August 1, 2011 – One Play but Two Balks


In the second inning of this Monday night game in Milwaukee, Chris Carpenter got his spikes caught while in his delivery.  The pitch attempt was aborted, but there was a runner on first base.  The umpires had no choice but to call a balk on Carpenter, allowing Yuniesky Betancourt to take second base.   In his 14 year career, including over 2,000 innings pitched, that is just the third balk called on Chris Carpenter.  An impressive total, especially considering he’s pitched in the “Balkin'” Bob Davidson era.  Davidson is long time umpire who has an ability to see balks even when the rest of us can’t.  Even after watching the reply.  Several times.

So that takes care of the first balk.  Where’s the second ?

In the official rules of baseball, section 8 covers all aspects of the pitcher, and the pitched ball.  Several specific actions or circumstances are identified as plays that where a balk should be called.  Section 8.05 includes a rather lengthy and canonical list of additional situations where a balk is the prescribed ruling.  That section ends with an important comment, meant to aid the umpires in situations where the specific rules are inadequate to cover a specific incident.  It says,

Comment: Umpires should bear in mind that the purpose of the balk rule is to prevent the pitcher from deliberately deceiving the base runner. If there is doubt in the umpire’s mind, the “intent” of the pitcher should govern.

And this is where the second balk must be called, but not on Chris Carpenter.  It should be charged to Al Hrabosky, for his comments that immediately followed Carpenters failed pitch.

The purpose of a former player in the broadcast booth is to share his experiences and tell stories about the times when they were playing.  Mike Shannon is one such broadcaster, and he is a genuine treasure.   He might not be the best technical broadcaster, and at times can be a little hard to understand, but nobody tells a story like Shannon.   In fact, nobody can take a great story and mangle it up like the Moon Man.  Either way, listeners are left laughing so hard that they often end wiping away tears.

Here’s a typical Mike Shannon story.

Well, there was this one time when Bob Purkey came over and then we all went out to, ho ho ha ha wheeeee, and then Tracy Stollard came in and, well you know the other day when I saw ho ho ha ha wheeeee and then Lee Smith.

I have no idea what any of that meant, but it still makes me laugh.   The reason is simple, there is a real story in there somewhere that tickles Mike Shannon, and he so desperately wants to share it with us.   It must be a doozy too, because he has never finished it, in spite of hearing it start at least a dozen times.   But that’s the key – it is a genuine experience he is trying to relate, and we are comfortable just living vicariously though him for that moment, laughing with him, even though we have no idea why.

That brings us back to Al Hrabosky, a former left-handed reliever and now commentator with Fox Sports Midwest.  Hrabosky’s career is impressive, and if you aren’t old enough to have seen him pitch, it was unlike anything you would see in the game today.   Big hair, even bigger facial hair, wild eyes coming out from between the bill of a hat jammed way down on his head and the top of an oversized glove were the opening act.  His delivery was something just short of an attack by a Tasmanian Devil.   And it was not a gimmick, he was really really good.

Which is why his next comment is disturbing.  His career is good enough without unnecessary embellishing.   But that’s what he did.

Ricky [Horton] (last time it was Dan McLaughlin), you know who used to commit a lot of balks ?  Bob Gibson.   Gibson was so in sync with his catcher, he would start his delivery before the catcher was ready and would have to stop, and be called for a balk.

Paraphrased somewhat, but I’ve tried to include what I could recall from the story.  In some earlier versions, the catcher was specifically Tim McCarver.   Hrabosky was sharing this from his vast playing time with Bob Gibson.

Fact check #1.  Hrabosky’s rookie year was 1973.   He had been called up for short times to replace an injured pitcher in 1970 and 71.  He also got a September callup at the end of the 1972 season.  Over those three years, the young phenom (yes, that is fair) got into exactly 22 games.  At age 37, 1973 was Bob Gibson’s last strong season, and he would not see the end of 1975 with the team.

Hrabosky had a good enough career.  It doesn’t need to be “enhanced” by sharing a Gibson observation as if they were life long teammates.

Fact check #2.  If you consider the short period when Gibson and Hrabosky’s careers intersected, Gibson was charged with quite a few balks.  It wasn’t because he had any mystical mind-meld with his catcher, but they did happen.  6 of Gibson’s 13 career balks came in 1972, 1973 and 1974 – that’s nearly half of his total from a career that spanned 17 years and over 3,800 innings pitched.

So was that a big number ?

Don Drysdale (14 years, 3,400 innings) was called for 10.  Denny McLain (10 years, 1,886 innings) was caught 9 times.  Jim Palmer (19 years, 3,900 innings) balked 11 times.  And finally, Ferguson (Fergie) Jenkins (19 years, a whopping 4,500 innings) 18 balks called.

Gibson’s 13 in his career doesn’t seem that bad.   But there’s more.

Phil Niekro – 43 (but his brother Joe, only 8).   Orel Hershiser – 23.  Joaquin Andujar – 33 (yikes).  Bob Welch – 45.   Dave Stewart 23 – but 16 came in one season (that’s more that Gibson’s entire career).

And I’ll save the best for last……

Steve Carlton – 90.  Whoa Nelly, that’s a big number.   And a closer look shows that his balk rate started increasing in ….. wait for it ….. 1972.   From 1967 to 1971, 1 balk  From 1972 to 1974 – 6.  And the numbers sort of get crazy from there.

There is a pattern here, and it has nothing to do with Bob Gibson.   Several times in the game’s history, umpires have been instructed to more strongly enforce the balk rule, especially when the pitchers comes to his set position.  That rule was much more strongly enforced starting in the mid 1980s, which is why you see pitchers like Orel Hershiser and Bob Welch with such high numbers.   Oh, and Dave Stewart’s 16 came in …… 1988.

There was even a balk controversy in the 1987 World Series when Bert Blyleven failed to have a discernible stop in his delivery, which upset Cardinals base runners.  Interestingly, teammate Les Straker (8 balks in 237 innings) was called in both the ALCS and World Series.

I could go on, pointing out things like McCarver was a member of the Phillies during a lot of Gibson’s “balk trouble”, but I think I’ll stop here.

I love a good baseball story.  I really do.  But I don’t like things that are fabricated for the purposes of making a point where there is none to be made.  And I really dislike when somebody stretches their greatness by attaching themselves to others.

So in accordance with Rule 8.05,  a former pitcher did purposely alter his delivery with the purposeful intent of deceiving his audience, and as a result I am charging Al Hrabosky with a balk.

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2 Responses to August 1, 2011 – One Play but Two Balks

  1. William says:

    Dead on! Nail him, brother! I so dislike former players talking about their careers (unless they are asked), that it usually infuriates me. I grew up listening to Phil Rizzuto. I don’t EVER remember him talking about his playing days EVER during one of those broadcasts.

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