Watch the first seven seconds of this video, then pause it. Don’t worry, we’ll watch the rest in a minute:
Los Angeles Dodgers’ outfielder Carl Crawford drives an RBI double down the left-field line, right? Crawford is fast, but you don’t need to be fast to get a double on that. Yadier Molina and Bengie Molina in a three-legged race get a double on that, right?
Okay, go ahead and watch the rest now.
RBI single for Carl Crawford? What in the world happened there?
This particular clip from MLB.com doesn’t show the replays they showed on TV at the time, but after Crawford hit the ball, he stood in the box for a couple seconds. It looked at the time like he thought the ball was going to be foul, which didn’t make sense because it wasn’t particularly close.
After the game, we figured out what had happened. Watch the beginning of the video again. You can see Washington Nationals’ pitcher Jordan Zimmermann twitch a little bit, and home-plate umpire Dan Iassogna sticks his right hand out. At that point, a balk had been called, which would have put Joc Pederson on third base.
But Zimmermann delivered the pitch. Rule 6.02(a) lays out the 13 ways a pitcher can commit a balk, and then it defines the penalty:
PENALTY: The ball is dead, and each runner shall advance one base without liability to be put out, unless the batter reaches first on a hit, an error, a base on balls, a hit batter, or otherwise, and all other runners advance at least one base, in which case the play proceeds without reference to the balk.
Nationals’ manager Matt Williams said after the game, “You teach the young players that if the umpires call a balk, go ahead and swing. It’s a free swing, and Crawford was able to get one down the line.”
Dodgers’ manager Don Mattingly compared it to a defensive offside call in football, where the quarterback will often attempt a long touchdown pass after the flag is thrown, knowing that the play will only count if the result is good for his team. Any interception or incomplete pass will be negated by the offside call. In the same way, once the balk was called, Crawford had a “free swing,” and his run-scoring hit down the line negated the balk.
Of course, Crawford wasn’t thinking “free swing”; he saw a good pitch to hit and he hit it. It was only after he hit it that his mind registered the balk call, which is why he didn’t run at first. Perhaps his mind then registered the rule, or maybe he just noticed that everyone else was still playing so he should too, but the delay was enough to keep him at first base.
“Obviously, I never should have thrown the pitch,” Zimmermann said. “Nothing good comes out of that. I did, and Crawford was able to get the base hit.”
Zimmermann can be forgiven for forgetting — he has only committed one balk in his career, on July 31, 2011, and after that game he said it might have been the only balk of his life. Well, on the bright side for Zimmermann, that 2011 balk is still the only balk of his life, because Crawford’s drive down the line means this balk never happened.
And that is when a balk is not a balk.