Baseball

MLB History: Year of the Balk (1988)

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Across MLB history (as well as with other sports), some years garner a certain reputation. 2016 was the year of the comeback with the Cleveland Cavaliers and Chicago Cubs both overcoming a 3-1 deficit in the championship series. In MLB history, 1998 was also the home run chase season; 1994 was the strike year.

However, no year in any sport is as unique as 1988 is to baseball: the Year of the Balk.

MLB History: Year of the Balk (1988)

The balk is almost comically subjective, even today. The list of offenses that should lead to a balk read as if it is a college thesis more than a baseball rulebook. The official balk section from MLB.com spans nine pages and over 3,200 words.

However, similar to a “football move” in the NFL’s dubious catch rule, the words “complete stop” received scrutiny in the 1987 World Series and offseason. MLB’s solution? Change “complete stop” to “single complete and discernible stop, with both feet on the ground.”

1987: Baseball Official Rule 8.01(b): 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.

1988: Baseball Official Rule 8.01(b): The pitcher, following his stretch, must (a) hold the ball in both hands in front of his body, and (b) come to a single complete and discernible stop, with both feet on the ground.

The powder keg that caused the rule change was likely an interaction between St. Louis manager Whitey Herzog and Minnesota pitcher Bert Blyleven. Herzog complained that Blyleven had committed more than a dozen uncalled balks in the seven-game series. The Twins won the series.

Heading into the 1988 season, the MLB record for balks in a season was Steve Carlton’s 11 in 1979. Carlton is some form of balking legend with his 90 doubling the second-most in MLB history. Carlton is high on the list for good reason. He threw over 5,200 innings; the ninth-most ever. He is one of only eight pitchers to start 700 games.

By the end of April, Dave Stewart had tied Carlton’s record. In his first 1,000 innings, Stewart had committed four balks. In 1988, it took Stewart just 17 innings to accumulate four balks. Stewart also had a balk in all six of his April starts.

The balks slowed down, but Stewart set the still-standing record on May 18. Over his final 198 innings of 1988, Stewart tacked on four more balks. Stewart’s 16 balks in 1988 would have placed him in the top 30 for career balks pre-1988. Big deal. Stewart is the outlier. Right? No.

In MLB history, 13 players have committed 10 balks in a season. One came in 1979: the aforementioned Carlton. One came in 1989: John Dopson. The other 11 came in 1988.

The blue line indicates the percentage of all instances of a certain number of balks that occurred in 1988 compared to 1871-1987.

In total, four players broke Carlton’s record of 11 balks in a season: Stewart, Stewart’s teammate Bob Welch, John Candelaria, and Jose Guzman. An additional three players tied the mark, including future Hall of Famer Jack Morris.

Major League Baseball made a subtle adjustment to the 1988 balk rule: “8.01(b): 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.” If that sounds familiar, it is the pre-1988 rule.

In 1988, all 26 teams recorded at least 16 balks. Since 1989, only 26 teams have hit that mark with the 1989 Giants and 1990 Reds maxing out with 26 balks (both teams won the NL pennant).

Balks immediately came back to earth for every player besides Dopson. Dopson had 15 balks, but outside of him, only two players have reached half of Stewart’s record 16 balks since 1988: Pedro Astacio (9) in 1993 and Tom Candilotti (8) in 1989. Since 1994, only three players have even gotten to six balks in a season (most recently Mike Pelfrey in 2009).

While 2020 was a shortened season, the 1988 Athletics had more balks (76) in 1,489 innings than all 30 teams had combined (63). The A’s had a balk every other game for nearly the entire 1988 season, and they still won the American League pennant.

It seems unlikely that balks will return with the volume they had in 1988. Some teams, most recently the 2018 Minnesota Twins, have gone the entire season without committing a balk. As MLB history stretches into its 16th decade, 1988 will be remembered as one of the strangest seasons.

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Ryan Potts is an avid football and baseball fan. He covers the NFL and Major League Baseball, focusing on the Baltimore Ravens and Atlanta Braves.