Issuing an intentional walk is a commonly used strategy in Major League Baseball. When there’s a dangerous hitter at the plate and an opening on the bases, it often makes sense to give that batter a free pass and move on.
Committing an intentional balk as strategy? Now that one is a true rarity. We can’t even recall the last time we’ve seen that in an MLB game.
As pointed out by Chad Moriyama of Dodgers Digest, we saw it Friday night. Los Angeles Dodgers closer Kenley Jansen played that unique strategical card during the ninth inning of their 5-3 victory against the Chicago Cubs.
With two outs, Jason Heyward on second base, Victor Caratini at the plate, and the Dodgers holding a two-run lead, Jansen was clearly seen and heard yelling “I’m going to balk” to his teammates. He then steps on the mound and proceeds to balk repeatedly until the umpires award Heyward third base.
What is a balk?
In baseball, a balk is defined as "an illegal act by the pitcher with a runner or runners on base, entitling all runners to advance one base."
There are 13 different actions that constitute a balk, all of which are more technically defined as an attempt to deceive the baserunner(s). Many of those actions tend to slip past even the most diehard of baseball viewers, so it's easy to understand why it's considered baseball's most confusing rule.
In Jansen's case, there was no confusion. He clearly committed a move that falls under the criteria of a balk. The question then becomes why would Jansen willingly give the runner a free base. And to that there’s really only one logical explanation.
Avoiding potential sign stealing
Though Jansen did not comment on his intentional balk following the game, his reasoning seems pretty clear.
Jansen likely did not want Heyward standing at second base, where he could easily relay signs to the batter and potentially alert him to the next pitch.
We’ll be clear in stating that there were no official accusations of sign stealing stemming from Friday’s game. But there is a history of sign-steal accusations between these two teams dating back to the 2016 NLCS.
Then-Dodgers catcher Yasmani Grandal flatly accused the Cubs Ben Zobrist of stealing signs while standing on second base during Game 1. The Cubs denied it.
In the end, both teams agreed that sign stealing is part of the game. The real trick is finding a way around it.
We’d say Jansen found an effective method.
Why it worked
Clearly this is not a strategy Jansen can use every time there’s a runner on second base. It made sense here though, mainly because the Dodgers held a two-run lead.
Heyward was a harmless spectator once he moved to third base. Sure, his run would count against Jansen’s ERA, but Caratini was the only one who could impact the outcome. That’s where Jansen’s full attention needed to be. Once it was, he fairly easily dispatched Caratini with a strikeout to earn his 20th save of the season.
Given the success of Jansen’s method, one has to wonder if we’ll start seeing more intentional balks like this one. If there’s no risk involved and it gives the pitcher a little more comfort, there’s certainly no harm in trying.
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