, probably.

Deception level: This is where balk philosophy falls apart. When executed well, this play is extremely deceptive. The pitcher basically starts pitching (“The pitcher, while touching his plate, makes any motion naturally associated with his pitch and fails to make such delivery”) but instead of pitching he swings around and throws to second (“the purpose of the balk rule is to prevent the pitcher from deliberately deceiving the base runner”) and yet it’s legal. But here, Jones makes a half-hearted toss over to second, without any real chance of getting the baserunner out, and he’s called for a balk. It’s a weird thing, this balk.

Controversy, based on pitcher’s reaction: A shake of his head.


9. The Ninth Type

Violation: The key to focus on here is not Peavy’s look toward first; that was a desperate ploy to cover up the balk he knew he had just committed by flinching his arm. This is by far the most common balk, though it comes in all sorts of forms; while classifying these, I variously described them as “glove moved,” “arm flinch,” “torso flinch,” “shrug,” “head moved,” “hand moved,” “glove moved an inch,” and “unknown movement.” They all break the same rule, which is making an unusual, non-throwing movement sometime between looking in for the sign and throwing a pitch. Some of them are extremely subtle:

Sabathia wiped his hand on his pants. Aceves motioned for a different sign, with his glove. Ottavino flinched a touch. Hill’s shrug is obvious enough, though he's maybe just craning to see the sign.

Rule book wording: “Preparatory to coming to a set position, the pitcher shall have one hand on his side; from this position he shall go to his set position as defined in Rule 8.01(b) without interruption and in one continuous motion.”

Deception level: Unless I’m not imagining correctly, there is none of value here. The pitcher isn’t even set yet, so it’s not like the runner is going to see movement and take off. This is a stupid rule, imposed with gusto by umpires who are thrilled to call an unambiguous balk, no matter how little it affects the baserunner. I’ll bring this up once more: “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.” The idea that Sabathia was running some con by wiping his left hand, which was nowhere near the baseball, is dumb.

Controversy, as measured by pitchers’ reactions: In a lot of cases, pretty high. Some of these led to ejections, for instance. In some cases, there is no controversy. The pitcher knows he flinched and bears it with shame. Often, a pitcher (or catcher) will do what Peavy did and, realizing his mistake, try to cover it up with a step off, a throw over, or a call for time.


There are a couple of other balks that we didn’t see. Straddling the rubber without the ball, for instance, is a balk, intended to prevent hidden ball tricks from getting out of hand. If the catcher is not in the catcher’s box for an intentional walk, that’s a balk. If the pitcher “unnecessarily delays the game,” it’s a balk, though I’ve never seen that called with runners on base.

But basically, in our 50 balks, we got to see almost all the balk types that there are. So does the balk rule make sense? Ehhh. Current enforcement doesn’t really capture the spirit of the rule, the prohibition against deception. It lumps an extremely wide range of misdeeds, seemingly arbitrarily, under one heading and assigns the same penalty to all of them, probably unfairly. It ignores the pitcher’s motive while purporting to consider the pitcher’s motive. It unambiguously defines balks that convey no particular advantage to the pitcher, while very ambiguously defining (and overlooking) balks that convey great advantage to the pitcher. Tim Lincecum tries to throw a pitch and catches his foot on the mound; R.A. Dickey clearly attemptd to deceive the baserunner; and the rule somehow lumps these two acts together, while catching Lincecum every time and Dickey almost never. Bottom line: Most balks penalize the pitcher for accidents, while making only slightly effective assurances to legitimately protect the runner. Balks are, just as you always suspected, dumb.


Sam Miller is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Sam's other articles. You can contact Sam by clicking here

Related Content:  Rulebook,  Rules,  Balks

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