My good buddy Gene, a crusty, grey bearded attorney who ran the Brookline Tigers senior league team back in Boston, use to gripe over post game refreshments that the balk rule was “expletive-expletive Byzantine”, a riddle wrapped in mystery inside an enigma! While there is no singular “balk rule”, there are pitching regulations that go back to 1845 and have evolved ever since, most notably when Whitey Herzog complained that Bert Blylevin got away with 19 balks in the ‘87 World Series. A change in the wording to define a stop resulted in umpires calling a record number of balks in ’88, over 500 in the American League alone. While we all know an obvious balk when we see one, who can say they fully understand the pitching regulations and can list the alleged 39 ways to balk? The MaxBP guys paused and set and found a great way to look at this; rather than focus on all the ways to break the rules, we flipped the conversation upside down to realize that if you understand the pitching requirements, then its a much easier thought process to identify everything else as a balk. Pitching from the set involves 4 simple steps: ONE: Intentionally engage the pitchers plate, TWO: Stretch, THREE: Set, FOUR: Pitch or Don’t Pitch – simple right?
1. Engage with pivot foot on or in front of rubber, free foot entirely in front,pitching arm down at side or behind back, ball in glove or throwing hand
2. The Stretch is the motion before the set. The pitcher is free to make any natural movements not associated with his delivery, like wiping off sweat, adjusting cap, turning to check on runner, waving glove to shake off catcher
3. The Set is when the pitcher brings both hands together before the pitch. The transition to set must be in one continuous and uninterrupted motion. The pitcher must must make a discernable stop before pitching.
4a. Step towards home and pitch
4b. Step off directly backwards with pivot foot (pitcher become infielder)
4c. Step towards and throw to any base in effort to pick off a runner
4d. Step towards and feint to occupied 2nd/3rd base, cant fake to first
The rules set out to establish a standard protocol so everyone knows how the pitch or pickoff is supposed to go down. Any deviation is considered an effort to trick the runner and is a balk. While you pitch with your arm, a proper step in the right direction is a key to following the rules. There is one other specific requirement, that if the pitcher swings his free foot behind the back edge of the rubber, he must pitch or attempt a move to 2nd.
So, given these simple requirements, why is there so much dispute around balk calls and non-calls?
Was that a stop or simply a change of direction? Did the lefty step towards first or was it more towards home? Did the free foot go behind the rubber? Did the pitcher step properly before throwing? These judgments by the umpire are not as black and white as safe/out, strike/ball and in an effort not to over-umpire, most blue have to be 100% sure an action is a balk before stopping the game and awarding bases. The more that is left to interpretation, the more leeway coaches and fans have to see what they want to see, something that favors their team. Additionally, the umpire must take into account each pitcher’s natural delivery and intent (remember Luis Tiant) so the interpretations and subsequent call might vary not only from umpire to umpire but from pitcher to pitcher and situation to situation. In amateur ball most balks are not the result of deception and inconsequential to the action so unless it’s a grievous violation, it is usually ignored in a backwards kind of way to maintain the integrity of the game.
So considering the pitching regulations, umpire judgment, varying natural deliveries as well as pitcher intent within the context of the game’s several hundred pitches, its not so much a riddle wrapped around a mystery inside an enigma but a……….Dang…Gene in Boston was right!
Coming soon, part 2, pitching regulations from the windup.
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