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Big League Stew

Rule Change! Third-to-first fake pickoff is now officially a balk

Mark Townsend
Big League Stew

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Like a professional wrestler hitting his opponent with brass knuckles behind the referee‘s back, the surest way to draw an angry reaction from baseball fans is to break out the old fake-to-third, throw-to-first pickoff move.

Of course, the difference is the pitcher’s intent isn’t to draw a reaction from the crowd. Often times there is real sound strategy involved, whether it's attempting to dupe a base runner into making a mistake, a hitter into showing his hand too early, or even just buying some extra time to collect his thoughts or allow a reliever to warm up.

It really has served a purpose other than to annoy. But I guess that doesn’t change the fact the play rarely worked — you can count the successful attempts every season on one hand — and often killed the flow of a game. And that’s not to mention I've always felt the move fit the technical description of a balk since deception was involved.

[Also: Bob Costas eulogizes Stan Musial (video)]

It was with all of those factors in mind that Major League Baseball began a discussion to eliminate the "pickoff attempt" last spring. Now comes word from the New York Times' Tyler Kepner that the change is official, and beginning this season any such attempt to fake a move toward third base will result in a balk.

Under a rule change imposed by Major League Baseball for this season, pitchers can no longer fake a pickoff throw to third base. Pitchers who did this would almost always follow by wheeling and firing to first — or to second, if a duped runner had taken off in that direction. No more.

The play is now part of baseball’s graveyard, like the bullpen cart, the Montreal Expos, pullover jerseys and World Series games in the sunshine. It simply did not work often enough to be worth the wasted time.

It may not work enough to be worth the wasted time, but as former major leaguer Jeff Nelson alludes to in the same article, it definitely kept baserunners on their toes and will now work in their favor as they no longer have to worry about the embarrassment of being tricked by the move.

“The managers say it’s all about speeding up the game,” said Nelson, now a contributor to MLB.com. “I think now, the runner at first might get a little bit of an advantage. All it’s used for is to keep the runner at first close. I might have done it 100 times and gotten two guys on it.”

Ah, yes, he also mentions speeding up the game. That's another factor. But our own Kevin Kaduk made a pretty good point about that when this discussion first came up eight months ago.

Also, if it's something that's designed to speed up the game, it seems like a token move, at best. After all, if Bruce Chen can still throw 1o regular pickoff attempts in one at-bat, what good does getting rid of an occasional gimmick pickoff attempt do? (Outside of giving us the pleasure of yelling "BALK!" with the previously misinformed, of course?)

We'll probably never know what the true reason for the change is. I think a lot of people would actually accept it if they just said the play was maddening, but it's more than likely a combination of all the aforementioned factors. And perhaps it's even done to make it look like they're working on something while they allow issues such as instant replay to hang in the wind.

Only those who approved the change know for sure.

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