In a year when Major League Baseball is already introducing unprecedented rule changes including the pitch clock, banning the shift, and limiting pickoff attempts, it was interesting to read Jeff Passan's report that MLB plans on emphasizing the enforcement of the balk rule in 2023. In Passan's report, Morgan Sword, MLB's executive vice president of operations, stressed, "We have slipped a little bit centrally with calling the rulebook illegal pitches and balks".
As I thought about what this meant for the 2023 Boston Red Sox, my daughter looked over my shoulder. She asked, "Dad, what's a balk?", and my stomach turned upside down. After being a baseball fan for over 35 years and a father for 11 years, it was time to have the dreaded balk talk with my daughter.
New MLB rules and renewed focus on existing ones will present challenge to Red Sox pitching staff
I feared this talk more than the talk about the birds and the bees. As I stumbled through the next 2 minutes rambling on about toeing the rubber and coming to a set position, I noticed my daughter becoming more confused. I realized there must be a better way to better explain this. Being the nerd I am, I went into research mode to better understand balks; however, the deeper I went, the more I realized that less is more with this rule.
The balk was put into the Major League Baseball rule book in 1898 as a way to control a pitcher and preserve a runner's ability to steal bases. Per the Major League Baseball glossary, "a balk occurs when a pitcher makes an illegal motion on the mound that the umpire deems to be deceitful to the runner(s). As a result, any men on base are awarded the next base, and the pitch (if it was thrown in the first place) is waved off for a dead ball." Though this sounds pretty simple, the rule is actually one of Major League Baseball's more complicated rules and there are several ways a pitcher can balk.
Per Rule 8.05 of Major League Baseball, as written in the corresponding Baseball Reference page, there are 13 different actions that constitute a balk including when a pitcher:
1) Starts his pitching motion without completing the pitch.
2) Fakes a throw to first base while standing on the rubber.
3) Throws to a base without stepping directly toward that base while standing on the rubber.
4) Throws or fakes a throw to an unoccupied base while standing on the rubber, unless a runner is running toward that base.
5) Makes an illegal pitch such as a quick pitch.
6) Makes a pitch while not facing the batter.
7) Makes any part of his pitching motion while not touching the pitching rubber.
8) Unnecessarily delays the game.
9) Stands on the pitching rubber without the ball.
10) After assuming the position to pitch, removes one hand from the ball except in the course of making a pitch or throw to a base.
11) Drops the ball while standing on the pitching rubber.
12) Pitches while the catcher is not in the catcher's box.
13) Pitches from the set position without coming to a complete stop.
Did you get all that? Adding to this confusion is that balks tend to be a rare occurrence. In 2019, each MLB team committed about 5 balks on average over the entire season. Historically, Hall of Fame pitcher Steve "Lefty" Carlton owns the MLB all-time record with 90 career balks while Dave Stewart had the most balks in a season with 16 in 1998. One of the most famous balks occurred in the 1961 All-Star Game at Candlestick Park when Giants pitcher Stu Miller wavered on the mound due to a notorious San Francisco wind leading to the umpire calling a balk. Additionally, there have been roughly 20 balks in the bottom of the ninth inning since 1914 leading to "balk-off" wins.
In 2019, newly acquired Boston Red Sox closer Kenley Jansen was pitching for the Dodgers protecting a 5-3 lead, and intentionally balked during a game with the Chicago Cubs. At the time, Jansen was concerned that a runner at second base could possibly steal signs and intentionally balked, advancing the runner to third base. Jansen then struck out the next batter for the final out of the game.
Another recently acquired Red Sox reliever Richard Bleier is no stranger to the balk after he balked 3 times in the same inning allowing a runner to score from first base. Bleier joins six other pitchers with this "distinction".
It is not surprising that MLB wants to emphasize calling the balk more as it goes part and parcel with the new pitch clock and pickoff rules. A pitcher's movements are fundamental to these new rules. A pitcher's delivery will mark the pitch clock resetting and enforcing the legal delivery of pitches will be paramount to implementing the pitch clock. Additionally, a pitcher will be allowed two "disengagements" during an at-bat which are classified as either a step-off or pickoff move. A third attempt would constitute a balk.
So after all of this research, I felt I was nowhere closer to explaining the balk rule to my daughter. It took me multiple readings to process rule 8.05 so I would not expect a child to understand it any easier. Eventually, I returned to my daughter with a less is more approach. We discussed that a balk occurs when a pitcher commits an illegal motion usually with the intent to deceive a base runner. When this happens, the base runners get to advance a base. My daughter seemed accepting of this simplified explanation. It's entirely possible she was already bored with the conversation and would have said anything to let her get back to TikTok.
Hopefully MLB does a better job of explaining the new rules to its players and fans than I did for my daughter. Per Passan, MLB plans on showing instructional videos at stadiums and an MLB Network special to further explain the rules to fans. The league hopes spring training offers enough time for players to adjust. Interestingly, Passan also reports that several players including Jansen plan on altering their deliveries to account for the new rules. More specifically, Jansen plans on tweaking his delivery out of the stretch. How players adjust to all the rule changes will be a fascinating subplot to this spring training and season.
Though the balk call has historically been a rare occurrence in Major League Baseball, the new rule changes, and MLB's edict to emphasize the balk rule could lead to an increase in balk calls this season as players adjust. Luckily, my daughter and I always have Rule 8.05 to fall back on for clarification of the rule. Maybe I will come up with a better way to explain a balk before I have the balk talk with my youngest daughter in a few years.