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Get ready for increased balk enforcement in MLB in 2023

Leaning into one of the least understood rules in baseball is not a good plan

Astros manager Dusty Baker after a run-scoring balk was called last August
Photo by Bob Levey/Getty Images

When I think about balks one of the first things that comes to mind is just how much damage the capricious enforcement of the balk rule did to Carl Edwards Jr. at the beginning of the 2019 season. For those of you who might have blocked out this particular part of Cubs history (lord knows I wish I had), CJ came into the 2019 season as part of the back end of a Cubs bullpen that planned to compete for the division that season. He spent all of Spring Training working on a new move to the plate — a move that was not flagged during Spring Training, only to have this happen the first time he appeared in an MLB game in 2019:

Carl Edwards Jr. worked on a new delivery all spring that involved an exaggerated pause and toe tap, but two games into the season, he’s abandoning it.

It’s not entirely by choice, though, as Cubs manager Joe Maddon said after Monday’s 8-0 loss to the Braves that Major League Baseball informed him that the new delivery is illegal. By rule, pitchers are not allowed to take a second step toward home plate with either foot.

I couldn’t stop thinking about this episode (and many others like it) as Jeff Passan broke news yesterday that MLB will be stepping up enforcement of balks this season, ostensibly because balks will be related to enforcing the new pitch clock and limits on a pitcher’s move to hold runners on the base. And look, I get it, calling more balks is a necessary component of the new rules as written, but it seems worth noting that even managers and players are frequently mystified by what is and is not called a balk.

Don’t believe me? Let’s take a small sampling from the image banks here at SBNation:

First up, Luis Garcia of the Astros — this is the balk on August 12, 2022 Dusty Baker was similarly mystified by in the cover image of this post:

Oakland Athletics v Houston Astros
Luis Garcia cannot figure out what is going on
Photo by Bob Levey/Getty Images

Next up, an umpire tries to explain to Alex Colomé why a run just scored on August 5, 2022:

Colorado Rockies v Arizona Diamondbacks
An umpire tries to explain why a run just scored to Alex Colomé
Photo by Norm Hall/Getty Images

Or how about this, on August 7th, as Alex Cora tries to figure out why Kutter Crawford was called for a balk?

MLB: AUG 07 Red Sox at Royals
Alex Cora is not amused as a balk is called

That is three calls, with three mystified reactions from players and coaches who have spent most of their lives in and around baseball, all within one week of each other last MLB season.

To be clear, I didn’t go digging for these photos. These are all on the first page of search results when I put “balk” in our image search tool here at Bleed Cubbie Blue. Which is in line with this assertion from Passan in the piece breaking the news that there would be increased balk enforcement:

Trying to understand what constitutes a balk is tantamount to what makes a catch in the NFL. Umpires called 122 balks in 2022, the fewest in a full season since 1973, with some umpires more vigilant than others. Umpire John Tumpane assessed a major league-record three balks in one at-bat to then-Miami left-hander Richard Bleier during a late-September game. Bleier’s three balks tied for the major league lead with left-handed reliever Will Smith last year.

The comparison is apt, because the NFL needing to go to replay for catches none of us can agree on with our own eyes is not the strongest point of that sport. It also seems like this particular enforcement mechanism will have the opposite effect of what the rules changes were suppose to accomplish in the first place: more action that draws fans to the game. I cannot imagine much worse for drawing in new fans than someone trying to figure out why a stutter step towards first base that only a handful of people perceived resulted in the winning run scoring.

MLB’s executive vice president of operations Morgan Sword tried to get out ahead of this line of argumentation in Passan’s piece:

Sword said the league plans to run explanatory videos at stadiums and a special on MLB Network to further explain the rules to fans. The league hopes spring training offers enough time for players to adjust, as they did in the minor leagues, where they were tested out last year. According to MLB, in the second week of games with the pitch clock, there were 1.73 violations per game. By the fifth week, that had dropped to 0.73, and in the final week, the league said, the violation rate dipped to 0.41 per game.

MLB placing greater import on balks has had significant effects on past seasons. In 1988, when MLB rewrote the balk rule, umpires called 924 — nearly three times as many as they had in any previous season. The balk rate was halved the next season, and it has held relatively steady, between 122 and 182, since the turn of the century.

I’m not sure what explanatory videos the league could possibly produce that will prepare fans for a massive increase in one of the more obscure rules violations in the sport. What possible education campaign could there be for a rule that makes future Hall of Fame managers throw their hands up in a frustrated shrug? Do any of us really believe that general umpire capriciousness will not be a significant factor here?

While I understand that parsimony of just wrapping new rules involving the pitcher and runner up in the current lexicon of the game, it seems as though this particular enforcement mechanism is not well-suited to a set a rule changes designed to encourage new fans to engage with baseball more.

To be clear, the new rules grew more appealing to me as I thought about how many more runners would be safe taking a chance to steal, or the fractions of a mile per hour a star pitcher might lose not being able to max out on their fastball after a long break between pitches. I just cannot fathom how tying those rule changes to an increase in balks is anything other than a recipe for increased frustration from fans, players and managers.