LOS ANGELES -- As we've already noted a few times in this very space, Dodgers rookie Julio Urias is set to make history by becoming the youngest ever starting pitcher in a postseason game. That happens when he throws his first pitch in Game 4 of the Cubs-Dodgers NLCS (the Dodgers lead the best-of-seven series two games to one). The first time he throws over to first base might contain some drama, too.
Urias led the majors with six pickoffs, even though he only threw 77 innings. That's the sign of a pretty damn good move. But is it actually a balk?
Cubs manager Joe Maddon made sure to outline during Tuesday's day-before press conference that he doesn't even think there's a question.
"When you get to see it on TV, it's pretty obvious, it's not even close," Maddon said of Urias' move to first. "It's a very basic tenet regarding what is and what is not a balk. Give him credit, man, for going through with it. That's part of the game. I think from umpire's perspective, there are certain umpires that are in tune to that, some that are not. There are other balks that I always get annoyed with that aren't called. So I'm certain that the umpiring crew has been made aware of it. That's 101. That's not an interpretation. That's balking 101 for me. So we'll see. We'll see how it all plays out."
What does he mean?
There could possibly be two complaints here. The one almost everyone is talking about is that Urias' front foot clearly crosses over his back leg. Look for a blue-looking triangle-type shape here:
The rule in question:
Rule 6.02 (a )(1) Comment (Rule 8.05(a ) Comment ): If a left-handed or right-handed pitcher swings his free foot past the back edge of the pitcher's rubber, he is required to pitch to the batter except to throw to second base on a pick-off play.
The common misconception is that a pitcher can't cross his front foot past his back leg and that's what every manager, coach and player believes. Hell, that's what I thought before I went to grab the rule. But the rule actually says that a pitcher's front foot can't break the plane of the back of the rubber. Take note in that picture of Urias' back leg, too. It's leaning forward. His back foot barely breaks past it, too. It's reasonable to say his foot is not in violation of the rule in this instance.
Also, multiple times in the rulebook it says that a pitcher can throw to a base, so long as he steps "directly toward" that base. This is where you'll often hear the "45-degree rule" cited. That's never explicitly in the rulebook, but people assume that if there were a line drawn from the rubber to first base and another to home plate, splitting the difference (45 degrees of that right angle) is how you can tell if the pitcher technically stepped toward first or home. If he's on the first base side of that 45-degree line, it's a throw to first. If he's more toward home and throws to first, it should be a balk, per that line of thinking.
On that Urias highlight above, good luck trying to figure out where he stepped.
As is so often the case, what we'll likely witness at some point on Wednesday night will be pretty polarizing and likely dependent upon bias. If you want the Cubs to win, you'll likely see a balk. If you want the Dodgers to win, you'll probably see a perfectly legal throw to first base.
Regardless, we know now that Maddon is going to be in the umpires' ears about it before the game even starts. Watching to see if there's a balk called or not and how the managers react should be fun.