Major League Baseball is seriously considering implementing a rule change regarding a play that has been deemed legal for years. The play in question is the old “Fake 3-1.” This is when there are runners on first and third and a right-handed pitcher is in the game. The pitcher lifts his left foot, with his right foot on the rubber, and fakes as if he’s going to throw to third. The pitcher then turns towards first and attempts to get that runner. Usually, it only results in the pitcher turning and looking at first because at any serious level of baseball, this play rarely works. What is almost guaranteed to happen is half the ballpark will wrongfully shout “BALK.” According to the Associated Press, these same fans may soon be right, as the Playing Rules Committee has approved a proposal that would make this play illegal and deemed a balk. Major League Baseball executives and umpires are in agreement, but the players’ union vetoed, therefore leaving it for further discussion. MLB has the authority to put the rule into effect after a one-year wait, so it will be interesting to see what will happen if there is strong opposition from the players.
The actual play in question is addressed in the Official Baseball Rules. Rule 8.05 (c) states:
It is possible, with runners on first and third, for the pitcher to step toward third and not throw, merely to bluff the runner back to third; then seeing the runner on first start for second, turn and step toward and throw to first base. This is legal.
The real purpose of this play is not to actually pick the runner off at third, but rather to distract and slow the running game regarding the runner at first. With the way the rule stands now. The runner at first cannot take off to second as soon as the right-handed pitcher lifts his front foot without risking getting picked-off. With a runner on third, the runner on first better make sure the pitcher goes to the plate before attempting a steal of second. It will be interesting to see how the players react to the discussions soon to come. It is most likely that pitchers and catchers will be strongly opposed to eliminating this play, because while it rarely works in actually picking off the runner, it is surely effective in holding the runner on first. One would think that those who make a living stealing bases will be glad to see this rule go by the wayside.
The reality of baseball is that it is deeply rooted in tradition, so many players of old and current will object to such a change. The other reality is that a rule change deeming this play a balk will probably make for a more exciting game. A rule change will be an offensive advantage, allowing runners on first to get better jumps while stealing with runners on third. The stolen base is one of the most exciting plays in baseball. While it is rarely seen at the Major League level, the double steal with runners at first and third is surely most exciting. When runners are at the corners, if the first-base runner darts to second, the defense must make a decision as to whether to throw down to second. There is always the chance that the runner at third may try to take home on the throw. It takes two good base runners to properly work the double steal from an offensive stand point, but who knows, perhaps with a rule change, we will see more of this. Here’s a video of Derek Jeter and Brett Gardner properly running the double steal.