Balk this way – Boston Red Sox history of issuing balks

CALIFORNIA ANGELS RELIEF PITCHER JOHN DOPSON DELIVERS A PITCH VERSUS THE RED SOX.
CALIFORNIA ANGELS RELIEF PITCHER JOHN DOPSON DELIVERS A PITCH VERSUS THE RED SOX. /
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The Boston Red Sox have led or tied the American League several times in balks. Historically that is not unusual with this unique and confusing rule.

Pete Alexander set a record in 1911 by winning 28 games – a record for rookie pitchers.  But something unusual happened that season for Alexander in his 367 innings pitched. Old Pete committed a balk. In 5190 innings pitched in his 20-year major league career that was his only balk. Balk’s were rare indeed and generally have been except for one season, but more on that later.

The Boston Red Sox as a team have led the American League in balks several times.  On the stretch from 1906-08, it was a three-bagger, but the totals were minuscule. There have also been several ties for leadership and drought as they led in 1965 and waited until 1989 to repeat. The last time the Red Sox could be crowned balk champion was 2015 when the staff notched ten. So I can not cleverly call them the “Balk Sox.” I will stick with the Aerosmith title.

Collectively the Red Sox are comfortably nestled in fourth place on the career team AL tote board with 502. The A’s have managed 576 in their coast to coast travels. The Astros – a new team compared to the ancient original eight – have just 33 in their team history. Balks are not rare, but they are not proliferating except in 1988 – now back to that one season.

"Baseball Official 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.1988 Baseball Official 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 single complete and discernible stop, with both feet on the ground. Recondite Baseball"

In 1988, the balk rule was amended and the umpires took it to the hilt. Balks were proliferating in both leagues with the AL winning out over the National League with a gaudy 558-366. The Best or worst in the AL was a great A’s righty Dave Stewart who managed 16.  The Red Sox were real laggards with Roger Clemens getting a mere seven. Stewart and the A’s totaled 76 and the Red Sox had “only” 39.

Baseball has a long illustrious history with the balk and how it is interpreted. The rule – if one looks at the year to year totals – has been far more likely to be called as baseball has aged. Maybe it is the use of four umpires or just that officials are clearer on rules enforcement?

"“I never called a balk in my life. I didn’t understand the rule.” – Former Major League Umpire Ron Luciano – A Cheater’s Guide To Baseball – Cheaters Guide"

The Red Sox have a leader and it is not a name on your list. Clemens has just 18 in his Boston stay, but a right-hander who labored for five seasons with the Red Sox – John Dopson. Dopson tossed 485 innings but managed 21 balks!  The killer was 1989 when Dopson had 15 – a team single-season record – and four in one game. A feat that no one has since (thankfully) duplicated. Dopson blamed – no surprise – the balk rule and umpires despite the rule not being as strictly enforced.  The AL total had sunk to 168.

"“That year, the umpires were enforcing balk rules. When you come to your set, you’re supposed to pause. That game, there were quick runners on first and I was concentrating on getting the pitch to the plate quicker. After that inning, Wade Boggs dared me to get another balk, so I would own the major league record,” said Dopson, as told to Boston’s Pastime."

The most career balks belong to a member of the Baseball Hall of Fame and that is lefty Steve Carlton. Carton managed to accumulate 90 balks in his 5,217.2 innings. But Alexander’s contemporaries also were fairly immune to balks.  Cy Young had just three, Christy Mathewson had eight, Walter Johnson had four in 5,914.1 innings pitched, and Tim Keefe had none back when the batter would call for where the ball was to be pitched.

The great Lefty Grove had just one in his career and the best lefty I ever saw – Warren Spahn– had just five.  The second best portsider to me is Sandy Koufax and Koufax notched just seven. None of those had the ultimate pitching embarrassment – the walk-off balk. The Red Sox historically have been on both ends.

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As a youngster, I pitched and the balk rule to be was a baseball version of Galois Theory in mathematics. Coaches would explain it and I would follow their instruction.  In the earlier leagues, the more mature umpires would give you a warning and an explanation. But I am with umpire Luciano in his quote – I just don’t understand it.

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