According to reports, the very eye-roll-worthy trick move, the ol’ fake-to-third, throw-to-first ruse by a pitcher, will officially be called a balk for 2013. This change has been talked about for some time now, but reportedly MLB is going to use its power to put the rule in place for the upcoming season, even though the player’s union shot down the idea in favor of further discussion. MLB’s Playing Rules Committee voted in 2012 to outlaw the move and the ban will go into effect this year on a trial basis. The move involves a pitcher pretending to throw the ball to an occupied third (or second base) and then actually throwing to first base during the same motion, in an attempt to catch the first-base runner straying off the bag. Ben Lindbergh of Baseball Prospectus has some gifs on the move, including one by former Brewer Sergio Mitre from 2011 that works surprisingly well.
The trick move, which is so convoluted that it takes at least six words to describe in its most basic form, rarely works successfully in games, and is usually used as a stalling tactic more than anything. Whenever a road team’s pitcher performs this move, he gets roundly booed by the home fans for pulling the stunt and basically delaying the game. According to Todd Rosiak’s game report from September 20 of last year, former Brewer and current Houston Astro Jose Veras nearly succeeded in completing the move in a game against the Pirates in Pittsburgh. Mostly, though, the fake-to-third, throw-to-first is an archaic move that, while sometimes leading to interesting stuff on the diamond, doesn’t necessarily make the game better.
Even when a Brewers pitcher attempts it, I am a little embarrassed by the action because it reeks of desperation. The attempt usually comes when a pitcher is in trouble and needs to try something, anything, to get an out. Of course, the fake-to-third, throw-to-first usually just riles up fans and causes the pitcher to lose focus on the mound, not gain it. In addition, this trick move is usually seen performed by relievers, late in games. It isn’t something you’d expect to see the starter do. Devious or forlorn relievers are usually those who stoop to employ this move, in a plea to get themselves out of a jam.
There are numerous things in baseball that could constitute a balk, but the fake-to-third, throw-to-first is probably the most egregious and commonplace stunt in baseball that really has little place in the game (but that historically hasn’t been called a balk on the pitcher). I won’t miss it much. As far as I can tell, eliminating it will have little effect on the game, if only to speed it up and get rid of those awkward attempts. I think going ahead with a trial year of banning the move is a good idea, and will allow MLB to gain ground in discovering whether this is something that should remain part of the game, or something the game can do without. According to Wikipedia, Milwaukee Braves pitcher Bob Shaw holds the record for most balks in a game with five, from a game in May of 1963 versus the Cubs. Shaw walked a Cubs batter and then balked him all the way home as part of his balktacular game that day.