Keep playin’ boys

Buried in the rule book at 6.02(a) PENALTY (old rule reference 8.05 PENALTY) is the exact penalty for a balk:

PENALTY: The ball is dead, and each runner shall advance one base without liability to be put out, unless the batter reaches first on a hit, an error, a base on balls, a hit batter, or otherwise, and all other runners advance at least one base, in which case the play proceeds without reference to the balk.

The first part of the rule is the one everyone knows. The runners all get a base and the pitch does not count to the batter. Not a lot of people know about the second part. If the ball is put into play, it is not dead right away.

If the batter and all runners advance at least one base, the balk is forgotten. This does not happen often but it did last night.

The pitcher committed an illegal quick pitch. A balk was immediately called. This did not stop the batter from smacking a ground rule double.

On the hit all runners advanced a base so the balk is not called. Pretty interesting play.

One other thing about this play. This article equates this situation to a football coach being able to decline a penalty. This is not right. One of two things happen: the runners and batter don’t all advance and a balk is called or they do and the balk is not called. There is no choice.

Say the ball stayed in the park and the batter was thrown out at second. The manager cannot come out and say he would rather have his guy in the box with the runners getting a base. The out would stand at second.

In high school this rule is completely different. The ball is dead immediately and nothing that happens afterwards matters. The ultimate result of the play would be one run scoring, one runner moving to 3rd and the batter still in the box.

Baseball is awesome at times.

Balks are covered on pages 21-23 of RuleGraphics.

Occam’s razor and balks

Occam’s razor is a problem solving principle that basically boils down to “the simplest explanation is almost always the right one”. As I have discussed before balks are very complex. A flinch here, a crooked step here, or an uncompleted throw can all be a balk.

The old time original definition of balk is ” to stop short and refuse to proceed”. Basically you are starting something and not finishing (or doing something else). This is the simplest way to think of a balk. Did the pitcher start to do one thing and do another.

Here is a Clayton Kershaw balk:

The announcers are having a fit with why this call called.

Did he break the plane? No

Did he fail to step to first base? No

Well, then how can this be a balk. Maybe it is because his entire body moves towards home plate and then he throws to first. Once you move towards the plate you gotta go there.

Sometimes the simplest explanation is the right one.

Balks and numerous other rules are covered in RuleGraphics. We are the first thing you see when searching for “baseball rules” on Amazon. Get more information about our book at our website.

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.

A balk so nice, I did it twice

Reds pitcher Johnny Cueto was a little too deceptive for his good the other night. He was called for a balk in the 1st inning.

The umpire does an elaborate chicken dance to explain the call. What is he trying to convey? He is saying he “broke” or “buckled” his front leg before turning to throw to first. This is a movement associated with going to the plate. Once you make a movement associated with throwing home, you have to throw home.

This is a classic start/stop balk. Good on the ump to catch it. It happens really fast. Given that Cueto did not protest, the Reds manager did not protest, and the quickness of the call, I am willing to wager the Brewers tipped the umpire off to this move.

Did Cueto learn his lesson? Nope.

He got nabbed an inning later for the same move. Back to the drawing board for the pitcher.

Balks are confusing. RuleGraphics takes some of the confusion out through rule book language, key points, and illustrations. Find out more at our website.

He’s gotta stop

I recently purchased the play index feature from Baseball-Reference. Holy cow is this a lot of fun to play with.

I wanted to get under the hood and think of how this tool can help me on this blog. I got to thinking about balks.

The most common balk is the “no stop” balk. Here is an example from opening day:

Here is the last part of rule 8.01(b)

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.”

Umpires were told to strictly enforce the no stop rule in the ’80s. I could not remember the exact year. In messing with the play index, it became clear.

I ran a report on pitchers who balked more than 10 times in a season. This has happened 13 times in history (at least the history Baseball Reference has…which is quite a lot).

11 of those 13 happened in 1988. It happened once in 1989 and has not happened since. My keen deductive skills tell me 1988 was the year of renewed focus on the rule.

This is the type of balk that most coaches understand and try to get the umpire to call. The rules only dictate the pitcher make a complete stop. It does not say for how long. The rule of thumb is to make sure the arms and legs are not moving at the same time. If this does not happen, there had to be a stop in there somewhere.

This type of balk is covered on page 23 of RuleGraphics.

The Yips

I mentioned yesterday that I was a Cubs fan. While extremely happy to see their 3rd win in a row last evening, I am not terribly excited that their $150 MM off season investment has the yips when attempting pick offs to first base.

Here is a play from last night’s game:

First thing what is with the Bronx cheer from the fans? We want this guy to be successful.

Now, let’s talk about some rule implications on this play.

First question – was this a balk?

Rule 8.05(b) says the following:

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;

There are two ways to feint a throw: not throw the ball or throw it somewhere other than first or third base. The practical interpretation of this rule is that the pitcher must throw it to a fielder near a base who has a reasonable chance of making a play.

Lester’s throw is no where near the base. Of course, he did not do this to deceive. He did this because it was a crappy throw. I would not balk this and the umpires on the field did not either.

For fun, let’s assume they did call a balk. What would happen? Interestingly, the outcome would not have changed at all.

To the book for the PENALTY to rule 8.05.

PENALTY: The ball is dead, and each runner shall advance one base without liability to be put out, unless the batter reaches first on a hit, an error, a base on balls, a hit batter, or otherwise, and all other runners advance at least one base, in which case the play proceeds without reference to the balk.
APPROVED RULING: In cases where a pitcher balks and throws wild, either to a base or to home plate, a runner or runners may advance beyond the base to which he is entitled at his own risk.

The second statement is the key. A runner is given an award of one base, but the ball is not automatically dead. The runner can choose to go for more bases at his own risk. In this case, Cozart tried for third and was nailed.

But, he reached one base so the penalty was satisfied. Even if there was a balk, the play would end with no mention of it since the runner got at least one base.

This is different in high school. A balk is an automatic dead ball even on wild throws. If the umpire rules balk (which again I would not on this play), the runner gets second base and the play is over.

Balks are covered on pages 21-23 of RuleGraphics.

He Fakes a Throw To Nowhere

I took an old Talking Heads song and turned it into a headline…clever.

I have mentioned before that the trouble with balks are twofold: 1) they happen quickly and 2) sometimes you just cannot believe what you are seeing. Either of these things can cause a delayed call.

Check out this play:

Rule 8.05(d) covers this.

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

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

Hamilton was not running so there was no play. There was no runner on second base. Easy balk call. The funny part is you can see the hesitation in the home plate umpire. He must be thinking “did I really just see that?”

Now, if Hamilton was running, this would have been legal. The base does not have to be occupied at the time of the attempt – just has to be a play there to be made.

On umpire message boards there is an abbreviation IIITBTSB that means It Is Impossible To Balk To Second Base. This is one of the only exceptions to that maxim.

This type of balk is covered on page 23 of RuleGraphics.

History Lesson – Balk

I saw this come across the Twittersphere today:

Said another way “once a pitcher makes a move towards the plate he cannot throw to a base”.

As discussed before balks are very confusing, but balks where a guy starts pitching and just stops are pretty easy to see and call. Cue Mr. Jake Peavy:

This is what we call an elephant balk – so big and obvious it cannot be missed.

I thought the Tweet was cool because it shows how long this rule has been on the books. That is the beauty of baseball – many of the original rules remain in place with limited changes.

Balks are covered on pages 21, 22 and 23 of RuleGraphics.


Without a doubt the rule that confuses most fans is balks. I will admit balks are among the toughest things for me to call as well. Why are they hard to call? A couple of reasons including:

  • They usually happen very quickly
  • They usually look awkward but awkward is not illegal – an extra second is needed to process what happened
  • If the call is not made right away, the “moment” is lost
  • There are a lot of borderline cases
  • Fans and coaches think almost every pitcher move is a balk

I thought the above video was interesting for one reason – I think the manager is legitimately seeing a balk that is not called. He believes the pitcher is violating the step rules of the bulk.

A review of the rule book sees that a pitcher must “step directly to the base before throwing”. A pitcher also cannot throw or fake to an unoccupied base if no play is being made.

What is this pitcher doing? It looks like he is taking a slight step to 3rd with his front foot before turning and throwing to 1st.  That would be a balk.

Again being totally honest, I did not see it until the super slow mo replays. I am very impressed the manager saw it (or maybe he saw it on video previous to the start). I also don’t fault the umpires because it happened so quickly.

The pitcher, David Phelps, has been called for 3 balks in his 87 major league games. He also got nabbed for 7 in his 93 career games. Funny thing is he got called for 3 in 17 games at AA. This must have been when Mr. Phelps was perfecting his “move”.

Given their complexity, balks get three pages in RuleGraphics (21, 22 and 23).

Stealing Home

This is a really interesting play. From a strategy perspective the coach pulls this off with an 0-2 count and 2 outs. The thought being a hit at that point to score a run is unlikely. It makes gambling a strong option as the worst result is the hitter gets to lead off the next inning with a fresh start.

Some people think plays like this are bush league. I am not of that opinion. Runs are a sacred thing in baseball. Do what you can to get as many as you can.

Lastly, there is the rules aspect of it. The play by the offense is legal. Nothing in the rules about tripping during a steal attempt. Rule 7.08 (i) talks about running the bases in reverse making a “travesty” of the game (yup, that word is in the book). This rule was put in due to Herman Schaefer and his antics around the turn of the century. But this play is clearly not that.

The defensive side of this is more interesting. In the video, the defensive dugout is heard yelling something as the play begins. Most likely they are yelling “step off” or some variation. Why would they be yelling this?

Because the rules don’t allow a pitcher to make a fake to first base while on the rubber. If he would have lifted his front foot, he would have had to either throw to first, throw to home, or commit a balk. If he completed a turn, he could have faked toward second since a play was being made. But stepping back is the best option since once he steps back, he is treated like any other infielder.

On these double steals, the pitcher wants to be able to make a play on either runner if needed. Stepping off allows him to do this.

Balks are covered on pages 22 and 23 of RuleGraphics.