Goodbye to the Least-Enforced Rule in the Rule Book by Jeff Sullivan February 22, 2017 The intentional walk, as we’ve known it, is dead, and that’s fine. Pitchers no longer will have to lob four baseballs, as a batter can now be put on by means of a simple signal. This will not, of course, turn baseball from being a slow game into being a fast game, but it will take care of a small amount of pointlessly active inaction. While I do understand the appeal of this video: …such memorable events are incredibly rare. The natural parallel is to the NFL’s extra point, which was made more difficult a short while ago because it used to be a gimme. The NFL did what it could to make the extra point a little more interesting. There was no way for baseball to make an intentional walk more interesting, so the whole active portion of it has been eliminated. There will be intended consequences, and I’m sure there will also be unintended consequences. Among the lesser-known consequences is that this effectively erases what was probably baseball’s least-enforced rule. So that I am being absolutely clear, this is not a fond-farewell kind of post. I will not miss this rule. Mostly because no one’s ever had to pay attention to this rule. If you’d asked me, I don’t know, a year ago, I’d have probably said baseball’s least-enforced rule was the one saying batters have to make an attempt to avoid a pitch if they want to be awarded first base when struck. That’s official rule 6.08(b), and many of us have known about it since we were kids, yet for some reason or another it’s just about never invoked. You could argue this play might’ve cost Max Scherzer a perfect game. We see players hit on elbows all the time, and many of those elbows remain where they are, but bases are granted anyway. Here is one clip of a batter getting hit but not being awarded a base: Your browser does not support iframes. And, famously, the rule was invoked to the benefit of Don Drysdale in 1968. I don’t know how to look up when this has been called, so I can’t speak to its actual frequency, but it’s most certainly uncommon. When it is or isn’t called feels almost random, which might be worse than a total lack of enforcement at all. I’m not sure. So, that rule — umpires seldom make use of that rule. But there’s at least one rule that’s been enforced less frequently still. It’s not going to matter anymore, now that the actual intentional walks are going away, but for a visual, why don’t we look at the last-ever intentional walk in big-league history? That’s Bryan Shaw walking Addison Russell in Game 7 of the World Series. Two batters earlier, Shaw intentionally walked Anthony Rizzo to set up a double play, but it actually just set up a regular double. Here, the Indians wanted a force at every base. The next batter singled. The Indians lost. You remember Game 7. There’s nothing particularly weird about that clip above. You’ve seen intentional balls like that a million times. But! Here is a screenshot: Here’s a screenshot from Shaw’s earlier intentional walk: Here’s a screenshot from before Shaw was even in the act of throwing: And here is a picture from Wikipedia that’s supposed to show the catcher’s box: See that box behind home plate? It’s wider than the plate itself, but the catcher is supposed to remain within it. Allow me to cite the official MLB rules: 5.02 (4.03) Fielding Positions When the ball is put in play at the start of, or during a game, all fielders other than the catcher shall be on fair territory. (a) The catcher shall station himself directly back of the plate. He may leave his position at any time to catch a pitch or make a play except that when the batter is being given an intentional base on balls, the catcher must stand with both feet within the lines of the catcher’s box until the ball leaves the pitcher’s hand. PENALTY: Balk. Both feet within the box until release. Don’t bother asking yourself what the intended function of the rule might be. That isn’t the point. The point is that this rule has existed, and if you look at the pictures above, Yan Gomes is in clear violation. The penalty is supposed to be a balk. In theory, then, the Cubs could’ve argued that the deserved a run when Russell was being put on. Runner from third would come home, right? Then the runner from second would go to third. He’d score, too, if Gomes did it again. The Cubs made no such argument, because nobody knew, or nobody cared. It’s the rule that baseball chose to ignore. And there would be violations all the time! Go through that first YouTube video about crazy intentional walks. From the Miguel Cabrera one: From the Gary Sanchez one: From the Barry Bonds one: For fun, I looked up really slow intentional balls. I found Craig Stammen throwing pitches under 40 miles per hour from early 2015. Here’s a screenshot from that: Balks! All of them, technically balks. Catcher’s balks, albeit balks that still get charged to the pitcher. All of them balks, but none of them balks. Now, the rule wasn’t never enforced, but when I’ve searched, I’ve almost exclusively found stories from below the major leagues. The Modesto Nuts benefited from a random catcher’s balk last April. Here’s a clip from YouTube from a different game: Excerpting from the clip description, which appears to excerpt from a manual by former umpire Harry Wendelstedt: Harry’s Hints: This rule should only be enforced when the catcher is attempting to take advantage of the rule by leaving the box to prevent runners from being able to steal while the pitcher gives an intentional walk. Umpires have many other things to look for in this situation, than to completely focus on the catcher’s feet. This rule should only be enforced when the intent of the catcher is to gain an advantage, and ONLY when an intentional base on balls is being attempted. This is why the rule was enforced in the Modesto game. There was a runner on and the pitcher and catcher were afraid he was going to take off. But let me now share with you some words from umpire Tim McClelland: McClelland: It is a balk if the catcher doesn’t stay in the catcher’s box until the pitcher delivers the ball. If he were to step out of the catcher’s box – the little box behind home plate – before the pitcher delivers the ball it would be called a catcher’s balk. The runners would advance. As a matter of fact, I have never seen it called, it’s one of those things you just kind of let slide. But it is in the rule book, we haven’t updated the rule book in a long time. If it was called recently, it would be by an umpire taking the rule book to the letter of the law and sometimes we have to kind of overlook some things to make the game run smoother. The last case I can find in the major leagues occurred in June of 2000, with catcher Fernando Lunar. But those circumstances were different — the Braves had been at the center of some controversy that they were drawing the catcher’s box too big, in order to try to benefit from more generous calls. On the night when the Braves drew the box smaller, Lunar set up outside of it, and a call was made. TBS apparently showed visual proof that the catcher’s box was smaller than it had been the game before, and the Braves were so upset with their own broadcast that they temporarily banned four broadcasters from the team’s chartered flights. I’ve found nothing since. Which is for the best, because enforcing the rule during an intentional walk would be cruel and stupid. So that I can say it again: It’s good this rule wasn’t enforced. There wouldn’t be any benefit, and players and coaches would be left upset. The hit-by-pitch rule — that one *should* be enforced more often. That’s the big difference between these two rules. But, now, only one of these rules still exists. Which means we’ve come to the end of such missed opportunities for smart and obnoxious opposing managers to try to get a free extra base. You blew it, Joe Maddon. This one could’ve been yours.