Independence Day (from balks)

There are various baseball rules that, as pal Mike Schur says, are in place mainly to say, “OK everybody, let’s keep it clean out there — no monkey business.” The infield fly rule is one of these no-monkey-business rules. The infield fly rule is a rather complicated thing intended only to prevent infielders from purposely dropping fly balls in order to pick up cheap double and triple plays.

Baseball doesn’t want cheap double and triple plays.

Come on everybody. No monkey business.

The balk rule was invented in 1898 in the “n0-monkey-business” spirit — pitchers up to that point were allowed to throw over to first base any way they wanted. They could begin their windup, stop, waltz with someone in the stands, throw to first base. It was goofy and a bit unseemly, and the balk rule was put into place.

But the rule was really just there for show. There were almost no balks called in the first half of the 20th Century. Umpires would call a balk every 20 or so games just to remind pitchers that the rule was on the books. But as pitchers abused the balk rule more and more, stolen bases dropped to almost nothing. The balks weren’t the ONLY reason that happened — it’s never one thing — but clearly it was one of the reasons. Between 1930 and 1950, stolen bases were cut in half across baseball.

So in 1950, baseball adjusted the balk rule — made into that pitchers had to stop for a full second before pitching with runners on base.

This rule change did help increase stolen base attempts through the years, though it’s hard to tell how much because the balk rule has been called so sporadically. You might remember in 1988, baseball decided to crack down on the balk for some reason — that’s when the “come to a complete stop” part of the balk was instituted — and for a while umpires called balks constantly. Then everyone realized: “You know, balks are not that exciting.”

No matter how you might feel abut the balk concept, you probably know that the rule itself is ludicrous, bloated and incomprehensible. There are THIRTEEN different ways a pitcher can balk — stop the pitching motion in the middle, fake a throw to first, throw to base without stepping to the base, throw to an empty base, not coming to a complete stop in the set position, standing on the rubber without the ball, dropping the ball while not he rubber, etc, etc, etc.

Thirteen ways to balk — there are not 13 ways to register to vote but there are 13 ways to balk. As Tom Tango points out, the word “balk” appears in the rule book THIRTY FOUR times, roughly once every every five pages.

Strike zone is in the rule book just 15 times.

But what is to be done? We still want to encourage stolen base attempts — we can’t just let pitchers, who already flaunt the rule, start throwing over to first base any way they want, any time they want. Nobody would EVER steal a base. Leads would be nothing.

Well, as it turns out, Tango and Bill James have ideas how to change/repeal the balk rule and open up the game and probably speed it up too.

I’ll tell you Tango’s rule first — it’s a bit more complicated. His idea is to have a line drawn in the infield dirt a few feet away from first base. We can figure out the specific details later. That line would create what we shall call “The balk box.”

And this is the deal: If the runner has both feet inside the balk box, then the pitcher is still allowed to throw over to first base with any sort of pickoff attempt (not limited by balk rules). But if the pitcher does not pick him off, the runner automatically goes to second base.

Get that? Sure, you can throw over, but it’s a huge risk. In practice, nobody would throw over as long as the runner stayed in the box — it would eliminate frivolous throws to first which is obviously awesome.

Now, you ask, what happens if the runner has a foot (or both feet) outside of the box. Well, Tango’s rule is that the pitcher would then be allowed to “throw over with impunity.” That is to say: No limits. No balks.

I have a few of questions about the second part of the rule. Wouldn’t this discourage runners from taking a big lead (which is a fun part of baseball)? How would the umpires keep up with where the runner’s feet are? When would a runner officially be ruled to be inside or outside the box? There are more.

Bill James has a similar but simpler suggestion. Bill really despises the balk.

“Can you imagine a rule in basketball that the shooter has to take a set position and come to a complete stop before he shoots so that he doesn’t deceive the defense?” he asks. “Can you imagine a rule in football that a ball carrier has to come to a set position after accepting the football so that he doesn’t deceive the defense? But that is exactly what this rule is. It is requiring the man with the ball to stop so that he doesn’t illegally deceive the other team. It’s just asinine.”

His idea is one that does what the original baseball rule makers should have thought about. They decided to legislate HOW a pitcher can throw to first base. This was guaranteed to become more and more and more complicated as pitchers worked harder and harder to subvert the rule.

What they should have done, instead, was legislate HOW OFTEN a pitcher can throw to first base.

And that’s what Bill’s rule would do. In his rule, there is no box. A pitcher would get one free throw to first base per base runner (or per batter, this is open for discussion). The pitcher can throw over to first one time — and throw over any way he wants, no balk limitations — without any consequences.

After that, though, there ARE consequences. Sure, he can throw over to first a second time — but the second time, if the pitcher does not pick off the runner then the runners goes to second base.

This rule, like the Tango rule, would put an end to frivolous throws. It would also end the the balk nonsense — free up pitchers to come up with all sorts of fun new moves, including a behind the back pickoff move that I’ve been waiting to see forever.

But in Bill’s idea, the base runners are also not limited, not kept inside a box. Once that first throw is made, they will be able to take huge leads, just DARING the pitcher to throw over. We would be pushing the cat and mouse game of base stealing to a whole other level.

Bill is convinced that either of these rules would increase stolen bases because right now the game doesn’t feel as continuous as it should. “I don’t think people really understand the damage that the balk rule does,” he says. “It’s basically a stop-action rule. Without a balk rule, the game is ON at any moment. With the balk rule, the action is on hold until the pitcher comes to a set position.”

I think that’s right. Baseball fans, in general, loathe change. In football they change rules dramatically every year and don’t worry about how it affects the record books or history or any of that stuff. When the NFL changed the rule so that defensive backs are not allowed to touch receivers after five yards, they fundamentally changed the game and made it so that the numbers of great receivers who were mugged continuously as they ran their patterns — Paul Warfield and Otis Taylor and Dante Lavelli and the rest — would look pedestrian by comparison. They didn’t care because they believed the rule change would make TODAY’S game better.

Baseball should have a little bit more of that spirit. Yes, I am a traditionalist at heart, and few love the game’s history more than I do, and I am not interested in rules that would steal the spirit and continuity of the baseball. But if there are ways to adjust the game to make it a bit more exciting, to cut out some of the tedious non-action, to fix rules that really don’t fit our time, we should be bold about it. Balks are a 120-year experiment that don’t really add anything to the game. Let’s move on together.

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