Red Sox

The clock is good, but the rest of MLB’s rule changes are balk-worthy

The mixture of MLB-demanded moves harkens to an all-time bad call, and an epidemic from 1988.

Umpire Joe West has an animated discussion with pitcher Kevin Gross over a balk call.
A young Joe West got into it with Philadelphia's Kevin Gross over a balk call in 1987, a year before baseball went truly balk-crazy. 1987 File/Associated Press


It was a monumental week in Major League Baseball, and certainly not because the Red Sox won a game on just four singles and a first-inning run for the first time since 1914.

“Any time you can change speeds and quick pitch, slow pitch, hesitate, have the ball come out of your hand the way you want to, it’s a good day for the feel,” Rich Hill told reporters Sunday in Baltimore, the 42-year-old having shown guile that wouldn’t have looked out of place in the dead-ball era. “Conditions weren’t ideal, obviously, but we all had to deal with it and you go out there and put that behind you and make pitches.”


Was a good day to be a baseball antiquity. Hill’s latest turn-back-the-clock gem came as Albert Pujols cranked regular-season home run No. 697 to pass Alex Rodriguez. It capped a good weekend for both: Pujols homered on back-to-back days in Pittsburgh, and Hill made arguably the one good joke about baseball’s 2023 rule changes by replacing third base with a couch cushion.

The pitch clock is finally coming to the majors despite the unanimous disapproval of the players on the sport’s competition committee. I understand the resistance to change, but to be clear, resistance to the clock is a clear declaration you’ve not watched a game with it in use yet.

There’s a flow to things that you didn’t entirely know you missed. You’re gonna love it. Promise. (Unless you’re Matt Strahm, who didn’t mince words ripping it and more apart to WEEI.)

The rest of the rules changes? Let’s leave it at I hope the powers that be reserved the right to change their minds.

I’m all for trying a severe curtailing of defensive shifts, via the sort of positioning mandates that every sport has, but I’m still not sold it’s going to have the desired effect of getting more batters on bases via genuine action. Larger bases? Fine, I guess.


Limiting pickoffs — “disengagements” by the pitcher, in MLB parlance — on the threat of a balk? Funny they pick that. I’m getting Year of the Balk vibes already.

And hoo boy, are you in for a treat if you don’t know what that is.

Much like Gordon Gekko and Aqua Net, the late ’80s were the salad days of the balk, the pitcher no-no that doubles as baseball’s answer to the catch in football. We’ve all seen them, we’re sorta comfortable we know what they are, but please don’t ask us to define them. (Here’s 750 words trying to.)

The years 1986-90 are five of the six-most balk-happy years in MLB history, but 1988 stands alone without pause. Across 4,200 games, 924 balks were called.

Context? Second place for a season is 407. This year’s on pace for about 150. Put another way, in 2022, a balk is called on average about once every 17 MLB games. In 1988, it took two months of the season for a single game to be played without at least one balk.

The spark of this wildfire was a belief National League umpires interpreted the longstanding balk rule differently than American League umps and called far more. This came to somewhat of a head in the 1987 World Series, when Cardinals manager Whitey Herzog accused Minnesota’s Bert Blyleven of a dozen uncalled balks after a Game 2 gem.


St. Louis lost the series, and baseball people sat down to try and do what they just did last week — level the playing field and make the game better. In December 1987, they rewrote the balk rule, declaring pitchers must make “a complete and discernable stop, with both feet on the ground” before each pitch.

Umpires took “discernable” as a directive to seek them out. And good grief, did they ever. Former Sox reliever Dennis Lamp had more balks called on him in 1988 spring training games than he had in his prior 11 major-league seasons.

Knuckleballer Charlie Hough, who still had seven seasons to go in a career that would extend past his 46th birthday, had seven balks called on him in one inning of a spring game against Toronto. From them grew one of the great runs in baseball history: Hough hit Cecil Fielder, then balked him all the way around the bases without successfully throwing another pitch.

“If it’s balks they want, it’s balks they’re going to get,” Hough told reporters wryly, admitting he was testing the limits in a zero-stakes environment.

Twenty-five years earlier, the NL had made a similar move, only to back off less than three weeks into the regular season amid a litany of protest. In 1988, the owners who’d just authored collusion showed no such weakness. More balks were called that April (253) than in any full season following the 1994-95 strike.

Dave Stewart, the late-80s force whose jersey was finally retired by the A’s on Sunday, broke the full-season balk record of 11 by Memorial Day. His 16 hasn’t been challenged in a generation, and 14 of the top-20 single seasons today are 1988 relics. (The AL, long the balking laggard, called 50 percent more than the NL that year.)


Though totals did drop with each subsequent month, leading some to say the point had been made successfully, baseball threw out the new wording in January 1989. It’s a historical quirk amid what was an unforgettable season both nationally (thanks to Kirk Gibson) and in New England (thanks to Morgan Magic).

But that’s also due to something still lacking in the modern game. Something more important than action or steals or anything else: Collaboration.

Part of the reason to rewritten balk rule was so easily removed was because it was installed as a one-year trial thanks to the insistence of the players association. Its permanence would have required both players and owners to agree, which the latter refused.

“We thought that the change, both in enforcement and language, was inappropriate and likely to force changes in the game that nobody wanted,” Don Fehr, union executive director, told reporters after the reversion. “The balk rule is to be enforced in 1989 and it was in 1987 . . . I expect there will be good faith.”

We have no right to expect that now, not when current union head Tony Clark wasn’t at commissioner Rob Manfred’s announcement of the new rules, and quickly put out a statement decrying the league as “unwilling to meaningfully address the areas of concern that Players raised.”

Divided houses don’t stand. Intransigence gets nothing meaningful done, and that needn’t be accompanied by an assignment of blame to either side here.

There will be unintended consequences of the rules changes in 2023. Some will be good, some will be bad, but all will need to be addressed with subsequent adjustments.


Considering we’re almost 15 years into replay and it’s still what it is, color me a little concerned about the second part.


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