Posted by: Peter | August 8, 2010

Balk, then Run

This post came about by a very circuitous and meandering process, as then end result of one of those late-night random Internet-surfing sessions. Sometimes after I watch a Twins game, I’ll switch to a late game from the west coast and keep it on in the background while I do something else.  When I do, I often turn on a Dodgers game in order to listen to Vin Scully’s play-by-play. Doing this recently led me to do a little reading up on Scully, and in the process I stumbled onto this wonderful old Sports Illustrated article from 1964, profiling a 36-year-old Scully.

There are all kinds of great little nuggets in that article, but this is the thing that sent me off on another Internet-trawling expedition:

The National League had told its umpires to enforce strictly the balk rule, which provided that with men on base a pitcher had to stop for one full second in the course of his windup before throwing the ball to the plate. Many pitchers were violating the rule unintentionally, and the umpires soon made so many balk calls that they sounded like a flock of crows in a cornfield. The league office eventually backed down and everything became serene again, but before that happened one of the real crises of the Great Balk War occurred at Los Angeles during a game between the Dodgers and the Cincinnati Reds. The Reds, the Dodgers and the umpires became embroiled in a loud, long discussion on the question of whether or not a pitcher had stopped for one full second. The argument went on and on, and up in the broadcasting booth Scully was obliged to keep talking. He reviewed the balk rule, the National League‘s effort to enforce it, the numbers of balks that had been called thus far in league play compared to the number of balks called in previous seasons, and so on. Finally, with the argument still dragging on down below, Scully brought up the obvious but intriguing fact that one second is a surprisingly difficult length of time to judge. He asked his audience if they had ever tried to gauge a second precisely. He said, “Hey, let’s try something. I’ll get a stopwatch from our engineer…” And with thousands of spectators watching him as he sat in the broadcasting booth, he reached up and back and took a watch from the engineer. “…I’ll push the stopwatch and say, ‘One!’ and when you think one full second has elapsed you yell, ‘Two!’ Ready? One!”

There was a momentary pause and then 19,000 voices yelled, “Two!” The managers, the umpires, the players, the batboys, the ball boys all stopped and looked around, startled. Scully said into the microphone, “I’m sorry. Only one of you had it right. Let’s try it again. One!” And again, a great “Two!” roared across Dodger Stadium and out into Chavez Ravine. The ballplayers were staring up at the broadcasting booth, and one of them got on the dugout phone, called the press box and asked, “What the hell is going on?” The crowd, immensely pleased with itself, waited patiently for the argument on the field to end.

The stuff about Scully playing with the fans is pretty great, but what struck me was the stuff about the balk. I’ve always thought that balks were one of the most ambiguous, complicated, and subjective calls that an umpire can make. I can see why the balk rule is necessary–without it, base-stealing would be nearly impossible–but the existing rule is not a very elegant solution. There are 16 different ways to balk, and many of them rely on judgement calls by the umpire. It often seems that balk calls are random and arbitrary, which causes lots of problems and controversy even before Joe West gets involved. In general, the whole rule seems to me like a kludge, indicating an area where the rules of baseball just aren’t fundamentally designed that well.

But back to the Scully article. I had never before really thought about the way the balk rule was enforced from year to year, nor did it occur to me that there might be big differences between seasons. Now, changing the enforcement of the balk rule isn’t a huge rule change–it’s not like lowering the mound or changing the strike zone–but nevertheless it could impact how the game is played.

So I fired up the Baseball Databank to see if I could verify this alleged one-year explosion of balks in 1963. And sure enough, there it is:

(I defined “balks per 162 games” as 162*9*balks/inning. So it’s an approximation of the average number of balks charged to each team over 162 9-inning games.)

Just as the article suggested, the spike in walks in 1963 was only in the National League. But that apparently wasn’t the only time that the league did something like this–something similar happened in 1950, this time in both leagues, but then too it only lasted for one season. And then there’s the 1980’s, when there was both a general rise in balks over the decade and an enormous spike in 1988.

The latter year, it turns out, was the “year of the balk”. The spike in balks resulted from an actual rule change, in which the balk rule was modified to say that after the stretch, a pitcher had to come to “a single complete and discernible stop, with both feet on the ground.” (There’s even a Twins connection here, as the rule change was allegedly prompted by Bert Blyleven’s near-balks in the ’87 World Series.) This changed caused balks to skyrocket, to the point that the previous single season-record for balks was broken by seven different pitchers, and the AL record for team balks was broken by every team but one.

Just as before, the status quo was restored the next season and balks came back down. But as I noted above, the status quo in the ’80’s still involved more balks than in any other era. So this made me wonder: how might this have affected play?

Baseball in the ’80’s was distinguished by less power hitting and more base-stealing than you see in today’s game. I found that interesting in light of the rise in balks: if there’s one aspect of play that you’d expect to be directly affected by balk enforcement, it would be base-stealing.  All things being equal, more balk calls ought to lead to more stolen base attempts, since pitchers will have more trouble effectively holding runners on without getting called for a balk.

Let’s look at the balk chart again, followed by a chart of stolen bases. I’ve defined base-stealing using this formula:

SBrate = ( SB ) / ( (H - 2B - 3B - HR) + BB + HBP)

This follows the method used by Bill James in his speed scores. It counts stolen bases relative to the number of times that a runner ended up on first base.

[Note that I'm not including caught-stealings--that's because the data isn't available consistently before 1950. But when I tested this analysis with caught-stealing included, it didn't really change the result. Even beyond this issue, this measure isn't perfect, since steal attempts will usually only happen when second base is empty, which in turn is more likely if the league has a lower on-base percentage overall. It also doesn't really deal correctly with steals of third (or home). But these are minor issues, and I'm confident the patterns I show below are legitimate.]

So here are the graphs:

As expected, the rise in stolen bases parallels the rise in balks. But the really interesting part here is the comparison between the AL and the NL. During the 1980’s–and only then–the two leagues showed very different levels of both stolen base attempts and balks called, with the NL having more balks and more stolen bases. This suggests that there really was some connection between the two, and it’s not just a coincidence.

So what explains this association between balks and stolen bases? In general, there are three possibilities:

  1. More balks caused more stolen base attempts, because pitchers had a harder time controlling baserunners.
  2. More stolen bases led to more balks, as pitchers spent more time throwing over to hold the runner and therefore had more opportunities to balk.
  3. Some other factor caused the change in both stolen bases and balks.

Possibility (1) seems like the most likely to me, but it’s worth considering the others. Option (2) is plausible in theory but it seems less likely to me–primarily because in other high-stolen base eras, we don’t see a comparable rise in balks. In addition, I can’t really think of a reason stolen bases would diverge so much between leagues otherwise, whereas there’s a good reason the number of balks would be different: the leagues had different officials and separate presidents at the time, so it’s possible the NL just decided to crack down on balks a little harder. And as for option (3), it’s certainly possible that there’s some other causal factor here, but I can’t think what it might be.

Note also that while the long-run increase in balk calls in the ’80’s is associated with more stolen bases, stolen bases don’t seem to change in the seasons after the big one-year spikes in 1950, 1963, and 1988. This makes sense, too–baserunners aren’t likely to change their behaviro immediately; rather, they’ll likely adapt once they realize that the officiating has permanently changed.

None of this is definitive proof–it’s more of an initial exploration. And anyway, the increase in stolen bases in the 1970’s and ’80’s obviously wasn’t all because of the balk rule. But it does look like balk calls were a part of the story. It’s something I’ve never seen discussed, although no doubt there’s a study out there about this that I don’t know about. Regardless, I think this stuff is really interesting to think about. After all, the whole reason it’s possible to do statistical studies of baseball like this one is that the game has been played with mostly the same rules for over 100 years. Because of that, we sometimes over look the ways in which the game hasn’t stayed the same, and how that might effect what happens on the field.

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