Now, I’ve only been a fan of baseball since the 2008 postseason. And baseball is a complicated game, with a lot of rules, a lot of players and a lot of games. I picked up the main principles of the game pretty quickly, I (begrudgingly) played baseball in gym class, and there’s just a sort of subconscious knowledge that most Americans have. But for the more nuanced bits of gameplay, and things like the shorthand scoring conventions have come a little slower. Fortunately, I have a great boyfriend who grew up with baseball to explain things to me when I get confused.
But then there are balks.
The Official Baseball Rules defines a balk as “an illegal act by the pitcher with a runner or runners on base, entitling all runners to advance one base.” At first that seems pretty straightforward: the pitcher does something wrong, the opposing team gets to benefit from it. But the ambiguity of the phrase “illegal act” and the subjective human element of the umpire who calls the balk basically means that turns into a magical catch-all for funny movements on the mound.
And then, you discover that a balk can be called if the catcher is outside his box when catching an intentional walk, which is not an illegal act by the pitcher at all, but rather by the catcher. It’s also considered a balk if, with a runner at third, a catcher (or any fielder) steps on or in front of home plate without possession of the ball.
“But that’s just the weird stuff,” you say, “the majority of balks are about faking pick off moves, about preventing the pitcher from surprising the hitter with a pitch, so he doesn’t get hurt or something.” Yes, that is true. But it is still really weird and hard to tell what is and what is not a balk.
For instance, there was Justin Verlander’s strange move last month. He faked to first, and then threw his pick-off throw to home plate, nearly decking the batter. Asked about it, Verlander said that he realized he was about to balk, and was trying to avoid it. The umpires were baffled momentarily–was it a balk or not? They finally decided that it was, but the impression that I got was that it was scored “BK?”
And then there was Doug Fister with the Mariners last week, where a perfectly regular-looking fake-to-first-throw-to-third move was called a balk. Fister made the exact same move in his next start, without incident, which just highlights the subjectiveness of the call.
I’m not trying to say baseball should remove or modify the balk rule, just that it is REALLY WEIRD. And it’s not really something that video replay could help with, since what constitutes a balk varies so much from umpire to umpire. It’s just weird, that’s all.