BALK! BALK!

March 23, 2020
                                                                    BALK!  BALK!

 

            Five percent of all the major league teams in history committed no balks at all during the season, and another 10% committed, as a team, only one balk, although how one can commit a balk as a team I am not exactly sure.  Another 14% of teams committed two balks on the season, which is actually the most common number for Balks by a team—two. 

            The 18 highest balk numbers of all time were all compiled in the same season, 1988.   Want to feel old?   The 1988 season was (a) after I had finished writing the annual Abstracts, and (b) NOT in the last quarter of the time period covered by this study, 1900 to 2019.   120 years covered by the study; the 1988 season was not in the last 30.    In 1988, as probably most of you know, there was an effort to clarify what was and what was not a balk.  Umpire Ron Lucchesi had said publicly that he never called a balk because he had no idea what a balk was, and there had been occasional arguments about whether that was a balk or not.   The rule-jiggerers added a few words to the balk rule, to clarify it, but the effort backfired, and the major league record for balks in a complete season (all teams) was broken by mid-May.  

            The average for all teams since 1900 is five balks.  Processing balks for this system is on the one hand simple, since the data is straightforward and the process well established, but it is in a sense fatuous, since the system is set up to deal with significant numbers of events, and 29% of teams have zero to two balks.   Stating the data as Balks per Batter Faced, because that is how we have been doing these things, the average in the era 1900 to 1909 was .00029, or one balk for every 3,420 batters faced.    Balk rates then increased slowly but steadily until 1988, and have decreased slowly but steadily since 1988.

            The standard deviation of such small numbers is a yet more fatuous number, but, you know. . .it’s part of the process.   These are the Balk frequencies and standard deviations for each decade:

 

From

To

Balk Frequency

Standard Deviation

1900

1909

0.00029

.00027

1910

1919

0.00046

.00034

1920

1929

0.00046

.00031

1930

1939

0.00042

.00027

1940

1949

0.00049

.00031

1950

1959

0.00061

.00043

1960

1969

0.00079

.00057

1970

1979

0.00109

.00077

1980

1989

0.00220

.00164

1990

1999

0.00132

.00072

2000

2009

0.00081

.00041

2010

2019

0.00078

.00040

 

              Since there are teams in every decade with zero balks, the high-end scores are limited by the ratio of the norm to the standard deviation.   In the 1900-1909 era the standard deviation was almost the same as the norm, so a team could only be one standard deviation better than the norm, even if they committed no balks.  In the last two decades the norm is essentially twice the standard deviation, so a team that commits no balks is (essentially) two standard deviations better than the norm, or scoring at 120.   But it is such a minor and un-noteworthy accomplishment that I will spare you the list of teams which have done it. 

            On the other end is the 1988 Oakland A’s, a team which committed 76 balks—19 more than any other team in history.  They are 6.1 Standard Deviations worse than the decade norm:

YEAR

City

Team

Lg

Balks

Score

1988

Oakland

A's

AL

76

39

1963

New York

Mets

NL

20

57

1988

Texas

Rangers

AL

57

57

1988

Seattle

Mariners

AL

55

58

1963

Houston

Colt .45s

NL

19

58

1909

Boston

Braves

NL

8

59

2013

Colorado

Rockies

NL

15

59

1963

Milwaukee

Braves

NL

19

59

1950

Philadelphia

Phillies

NL

14

59

1990

Cincinnati

Reds

NL

26

60

 

            6.1 standard deviations below the norm is by far the worst performance in any area within this series.   It’s weird data, kind of fake data.   The ultimate issue is "How many runs did the pitchers allow—how many did they fail to prevent—by this weakness?"   The numbers here are so small, even in the extreme cases, that there isn’t a great deal on the line.   Balks are less closely connected to wins than anything else we have studied:

 

Group

 

Balks

Score

Wins

Losses

Pct

Fewest Balks

 

1

111

80

75

.515

A Few Balks

4

106

80

78

.507

Average

5

102

79

78

.503

A Few More

 

6

96

77

79

.492

The Most Balks

 

10

84

76

81

.483

            And almost all of that connection is incidental, rather than direct.   The difference between the low-walk group and the high-walk group is just 9 balks a season, just 9 bases.  The difference between the groups in wins and losses is 5 games.   Nine bases cannot conceivably lead to five losses.  It’s just that good teams tend to be good at everything, so they tend to be good at not committing balks, too. 

            The Balk Rule is the worst rule in baseball.  It’s intended to protect the baserunner, to give the baserunner a fair chance to get a lead and steal a base.  The essence of the rule is that, with a runner on base, the pitcher must come to a complete and visible stop in the middle of his delivery.  No, that’s not right; it actually requires a SECOND complete and visible stop, after taking the "stretch" position.    

            But that plays hell with the pace of the game.   The rule should be that if the pitcher has the ball and is on the mound, he can pitch—period.   He can throw from any angle, he can throw at any time, and no nonsense about coming to a stop in the middle of his delivery.   There is no reason to require or describe a "stretch" position.  If the batter is not in the batter’s box, that’s his problem.  If he’s not ready to hit, that’s his problem.  Get ready.  Stay ready.  If the baserunner isn’t ready, that’s his problem. 

            And the same for the baserunner—he can break any time that the pitcher has the ball and is on the mound. If the pitcher’s not ready, that’s his problem.   It adds a lot more tension to the game if that’s the rule. 

            Sure, you have to do SOMETHING to protect the baserunner.   You just don’t have to anything that is remotely this intrusive into the game, in order to protect the baserunner.     Thanks for reading.  

 
 

COMMENTS (19 Comments, most recent shown first)

wovenstrap
Do you think the infield fly rule should be taken out?
12:09 AM Mar 25th
 
FrankD
Get rid of the balk rule. There are many deceptive plays that are legal in baseball: runners on 3rd and 1st, pitcher fakes to 3rd, turns and throws to first; fielder lets 'infield fly' drop to ground hoping runners take off; fake throws by infielders (see Knobloch fake to Gagne, game 7 WS); the hidden ball trick......
6:44 PM Mar 24th
 
steve161
I wonder what the percentage of successful steal attempts would be on pitches when the pitcher was required to throw home.
11:39 AM Mar 24th
 
DemonDon
Interesting and informative article, although there is one minor "typo". I believe the umpire who said he never called a balk was Ron Luciano, not Ron Lucchesi.
10:07 AM Mar 24th
 
MattGoodrich
What made me feel really old was when Joe Torre retired as a manager. I remember him as a player and now he's too old to even manage?
4:16 AM Mar 24th
 
doncoffin
1989...that's when Dopson balked 15 times,
8:50 PM Mar 23rd
 
doncoffin
Interestingly, Baseball Reference does list balks in the individual pitchers' records (Fireball Wenz directs us to John Dopson, who committed 15 balks in 1918--but only 8 others in the rest pf his career.) But it does not list the career leaders, the individual season leaders, or the single-season leaders. Isn't that odd?
8:15 PM Mar 23rd
 
StatsGuru
I am very much in agreement with Bill's reply to 77Royals. Why ban deception in this instance? My only concern would be that allowing deception would lead to more pick-off throws, and they are my least favorite part of the game.

I will trade the elimination of the balk rule for a no consecutive pick-off throws rule. If a pitcher throws to a base, the next pitch has to be to home, or it's a balk! This way, pitchers might only throw to first when they have a high probability of picking off the runner.
6:46 PM Mar 23rd
 
kgh
Ban the balk and limit pickoff throws to first?
4:57 PM Mar 23rd
 
willibphx
Please just drop the rule. I would like to take it a step further and if the pitcher makes a motion to throw to home or first base without throwing the ball or drops the ball just call it dead and a ball on the batter to avoid potential ridiculous fake pitches.

As Bill noted, trying to deceive your opponent is an integral part of sports and why deceiving a runner is illegal is at the least peculiar.
3:57 PM Mar 23rd
 
mpiafsky
As I’m sure we all remember, ‘88 was the year the AL decided to prioritize baking (presumably to ramp up basestealing). As I remember, it lasted about two months, wherein Dave Stewart averaged about two balks a start, before receding back to normal.
2:42 PM Mar 23rd
 
MarisFan61
I'm guessing that the reason they put in such a rule (assuming there was thought and reason behind it) was that they thought it was good to have there be more baserunning rather than less (specifically with regard to this, base stealing).

That would be not unlike the presumable thought behind many other sports rules, most of them not about deception but involving this same principle. Like, in football, making it be illegal for certain kinds of contact with pass receivers, in order to have pass receiving be a bigger part of the game than it would otherwise be, perhaps also to minimize muggings but I'm guessing that's a lesser part of the reason..... and of course we could give many other examples.

I don't mean that this is a good reason for the rule; just saying what I think it had to be about. If the rule were eliminated, a big part of the upshot would be (of course) how it affects base stealing and more importantly, how that would affect the overall game, and its interest value.
2:36 PM Mar 23rd
 
bjames
77royals


But I was taught an easy simple rule to tell how the pitcher was trying to deceive the runner.


Well, I think that's right, but here's the thing. Deception is a normal part of sports. Efforts to prevent one team from deceiving the other team are not at all normal. In basketball the player fakes a shot before he drives around his defender, or he fakes a pass before he shoots. He fakes a pass in one direction and then passes in the opposite direction. A ball handler bringing the ball up court fakes going left, then spins and goes right. His defender fakes going for the fake, and then stays with him.

In football the offense fakes a run and then passes, or they fake a pass and then run. They fake field goals and then go for it on 4th down. The receiver fakes a post pattern and then heads for the sidelines. The tackle fakes a bull rush at the quarterback and then runs around the defender. All of this is normal. Fakes in baseball are legal and normal in many different situations. The baserunner is allowed to fake a start and then return to first base. A changeup is a Fake Fastball, intended to make the batter think that one pitch is coming when another is coming.

You mention looking at the knees to see which way the body is moving; if the body is moving one way and the ball goes a different direction, that's a balk. But would not MANY of these fakes be rule violations, in that situation? The guy who fakes a pass one way but then passes the other. . . does he not also have his knees going in the wrong direction?

It misses the fundamental issue: Why should THIS fake be prohibited? Deceiving the opponent is a fundamental and natural part of sports.
1:46 PM Mar 23rd
 
LesLein
Of the top 10 teams, three won pennants, the Phillies, A’s, and Reds. The Reds won the World Series. It could be that a high number of balks can be a good sign. Steve Carlton had a lot of balks yet his high number of pickoffs justified his motion.
1:41 PM Mar 23rd
 
danjeffers
I remember Luis Tiant being called for a balk in the 1975 WS by a National League ump while doing pretty much what he had done all season in the AL and the announcers discussing a difference between the two leagues in the calling of balks.
12:52 PM Mar 23rd
 
MarisFan61
I like the idea of no balk rule -- would love to see how it would play out.
You never know with such things, but it does feel like it would be fine, and an improvement.

For old timers, which includes a couple of us: :-) The year of 1963, which makes a few appearances on one of the tables up there, stands out as another year where the "balk rule" was entertaining. I don't remember exactly why or how it happened -- what prompted it, and whether it was a rule change or just some directive -- but for the first part of that season, balks were like crazy. (They cut it out mid-season, as in '88.)

The "Baseball Card Flipping Trading" etc. book has a thing on Bob Shaw about it, from which I learned that he had 5 balks in one game, 3 in one inning. The main thing I'd like to know is what kinds of behavior and other intercourse (as it were) there may have been between Shaw and the home plate umpire during these proceedings. Of course it's a good bet there was some entertaining interchange, and I would have thought that he got kicked out in the inning where he did the 3 balks, because of getting hotter and hotter in his communications.

The game was May 4, 1963. He pitched into the 5th inning, and the 3 balks were in the 3rd. Funny thing about it was that the baserunner on all of them was Billy Williams, not someone we'd think would cause this. Shaw balked him to 2nd and to 3rd on the next batter, then, 3 batters later, balked him home. In the 5th, he gave up a leadoff single to Williams but then had the good fortune for him to be removed on a force. Still, a couple batters later, with the other great base stealer and pitcher tormentor Ron Santo on 2nd and the similar Ernie Banks on 1st, he balked again, at which point I really would have expected he'd be kicked out for engaging in discussion with the umpire on the fine points of the balk rule, but he pitched to a couple more hitters, walked them both, then came out. Would love to know if it was manager's or umpire's choice.

BTW one of the balks makes it onto the list of the game's highest-leverage plays.
11:39 AM Mar 23rd
 
Fireball Wenz
Any discussion of balks without invoking the name of John Dopson is incomplete. He MASTERED the balk.​
10:35 AM Mar 23rd
 
gendlerj
I have watched baseball for 60+ years, and I have never understood why there is a balk rule. The only thing I know for sure is a balk is if the pitcher drops the ball partway through his delivery. It always has seemed to me that if that happens, and the runner takes off for the next base, good luck. Maybe the pitcher those the ball away, maybe he does not pick it up cleanly, or maybe the runner is out by 30 feet. Regardless of the outcome, why not do that rather than merely waving the runner ahead one base?
10:21 AM Mar 23rd
 
77royals
When I was umpiring, I always thought the balk rule was easy.

Simply put, it is any effort to deceive a runner. Which is what every left-handed pitcher throwing to first base does on every pick off attempt.

But I was taught an easy simple rule to tell how the pitcher was trying to deceive the runner.

It's all about the footwork. Most pitchers throw with the same motion, from the same place, the same way, on almost every pitch.

If the pitcher was doing something different with his footwork with a runner on than he was with no runner on, he was trying to deceive the runner, and therefore it was probably a balk.

You can take it even a step further, and watch the knees. Just like in basketball or football, the knees tell you where the body is going. If the ball goes someplace the body isn't going, it's a balk.
9:57 AM Mar 23rd
 
 
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