Rule 6.02 (a) (13) reads, “If there is a runner or runners on base, it is a balk when the pitcher delivers the pitch from Set Position without coming to a stop.”
Just when you think you’ve seen everything…
In the bottom of the eighth inning of the Marlins-Mets game on September 27, 2022 at Citi Field, the Marlins led the Mets 6-3 in a game they would win 6-4. Marlins’ pitcher Richard Bleier was facing Pete Alonso with Jeff McNeil on first base when Bleier was called for a balk three times with Alonso at bat. Amazingly, Bleier balked McNeil around the bases which was a first for me. The balks were called by first base umpire John Tumpane, who has been a full-time ML ump since 2016. In Tumpane’s judgment, Bleier did not come to a complete stop in his Set Position for all three violations.
Here’s the whole sequence. You can judge for yourself.
Bleier has played in the Major Leagues for seven seasons and had never been called for a balk before Tuesday night. When Tumpane called the first balk, Bleier was stunned and felt he didn’t do anything wrong. On the next offering, Tumpane called Bleier for his second balk, which allowed McNeil to advance to third base.
“In the beginning, he (Tumpane) said I didn’t come , which I clearly disagreed with,” Bleier said to mlb.com writer John Ladson. “It’s the same move I’ve been doing my entire career. I have never been called for a balk ever. The first one, which I don’t think was a balk, I watched the video. After that, they were clearly not balks. Words cannot describe what just happened in that inning.”
After the second balk, Tumpane decided to explain to Bleier what he was doing wrong.
“From where I was, I didn’t have come to a complete stop before delivering to the plate,” Tumpane told MLB.com. “So, I called the balk. It obviously happened again. I tried to give an explanation to clear it up.”
The at-bat continued and Bleier balked a third time allowing McNeil to trot home for a run.
“We came to the same decision that he didn’t come to a stop to force another balk, which led to the discussion with (Marlins’ manager Don) Mattingly,” Tumpane said.
Mattingly argued and was soon ejected.
After the inning ended with Alonso grounding out, Bleier yelled at the umpires, and was tossed by plate ump Ryan Blakney.
Mets manager Buck Showwalter managed Bleier in 2017 and ’18 when they were both with the Orioles. The trio of balks didn’t surprise him.
“I’ve had Richard. We were told a little while ago, not too long ago, that there was a thing about that — pitchers not coming to a complete stop,” Showalter said. “We knew it was something they were going to be cracking down on a little harder. A lot of those things are in the eye of the beholder. I’m not really surprised by it, but it’s their business.”
According to researcher Sarah Langs, Bleier is the seventh pitcher in major league history to balk three times in the same inning. The last pitcher noted with the ignoble feat was Jim Gott (Pirates) who was charged with three balks in the eighth inning on Aug. 6, 1988, in a game ironically against the Mets.
- If I polled 10 different umpires, in my opinion there would not be unanimous support of Tumpane’s calls. Some would totally agree while others might agree with one or two of the calls. This is the nature of subjectivity in the world of umpiring.
- Notice that Showalter said, “A lot of those things are in the eye of the beholder.”
- As early as 1845 the “Knickerbocker Rules” included the balk rule to protect the runner. A runner times his break to the next base based on the read he gets when the pitcher makes a motion to pitch following the stop. It can be a movement with his free foot or something else. Minus the stop rule the stolen base would become as extinct as the dinosaur.
- The rule has gone through changes. From 1950 through 1963, the pitcher was required to come to a complete stop of at least one second in his Set Position.The one second stipulation was removed in 1964 and a complete stop became the discretionary judgment of the umpire for the next 24 years. Some argued that it was not physically possible to change directions without stopping even if it was done quickly. And it became apparent that the “Stop” rule was being abused with its liberal interpretation.
- Stronger enforcement guidelines were implemented in 1988. AL President Dr. Bobby Brown and Commissioner Bart Giamattireplaced Dallas Green and Dick Butler on the 1988 Rules Committee. Dr. Brown informed the umpires there was going to be a major change in the wording of the balk rule for the upcoming ‘88 season. He said that they wanted stricter enforcement of the complete stop This was triggered by Cardinals manager Whitey Herzog whose team faced the Twins in the ’87 WS. Herzog argued that Twins pitcher Bert Blyleven wasn’t coming to a “stop.”
- Stricter language appeared in the 1988 rule book. For the ‘88 season, a “complete stop” was redefined as “a single complete and discernible stop, with both feet on the ground.” With a runner on first base, sometimes the pitcher’s free foot would start up before he had reached the bottom of his stretch which can be anywhere in front of his body. This was problematic for the runner’s timing because it appeared that the lifting of the free foot was a key the pitcher would deliver his pitch. When he didn’t deliver the pitch, it could put the runner in jeopardy by tricking him to leave the base too early.
- So, the umpires started calling this move a balk. By season’s end, a record 924 balks had been called. The top 17 single-season team balk totals came in ‘88.
- The American League record for balks by a team had been 26; in ‘88 only one AL team finished with fewer than 26 balks. The A’s, who led the AL in just about everything that year, led the way with 76, eight more than runner-up Detroit.
- Oakland’s Dave Stewart was charged with 16 balks. That was – and still is – a baseball record.
- It was a one-year thing. The rule was changed back to the ’87 rule before the 1989 season and baseball got back to being baseball.
- Currently umpires want to see a complete stop with the pitcher’s free foot on the ground.
Former pitcher Stu Miller has a chapter in the “Set Position” balk story that has been calcified in time. In the first of the two All-Star games in 1961, it has been incorrectly written that Miller, pitching for the NL, was “blown off the mound” when strong winds at Candlestick Park caused him to sway and be called for a balk while in the Set. He was not literally blown off the mound, instead his body balance was compromised by a blast of wind. “Just as I was ready to pitch, an extra gust of wind came along, and I waved like a tree,” said Miller. “My whole body went back and forth about 2 or 3 inches.” Despite the illegal body movement, he delivered the pitch to Rocky Colavito who swung and missed. At that point the balk was called by plate umpire Stan Landes who said, “Rules are rules,” after Miller pleaded that the wind pushed him. It was the only balk ever called on Miller in his 16 years in the big leagues.
Would every umpire have called a balk? Would some umpires have called “Time” when the blast of wind caused the unexpected body movement of Miller?
Balks can sometimes be an individual thing among umpires and teams should identify umpires who call more balks. Remember, such calls can be in the minds of the beholder.
When John Tumpane is on the game, pitchers beware.
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