Inside the rules: the balk

“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.

image

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.

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Comments

  1. MikeS said...

    8.05(i) is interesting.  If the pitcher can’t stand “on or astride” the rubber without the ball that makes the hidden ball trick much more difficult to pull off.  It’s been a while since I’ve seen that particular play but I seem to rememeber the pitcher being on the mound, peering at the catcher or runner at least once while trying to pull it off.

  2. David Wade said...

    Mike,

    On hidden ball tricks I’ve seen, particularly with the University of Kentucky team, the pitcher doesn’t go to the mound.  That way he avoids the balk. 

    Often the infielder will fake hand the ball to the pitcher off the mound and the pitcher will ‘tie his shoe’ or adjust his pant legs, etc.  He has to do something, or run afoul of rule 8.05 (h) if he just lolligags around the infield.  Meanwhile, 2B (usually) walks back to his position and sees if the runner starts to take his lead too early.

  3. Sir Larry said...

    Is it just me, or are a huge majority of pickoff moves to 1st by lefties, balks that never get called (I’m lookin’ at you Andy Pettitte)?

    It seems very clear that rule 8.05 (a) and (c) are constantly violated by lefties that start their motion towards the plate, only to veer their right foot towards a direction approximating the 1st base dugout.  How many (good) moves by lefties are made by stepping “directly toward” 1st base “before throwing to that base”?

  4. Brad Johnson said...

    Larry,

    You’ll often hear a non-existent “45 degree angle” rule mentioned. Good lefty pick off moves come in two varieties, the ones that straddle that 45 degree mark and the ones that just kick up and step straight down. Both can be interpreted as a balk with a strict interpretation of the rule book. The problem is, what does “directly to the base” mean. The 45 degree ‘rule’ is based on the distinction that anything that’s more towards 1b than home plate is considered as stepping directly toward the base.

  5. David Wade said...

    Larry,

    Some places I’ve read had people that agree with you regarding lefties.  But, 8.05 (c) lets them step toward 1st.  I suppose 8.05 (a) is just a benefit of being a left-hander!.

    Here are additional notes from the rules within instructions for a legal pitch-

    “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.
    Rule 8.01(c) Comment: The pitcher shall step “ahead of the throw.” A snap throw followed by the
    step directly toward the base is a balk.”

    Umpires should call the balk when a leftie’s lead foot starts toward home, and not first.  There’s no “45 degree” allowance, as I’ve seen some places.  It becomes a judgement call.

  6. Kevo said...

    How about the righty “balk move”, where the pitcher buckles his front knee slightly before going to first? This is just as common as the lefty “balk move” and also not enforced strictly as far as I can tell.

    I see lots of MLB pitchers getting away with motions that would get called for balks at the High School and College levels. Most involve very creative ways of coming set. Some pitchers stop twice, some don’t come completely stop. I’ve always wondered about the interpretation of these rules at the MLB level.

  7. Brad Johnson said...

    The righty balk move works because its effect is subliminal (when done correctly). It’s a “the hand is quicker than the eye” scenario. Only a baserunner attempting to steal (or a fool) can be caught by the move. It’s very hard for an umpire to see at game speed.

    JC Romero is a pitcher who stops twice yet never really completely stops. The stopping twice is allowed so long as it happens every time (the pitcher’s normal motion) while the stopping rule does not require an actual measurable pause, just a cessation of movement. JC fulfills both points (that’s my anecdote on the topic).

  8. jim said...

    “The 924 called balks that season nearly tripled 1987’s total of 356.”

    I’m looking at the chart and I do not see any seasons with over 300 balks.

  9. David Wade said...

    jim,

    The chart tracks the number of pitchers, not number of balks. 

    I should have made that transition to the different stat in the sentence you’re looking at a little better, maybe putting “total” in front of the new stat.

  10. David Wade said...

    kds-

    This could be fodder for another article, that would involve quite a bit of research on my part.  A google search yielded this timeline- http://www.google.com/#q=timeline+of+balk+rule&hl=en&sa=X&tbs=tl:1,tl_num:100&prmd=iv&ei;=-IXdTL_gDIWglAfNpqTkDQ&ved=0CIQCEMsBKAQ&fp=82377cff7484f300 

    In that link, there are some free links to newspaper accounts, for example a one second pause referenced in one of the posts I linked in the article is in there.  But, many links are pay per view, or not pertaining to baseball.

    I may have to delve into this for another day, unless someone wants to bail me out.

  11. James said...

    So why don’t pitchers get called for a balk when they try that stupid “fake to first and throw to third” thing.  That seems to be in blatant violation of not “deceiving the baserunner(s)” but pitchers do it all the time without ever getting called for a balk. 

    This seems like a pretty obvious case of the rules of the game being applied sporadically and inconsistently.

  12. David Wade said...

    James,

    Here is a comment after rule 8.05 (c)-

    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. 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. Of course, if the pitcher steps off the rubber and then makes such a move, it is not a balk.

    See, crystal clear! 

    I did mention this move in an earlier article and that I also thought this was trickery the rule book allows.

  13. MikeS said...

    On the fake to third, throw to first thing.

    There is no rule about faking a throw to third (or second) while on the rubber, just first or home.

    The way to pull this move off is to really sell the fake to third. Too many guys make a half hearted fake to third and the runner on first moves backward. The pitcher needs to look excited, like he’sa got a play. If he looks like he’s trying to throw the ball 100 mph and maybe miss the third baseman it helps.  )ou need the runner on first to think that maybe he’ll throw it awayn take just a step or two toward second and get his weight on the wrong foot. The third baseman should be breaking to in order to sell it. Doing it right usually pulls the pitcher off the rubber anyway and at that point the pitcher becomes an infielder and can do whatever he wants as long as he doesn’t delay the game.

    Jack McDowell was great at this move.  He’d get one or two guys a year with it.

  14. Morgan Conrad said...

    How come accidentally dropping the ball (or stumbling, catching your spike in the dirt, etc.) is always called a balk?  It was clearly an accident and NOT the intent of the pitcher to deceive the runner.

  15. willie said...

    D Wade,

    Nice article. I haven’t read much of your writings before, but i look forward to reading more. This article is about as good as your fantasy team..HA HA

  16. Joshua said...

    The reason I believe the dropping of the ball is because if a pitcher began to throw home, and the runner starts stealing, he could drop the ball, and then just pick it up and throw to 2nd base, etc.  The reason it doesn’t matter if its an accident is because its very hard to tell if someone does something by accident or not.  Obviously now, that the rule has been around for as long as it has, no pitcher thinks of deceiving the runner this way, because its an automatic balk.  But if you go rid of that rule, you would see fake pitches home all the time.

  17. DeweyB said...

    What about the hop..righties do this all the time now.When i was a kid it was not allowed cuz obviously if you jump with both feet and land on both feet you dont actually step towards first.Same at second with spin move we were always taught you couldnt spin/hop and straddle rubber you had to step off back and spin one way or other or inside move.

  18. wayne mercer said...

    Hello, Could you define legal pitching position a little better than ” hands in front of body”?

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