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Was Tigers' Brad Ausmus right to balk at Johnny Cueto's delivery?

Tigers' manager Brad Ausmus complained about Royals' pitcher Johnny Cueto's delivery, but it seems like much ado about nothing.

Peter G. Aiken-USA TODAY Sports

Detroit Tigers manager Brad Ausmus made headlines after losing to the Kansas City Royals on Monday night, 4-0, in a shutout performance by the Royals' newly-acquired ace pitcher, Johnny Cueto. Ausmus complained to umpire Joe West that Cueto's hesitation in his pitching delivery was illegal.

"Really, the way the rule reads, you're not supposed to even alter your motion," Ausmus told reporters after the game. "That's the way the rule reads. They don't enforce it. Well, he (Joe West) said if he stops it's an illegal pitch."

Does Ausmus have a legitimate gripe? According to Major League Baseball's official playing rules, a pitcher may pitch to the batter from one of two positions: the windup or the set position. (More recently, pitchers have been using a hybrid position, which has become acceptable, but that would not change anything for this discussion).

Rule 8.01 (a) The Windup Position. The pitcher shall stand facing the batter, his pivot foot in contact with the pitcher’s plate and the other foot free. From this position any natural movement associated with his delivery of the ball to the batter commits him to the pitch without interruption or alteration.

Rule 8.01 (b)  After assuming Set Position, any natural motion associated with his delivery of the ball to the batter commits him to the pitch without alteration or interruption.

The rules are very clear about the fact that a pitcher must come to a complete stop with runners on base, with both hands on the ball before beginning his pitching motion. Failing to come to a complete stop is a common error that pitchers make, which results in a balk being called.

Once a pitcher begins his delivery, the rules are less clear about whether a slight hesitation in his delivery is illegal. There are 13 ways to balk, according to the rules, none of which involve a hesitation in a pitcher's delivery.

8.05 If there is a runner, or runners, it is a balk when

(a) The pitcher, while touching his plate, makes any motion naturally associated with his pitch and fails to make such delivery;
(b) The pitcher, while touching his plate, feints a throw to first base and fails to complete the throw;
(c) The pitcher, while touching his plate, fails to step directly toward a base before throwing to that base;
(d) The pitcher, while touching his plate, throws, or feints a throw to an unoccupied base, except for the purpose of making a play;
(e) The pitcher makes an illegal pitch;
(f) The pitcher delivers the ball to the batter while he is not facing the batter;
(g) The pitcher makes any motion naturally associated with his pitch while he is not touching the pitcher’s plate;
(h) The pitcher unnecessarily delays the game;
(i) The pitcher, without having the ball, stands on or astride the pitcher’s plate or while off the plate, he feints a pitch;
(j) The pitcher, after coming to a legal pitching position, removes one hand from the ball other than in an actual pitch, or in throwing to a base;
(k) The pitcher, while touching his plate, accidentally or intentionally drops the ball;
(l) The pitcher, while giving an intentional base on balls, pitches when the catcher is not in the catcher’s box;
(m) The pitcher delivers the pitch from the Set Position without coming to a stop.

The most famous version of a "hesitation pitch" was used by Hall of Famer Satchel Paige, one of the most dominant pitchers in the Negro Leagues. He would hesitate with the ball held over his head in the wind up before delivering the pitch. When Paige was eventually allowed to play in the major leagues at age 42, his signature pitch was declared illegal under rule 8.01. Another pitcher who hesitated during his delivery was famous Cuban pitcher Luis Tiant, who many announcers have compared Cueto to recently.

Cueto's delivery involves a corkscrew-type of motion, where he turns his front shoulder around toward third base, then hesitates in his balance before delivering the ball. At that point, a pitcher is committed to throwing to home, so he could not be said to be trying to deceive a base runner. Cueto rarely pauses with runners on base anyway, as they could easily steal on him the longer he takes to deliver the ball to home plate.

Ausmus was not concerned about baserunners, except perhaps about the Tigers' lack of them on that particular evening. Rather, he was concerned about Cueto's hesitation throwing off the timing of his hitters. Or, perhaps he was just trying to disrupt Cueto's mindset during a solid pitching performance.

Whether Cueto's delivery is actually illegal seems to be much ado about nothing. Balks are often called when the pitching motion has no impact on anyone. Hitters can see Cueto's delivery clearly enough. Hitting his pitches is another matter.