Monday, August 11, 2008

Balks: The Story of the 1988 Major League Baseball Season

Baseball Official Rule 8.01(b): The pitcher, following his stretch, must (a) hold the ball in both hands in front of his body and (b) come to a complete stop.

1988 Baseball Official Rule 8.01(b): The pitcher, following his stretch, must (a) hold the ball in both hands in front of his body, and (b) come to a single complete and discernible stop, with both feet on the ground.

The difference between the two rules is that the 1988 version replaced “complete stop” with “single complete and discernible stop, with both feet on the ground.” This slight change, intended to make balk calls more uniform throughout major league baseball, instead sparked one of most frustrating summers ever for major league hurlers. Only six weeks after opening day, Rick Mahler of the Atlanta Braves committed the 357th balk of the 1988 season, breaking the MLB record for most balks in a complete season…with three-quarters of the season to play. Before all was said and done, American League pitchers were called for a staggering 558 balks. Their National League brethren had it a little easier, “only” committing 366 balks. How did an obscure, little-understood rule make such a large impact on the major league game?

Where Did The Balk Rule Come From, Anyway?

The balk rule is difficult to follow through baseball history. The first mention of a balk in baseball rules is found in Alexander Cartwright’s 1845 Knickerbocker Rules. Unfortunately, Cartwright does not define what constitutes a balk. At an 1857 rules convention, a balk was to be called when a pitcher stepped over a line 45 feet away from home plate while delivering a pitch. All baserunners moved up one base.

Section 7 of the 1864 Rules and Regulations of the National Association of Base-Ball Players stated, “The ball must be pitched, not jerked nor thrown to the bat; and whenever the pitcher draws back his hand, or moves with the apparent purpose or pretension to deliver the ball, he shall so deliver it, and he must have neither foot in advance of the front line or off the ground at the time of delivering the ball; and if he fails in either of these particulars, then it shall be declared a baulk [sic].”

Rule 25 of the 1884 Playing Rules of the American Association of Baseball Clubs defined the balk:

  1. A motion made by the Pitcher to deliver the ball to the bat without delivering it, except the ball be accidentally dropped, or
  2. The ball he held by the Pitcher so long as to delay the game unnecessarily, or
  3. Any motion to deliver the ball, or the delivering of the ball to the bat by the Pitcher when any part of his person is upon ground outside the lines of his position.
  4. When after being once warned by the Umpire, the Pitcher continues to deliver the ball with his hand passing above his shoulder.

The first balk rule dealing with runners on base was inserted into the rule book in 1898. It stated a pitcher was compelled to throw to a base if he made a motion in that direction. The following year, the balk rule was refined to say a pitcher could not fake a pickoff throw. In 1940, a throw or faked throw to an unoccupied base became a balk. In 1968, the rules said if a pitcher “goes to his mouth” with men on base, it’s a balk.

You might have noticed that nothing in all of that says anything about coming to a complete stop before pitching. Presumably that rule developed from pitchers attempting to prevent stolen bases. I did find, however, that a new rule requiring a one-second stop before delivering a pitch with men on base was implemented in 1950.

Balk Bumps and Brouhahas

It is clear, however, that the “complete stop” section of the balk rule was in effect in 1937. In a game against the Giants on May 19 of that year, Cardinals pitcher Dizzy Dean was called for a balk in the sixth inning. The Giants went on to score three runs in the inning. Retaliating against the umpires by repeatedly throwing knockdown pitches, Dean eventually runs full speed into Giants player Jimmy Ripple while Ripple is attempting to reach first on a bunt base hit. Following an on-field scuffle, the Cardinals lose the game. In a mocking attempt to further show his displeasure, Dizzy puts a several-second stop in his delivery during his next start. After calling NL president Ford Frick a “crook,” Dean is suspended indefinitely on June 2. He later denied the statements at a meeting with the press and his suspension is lifted a few days later.

League balk totals didn’t show a spike in 1937, so it seems Dean’s case was solitary that season. Thirteen years later, however, NL pitchers committed 76 balks after only being called for 25 the year before. The American League saw a smaller bump, with totals rising to 47 after only 31 the year before. This increase in balks can be explained by the aforementioned new “one second” rule implemented for the 1950 season. On May 3, Yankees pitcher Vic Raschi set a major league record with four balks in one game. At the time, the season record for balks was six.

In a strange coincidence, the National League cracked down on balks again for the 1963 season. After only 48 balks in 1962, the NL total jumped up to 147 in 1963. An order to umpires to clamp down on balks resulted in twenty balks called in the first twenty games of the year. Bob Friend of the Pittsburgh Pirates set an NL season record with six balks…in his first seventeen innings. Consternation was so great that National League President Warren Giles instructed umpires to disregard the “one second” requirement on April 27. At the time of the announcement, NL pitchers had committed 68 balks while AL pitchers had committed two. Despite the new instructions, NL umpires still called more balks (79) than their AL counterparts (45) over the last five months of the season. Following the season, NL balks were back in line with old totals for the rest of the decade.

The National League again took the lead in cracking down on balks for the 1974 season. While AL totals once again stayed pat, NL totals more than doubled from 52 in 1973 to 140 in 1974. Strangely, there did not seem to be much of a furor over the increase in balks called. One possible explanation for the rise was the ultimately rejected “balk line” experiment intended to make it easier to call balks on pickoff throws to first. Did NL umpires just get used to calling balks more often than AL umps? Whatever the case, NL balk totals stayed in the triple digits for nearly thirty years.

Hey, That’s Not in the Chinese Zodiac: “1988: The Year of the Balk”

Both leagues would be affected by a sharp increase in balks fourteen years later. A jaw-dropping increase in balks led to the 1988 season being called “The Year of the Balk.” For once, the American League was responsible for most of the balk blow-up, with an increase from 137 balks in 1987 to 558 in 1988. The National League went from 219 to 366.

As I mentioned to start the post, the reason for the bump was a change in Rule 8.01(b). The phrase “complete stop” was switched to “single complete and discernible stop, with both feet on the ground.” The origin of the rule change was supposedly the 1987 World Series. St. Louis Cardinals manager Whitey Herzog vocally complained about Twins pitcher Bert Blyleven, vehemently claiming there were up to nineteen uncalled balks in the series. The Twins ultimately won the World Series in seven games. Regardless of what prompted the change in phrasing, the man responsible, in the eyes of many fans, was National League president and soon to be Commissioner A. Bartlett Giamatti. Formerly the president of Yale University, Giamatti took over as NL president in 1986. In between the 1987 and 1988 season, Giamatti was part of the rules committee that decided to change the wording of the balk rule. Thanks to an awful lot of press coverage, Giamatti became the most visible member of the rules committee and, as such, was tagged as the man behind the new balk rule. Suspending Reds manager Pete Rose for a month after Rose shoved an umpire didn’t help fans’ opinion of Giamatti. In late July at Shea Stadium, during the number retirement ceremony for pitcher Tom Seaver, Giamatti was soundly booed by the Mets crowd.

Giamatti wasn’t the only one on the rules committee, so it’s unfair to single him out for the havoc the new rule caused. Before the regular season started, spring training games showed that there might be issues with balks. On March 7, twelve balks were called in one game between the Rangers and Blue Jays. Rangers knuckleballer Charlie Hough had a rough day, being called for seven balks in the second inning, and nine in the game. By March 15, the Major League Baseball Players Association was complaining about balks and umpires had called 124 balks in 126 games, six times the rate as the previous season.

No action was taken to prevent “Balkmania” as some people began calling the deluge of balks. In the first week of the 1988 season, umpires called 73 balks. In 1987, umpires only called nineteen balks in the same amount of time. Less than two weeks into the season, balks leaguewide were already 40% of the way to the total number of balks called the previous year, and the Oakland Athletics as a team had already passed the team totals of every 1987 AL team except Texas. The increase in balks raised tensions not only on the field, but in dugouts as well. Following a bases loaded balk by De Wayne Buice in late April, California Angels pitching coach Marcel Lachemann vented about the new balk rule: “They're going to make some rules because that little white-haired bleep in the National League moaned.” Always fiery Yankees manager Billy Martin suggested he would tell his pitchers to stop for five minutes between every pitch.

The single-season MLB record for total balks was broken on May 15, only 41 days into the season. At that point in the season, Oakland pitcher Dave Stewart had committed eleven balks to that point, tying the major league record for most balks in a season. It took until May 26 to have a day go by without a balk in major league baseball. The fourteen balk-less games lowered the MLB balks per game average to 0.76 (416 in 544 games).

Finally, after 924 balks in the major leagues during the 1988 season, baseball’s leaders had had enough. On January 26, 1989, the MLB rules committee decided to change the wording of the balk rule back to what it had been before the 1987 season. Balk totals dropped in 1989 and fell even further in 1990. There haven’t been any spikes in balk numbers since that season.

The Damage to the Record Books Revealed (Where’s the Asterisk?)

As I mentioned, the major league record for balks in a season by one pitcher going into the year was Steve Carlton’s 11 in 1979. In 1988, seven different pitchers had at least eleven balks, including one reliever:

  1. Dave Stewart, OAK, 16, 275 2/3 IP
  2. Bob Welch, OAK, 13, 244 2/3
  3. Jose Guzman, TEX, 12, 206 2/3
  4. John Candelaria, NYY, 12, 157
  5. Jack Morris, DET, 11, 235
  6. Mike Birkbeck, MIL, 11, 124
  7. Rod Scurry, SEA, 11, 31 1/3

Dennis Martinez (Montreal), Pascual Perez (Montreal), and David Cone (New York) shared the National League lead with 10 balks on the year.

The AL team record for balks in a season had been 26, set by Texas in 1987. Only one AL team managed to finish 1988 with fewer than 26 balks:

  1. Oakland, 76
  2. Detroit, 68
  3. Texas, 57
  4. Seattle, 55
  5. New York, 41
  6. Boston, 39
  7. Milwaukee, 39
  8. Cleveland, 38
  9. Minnesota, 38
  10. California, 37
  11. Chicago, 30
  12. Toronto, 29
  13. Kansas City, 27
  14. Baltimore, 25

Montreal paced the National League with 41 balks on the year. New York and Pittsburgh were on the Expos’ heels with 40.

One strange postscript to the Year of the Balk was John Dopson's 1989 season. After committing only one balk in 168 2/3 innings for the Expos in 1988, Dopson was called for fifteen balks in 1989 as a member of the Red Sox.

Further Reading

I found a few articles from 1988 that appeared the New York Times and Sports Illustrated that had a lot of the numbers I used. The end-of-season numbers come from


Bopperland said...

Everything you wanted to know about balks in one nice tidy package! You have discovered yet another aspect of a wide chasm between the two leagues in a game that is (for the most part) essentially played under the same rules & conditions. I cannot see the DH being a contributing factor to balks, so it leads many of us to puzzle on just why we are observing such a differentiation. It might be good to do a future study on the differences in items like this.

Your balk discussion omitted (except for a brief mention) two important components of balk calls - the "balk line" and 1B vs 2/3B throws with runners on base. Many balks are still called because of the pitcher being deemed to step more to 1B than the plate. The mandatory throw to 1B (versus a "fake" throw for 2/3B runners) is not as pervalent at the MLB level any more, although kids have it called on them all the time.

Pablo said...

Why no discussion about eliminating the balk rule from baseball? Except for a pitcher having to have at least one foot on the rubber while pitching, I don't see the need for the rule at all. Why shouldn't a pitcher be able to fake a throw to home plate with foot on rubber? Or to any other base, foot on rubber or not?
And why must a catcher be in the catcher's box especially during an intentional pass? In fact, why is there a catcher's box?

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