Wednesday, June 16, 2004

How the Balk Rule Possesses
Big Organizations' Procedures  

Go ahead, impress me --- explain the balk rule. No? Well, no shame there, very few can. It's just a wacky baseball thing.

To be blunt, every organization has some procedures stated or unstated that look like a psychedelic pile of pick-up sticks; each individual stick seems perfectly fine, but the aggolmeration of all of them looks like some demented hybrid of a Charles Manson CAT scan and a Jackson Pollack canvas. In baseball, that train wreck is the balk rule, but your organization likely has a few of its own, too, and these sap both productivity and morale.

Bill James took on the balk rule several times yesterday in an on-line Q&A he and co-author Rob Neyer conducted on ESPN's web site. Here are the sections, which I've culled from various parts of the event because people kept coming back to it (underlining is mine):

Sean, MN: If you could change one of the game's rules, which one would you change and why?

Bill James: There are several, but. . one could profitably get rid of the balk rule.
Dan from NJ: Why would you want to get rid of the balk rule? Then you will never see a regular SB.

Bill James: Nonsense. The balk rule doesn't work. You just need to replace it with a rule that works.
Dante, Chicago: Can you elaborate on how/why the balk rule doesn't work? Thanks

Bill James: The rule manifestly fails to achieve its goals. It's one of those rules that, when it didn't work, they tried to fix it. When that didn't work, they fixed it again, and they fixed it again, and they fixed it again.

At some point they should have stopped and tried something else, but they didn't, so they stuck history with a rule which (a) is almost totally unintelligible, and (b) is arbitrary in its enforcement.

In principle, trying to prevent one player from decoying another is a dumb idea. The balk rule is like a rule in basketball that says (a rule that would say. . .theoretical example) that if you fake a shot, you have to take the shot; otherwise it is travelling. That would be a dumb rule. The balk rule is basically the same thing, only applied to baseball.

The balk rule and the wide-ranging lack of mastery of it leads to particularly unamusing behavior at ballparks when fans ululate over any uncompleted pick-off move or dummy -pick-off move that in the same motion turns into an actual one to another base. Beyond professional umpiring crews, comprehension of the balk rules (that's plural) is lower than the take-home pay of a Mexican maquila factory worker.

Some quick background. The National League instituted the first major league balk rule in 1885 (you remember 1885...the year the Chicago White Stockings won the National League behind the two-starter rotation of John Clarkson and Jim "The Scottish Skeptic" McCormick).

The rule was that "the pitcher must have both feet touching the ground while making any one of the series of motions he is accustomed to make in the delivery of the ball.. A violation of this rule shall be a 'foul balk' and and two foul balks will entitle the batter and each runner to one base".

"A balk is made whenever the pitcher, when about to deliver the ball to the bat while standing in his position, makes any one fo the series of actions he habitually makes in delivery and he fails to deliver the ball to the bat.

The first paragraph of this rule didn't even make it through the 1885 mid-season mark. But the challenging basis for the 1885 rule is the foundation of the current rule's oddness: it's asking the ump to make a fuzzy call that varies with each pitcher, a skating-judge kind of opinion whether a move a pitcher is making is one of the "series of motions he is accustomed to make".

As James notes, there have been attempts to fine-tune the rule. In 1887, they eliminated the accidental dropping of the ball from the list of balk-worthy acts, although the accidental drop is back in the balk zone now. In an attempt to make it both enforceable and thorough, the Leagues have modifed the 1885 balk rule 13 times (1887, 1898, 1904, 1909, 1912, 1914, 1917, 1931, 1940, 1950, 1951, 1955, 1957).

If you're in the mood to kill some brain cells, take a look at the current language defining balk calls here in the official rules. You'll find mention of pieces of the crazy quilt of balk-worthy pitcher acts in 8.01 and 8.05. It's got all kinds of thoughts jammed in there. There are balk rules aimed at safety (not allowing quick-pitches designed to attack the plate before the batter is ready). There are some aimed at deception (faking a pick off but throwing to the plate in the same motion). And then there's a punitive niener-niener rule (the accidental dropping of the ball) which is neither a safety issue nor an attempt to protect runners or batters from trickery.


People just jammed feature after feature onto what had been a simple attempt to prevent (for reasons that are clear neither to Bill James or to me) pitchers from faking out base-runners. And now, with the rule untouched for 47 years, it's unlikely to be torn down & rebuilt from scratch...it's just like Strom Thurmond as a Senator his last twenty years: no life in it, no productive reason for being there, but ensconced because his constituents couldn't remember anyone else in the job, and it was just easiest to leave things that way.

You see this attachment to outmoded rules and traditions in non-baseball organizations all the time. The uber-example of all time is the U.S. health care model which, like a high-payroll team that year after year flails around the .500 mark, provides mediocre results for the highest budget in the world. As James describes the balk rule, the U.S. healthcare system is "one of those [nouns] that, when it didn't work, they tried to fix it. When that didn't work, they fixed it again, and they fixed it again, and they fixed it again. At some point they should have stopped and tried something else, but they didn't."

The dysfunctional pile of pick-up sticks that is the U.S. healthcare system is a private-public partnership, but either sector alone produces these by themselves.

When I was transferred to California for a few years, I found grocery stores would charge you deposits on bottles...a good idea that discourages litter and promotes energy conservation. The problem was, they wouldn't take the bottles back and refund your deposit. Apparently ( I did a little research on this but never nailed the documentation -- this was the explanation I got from a legislative staffer who'd been around a long time), there was a time in the past when stores had redeemed deposits, but at some point the legislature had let them off the hook on the return side without purging the initial deposit requirements. Balk.

When you see it in the corporate sector, it's more absurd because they don't have any excuses except their diseconomies of scale. For a short time, I did business with a bank that demanded two forms of picture identification...for a deposit with no cash back, all because some bureaucrat at their corporate headquarters had written ambiguous language in their procedures manual trying to assure customers' security during withdrawal transactions. Foul-balk, I'd say.

I worked with a client that assembled and packaged computer products whose vice-president for manufacturing made his employees hand-check every single floppy diskette for visible signs of dents or other damage because of a bad batch the firm had received three years before and without a subsequent bad shipment. And the vice-president who'd made the decision was gone from the company. Balk, take your base.

Academia isn't immune. Most computer science programs still require trigonometry and calculus. These were vital when there weren't many computer applications that didn't involve weapons targeting or weather modeling. But a tiny minority of computer professionals will ever apply either of these disciplines to their computer work except as thinking tools.

So what's your organization's equivalent of the balk rule, the unexplainable, unintelligible, arbitrary procedure that needs to be torn down? When you root these out and repair them, the returns tend to be very high...in productivity and in morale.

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