If Urías balks, why has no ump ever called one?

Jon SooHoo/Los Angeles Dodgers

Jon SooHoo/Los Angeles Dodgers

By Jon Weisman

Julio Urías has pitched 79 innings in the big leagues this year, including the postseason. He has allowed 119 baserunners, many of whom stood on first base with an opportunity to steal second. He picked off seven of those batters.

During those innings, 16 different umpires have worked behind home plate, with several more of their colleagues working the bases.

Not one of those umpires has called Urías for a balk.

That’s really the only point I care to make here. I’m not here to argue whether Urías’ pickoff move, which is rapidly gaining notoriety (or depending on your point of view, infamy) is a balk or not. Personally, I think the balk rule, with its 3,981 different qualifiers, is so arcane as to be a joke. The infield-fly rule, by comparison, could hardly be more clear: runners on first and second, fewer than two out, pop fly, fair territory, umpire calls the batter out automatically.

Ever since Urías showed his pickoff move on the big stage in the National League Division Series — even earning nicknames such as “The Drifter” from Fox Sport 1’s announcers — there have been widespread critiques.

Cubs manager Joe Maddon, whether speaking sincerely from the heart, working the refs or both, laid it out Tuesday afternoon.

“When you get to see it on TV, it’s pretty obvious,” Maddon said. “It’s not even close. It’s a very basic tenet regarding what is and what is not a balk. Give him credit, man, for going through with it. That’s part of the game. I think from umpire’s perspective, there are certain umpires that are in tune to that, some that are not. There are other balks that I always get annoyed with that aren’t called. So I’m certain that the umpiring crew has been made aware of it. … That’s not an interpretation. That’s balking 101 for me. So we’ll see. We’ll see how it all plays out.”

Except Maddon is wrong in one fundamental way. It’s not obvious. It is close.

So far, a couple dozen or more Major League umpires over the past five months have had a look at every move Urías makes. Conservatively speaking, Urías has thrown to first base at least 100 times. And the umps, all of whom seem to have different strike zones, different umpiring styles, different relationships with players and managers, have been unanimous. Urías hasn’t balked.

How is this possible? I don’t know. For starters, I’m ruling out a vast global conspiracy. We can also rule out the kind of deference to a veteran that say, Clayton Kershaw — MLB’s active leader in pickoffs by a huge margin — might receive. Urías is literally the youngest pitcher in the sport. Would you really believe umpires would shy away from teaching the kid a lesson? Are they afraid to “balk” like a chicken?

Or — and again, I have zero opinion on this aspect of it — it’s not a balk.

This is not a bang-bang play at first base that the umpires see through the blink of an eye and have to decide. They’ve seen Urías throw to first over and over again. They’ve had every opportunity to shout “balk!” And they haven’t. Not once.

Now, maybe this ends soon. Maybe it ends tonight, when Urías makes his historic start in Game 4 of the National League Division Series, with Angel Hernandez behind the plate for one his games for the first time. Kershaw, after all, had no balks called on him in the 109 2/3 innings he threw in his rookie season. Since then, Kershaw has been charged with 17 balks. (In 2015, I wrote a lengthy piece about Kershaw’s move.)

But whatever Urías has been doing, it’s not obviously a balk. It’s obviously not obvious. Otherwise, guess what — someone, anyone, would have called one.

3 Comments

First, Sparky Anderson griped in 1975 that Luis Tiant was balking. Well, it was his natural move. And his natural move may have had about 128 balks in it, but since it was what he always did, how could it be a balk?

Second, one of The Vin’s greatest moments was when the leagues decided in the early 1960s that pitchers had to come set for one second. During the inevitable argument, Vin asked how long was a second, grabbed a stopwatch, and had the fans try to time it, so about 50,000 people were yelling, “One! Two!” It shook them up on the field.

Third, in one of his books, Ron Luciano, the late umpire, said he never knew the balk rule, but always shot his hand up when his crew chief, Bill Haller, called a balk. One day he heard someone call balk and shot his hand into the air and yelled balk. Then he realized it was a fan. But when he did it, Haller immediately yelled, “Balk!”

Good piece. It’s going to be interesting to see what happens tonight.

While the infield fly rule may be a little clearer, isn’t it subject to the same kind of judgment call that the balk is? People can’t seem to agree on what constitutes a pop fly, what constitutes the infield, and what constitutes “ordinary effort.” The other night, there were many people on Twitter who wanted the infield fly rule called on the soft line drive that Javy Baez dropped on purpose.

Anyway, for my money, there is no reason for either rule to exist at all. Want to fake out the baserunner? Go ahead. Want to drop a pop-up and try to turn a difficult double play? Go ahead. At the very least, it would make the game a little more entertaining.

Don’t the Cubs need to get someone on base before a balk even becomes an issue?

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