OPEN LETTER TO THE NFHS BASEBALL RULES COMMITTEE REGARDING CHANGE TO THE WINDUP PITCHING DELIVERY RULE

( why is this here? )

Originally posted: October 4, 2004
Updated: March 28, 2011



Introduction

I’m writing to address a recent change in the NFHS Baseball Rules. I’m referring to the “Minor Editorial” change to Rule 6.1.2 (the wind-up position). It is important to note that although you are free to reject any or all of what I’m relating, a fair reading is necessary so that you don’t reject all of it simply because you disagree with some of it.

As you might guess, I am strongly opposed to the latest change, which now allows a pitcher to take a “sideways” step when in the wind-up position. But before you reject this as just another diatribe from one more purist with an opinion, please take the time to review what I have to say about the language of your change as well. In truth, you have failed on three separate fronts, which I will describe in detail below. They are:

  1. the classification of this change as “editorial”,
  2. the language of the new rule, and,
  3. the rule change itself

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I. Classification of the Rule Change

By classifying this as an “editorial” change, you are in effect saying that the allowance of a sideways step was already inherent in the language of the rule itself, and that what you are doing now is merely making that allowance explicit. In other words, that it is not really a change to the rule. On the one hand, this is absurd. When a rule states that you can only do (a) and (b) and you add language to allow (c), that is a rule change. But it becomes truly remarkable when you stop to consider that the Official Baseball Rules (OBR) committee made its own editorial change to this rule not too long ago which is completely the opposite of what you have done. Note the following language added to the OBR:

With his "free" foot the pitcher may take one step backward and one step forward, but under no circumstances, to either side, that is to either the first base or third base side of the pitcher's rubber.
[ Source: the 2000 edition of the Official Baseball Rules as provided on mlb.com ]

The actual web page URL where this resides is:

http://www.mlb.com/NASApp/mlb/mlb/official_info/official_rules/pitcher_8.jsp

In other words, they are making it very explicit that you cannot step to the side. Now unless you’re willing to argue that the committee responsible for interpreting the OBR (which is the foundation of your rules) is just dead wrong in understanding its own rules, you are obliged to concede that what you’ve done is not editorial but, in fact a rules change. Which, incidentally, is perfectly fine if you want to allow for a sideways step, thus bringing it in line with what 99% of the umpires out there have unfortunately been allowing anyway. But please call it what it is – a change – rather than outright insulting those umpires who have had the guts to call it correctly.


II. The Language of the Rule Change

Your chosen language for effecting this rule change confuses the issue further. Prior to the change, the rule stated:

“During delivery, he may lift his non-pivot foot in a step forward, or in a step backward and a step forward, but he shall not otherwise lift either foot.”

You are now saying:

“During delivery, he may lift his non-pivot foot in a step forward, a step sideways, or in a step backward and a step forward, but he shall not otherwise lift either foot.”

Do you realize what you’re saying? The original rule allowed two options:

  1. step forward and deliver the pitch, or,
  2. step backward and then step forward and deliver the pitch.

I have never seen a pitcher exercise his right in option (a) to just step forward and throw. Not from the windup anyway. After all, that practically negates the benefit of the windup. Nevertheless, it has always been an option and I suspect that some old-timers actually did it. Option (b) is of course the form that we typically associate with the wind-up delivery.

But what the language of your new rule is saying is that a pitcher in the wind-up position can:

  1. step forward and deliver the pitch,
  2. step sideways and deliver the pitch, or,
  3. step backward and then step forward and deliver the pitch.

I’m not sure that your new option – the new (b) – is even physically possible, much less advisable. And surely this is not what you are really attempting to address with your change. No doubt, what you really want to allow the pitcher to do is:

  1. step forward and deliver the pitch,
  2. step sideways and then step forward and deliver the pitch, or,
  3. step backward and then step forward and deliver the pitch.

Do you see the difference? Disagreements over the rule itself aside, this is the language you should be using:

“During delivery, he may lift his non-pivot foot in a step forward, a step sideways and a step forward, or in a step backward and a step forward, but he shall not otherwise lift either foot.”

The language in your current rule does just the opposite of what I am assuming was your intent. It confuses, rather than clarifies, the issue.


III. The Rule Change Itself

Okay, if you want to just skip this part and not become enlightened, by all means do so and just address the first two issues. But I would strongly encourage you to read this as I’m here offering some things that you’ve probably not considered before.

There are several reasons for the confusion that surrounds this issue. And by “issue”, I’m referring to the practice of the vast majority of umpires of ignoring the side-step violation. One of the reasons is certainly that umpires are unsure of what call they ought to make. After all, side-stepping is not mentioned in the illegal acts referenced in Rule 6.2.1. But then, it doesn’t need to be. The original language of the pitching position rules referred to them as the legal pitching positions. And since the windup language was exclusive in allowing only for one step forward, or one step backward and one step forward, it is clear to deduce that sidestepping was not legal. Thus, for what it’s worth, and to keep this shorter than it would otherwise become, an “illegal pitch” would be a correct ruling (a ball would be called when no one is on base and a balk would be called when there is at least one runner on base). The other possibly correct ruling would be to warn the pitcher that he is not pitching legally, and if he continues to do so, remove him from the mound. Personally, I think this the better ruling.

But another reason for the confusion may have to do with a lack of understanding for the rationale behind the rule. Many umpires feel like it’s “no big deal” because most pitchers are only in the windup position when there is no one on base, and they overly associate all pitching deviations with the balk rules. In other words, they feel that as long as a right-handed pitcher (for example) is moving toward first with no one on, how can it be a balk, and, therefore, what’s the big deal? But this ignores the real rationale of the rule, which I contend has nothing to do with the balk (though it may perhaps become applicable as a result).

On the one hand, we don’t always need to know “why” in order to follow instructions. In this case, however, I think it may help to clear up the symptom that has resulted (i.e., 99% of umpires ignoring an important rule). And in that vein, a thorough understanding of the history of the rule – dating back to 1889 when the pitcher’s “box” (a confined area) was replaced with the pitching rubber – may help, particularly when coupled with an honest review of several other, related rules that exist to this day.

Take note that regardless of whether the pitcher is in the set or windup position, the rules (prior to your change of course) dictate that he not stray outside the confines of imaginary lines that can be drawn toward home from the right and left edges of the pitching rubber. In essence, a pitching “lane” is dictated by the language of the rules, again whether the pitcher is in the set or windup position.

Which begs the question: Why? What could possibly be the reason for this restriction of movement?

I can think of only one viable answer and it’s a very good one. My contention is that this rule falls perfectly in line with the language and intent of so many other rules that are meant to keep the batter from being distracted while a small, hard object is being hurled at him at up to 90+ mph. In other words, the rationale behind the rule is to try and ensure both the batter’s safety and the fairness of the game.

Now, lest you think this overly simplistic, consider this: Since the first formal code of playing rules was created in 1845, the rules committees have sought to eliminate all forms of “trickery” or anything that would “make a travesty of the game” (i.e., make it appear foolish or otherwise disrupt the spirit of fair play). This is why, for instance, we have rules against spit-balls, corked bats, quick-return pitches, fake tags, etc.

But there are similar, yet less familiar rules that are even more closely tied to this issue. They include such (NFHS) Rules as 1.3.7 (formerly 1.3.6), 1.4.2 and 1.4.3 (both formerly 1.1.5), which, in short, prohibit, among other things:

  1. a pitcher from having a white glove, a gray glove or a multi-colored glove
  2. a pitcher from wearing white sleeve undershirts
  3. any player’s uniform from having reflective buttons

In fact, Rule 1.4.2 goes so far as to use explicit language to dictate that:

“A pitcher shall not wear any item on his hands, wrists or arms which may be distracting to a batter” [emphasis added]

Not only is the language explicit (and the purpose self-evident), it gives further deference to the position of the batter by using the word “may”. Interestingly enough, in the OBR, all uniforms are prohibited from having any image depicting a baseball.

In short, the rules recognize the need for giving the batter every advantage necessary for focusing on the pitch without the risk of even a possible distraction that could be both dangerous and unfairly difficult. And keep in mind that almost all rules changes since the beginning of baseball have favored the batter, which only makes sense when you stop to consider that we’re talking about a sport where the very best batters (pros, anyway) only succeed 30% of the time. Pitching duels are fine. And I love to see them on occasion. But people in general want their home team, their favorite players and, of course, their sons, to hit the ball. It’s what they come to see when their team is at bat. But that's a digression, of course.

What, then, does this have to do with the sidestep? Quite a bit, actually. As long as the pitcher is required to stay within the “pitching lane” (my term), the batter’s field of vision is not interrupted by any outside influences that can distract him or make him confuse something else with the baseball. But as soon as the pitcher is allowed to step to the side, the batter’s field of vision is drastically interrupted to allow for the distractions of second base (which is white), a center-fielder (who may be wearing white and/or moving around), center field fence distance markers (typically white), flagpoles, scoreboards, outfield fans, distant water towers and more.

In summary, by allowing the side-step, you have effectively given the pitcher an unfair advantage over the batter and endangered the batter’s safety as well.

Bad decision.



Why is this here?

The reader may be wondering what a treatise on an obscure baseball pitching rule is doing on an advertising agency's website. And it would be a legitimate question. The answer is two-fold. First off, the writer owns the ad agency and didn't feel it practical to go out and get a second domain just to post this open letter. In other words, we put it here because we can. :-) However, there is another reason as well. You will note that the letter contains a lot of legitimate repeat language emphasizing certain keywords like "baseball", "rules", "pitching", etc. By posting it on our own server (as opposed to some baseball-specific Newsgroup or Forum), we can track several things with respect to keyword density, popularity, etc. In other words, we've placed it here so we can conduct a bit of market research, as well.
 




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