Mandatory Credit: David Kohl-USA TODAY Sports
45 degree rule.
All of these are things that come to mind when discussing the legality (or lack thereof) of a pickoff move. All of them, according to legend, are legal — legend is wrong. We’ll discuss why in this relatively short entry into the series Lie our coaches told us.
Lie #2 – A pickoff move is legal as long as the movement is made inside the 45 degree “no balk zone” between 1st base and home
This one is a lie that we’ve all heard some version of, even if they label of “45 degree rule” wasn’t attached. According to baseball “experts” all over the world, as long as a pitcher steps even a fraction of an inch more towards 1st base than the plate, the move is legal. That would all be well and good, if it had any basis at all in the final word on such things — the MLB rulebook — which states in no uncertain terms:
"it is a balk when—The pitcher, while touching his plate, fails to step directly toward the base before throwing to that base"
That’s a direct quote from Rule 8.05(c) — there is absolutely no room for another interpretation. According to the actual rules (rather than the prevailing “knowledge” of most “experts”) a pitcher has no leeway when attempting to pickoff a runner. He either steps directly towards the base which that runner is inhabiting, or the move is a balk. Period. End of discussion.
What this means on a technical level is that even a move in which the pitcher moves 1 degree from dead even with the base he’s throwing to should result in a balk. What it means on more realistic, enforceable, and sensible level is that any move even relatively close to the “45 degree zone” should result in an exceptionally easy balk call. Every. Single. Time.
If you want to, you can read Rule 8.05(c) for yourself, but the truth won’t change. Multiple readings of the plain and obvious truth won’t make the common misunderstanding any less wrong. If a pitcher steps at all — even a fraction of an entire step — toward home, and then throws to any base to attempt a pickoff move, the result should be a balk.
This is really bad news for players such as Tony Cingrani, or at least it would be, if the rules were properly enforced. Such moves described as “tricky” are, in reality, a lot less tricky — and a lot more illegal — than he and others would like and lead you to believe. There’s nothing “tricky” about moving 44 degrees from the bag — the same way that there’s nothing “tricky” about driving 110 mph on the highway. Both are illegal, and leave no room for interpretation.
So the next time you watch a lefty with a “tricky” pickoff move, just remember — it’s probably blatantly and inarguably illegal. Don’t let the talking heads on your TV fool you into thinking otherwise, and certainly don’t feel sorry for the pitcher if he gets caught doing it — even if he pitches for the good guys.
In the next installment of Lies our coaches told us, we’ll discuss bunting — and why it’s always a really, really bad idea. Like, always.
Until then, enjoy the warm glow of a Cardinals victory. See you next time.