Let’s Watch a Pitcher Break the Rules and (Sorta) Get Caught

A a writer, you typically have an agenda when you approach a major-league hitter in the clubhouse. Literally. Even me! I try to keep it open-ended — and avoid the old “can you talk about how important player X is so that I can finish up my piece on him”-type questions — but I still have a (loose!) narrative sketched around some key stats when I step to a player. It’s called research.

Sometimes, the player has an agenda, too. Maybe that’s wording it too strongly. Sometimes, the player doesn’t want to answer your questions and has something else on his mind. That’s better.

That describes what happened when I talked to Josh Donaldson last night before a game against the Giants. He was obviously thinking about the night before, and when I brought up an old conversation about his two-strike approach, and the deception between Zack Greinke and Paul Konerko, he started talking about pitchers not following the rule book.

I let him run with it.

“Pitchers are not trying to deceive runners any more with their balks, they are trying to deceive hitters,” Donaldson said. “With guys like myself, guys like Jose Bautista, guys that have leg kicks, movement in their swing, more than any other area, all that timing, this, that, hold, quick pitch, they’re all trying to do something to mess our timing up.” So far, he seemed to be talking about the Johnny Cueto school of pitching deliveries. No biggie.

“That’s part of being a big leaguer, you have to make that adjustment,” he admitted, “but if they’re cheating, if it’s going against the rule book, that should be fixed.” The 2015 American League MVP was saying that pitchers around baseball are basically cheating.

Here’s the rule that he’s focused on. Note the additional comment in italics, which is newer.

(2) The Set Position
Set Position shall be indicated by the pitcher when he stands facing the batter with his pivot foot in contact with, and his other foot in front of, the pitcher’s plate, holding the ball in both hands in front of his body and coming to a complete stop. From such Set Position he may deliver the ball to the batter, throw to a base or step backward off the pitcher’s plate with his pivot foot. Before assuming Set Position, the pitcher may elect to make any natural preliminary motion such as that known as “the stretch.” But if he so elects, he shall come to Set Position before delivering the ball to the batter. After assuming Set Position, any natural motion associated with his delivery of the ball to the batter commits him to the pitch without alteration or interruption…

The pitcher, following his stretch, must (a) hold the ball in both hands in front of his body and (b) come to a complete stop. This must be enforced. Umpires should watch this closely. Pitchers are constantly attempting to “beat the rule” in their efforts to hold runners on bases and in cases where the pitcher fails to make a complete “stop” called for in the rules, the umpire should immediately call a “Balk.”

Rule 5.07(a)(2) Comment (Rule 8.01(b) Comment): With no runners on base, the pitcher is not required to come to a complete stop when using the Set Position. If, however, in the umpire’s judgment, a pitcher delivers the ball in a deliberate effort to catch the batter off guard, this delivery shall be deemed a quick pitch, for which the penalty is a ball. See Rule 6.02(a)(5) Comment (Rule 8.05(e) Comment).

Obviously, this rule is focused on the runners, but if you look at the note, it’s also supposed to be relevant to the batter at the plate. In other words, a quick pitch with no set position should be illegal, even if a quick pitch with a set position is technically legal while also trying to catch the batter off guard.

I asked Donaldson if he could think of an offender in particular. He said that most relievers do it, but then turned his attention to the night before. “Jake Peavy was doing it last night,” he suggested before pointing out this pitch to Edwin Encarnacion.

The Giants feed didn’t catch this pitch at all, because the pace was so inconsistent with the rest of his pitches. He’s certainly trying to mess with Encarnacion’s timing; if he comes to a stop or not may be up to debate. “He didn’t come to a stop,” Donaldson stated. “Bats was sitting there chirping at the first-base umpire,” he said of Joey Bautista.

“Peavy sees that he’s chirping,” the Jays third baseman continued, “So he comes set on the next pitch, the very next pitch… homer.”

Maybe the players can police this one without the commissioner’s office getting involved, at least if this story can be a model. But placing the burden on players to complain during the actual course of the game runs the risk of creating more animosity between player and umpire, and more ejections, and isn’t really the best way forward, probably.

Do the pitchers gain from this? Absolutely. As Donaldson says: “It’s harder for me as a hitter to know when to start.” Is it deception? Yes. Is it illegal? Probably. “Part of the game is deceiving the batter, but it should be in the rule book,” Donaldson observed, and his point was made.

With a phone full of pictures of pitchers' fingers, strange beers, and his two toddler sons, Eno Sarris can be found at the ballpark or a brewery most days. Read him here, writing about the A's or Giants at The Athletic, or about beer at October. Follow him on Twitter @enosarris if you can handle the sandwiches and inanity.

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The Ghost of Stephen Drews Bat
The Ghost of Stephen Drews Bat

Hilarious article, thanks Eno.

BTW we can’t share articles anymore via Twitter and Facebook?