In the online baseball world this week, a fun conversation materialized out of a nicely written column by Meg Rowley of Fangraphs: “What is your favorite sort of baseball play?”
also, the "name your favorite baseball play" question in the first paragraph is suuuuch a good personality test
— Emma Baccellieri (@emmabaccellieri) August 2, 2018
With so many great options, there could hardly be a wrong answer to the question (FYI, I’m not making a dare here). I went with the Rodney McCray, epitomizing a fantasy I’ve had of basically making the most memorable, full-sprint, throw-your-body-into-oblivion catch of all time.
Happy as I was to enjoy everyone’s favorites, which together formed a scrapbook of what makes baseball such a treat, the conversation delivered me (with a little help from Tuesday’s Keone Kela trade) to what might be my least favorite baseball play, or certainly one of the dumbest: the walkoff balk.
I’m not big on bans — and certainly, this would be among the most trivial you might find — but this play should be banned.
The balk rule is, at its very best, a necessary evil. Frankly, I’d just go with evil. Clearly many hardcore baseball fans like myself, despite years of effort, don’t understand it all, and simply take the umpires’ word for it when a balk happens.
As for those who claim to know it, for many it’s all just so much bluster. During the 2016 playoffs, for example, the slick pickoff move of Julio Urías came under scrutiny, with a nation of viewers insisting he was balking — and yet the umpires were not calling it. So which was it? Whichever side you come down upon, there is another side that is sure that understands the rule but is failing.
No doubt, that’s because the balk rule is ridiculously complicated — officially, the bullet points for MLB Rule 8.05 run from a) through m) — and more than anything else in the game, in the eye of the beholder.
The infield fly rule, the more famously vexing cousin to the balk rule, isn’t anywhere close to being as challenging. I explained the infield fly rule to Youngest Master Weisman the other night, and anytime you like, I can do it for you faster than Venus Flytrap explains the atom.
Sadly, the balk rule does exist for a reason, and that’s to protect baserunners from the kind of gamesmanship that might prevent them from ever stealing a base. In theory, if a pitcher were allowed to deceive the runners without any restriction, the stolen base as we know it might end entirely. Because stolen bases themselves are a bit of an endangered species, it’s hard to imagine a grass-roots movement to kill the balk, though I will say, the visual I’m having of pitchers blatantly faking throws to first kind of tickles me.
But let’s get real: With a runner on third, the balk rule flips on itself and becomes utterly nefarious gamesmanship for the baserunner to torture the pitcher.
Steals of home have nearly disappeared from the game. In 2014 and 2015, according to Shane Tourtellotte of the The Hardball Times, there were eight each year, and you know that some of those were runners-at-the-corners double steals that have nothing to do with the pitcher holding the runner on third, or other kinds of baseball accidents. The rare straight steal of home has less to do with the protection the balk rule provides, than with a pitcher completely ignoring a runner.
Furthermore, there is no inherent need to protect runners trying to score from third on a grounder, wild pitch or passed ball. If for some reason they had to stay closer to the base, so be it. It just means that a different subset of grounders, wild pitches and passed balls would get them home.
Instead, under the twisted shadow of legality, what we find is runners on third actively trying to coax a pitcher into a balk. And we find pitchers, who have the misfortune of breathing out of their eyelids at the wrong time while on the rubber, getting the shocking signal that they have just given a prankster runner a free pass home.
Which brings us back to Keone Kela, whom I would like to make the honorary proper noun of this ban: the Keone Kela Rule. For the 25-year-old Kela, despite already establishing a successful young career in the big leagues, has had the misfortune of being called for not one, but two game-losing balks.
The first time it happened, the Dodgers were the happy beneficiary, but even though I was happy with the result, I did feel awful for Kela. If you watch the video, Vin Scully seems to spot the “turn of the shoulder” easily on replay — but tell me honestly if you can see Kela do anything that should cause him to allow the only run of the game and lose.
That was bad enough, but it happened to Kela again this year, on June 11 against the Astros. Somehow, this one is even more pathetic, because no umpire called the balk when it happened. Instead, after the fact, Astros manager A.J. Hinch argued his way into a balk victory, claiming that Kela never came set.
Looking at the replay, by the letter of the rule, you could claim that’s the case. But it’s absolutely an atrocious decision by the umpires to grant the balk in those circumstances, especially given this footnote to the official balk rule.
Rule 8.05 Comment: Umpires should bear in mind that the purpose of the balk rule is to prevent the pitcher from deliberately deceiving the base runner. If there is doubt in the umpire’s mind, the “intent” of the pitcher should govern.
The failure to understand that Kela wasn’t deliberately deceiving the runners who were on second and third in a 7-7 game gave Kela his second career game-losing balk, out of at least 10 by major leaguers in the 2000s. By comparison, though it did happen in the minors this year, there hasn’t been a single walkoff steal of home in MLB this century.
In fact, the last walkoff steal of home in the majors dates all the way back to Marquis Grissom in Game 3 of the 1997 American League Championship Series. And of course, it wasn’t really a steal of home — it was a busted squeeze on a pitch that got away from catcher Lenny Webster.
According to Baseball Almanac, the last legitimately intended game-ending steal of home rumbled out of the body of the Cardinals’ Glenn Brummer on August 22, 1982. Brummer was a 6-foot, 200-pound catcher who went 4 for 12 stealing bases in his career. The bases were loaded in the bottom of the 12th inning, and Giants reliever Gary Lavelle, predictably, utterly neglected Brummer.
Since then, for 36 years and counting, we’ve been policing pitchers twitching with runners on third, on the theory that baserunners otherwise are at a disadvantage. The problem is that it’s the pitchers who are in the jackpot.
As sometimes happens when I decide to write about something trivial, a piece that I figured would be about 200 words somehow ends up being 1,200. The length of this piece is obviously disproportionate to the importance of its subject matter.
But 1) I enjoy writing about trivial things. And 2) Someday, a playoff game — or even some team’s entire season — will end on a walkoff balk, and all of us will immediately realize that this is the dumbest possible ending ever — and definitely not dumb in a good way, like Rodney McCray risking his life to catch a baseball in Portland. Killing the balk with runners on third base might seem minor, but let’s not let trifles stop us from doing the right thing.