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Throwing to unoccupied base during steal attempt


hookminor

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My apologies if this has already been asked, but I could not seem to find it.

If I understand correctly, a pitcher cannot throw to an unoccupied base without stepping off the rubber.  Doing so constitutes a balk if there is a runner on base.

I witnessed a situation today where there was a runner on 1st and 2nd.  After the pitcher had come set and was preparing to make his delivery, the running on 2nd started for third base.  The pitcher was a right-handed thrower, and was therefore facing third base.  When he heard that the runner was going and noticed that it was the runner on 2nd and was going to 3rd, the pitcher threw to 3rd base.  The runner was tagged and called out.

I was under the presumption that, technically, the runner is not on 3rd, so 3rd is unoccupied.  Therefore, by throwing to 3rd, is that not a balk?  I figured that, if the pitcher did not step off the rubber, he would have to either throw home or spin and throw to 2nd.

Am I wrong?  Is the pitcher allowed to throw to 3rd in this situation?  

Or, am I correct and a balk should have been called on the pitcher?

Thank you for your time.

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2 hours ago, hookminor said:

My apologies if this has already been asked, but I could not seem to find it.

If I understand correctly, a pitcher cannot throw to an unoccupied base without stepping off the rubber.  Doing so constitutes a balk if there is a runner on base.

I witnessed a situation today where there was a runner on 1st and 2nd.  After the pitcher had come set and was preparing to make his delivery, the running on 2nd started for third base.  The pitcher was a right-handed thrower, and was therefore facing third base.  When he heard that the runner was going and noticed that it was the runner on 2nd and was going to 3rd, the pitcher threw to 3rd base.  The runner was tagged and called out.

I was under the presumption that, technically, the runner is not on 3rd, so 3rd is unoccupied.  Therefore, by throwing to 3rd, is that not a balk?  I figured that, if the pitcher did not step off the rubber, he would have to either throw home or spin and throw to 2nd.

Am I wrong?  Is the pitcher allowed to throw to 3rd in this situation?  

Or, am I correct and a balk should have been called on the pitcher?

Thank you for your time.

As many people do, you are overlooking the "for purposes of making a play" language. In OBR, the rule is 6.02(a)(4): it is a balk when the "pitcher, while touching his plate, throws, or feints a throw to an unoccupied base, except for the purpose of making a play...." The NFHS version is, I think, 6-2-4(b): it is a balk for "throwing or feinting to any unoccupied base when it is not an attempt to put out or drive back a runner...."

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1 hour ago, hookminor said:

After the pitcher had come set and was preparing to make his delivery, the running on 2nd started for third base.

All of @LRZ‘s answer is correct. I wanted to expand on this further, and explain the you don’t see this often in professional baseball because, contextually, the speeds are so much faster, and the pitchers are practiced and conditioned to step off very quickly and effectively. A MLB runner must be committed to running towards the advance base – an action judged by MLB Umpires – so as to allow a MLB pitcher to throw directly to that base without it being read as a Balk. It can’t just be an “aggressive” bluff or feint. So there’s a risk on both parties, and with the speeds involved (both throwing and foot speeds), getting it wrong or getting caught is either a certain Balk or Out. 

Many in MLB subscribe to risk aversion or risk calculation, especially with a runner in scoring position (2B or 3B) already. 

As such, most pitchers are coached to either step off, or deliver a pitch so that either the hitter fouls it off, or the catcher has an opportunity to throw the would-be stealer out.

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In the interest of both accuracy and thoroughness, I should make clear, hookminor, that, no, the pitcher does not need to step off in the circumstances you've described.

In addition, the comment to OBR 6.02(a)(4) states: "When determining whether the pitcher throws or feints a throw to an unoccupied base for the purpose of making a play, the umpire should consider whether a runner on the previous base demonstrates or otherwise creates an impression of his intent to advance to such unoccupied base." This covers situations where the runner begins to steal but then stops, or bluffs, drawing the pitcher's throw.

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Well done, Mr. LRZ! In addition to the actual rule, the interpretations manuals state the same thing. The following is taken from  the 2021 Minor League Baseball Umpire Manual (section 6.27, p. 118):

Official Baseball Rule 6.02(a)(4) provides that the pitcher be charged with a balk if, while in contact with the rubber, he throws to an unoccupied base except for the purpose of making a play.

Play 1:  Runners on first and second, pitcher in set position. Runner breaks for third base and pitcher throws to third base.

Ruling 1: Legal play.

Play 2: Runners on first and second, pitcher in set position. Runner bluffs going to third base and pitcher throws to third base. However, runner did not go.

Ruling 2:  Balk under OBR 6.02(a)(4).

The key to understanding the above two plays is for the umpire to use good judgment in deciding whether or not the runner on the previous base demonstrates or otherwise creates an impression of his intent to advance to such unoccupied base…

Since the OP Mr. hookminor did not specify a rule code here’s something from the high school case plays—

2013 NFHS Baseball Rules Interpretations

SITUATION 20: With runners at first base and second base, the runner at second bluffs a steal of third by running hard to third before he stops and retreats back to second base. The pitcher, seeing the runner take off hard to third base, legally throws to the unoccupied third base. The third-base coach wants a balk called on the pitcher since the runner from second stopped. RULING: A pitcher may throw or feint a throw to an unoccupied base in an attempt to put out or drive back a runner. As long as the umpire judges that it is reasonable for the pitcher to believe he had a play at third, even though the runner stopped, it is a legal move. (6-2-4b)

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1 hour ago, MadMax said:

 A MLB runner must be committed to running towards the advance base – an action judged by MLB Umpires – so as to allow a MLB pitcher to throw directly to that base without it being read as a Balk. It can’t just be an “aggressive” bluff or feint. 

It can be an aggressive feint if it creates the impression of his intent to advance. The comment with that wording was added to 8.05(d) in 2014 and we believed it lowered the bar in OBR to allow throws to an unoccupied base if the umpire judged the runner created the impression. 

"Added Rule 8.05(d) Comment regarding the pitcher throwing to an unoccupied base when a runner, in the umpire’s judgment, creates the impression he is attempting to advance to that base."

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