Baseball Umpires’ Learning Blog

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Where do we begin when coaches and players do not know the balk rule?

What is the balance between enforcement and teaching? Does it depend on the level of baseball? Absolutely, but in all my years, I have learned that I can offer no advice that will make it easy to teach coaches and players how to pitch legally without getting them upset or taking time for longer discussions before or after games. Despite the responsibility of knowing the rules being upon the coaches, teaching is an umpire duty whether we like it or not.

The following comment came from an experienced umpire north of the border. Recently, we have received several comments from around the world stating that this blog is helping individual umpires improve. Learning never ends! Thanks John for getting me back on track. I have been a bit busy lately.

Hey all, I am a senior ump here outside of Toronto and in doing MANY high school games this year, balks are getting out of hand. Pitchers and coaches up to this level have no idea what is and isn’t a balk. You hear ’em screaming from the bench when a pitcher steps off the rubber and his arm goes towards first. Almost in stereo the balk roars come from the crowd. Any ideas on education tactics?

John, thanks for reading the blog and asking your question. I remember right after my pro umpire career ended I offered to assign all the local Little League Junior League games for 13-14 year-olds. When I went to watch the first game, I was amazed that the pitchers were balking on almost every pitch. I was assigning newer umpires that I had trained or worked with from our local umpire association. What a tough way to learn the balk rule, how to enforce the balk rule, and how to help players and coaches to play within the rules! After this first game as the experienced and respected umpire, I told the coaches of one team, Stephen King (yes, the famous horror author who provided our area with a beautiful stadium) and his close friend Dave Mansfield, “Those pitchers are balking on almost every pitch. They don’t know the difference from the windup or stretch position.”

To my surprise as naive as I was about 13-14 baseball at that time, their response was, ‘When can you teach them how to pitch (legally)?” After spending many hours trying to find umpires and answering the dozens of questions almost daily, I was shocked thinking that my young umpires would have to figure out the balk after having limited training and little experience.

I know that this is not John’s situation, but ignorance of the balk rule happens at all levels including varsity high school and pro baseball. Coaches teach pitchers what they can and can’t do and then those comments become the balk rule for those students of the game who will then innocently pass the same information along to others.

I suggest that we make an effort to:

  1. first and foremost, use the terminology used in the rulebook when teaching and discussing balks (without common language coaches and players will never truly learn the rules),
  2. teach/enforce how pitchers can legally get on and off the rubber,
  3. share how the pitching motion must be a continuous motion toward the plate,
  4. share when/how pitchers commit themselves to pitch to the plate,
  5. share how pitchers (lefties and righties) must move to make legal pickoff attempts, and
  6. finally, ask coaches (only if you sense their respect and will to learn; this works if you see the same people in the same league regularly) to allow you to make decisions on the balk and then you can have brief, learning discussions between innings and after the game so the coaches and kids can learn this rule.

I have watched local umpires do a very good job by taking a moment between innings close to the dugout or as the manager/coach heads to coach the bases informing him of the minor balks that were not called but need his attention. However, good intentions somtimes don’t work out as easily as it sounds here.

Obviously and unfortunately, if your games are highly contested and competitive, you can only teach the rules by enforcing them including enforcing the proper behavior of the coaches. Don’t allow them to continue to make comments about balk calls or the lack thereof. If they can act appropriately and kindly asking for your interpretation whether coming onto the field or not, they can get the best benefit of all–true and accurate knowledge from the horse’s mouth. If they cannot be respectful and model good behavior for their players and all spectators, they get to go home looking like the other end of the horse.

I wish I could help you more. Short of having your local interpreter or experienced umpires meet with all coaches in a particular league prior to the league opening to discuss some of the more difficult rules including the balk, you teach by calling the balk just as one teaches young basketball players what a traveling violation is by calling the violation. Many good umpires have commented in this blog that we should use a lot more discretion in calling balks below the high school varsity level. Sometimes this approach can work against us preventing the learning from taking place. It all sounds easy, but when you are the arbiter, you have to make the decision. That is why they employ/assign us to the games.

This is a tough situation. I appeal to other readers to share your experiences and words of wisdom. Just click on the “Comment(s)” below.

June 19, 2007 Posted by | Balks, Rules | 12 Comments

A Coach’s Perspective on Balks

This comment appeared originally as a comment but has now become its own post. Every day balks dominate the list of search terms that direct readers to our learning blog. For this reason, “Balk” now has its own category.

Dear Coach & Umpire Rob,

Thank you for taking time to share your game situation and not mentioning names or location. By doing so, you have presented an excellent learning opportunity. In turn, umpires involved in this game or any other game situation should not turn comments meant to help all of us learn into an argument.

The gray area surrounding the balk rule comes into play all too often. Is it a balk only if someone is deceived? Why do some interpretations allow for deception (ie. fake to third with direct throw to first without full disengagement from pitcher’s plate)? Do we or should we as umpires rule balks the same despite the level of play? Do the National Federation’s new rule interpretations for this season leave no room for judgement (ie. ball changing hands after engaging pitcher’s plate, etc.)? Is a change of direction, a complete stop? How long is the stop for a complete stop?

Here is Rob’s umpire/coach learning situation:
I am a coach and occasionally an umpire. Yesterday I was coaching a team of middle school boys in a city semi-final game and my son was on the mound. We were leading the game 5-4 with 2 out in the bottom of the seventh inning, a runner on third and 2 strikes on the batter……..the umpire calls “balk” and the tying run scores. I run out and the umpire was telling my son “you did not come to a complete stop”, my son and team were devastated. The next pitch was strike three. We lost in extra innings.

I handled it like a gentleman but feel my son and the team were dealt a long lasting blow that took away all their efforts of the previous two and half hours (not to mention the previous two and a half months that got us to that point).

My son is feeling like he let the whole team down.

The ump may have been technically correct but I don’t believe he served the game of baseball any justice by the timing of his call. I am still upset but know the game is over and the outcome won’t change. As a coach and an adult, I can deal with it but the boys and mostly my son, I want to find the words to best explain it all.

Kimball Comments:
Being a city semi-final game, I wonder whether there may have been a higher level umpire assigned who calls your described balk whenever he sees it. Unfortunately we often see this all too often in local sports. I support middle school regular season officials working middle school playoffs and championships for a wide variety of reasons.

In response to your personal frustration and emotion, I must first applaud you for acting like a gentleman and not blaming others for your team’s loss. This could not have been easy. You apparently modeled excellent behavior. However, I do question how long a this “lasting blow” will last. Players usually rebound much faster than coaches/parents as long as winning and losing and the true benefits of participation are shared throughout the season. Coaches are some of our most important teachers. The difficulty of your role was compounded exponentially by having your son not only on your team, but also on the mound at the time of incident.

Maybe the rule makers will better communicate how the balk rule should be interpreted in its umpire manual. Or, even better, local school leagues can work closely with local umpire associations to set their own ground rules for teaching proper pitching techniques as is done for some of the other sports.

Click on the title of this article or click on “Comment(s)” below to share your comments. Now the discussion continues!

May 20, 2007 Posted by | Balks, Commentary, Rules, Sharing Game Situations | 7 Comments

Lefty Pickoff at First Base (NFHS)

As you continue to explore additional ways to help you rule on left handed pitchers’ move to first base, make sure that you do not forget the rules and mechanics that govern the declaration of a balk.

  • Rule Reference: Rule 6-2-4 (b, d, f apply most specifically to the lefty pickoff)

Rule 6-2-4 Balk Rule

  • Mechanics — Immediately call time using both hands above head while verbally communicating “Time”!
    • (NFHS Rule 5-1-1k) Ball is dead immediately when:
      • NFHS 5-1-1k

Some things to help you decide from “B” or “C” positions:

  • (Article 4f) Can you see the bottom of the pitcher’s foot swinging back over the pitcher’s plate? This is a pretty good indicator that the pitcher’s “entire non-pivot foot passes behind the perpindicular plane of the back edge of the pitcher’s plate”. If the pitcher throws directly to any base other that 2nd base, he has committed a balk (and he can only throw to 2nd if he is making a play on a moving runner.

Some help from the “plate”, “A”, “B”, or “C” positions:

  • (Article 4b) Since “to step with the non-pivot foot directly toward a base” has been interpreted as no more than 45 degrees (half way) to home plate, we can visualize where half way is drawing a mental line extending at a 45 degrees from the midpoint along the front of the pitcher’s plate. If the pitcher’s foot lands on or beyond this imaginary line, a balk has been committed.
  • (Article 4d) The pitcher cannot stop his motion once he begins to pitch. Part of his body must continue to move. If he stops his body and his non-pivot leg, it is a balk.
    • Pitcher must not stop after beginning motion to plate.

Another tip to help you from plate position:

  • As the left steps towards first base and lands, if they step legally, you should see space betweens the pitcher’s legs (in contrast, no space when he steps directly towards you.

From the “A” position in a 3 or 4-person system, you have the best look available. Position yourself so that a direct throw by the pitcher will go just over your left shoulder (closer to first base than most umpires work with a runner on first). This gives you a better look on that swinging non-pivot leg. Study the pitcher on all pitches knowing whether he breaks the plane of the back of the rubber. When the pitcher does something different, there is a good chance he is coming to first. You do not want to be surprised because any time that we are surprised, our timing and judgement are compromised. Know where that imaginary line on the ground is located. Be ready to pull the trigger on the balk!

TIP: If you are unsure and possibly get fooled on the first questionable move to first (your gut and coaches/fans will let you know), go to the mound at the end of the half inning (act like you are checking the ball) and look for the footprint. If a balk should have been called, you then know that if the lefty’s foot lands there again, you will enforce the balk. Get fooled once, but never twice!

Remember to keep your balk discussions with coaches brief. There really isn’t much to say. “He stepped to home.” “He broke the back plane of the pitcher’s plate.” “He deceived the runner(s).” “He hung and stopped his non-pivot leg.” As I said in an earlier post, do not start showing what the pitcher did. You are not a pitcher and the whole crowd doesn’t need you to keep them focused on the coach questioning your call.

All of the help on this topic and throughout this umpire learning blog requires mental and/or physical training. Work on these things while you are at home, on the field, or on the ride to/from the game. You may not get this tough balk situation until you are in the playoffs and you want to shine.

May 9, 2007 Posted by | Balks, Commentary, Mechanics, Rules | 1 Comment

Explaining Balk Calls to Coaches

When coaches question “Balk” calls, choose very carefully whether you respond verbally or with a body motion. When a coach is in a dugout beyond easy hearing distance and he demands a response, you might use a single small body motion. However, sometimes your response may raise more questions increasing the probability that the coach will either enter the field or start possible verbal abuse.

Think before responding. Choosing not to respond is an option.

When the coach is in speaking distance, I suggest that you do not demonstrate the illegal motion. Words work better.

Simply say such things as ‘he started his motion and stopped’, “he failed to stop”, “he did not step: directly towards the base/ahead of throw”, et cetera.

Short statements directly to the point that use rulebook language is the best way to explain balk situations. There is not a long list of rules governing balks. Please do not begin to have coaches teach you the balk rule. Let the balk rule, your experience, and your mentors help you call the balk properly and fairly.

You are serving our most important purposes–teaching the game and adminstering it fairly supported fully by the rules. Our rules are designed for school children and extra-curricular activities are an important extension of the classroom.

April 25, 2007 Posted by | Balks, Commentary, Mechanics, Rules | 25 Comments

2007 NF Rule Interpretations

This comes directly from the National Federation website. I thought it might be nice to have it here in your blog.

Publisher’s Note: The National Federation of State High School Associations is the only source of official high school interpretations. They do not set aside nor modify any rule. They are made and published by the NFHS in response to situations presented.
Robert F. Kanaby, Publisher, NFHS Publications © 2007

SITUATION 1: In the top of the seventh inning, the home team leads 3-2. With a runner on third base, the visiting coach puts on a squeeze play. R1 breaks for home on the pitcher’s motion. The first baseman, aware of the situation, races toward home plate, and catches the pitch in front of the plate and tags the sliding runner before he can reach the plate. RULING: This is obstruction on the batter by the first baseman. The ball will be declared dead, R1 will be awarded home and the batter will be awarded first base. (8-1-1e-1)

SITUATION 2: With R1 on first base, B2 hits a ground ball to F4. While running to second base, R1’s batting helmet falls off (a) and makes contact with the batted ball, deflecting it away from F4, or (b) in front of F4, which distracts him and results in his misplaying the ball. RULING: If R1’s helmet accidentally fell off, there would be no penalty in either (a) or (b). Had the helmet been deliberately removed, and interference occurred, then R1 would have declared out for interference. The umpire could also rule out B2 if he judged the interference prevented a double play. (8-4-2g, 8-4-1h)

SITUATION 3: With no outs and R1 on first base, B2 hits a hard ground ball to F6. F6 fields the ball and steps on second base and then throws to first base in an attempt to double up B2. R1 is running standing up in a straight line to second and is hit by F6’s throw. R1 was not even half way to second base and did not intentionally interfere with the throw. The defensive coach states that B2 should also be out since R1 violated the force-play slide rule. RULING: This is not a violation of the force play slide rule. R1 cannot be expected to slide at that point in the base path. The play stands. R1 would be out only if he intentionally interfered. (8-4-2b penalty)

SITUATION 4: In the fifth inning, having had one defensive charged conference, the defensive head coach requests time and goes to the pitching mound to talk with his pitcher. While he is at the mound, the assistant coach runs over and talks with F3. Is this considered one conference, two separate conferences, or should the umpire not allow the assistant coach on the field while his head coach is having a charged conference? RULING: It is legal for the assistant coach to be having a conference with another defensive player while the head coach is also having a charged conference. This would be considered to be one charged conference. When the head coach’s charged conference is completed, the assistant coach must end his meeting with F3. If the assistant coach delays the game by not ending his conference, the team could be assessed another charged conference. (3-4-1)

SITUATION 5: With (a) one out or (b) two outs, the visiting team has a runner on third in the top of the seventh. The game is tied 2-2. R1, on third, gets a great jump and easily scores on a suicide bunt. After R1 has scored, F2 picks up the ball and throws to first in an attempt to get B3 out. B3 is out of the running lane and is hit by F2’s throw. Does the run by R1 count? RULING: B3 is out for interference. In (a), R1’s run counts because he scored prior to the interference by B3. Had the interference by B3 occurred before R1 crossed the plate, R1 would be returned to third base, the base he occupied at the time of the interference. In (b), R1’s run would not count as the third out occurred by B3 before he touched first base. (8-4-1g, 9-1-1a)

SITUATION 6: In the top of the seventh in the last game of the season, the visiting team’s shortstop is one stolen base short of the record for stolen bases. With one out, he is hit by a pitch and is awarded first base. The pitcher, trying to keep him close to first base, throws over several times. On the last attempted pick-off, the pitcher throws the ball into the dugout. The umpire properly awards the runner second base on the dead ball. The runner and his coach tell the umpire that they will decline the award since they believe he will have a better chance of stealing second base vs. stealing third base. Is the award to a runner optional? RULING: The runner must advance. The award of a base is not optional and cannot be declined by the offense. (8-3-3d)

SITUATION 7: While off the pitching plate, F1 goes to his mouth with his pitching hand. He distinctly wipes it off on his pants and then assumes a pitching position on the pitching plate. RULING: This is legal. There has been no violation by the pitcher. (6-2-1e)

SITUATION 8: While off the pitching plate, F1 goes to his mouth with his pitching hand. Without wiping his pitching hand, he gets on the pitching plate and assumes the windup position with his hands together in front of his body. RULING: A ball shall be called and added to the batter’s count. (6-2-1e penalty)

SITUATION 9: While on the pitching plate in the windup position, the pitcher has both hands at his side. He brings his pitching hand to his mouth and then distinctly wipes it. RULING: This is legal and there has been no violation by the pitcher. (6-2-1e)

SITUATION 10: While on the pitching plate in the windup position, the pitcher has his glove hand in front of his body. He brings his pitching hand to his mouth and, without wiping it, brings his pitching hand to the ball, which is in the glove. RULING: This is a violation by the pitcher and a ball shall be called and added to the batter’s count. (6-2-1e penalty)

SITUATION 11: While on the pitching plate in the windup position, the pitcher has his hands together in front of his body. He then brings his pitching hand to his mouth and returns it to his glove. RULING: This is an illegal pitch by the pitcher. A balk will be called if there are runners on base. If the bases are empty, a ball will be added to the batter’s count. (6-1-2 penalty)

SITUATION 12: While on the pitching plate in the stretch position, the pitcher has the ball in his glove hand and his pitching hand is at his side. He brings his pitching hand to his mouth, distinctly wipes it and returns it to his side. RULING: This is legal and there has been no violation by the pitcher. (6-2-1e)

SITUATION 13: While on the pitching plate in the stretch position, the pitcher has the ball in his glove and his pitching hand at his side. He brings his pitching hand to his mouth and then becomes set with both hands together. RULING: This is a violation as the pitcher did not distinctly wipe his pitching hand after going with it to his mouth. A ball shall be added to the batter’s count. (6-2-1e penalty)

SITUATION 14: While on the pitching plate in the stretch position, the pitcher becomes legally set with his hands together in front of his body. He then brings his hand to his mouth and returns it to his gloved hand. RULING: This is an illegal pitch by the pitcher. A balk will be called if there are runners on base. If the bases are empty, a ball will be added to the batter’s count. (6-1-3 penalty)

SITUATION 15: With no substitutes available, the center fielder collides with the wall and cannot continue playing. An inning later, another player arrives. Can the coach enter the player? RULING: Once the game has begun, a team may continue to play if it loses a player and has only eight players. It is legal for the coach to enter the arriving player in the vacated spot in the lineup, substitute the player for another player still in the game, or to continue to play with eight players. (4-41f, note 2)

SITUATION 16: The shortstop, trying to stop a ground ball, scrapes his elbow which, despite the trainer’s best effort, continues to bleed. The team has no available substitutes. Two innings later, the trainer has the bleeding stopped and the elbow properly bandaged. RULING: It is legal for a team to continue play with only eight players. The shortstop may now re-enter the game in his vacated spot in the lineup provided he has re-entry eligibility left as a starting player. (4-4-1f, note 2)

SITUATION 17: With only nine players, the second baseman twists his ankle jumping for a line drive and cannot continue to play. An inning later, a player who had been taking a test arrives at the game. The coach decides to continue the game with only eight players and hold the newly arrived player as insurance in case another player is injured. RULING: This is legal. It is not mandatory for a coach to return to playing with nine players when another player becomes available. (4-4-1f, note 2)

SITUATION 18: R1 at first base is off and running as the pitcher delivers the pitch. B2 hits a fly ball to deep center field. R1 misses second base and is between second and third when F8 catches the ball at the fence. R1 sees the catch, touches second base returning and beats the throw back to first base. The defense is granted “time” and verbally appeals that R1 missed second as he attempted to advance on the fly ball. RULING: When R1 touched second base as he returned to first, he corrected his baserunning infraction because he touched the base the last time he went by it. The appeal is denied. (8-2-2, 8-2-6)

SITUATION 19: With R1 on first and no outs in a close game, the first baseman is playing about 20 feet in front of first base in case of a bunt attempt by B2. The pitcher, in the stretch position, throws to F3 in a pick-off attempt on R1. RULING: This is a balk. The first baseman is not in proximity of first base and is not close enough to legitimately make a play on the runner. The ball is dead and R1 is awarded second base. (6-2-4b)

RULING 20: With R1 on first base, the right-handed batter B2 swings hard and misses the pitch. The catcher, seeing R1 slow in returning to first, attempts to pick him off. B2’s follow-through by the bat hits the catcher and causes his throw to sail into right field. RULING: The ball is dead and the B2 is declared out for batter interference. R1 is returned to first base. A batter is responsible for the follow-through of a bat when he swings. (7-3-5c)

April 19, 2007 Posted by | Balks, Official Interpretations, Rules | 5 Comments