Goodbye to the Least-Enforced Rule in the Rule Book

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:

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.





Jeff made Lookout Landing a thing, but he does not still write there about the Mariners. He does write here, sometimes about the Mariners, but usually not.

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ChippersJonesing
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ChippersJonesing

Heh, I didn’t even know that was a rule…

Sort of only tangentially related to the topic, why is the MLBPA so opposed to these rules to speed up the game? It hasn’t happened yet, but if the MLB can’t find a future audience, eventually they’re going to feel it in their wallets, shouldn’t they be more keen to try to attract more fans? Not that I really think a tiny thing like this is actually going to help much, but it’s still the principle of it.

HappyFunBall
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HappyFunBall

If management wants it, the MLBPA is theoretically opposed to it on principle. Just as a bargaining position to secure some sort of concession from the owners. It doesn’t mean that they’re actually opposed to it

Mule
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Mule

Pace of play rules are for the benefit of broadcasters who are shelling out tons of money to MLB and want the games coming in under three hours to fit their schedules. No kid is going to suddenly be enamored with a sport because it takes 2 2/3 hours to play instead of 3.

If they were actually worried about losing their future audience they would do something about the byzantine blackout restrictions that prevent most young people from ever seeing a game by their home team unless they actually go to one. Most young people aren’t shelling out for expensive cable packages, if they even bother with cable at all. The exclusive rights deals cable companies get block out a lot of potential fans but they make teams a lot of money so they aren’t going away.

I can’t wait to see more silly rule changes implemented under the guise of attracting an audience that doesn’t have access to the sport.

Barney Coolio
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Barney Coolio

I think reducing the length of games by 1/9 would be great for attracting more young people to baseball. Cutting out 20 minutes would be huge.

Mule
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Mule

That is the assumption but is there any actual proof that shortening the length of a sporting event attracts a younger audience?

Barney Coolio
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Barney Coolio

I think it is pretty fair to assume that if pitchers and hitters were under serious orders to reduce time between pitches, the younger audience would grow. If the players all doubled down on their inter-pitch dillydallying, the younger audience would drop. Actually, the entire fanbase would go down.

Mule
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Mule

To me what you call, “inter-pitch dillydallying,” is part of the struggle between the hitter and the pitcher and something huge would be lost from the game if every pitcher just set and pitched like a machine on a timer.

Barney Coolio
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Barney Coolio

I understand that hitters and pitchers are resetting their game plans after each pitch. It is part of the chess match. Reducing that time makes the game more entertaining, but to reduce it to the point where the players are just playing willy-nilly damages the game. Time between pitches is probably the single biggest liability to baseball as entertainment.

I think that a pitch clock would be positive. Chess players also play under a clock. Students take tests with time limits. Baseball, chess, and the SAT are all mental activities, and being able to “answer” within a time limit is a part of them, or at least should be.

I think it is hard to say that reducing interpitch time would not make the game more appealing, and that increasing interpitch time would not make the game less appealing.

jrogers
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jrogers

“Let’s get kids more interested in baseball by making it more like the SAT” is one of the strangest arguments I’ve heard in a while.

dl80
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dl80

Barry Bonds:baseball
Woody Allen:directing

TKDC
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TKDC

Yet that is exactly how baseball was played for 100 years.

thestatbook
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thestatbook

Kids watch football, which has 60 seconds of commercials every 37 seconds of elapsed game time.

Not only that, but younger audiences binge-watch tons of TV shows, many of which have far less action than baseball. Let’s not pretend that it’s because the pitcher takes 10-15 seconds more in between pitches that make them turn it off.

alpha309
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alpha309

You are ignoring the two major difference between baseball and football telecasts.

First is the camera angle. In football you see at least 15 people on the screen between plays and guys on the defensive side are constantly moving. In baseball, you get a camera angle of 3 guys in a stationary position with minimal movement for 20 seconds. Every now and then you can cut to a fielder, the base runners, or the bench, but for the most part you get 5 people maximum on the screen at a time and they are for the most part not really doing much. The only way to see more than that is the extreme wide angle shot of the whole field, and then you can’t really see anything but tiny people in a vast field. In addition to this, 9 players are pretty much set in position for the most part, and the offense moves between 4 fixed points, while compared to football, the players are never in the same position 2 plays in a row, and you can watch the defensive alignments change.

Second is the NFL’s mastery of replay. They have perfected the way to use it to make it seem like more action is going on than actually is, and again, you see mass amounts of people moving around. In baseball replay, you still only get a few people per screen at the same time so it feels like there is less going on.

The change of pace rules are not to make the games take up less time. They are to change the perception of too much idle time between the plays that have action.

MustBunique
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Can’t stand the NFL camera angle. Anyone who has ever played the game and watched a lot of film is used to watching all of the players from an end zone camera. Can’t even see the safeties pre-snap on an NFL feed. No way to effectively read the defense. Maddening.

I do however agree with the basic premise that seeing more players on the screen is more interesting and gives the viewer a better feeling for everything that is going on during the game. Maybe MLB feeds could get better between pitches and start showing defensive movements between pitches?

Sultan of Say
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Sultan of Say

Over the past few postseasons, I’ve subscribed to MLB.TV where they provide TBS’ alternate feed. Aside from not seeing replay and graphics, I really enjoy choosing my camera angles and watching the game with a 4 in 1 split screen. It is similar to being at the game and watching whatever I want to watch instead of what the broadcast wants me to see.

mtsw
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Children’s TV, which is extremely research-driven, has been trending towards doing long segments for over a decade now. If you watch an episode of “Sesame Street” today, the opening segment is often an uninterrupted scene over 10 minutes long.

The conventional wisdom that kids need short, commercial-like bursts was a misinterpretation of early data that showed kids would often look down to play with a toy or get up and walk around while watching. The kids weren’t losing focus on the TV though: they just are able to, more than adults, retain focus while performing other actions and actually showed higher engagement than adults with long segments.

The “kids need fast paced sports action!” idea is based on two things at this point: 1) stereotypes of young people that don’t bear any relation to scientific research, 2) focus group and survey data where you ask people who don’t watch baseball why they don’t watch it, and they respond with a stereotype about the sport to sound smart.

It’s true that there’s a perception that baseball is too slow for young people, but that’s not based on current scientific research on kids’ viewing habits or on a valid interpretation of marketing data. It’s just lazy “these kids today!” stereotypes and gripes from broadcasters who want more time to air ads.

johansantana17
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johansantana17

I really doubt that.

ChippersJonesing
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ChippersJonesing

These are solid points, and I definitely agree about the blackout restrictions. I have no idea how they bring in a new audience, but your point about the broadcasters still sort of goes to the point of it eventually hurting their wallets.

backward galaxy
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backward galaxy

It’s not about “shortening” the game. It’s about “quickening” the game. Game length is not the issue. Pace of play is the issue… at least as they see it, anyway. MLB doesn’t care if it takes 3 hours to play the game or 2.5 hours. They care about nothing happening for long periods of time because a pitcher takes 45 seconds to deliver a pitch, then the pitching coach visits the mound, then the batter steps out of the box, then the pitcher throws over, then the manager makes a pitching change, then the opponent pinch hits for the batter, then they intentionally walk the pinch hitter, then the manager makes another pitching change… etc…

I’m not saying I agree that it’s a problem, but that’s the issue they are trying to address, not overall length.

dl80
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dl80

For me (and I’m not a kid), it’s more the length, to be honest. I can’t commit to a 3.5 hour game. If they could be 2-2.5 (which I know isn’t realistic), I’d watch a lot more full games. As it is, I DVR the game, start an hour in, and fast forward through the commercials. So by adding commercials and making the commercial breaks longer, the advertisers are, ironically, getting less of an audience for their ads.

mtsw
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But all their focus groups and marketing data say the “MTV generation” wants lightning-fast, high-scoring sports. Hard to argue with that logic when arena football and indoor soccer are so huge compared to the boring original versions.

Dknapp26
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Dknapp26

I can’t figure out why this is such a constant refrain in the sports media world. MLB is in tremendous shape financially, and games are not at their historical longest. There’s nothing wrong with the pace of play (unless Pedro Baez is pitching), baseball is supposed to be a leisurely sport to watch, with plenty of time for going to get beer without missing anything.

MLB has absolutely no problem with money, they are swimming in it. Strong arguments could be made that considering the value of MLBAM and the potential liability involved in head injuries, the MLB is the second best positioned sports league for the medium-term (NBA, China, nuff said).

Youth baseball leagues are still incredibly strong throughout the country, and national attention has focused even more on the Little League World Series in recent years. This, combined with consistently improving international leagues and rapidly increasing expenditures on latin baseball academies are sure to provide a strong flow of talent.

Is it just something to harp on for broadcasters? Is it influenced by the fact that MLB cable ratings are lower than they were 15 years ago (just like everything else btw)? Maybe I’m just crazy here, but I see this “problem” as a ghost.

ChippersJonesing
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ChippersJonesing

My understanding is, and I think it’s Manfrec’s contention, that it’s not a problem now, but that, because they’re not connecting with younger generations, it will be one once the current generation of baseball fans is gone.

I have no idea how true that is, but obviously the commissioner is worried about it.

thestatbook
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thestatbook

“because they’re not connecting with younger generations, it will be one once the current generation of baseball fans is gone.”

Is there real, hard evidence that tells us making minor changes to cut the game by 5-10 minutes will bring back the younger generations?

ChippersJonesing
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ChippersJonesing

No, and I said as much earlier, but I think the MLB views it as part of the problem — too much inaction during the actual broadcast, ecause, as you noted above, there’s a ton of time in the NFL dedicated to commercials, but the actual game itself (ostensibly) has less unnecessary inaction.

Again, I don’t personally know how you attract a younger audience. You can’t do what the NFL does, because of the lengths of the two sports’ seasons; the NFL has turned Sunday into a spectacle 17 weeks (plus playoffs a year) where every game is hugely important, baseball obviously can’t do that. So, they’d have to go more of the NBA route, whatever that is… I guess a strong focus on marketing its stars? Making kids want to believe they can be Lebron James makes them play basketball, so they become basketball fans, I guess?

dl80
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dl80

And NFL ratings are starting to decline, for lots of reasons (not least of which is the concussions issue).

dl80
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dl80

I can’t speak for the commissioner, but I want way more than 5-10 minutes cut off. I’d be looking at ways to get 15-20 (or more). Pitch clock, automatic in-booth replay, no stepping out of box, and holding commercials to their official time limits gets us most of the way there.

MustBunique
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It certainly smells a little like a strawman, being pushed by every MLB outlet. Is there potentially something else MLB could gain aside from the younger viewers argument?

mtsw
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Never attribute to malice what can adequately be explained by incompetence.

There’s no real reason to think the owners (who mostly made their money in finance or inherited it) or the team executives (mostly owners’ cronies) actually know what they’re doing with any of this.

johansantana17
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johansantana17

“(NBA, China, nuff said)”

No, actually, not nuff said. I don’t think it’s obvious that the NBA is the best positioned sports league for the medium-term and I have no clue what your reference to China is supposed to indicate.

Barney Coolio
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Barney Coolio

I think he’s trying to say that the NBA’s popularity bodes well for the NBA’s future. Probably. And yeah, MLB might have the 2nd brightest future of the 4 big leagues. I guess NBA is #1, the NFL is losing popularity with concussion and other health issues, and the NHL can go pound sand. So, yeah, MLB is at worst the 2nd most promising sports league. That may or may not be saying much at all.

Lanidrac
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Lanidrac

Because the rule changes they’re proposing like adjusting the strike zone and putting runners on in extra innings (and to a lesser extent the automatic intentional walk) mess with the mechanics of the game itself. They’d probably be more amenable to less obstructive ideas like enforcing the pitch clock rule and mound visit lmilits, albeit the former would be very hard to implement.