WHEN TO MAKE THE CALL & HOW TO IMPOSE THE RULE
SITUATION - Monday Night Lights 12U game there are runners on first and second base. While pitching from the stretch the pitcher comes to a set position and the runner from second takes off to steal for third base. Without removing his rear foot from the pitcher’s plate (rubber), the pitcher makes a direct pick-off move/throw to the open third base. The pick-off throw results in a pickle play between second and third with the runner. The umpire calls the play a balk, negates the pickle out and advances the runners. Confusion arose as to whether the pick-off move to the open third base should have been called a balk. There was no question as to flinches or movements that create a balk. The issue was only related to whether or not the pitcher, while being on the rubber and throwing to an unoccupied base without first stepping off was a balk.
DIFFERING OPINIONS - Since the occurrence on the field, the coach has consulted many experienced baseball people and the opinions range from: it is definitely a balk, to it is not a balk, to lots of curiosity about what should be the correct call.
2012 RULES - Multiple pages are devoted to the “Balk Rules” in the Official Rules of Major League Baseball covering at least 13 distinct ways a pitcher can balk. We will concentrate on 8.05d which states...
If there a is a runner , or runners, it is a balk when--
(d) The pitcher, while touching his plate, throws, or feints a throw to an unoccupied base, except for the purpose of making a play;
NOTE: DEFINITION OF “FEINTS” - a movement made in order to deceive an adversary; an attack aimed at one place or point merely as a distraction from the real place or point of attack.
TRADITIONAL INTERPRETATION - Purists prefer to see a pitcher step off his plate with his rear foot first, thus becoming a fielder and then making the odd, unique, or bizarre throw is not a question. It is interesting to see the first knee-jerk reaction by others to the above situation is that the play is a balk and the runners should get their next base. I believe this is because most have never seen the play before and never researched the rule book with this scenario in mind. With 13 different balk points discussed in the rule book, it is no wonder why people easily get confused.
OFFICIAL RULING - If there were no issues with the pitcher’s movements and he made a direct move from the rubber to third base with the runner stealing third, then it is NOT a balk to throw to the unoccupied base. Why? Because the pitcher is making a play that satisfies the exception clause in rule 8.05d.
FURTHER EXPLANATION - The exception added to the end of 8.05d, “except for the purpose of making a play” is very important and adds the unique twist. As long as there was nothing in the pitcher’s pick-off move to third that would create a balk, then just throwing to the unoccupied base with a runner stealing to that base is not worthy of a balk call. Think about it for a moment, since there is no further commentary in the rule book as to what “plays” could be made that would fit into this rule exception, then what other plays could occur that would satisfy the exception? I can only think of one play that can happen and that is a steal to an unoccupied base. Rule 5.08d eliminates the scenario where a pitcher throws to an unoccupied base to entice a runner to steal and be tagged out.
EXAMPLE: Runner on first and pitcher throws to third. Thinking the pitcher made a mistake, the runner then decides to steal second and the third baseman throws to second for the tag out. The throw to the unoccupied base instigated the steal and that would be a balk in violation of rule 5.08d.
EXAMPLE 2: Runner at third and pitcher throw to unoccupied 1st base. Runner at third is enticed to steal home and the first baseman throws to home for the tag out. The throw to the unoccupied base instigated the steal and that would be a balk in violation of rule 5.08d.
EXAMPLE 3: Runner at first and the pitcher does a step over move towards unoccupied third and then turns and picks the runner off at first. Feinting a throw to the unoccupied third base would be an attempt to decieve the runner and that would be a balk in violation of rule 5.08d.
According to long time umpire Jim Booth,
“The one caution I will give is to be prepared for umpires who don't interpret the rule correctly and call a balk on the move when a runner is attempting to steal (i.e., the runner attempts a steal, pitcher wheels and throws to the base being "stolen to" while still engaged with the plate, umpire calls a balk). The rational for the call is the base the runner is moving toward is not yet occupied and therefore is in violation of 8.05. It's not a correct interpretation of the rule, but you need to be prepared when/if it happens and not freak out.”
COACH WARNING - If you are a coach with a pitcher who wants to make this direct move to an open base, then you should consider discussing it with your umpires before the game. Since the balk rule is an umpire judgment call, then you should see how they are going to judge before the actual play occurs. If the umpires are adamant about it being a balk, then avoid the situation altogether and tell your pitcher ahead of time. The alternative is to let it happen and then, after the dust clears, you can try to state your case, yet it is rare to win subtle rule interpretations in your favor in the heat of the moment, without a rule book, in the middle of a game. If the umpire does not make the correct ruling, then you must appeal and the rest of the game will then be played on protest, awaiting a ruling from the league in the hopes that the remainder of the game can be replayed... It is doubtful that is going to happen in your favor. Since we know there is confusion, then be proactive and avoid the conflict. If you have an umpire that refuses to accept the above explanation, then the best advice is to avoid the play. Hopefully we can spread the word and make umpires pre-aware of the exception and allowances for allowing a direct, from the rubber, pick-off move to an open base that is NOT a balk.
NOTE: The drawback of having an umpire require the pitcher to step off the rubber first is that a wild throw out of play results in penalties that are harsher having stepped off the rubber first. The runners only get one base if the throw happens with the pitcher’s foot on the rubber, but two if the pitcher steps off the rubber and becomes a fielder.
AND FINALLY, here is the text from the MLB Umpire Manual.
NOTE: The Major League Baseball Umpire Manual (MLBUM) is a relatively unknown booklet that used to be published by the Office of the Commissioner of Baseball for MLB Umpires. The explanations and clarifications are how Major League Baseball wants its rules to be interpreted. The MLB Umpire Manual was a secondary resource, yet did not trump the Official Baseball Rules of MLB. It was not meant to be brought out to quote as the difinitive resource that superceded the Official Baseball Rules of MLB. Instead, it is a small 76 page manual designed to help instuct MLB Umpires in how to make the calls in accordance with the wishes of the Office of the Commissioner of Baseball. When it comes to MLB Upires interpreting the rules, it was the behind the scenes law. The MLBUM is no longer produced and they rolled many of the scenarios and interpretations right into the rule book. Here is what the MLBUM 2010 stated about throwing to an unoccupied base.
7.7 THROWING TO AN UNOCCUPIED BASE
Official Baseball Rule 8.05(d) provides that the pitcher be charged with a balk if, while in contact with the pitcher's plate, he throws to an unoccupied base except for the purpose of making a play.
(1) Runners on first and second, pitcher in set position. Runner breaks for third base and pitcher throws to third base. Ruling: Legal play.
(2) Runners on first and second, pitcher in set position. Runner bluffs going to third base and pitcher throws to third base. However, runner did not go. Ruling: Balk, pursuant to Official Baseball Rule 8.05(d).
The key to understanding the above two plays is for the umpire to use good judgment in deciding whether or not the runner was making an actual attempt to advance to third base or whether he was bluffing. These plays will most likely happen with a 3-2 count and two out.
Another interpretation regarding Official Baseball Rule 8.05(d) concerns appeal plays:
It is NOT a balk for the pitcher, while in contact with the rubber, to throw to an unoccupied base IF it is for the purpose of making an appeal play. (Note that the pitcher does not have to step back off the rubber to make an appeal play.)