“It’s one of baseball’s biggest secrets. No one knows or understands the balk rule.”
—Bill Pennington, The Record
Despite Mr. Pennington’s contention, the balk is a call that umpires seem to understand very well. Yes, there may be times when baseball’s arbiters are guilty of overanalysis, but they are not guilty of a lack of knowledge of the rule—mildly humorous quotes to the contrary notwithstanding.
To some outside the game (and sometimes some inside the game), the rule may appear inconsistent and sporadic in its enforcement. Of course, ignorance of the rule would cause that, but some fault may lie in the rule book itself. Though it lists 13 specific infractions that constitute a balk, the addition or subtraction of one word radically changes the nature of the rule and could have a profound effect on the game.
Section 8.01 of the MLB rulebook covers the legal pitching delivery and states the purpose of the balk rule. The balk is there to keep a pitcher from deceiving baserunners. It elaborates on the that point and states, “If there is doubt in the umpire’s mind, the ‘intent’ of the pitcher should govern.” While one may wonder how umpires can determine the thought process of a player, the rules do attempt to spell out every scenario for them.
The important part of rule 8.01, where the balk is concerned, lies in the paragraphs describing a legal pitch from the set position, where “…any natural motion associated with his (the pitcher’s) delivery of the ball to the batter commits him to the pitch without alteration or interruption.” The rules go on to instruct umpires on the definition of a legal pitch:
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 and in cases where the pitcher fails to make a complete “stop” called for in the rules, the umpire should immediately call a “Balk.”
This passage is remarkable. Overall, the rulebook is a fairly bland document that lists various infractions and instructions. But the language in this paragraph is very strong. It vilifies pitchers. It also sounds almost desperate as it pleads for umpires to be steadfast in their efforts to curtail rampant cheating. While the following may show that there are a lot of things that constitute a balk, the broader passage above is clear in regard to the importance of making the call when the pitcher fails to come to a complete stop.
These are citations listed later in the rules that result in a balk:
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;
(b) The pitcher, while touching his plate, feints a throw to first base and fails to complete the throw;
(c) The pitcher, while touching his plate, fails to step directly toward a base before throwing to that base;
(d) The pitcher, while touching his plate, throws, or feints a throw to an unoccupied base, except for the purpose of making a play;
(e) The pitcher makes an illegal pitch;
(f) The pitcher delivers the ball to the batter while he is not facing the batter;
(g) The pitcher makes any motion naturally associated with his pitch while he is not touching the pitcher’s plate;
(h) The pitcher unnecessarily delays the game;
(i) The pitcher, without having the ball, stands on or astride the pitcher’s plate or while off the plate, he feints a pitch;
(j) The pitcher, after coming to a legal pitching position, removes one hand from the ball other than in an actual pitch, or in throwing to a base;
(k) The pitcher, while touching his plate, accidentally or intentionally drops the ball;
(l) The pitcher, while giving an intentional base on balls, pitches when the catcher is not in the catcher’s box;
(m) The pitcher delivers the pitch from the Set Position without coming to a stop.
Some of these seem inconsequential while others are redundant. For instance, rule (k) prohibits intentionally dropping the ball, presumably to tempt the baserunner into an ill-advised dash to second. However, this would be a move considered so bush league as to never happen, on the major league level anyway, despite the rulebook’s low opinion of pitchers. Rule (m) is identical to the instructions in 8.01 (b). It simply lacks the hysteria of the earlier instructions about coming to a complete stop before delivering a pitch.
The penalty for a balk is one base advancement for each runner and the ball is dead, unless of course the pitcher throws the ball. If the pitcher does throw the ball, the play is live and the balk is ignored as long as all players advance at least one base. Umpires strive to call a balk clearly so the pitcher stops and keeps the ball dead.
Every once in a while, the pitcher still throws the pitch if the call is late. In a 1977 Blue Jays-Yankees game, right after the third base umpire called Toronto pitcher Jerry Garvin for a balk, Garvin delivered a pitch that Lou Piniella hit for a double. Yankees baserunner Jimmy Wynn thought the ball was dead due to the called balk and remained on third base while Piniella ran out his hit to second. The umpires eventually awarded Wynn home due to the balk, but Piniella lost his double because not every runner advanced one base. He had to go back to bat, and he struck out.
In the years around the season Piniella lost his double, something big began brewing with baseball’s balk rule.
The chart above shows the number of pitchers charged with at least one balk per year. Data shown cover every season since 1900, and the first 60 years show numbers that are very constant. While some may find inconsistencies with umpires calling balks from time to time, umpires faulted a remarkably steady number of violators during that long period. This indicates that umpires either had a firm understanding of the rule, or that they just happened to cite a very similar number of pitchers every year. The former seems more likely, given that haphazard rulings or rogue umpires would have likely skewed the results.
However, starting around 1960, the number of pitchers called for balks doubled over the course of a 20-year period. Since the majors started expanding from their long time base of 16 teams during that time, some rise in the of the number of pitchers called for balks seems reasonable and should have coincided with the increase in pitcher population. But the rise in guilty hurlers noticeably outpaced the rate of additional teams coming into the league. While the number of major league teams rose a little over 60 percent from 1960 to 1980, violators increased 200 percent during that same period.
This study found some small spikes in the number of balks throughout baseball history, sometimes specific to each league. The author argued that those small jumps in balks often corresponded to slight changes or “crackdowns” in the rule. Specifically, these came in 1950, 1963 and 1974, and more so in the National League, it seems. The small increases in 1950 and 1963 are visible in the outliers in the graph above. While the years right after 1950 went back down to previous levels, 1963’s increase fell in the midst of a steady rise due at least in part to the addition of four teams at beginning of that decade.
This fine post examined this rise in the number of balks. The author ran numbers and found a nice correlation with stolen bases as balks started the upward trend that’s also shown with the graph above. The author even found a nice little nugget in Sports Illustrated, in a story about Vin Scully and the time he took issue with the National League’s alleged orders for umpires to bear down on the balk rule in 1963.
But the correlation with base stealing in the late 1970s and in the 1980s is the main theme. It’s one that Thomas Boswell of The Washington Post addressed when he half-jokingly suggested in 1985 that “Vince Coleman might make baseball alter, or even abolish, the balk rule.” Otherwise, opined Boswell, Coleman would someday steal 200 bases in a season.
Baseball did not abolish the rule. It did alter it, but not in the way Boswell imagined. In 1988, baseball reinforced the rule.
The runaway increase in balk calls subsequently reached its height that year, shown as the lone year in the graph in which umpires called more than 250 pitchers for balks. The 924 called balks that season nearly tripled 1987’s total of 356.
That season, MLB implemented a small change to the balk rule on a trial basis. While Rule 8.01 (b) defines the set position and also stresses that following the stretch the pitcher must come to a complete stop, 1988 modifications in wording included a part about pitchers coming to a “discernible” stop in that particular passage.
A Jayson Stark article in the Philadelphia Inquirer of Jan. 28, 1989 reports that MLB took “discernible” back out after a great deal of uproar over the preceding year’s flood of balks. In that article, umpire Eric Gregg said:
“To me, discernible stop said they wanted us to look for balks; they wanted us to bear down. I guess now they’re saying it’s got to be an obvious balk.”
Pitchers adjusted to umpires’ calls during that balk-filled season of 1988, as decreases in balk totals every month bear evidence that the increase in infractions led to a conscious effort by pitchers to adjust their deliveries. Nevertheless, complaints from those inside the game and from those watching led to a rewrite, deleting the added word “discernible” and removing a clause stating that change-of-direction did not count as stopping.
This return to the previous wording allowed umpires to go back to calling the rule as they had before. What Gregg considered “obvious” balks were the same balks they’d always been.
The spikes that accompanied changes in the wording of the balk rule in the past, along with the recent return to consistency, indicates the attention umpires do pay to the balk rule—even if no one else does.
References & Resources
In addition to newspapers or websites referenced in the body, I used Retrosheet and Baseball Digest, as well as Baseball Reference for the graph information.