Is this a balk?

This was posted on my association’s Facebook page:

Runner on second. Pitcher comes to set, raises leg and turns toward second. Shortstop was covering bag. Second baseman was in his normal position. Pitcher for some reason throws ball to second baseman. I called balk because pitcher did not throw to occupied base, or to anyone involved in covering occupied base or runner advancing to base. What do you think?

A minor but spirited debate is playing out. Myself and another person are saying this is not a balk. A few others are saying it is a balk. I was asked to lay out my logic.

It would have been too long of a FB post, but it makes for a great post on my rules blog. Again, I contend this is not only not a balk for high school but it is not a balk under any rule code.

First, let’s cover some of the basic balk rules.

Here are the MLB rules:

8.05 If there is a runner, or runners, it is a balk when—

(b) The pitcher, while touching his plate, feints a throw to first or third base and fails to complete the throw;

(d) The pitcher, while touching his plate, throws, or feints a throw to an unoccupied
base, except for the purpose of making a play;

Here are the NCAA rules (Rule 9 in the book):

SECTION 3. A balk shall be called for the following action by a pitcher:

a. From a pitching position, any feinting motion (without completing the
throw) toward the batter or toward first base when it is occupied by a runner;

c. While in a pitching position, throw to any base in an attempt to retire a
runner without first stepping directly toward such base; or throw or feint a
throw toward any base when it is not an attempt to retire a runner or prevent
the runner from advancing;

Finally, the high school rule (6-2-4):

ART. 4 . . . Balk. If there is a runner or runners, any of the following acts by a pitcher while he is touching the pitcher’s plate is a balk:

a. any feinting toward the batter or first base, or any dropping of the ball (even though accidental) and the ball does not cross a foul line (6-1-4);

b. failing to step with the non-pivot foot directly toward a base (occupied or unoccupied) when throwing or feinting there in an attempt to put out, or drive back a runner; or throwing or feinting to any unoccupied base when it is not an attempt to put out or drive back a runner;

What do the three codes have in common? First, you cannot throw or feint to an unoccupied base unless trying to make a play or drive back a runner. In the situation presented, second base is occupied. Any movement by the pitcher towards second can be interpreted as trying to drive the runner back. Bottom line – no need to call a balk due to this constraint.

Second, all three codes allow for feinting to second base. No codes allow for feinting to home or first. Major League Baseball disallows feinting to third. But, again, all codes allow for feints to second.

This is important. The rules are saying that first (and third in MLB) are treated differently than second. One cannot read a case play involving first base and apply that conclusion to a play at second base.

I will admit this situation is tricky. The rule books don’t specifically state whether this is legal or not. Personally, I don’t think rule books can take the time to outline everything that is legal. They are better off saying what cannot happen and then the user can assume anything not mentioned is legal. Not a fool proof plan, but a decent place to start.

Of course, there are case books which help us bridge this logical gap. Let’s start with the easiest one – Major League Baseball. The Professional Baseball Umpire Corporation Umpire Manual (PBUC) specifically discusses this play. From the book (section 8.5):

a) The pitcher shall be charged with a balk if, while in contact with the rubber, he attempts a pickoff at first or third base and throws to the fielder who is either in front of or behind the base and obviously not making an attempt at retiring the runner. However, there is no violation if the pitcher throws the ball directly to first or third base in this situation. Also note that there is no violation if the pitcher attempts a pickoff at second base and throws to an infielder who is in front of or behind the base (i.e., this violation is only in reference to pickoffs at first and third base).

b) There is no violation if a pitcher attempts a pickoff at second base and seeing no fielder covering the bag, throws to the shortstop or second baseman, neither of whom is in the vicinity of the bag nor is making an actual attempt to retire the runner.

(2014-08-11). PBUC Umpire Manual (Kindle Locations 2914-2921). . Kindle Edition.

I added the bolding to part (a). Notice the part in the parenthesis – the violation is only in reference to first and third. Again, you cannot take interpretations for plays at first and apply them to second. For what its worth, the Wendelstedt Manual has this play as not a balk as well (P160 or P158 in back of book).

So professional baseball is pretty cut and dried, what about college?

Page 9 of the college book says this:

NCAA baseball rules essentially are the same as for professional baseball;
however, there are some safety-related differences—some minor and a few
major—of which participants should be aware. It is the responsibility of the
players, coaches and umpires who are participating under the NCAA rules to
know the rules. Particular attention is directed to the following rules:

The book then lists a series of college rules that are different than professional – this rule is not listed as a difference. This college baseball rules study guide states that in cases not covered by the rule, college defaults to the PBUC interpretations. I see nothing in rule 9-3 that states the discussed play as being a balk.

Disclosure – I am not a college baseball umpire. I have not read that book cover to cover. I am not up on the yearly interpretations. But, from what I have seen I can only conclude this is not a balk in college since it is not a balk in professional baseball.

Last is high school. There are a lot of rule differences between high school and professional baseball. In fact, there is an entire book dedicated to the differences. Grounding ourselves for what we are looking for – we have established that both professional baseball and high school baseball allow for feints to second. We have established throwing to second baseman off the base is not a balk in professional baseball.

I believe the burden of proof is now squarely on the high school rules to categorically state this is illegal. If they don’t, then the similarity in the way the core rule is written leads me to believe the interpretation would be the same.

Well, I have searched and I find no such interpretation saying the described play is a balk. It is not in the case book (6.2.4 (J) describes a play at first…this is different), it is not in their yearly interpretations (I searched this site and saw nothing), and it is not listed in the BRD as being a difference.

Now, I get that I am fairly new to my umpiring organization. People don’t know me and people don’t inherently trust those that they don’t know. I also still flub a mechanic or two as I learn making some think I may not know the rules. If you don’t trust me, how about doing a quick google search.

Check out this thread, or this one, or even this play from major league baseball:

No balk was called.

If someone shows me an interpretation from NCAA or NFHS saying this is a balk, fine I will call it that way and buy you a cold adult beverage. Until then, I conclude the play as described above is not a balk.

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