What is a balk and how have the SF Giants gotten screwed by baseball's new rules?

A couple of SF Giants have had a really tough time adjusting to baseball's new rules.
Sep 19, 2023; Phoenix, AZ, USA; San Francisco Giants starting pitcher Alex Cobb (38) throws to the
Sep 19, 2023; Phoenix, AZ, USA; San Francisco Giants starting pitcher Alex Cobb (38) throws to the / Rob Schumacher/The Republic / USA TODAY

The San Francisco Giants have had a rough go of it in September to be sure. They just dropped a series to the Dodgers and find themselves eliminated from the NL West race and four games out of a playoff spot as of this morning. After contending for much of the season, they are now below .500 with a ton of questions going into the offseason.

A big reason for the Giants' downfall this season has been the offense which has struggled to produce consistently as well as injuries that have hurt the Giants' depth in their rotation and bullpen. However, one thing that they have been weirdly bad at in 2023 has been issuing balks of all things. San Francisco is currently tied for second in all of baseball and lead the National League with 12 balks this season. Letting runners advance for free is never good, so it's time to take a look at the rules surrounding balks and how baseball's new rules have really hurt the Giants this season.

What is a balk in baseball?

Balks are tricky to accurately define as much of how they are called is purely based on the judgment of umpires, but the official definition of a balk is when "a pitcher makes an illegal motion on the mound that the umpire deems to be deceitful to the runner(s). As a result, any men on base are awarded the next base, and the pitch (if it was thrown in the first place) is waved off for a dead ball."

So what constitutes an illegal motion on the mound? Well, before the rules change that went into effect this year, balks applied essentially applied to the movements pitchers made upon coming set on the mound before delivering a pitch. If they started their delivery towards home and then stopped and threw to first, that could be called a balk. If they came set and then flinched to try and draw a baserunner off first base, that could be a called a balk. If a pitcher stopped their windup and went back to being set again without stepping off the rubber, that, too, could be called a balk.

Much how a pitcher's intent on a pickoff throw depends on where their lead foot lands. If it is mostly towards home, the pitch has to go home. If the pitcher is wanting to make a throw to first base, the lead foot has to be heading in the direction of first base. Otherwise, it is a balk by the rules of the game. There are certainly some differences in how individual umpires call balks (which can be infuriating) as well as differences in how lefties are treated vs. righties, but that is the gist.

However, things changed before this season as a new way to balk were defined under the slew of rules changes that went into effect for 2023 and beyond. Balks can now also be called if a pitcher makes more than two disengagements from the mound during a single plate appearance. The counter resets if a runner advances during a given plate appearance.

So why do the SF Giants have so many balks this year?

The short version of the story here is that the Giants have two prime offenders when it comes to giving up balks: Alex Cobb and Camilo Doval. Both pitchers have one thing in common in that both Cobb and Doval have struggled to adjust to the new rules regarding the pitch clock and/or balks.

Let's start with Camilo Doval. Doval has three balks this season so far and did not have a single balk in his major league career before this season. While he doesn't have any disengagement violations recorded this season, he has by far had the worst time on the Giants' pitching staff when it comes to pitch clock violations at seven in 2023. While those haven't been balk calls against him, it does seem to reflect a lack of comfort with the new rules and could be leading him to making awkward movements on the mound to try and control baserunners and thereby getting more balks called against him as a result.

Cobb is a more glaring case of the new rules screwing a guy over. From 2011-2022, Alex Cobb had a total of five balks called against him. In 2023 alone, umpires have dinged him for five balks which is the most in all of baseball this season. Some of that can be attributed to the same lack of comfort that Doval has had, but Cobb also has two disengagement violations this season which, as we saw above, both resulted in balks being called.

In short, the new rules have required an adjustment period for all players throughout baseball. While most of the results from the changes have been good as there is more action on the basepaths and shorter game times, some players (including Cobb and Doval) have had a tougher time getting used to the changes and the end result has been bad news for the Giants in 2023.

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