If you have watched enough baseball games, you have likely seen a pitcher appear to want to throw to first base in a pickoff move and then pause or completely stop. Was he confused as to what to do? No matter the reason, the pitcher has probably committed a balk. What is a balk in baseball? How does it affect the game?
First and foremost, a balk in baseball is when the pitcher makes an illegal motion or throw to a base with the intention to deceive the baserunner.
The most common ways to be called for a balk relate to the pitcher’s set position, dropping the ball, or throwing to a base.
Balks sometimes also occur when the pitcher makes a pitch without his foot touching the pitching rubber.
Explaining Baseball’s Balk Rule
The most basic definition of a balk is when a pitcher makes an illegal motion or throw to a base to try to fool a baserunner or a hitter.
As is the case with many calls at the MLB level, it is entirely up to the umpire to determine whether a balk has occurred.
In many instances, a balk is a controversial call.
- A balk is defined as an illegal act committed by the pitcher with runner(s) on base, which in turn allows all runners move up one base, including to home if a runner is on third.
- If there are no runners on base, an “illegal pitch” is called and a ball added to the count.
- Should the pitcher still theow the pitch, the batter has nothing to lose since if it doesn’t result in a base hit, then the balk call still stands. If it does result in a base hit, all runners move up one base, and that batted ball result stands.
- From the catcher’s perspective, a balk can be called by not being in the catcher’s box if one has been drawn in chalk.
What Happens When a Balk Is Called?
When a balk has been called, all baserunners will advance one base. This includes a runner on third base, who would be awarded home plate and a run scored for the hitting team. If there are no baserunners, then any pitch thrown will be declared illegal.
There are numerous ways that a balk can be called. In fact, there are at least ten different ways a balk can occur, but this article will focus on the most likely scenarios in which a balk will be called.
When Can You Get Called for a Balk?
In summary, a pitcher:
- Can’t make an extra movement once they’ve come set, including something outside of the pitcher’s control like a sneeze, tripping off the mound while holding onto to the ball, or a flinch, hence some calls to ban the balk rule.
- Can’t fake a pickoff move to first base without throwing or stepping off the rubber.
- Can’t pickoff to an unoccupied base.
- Can’t start, then stop the pitching delivery.
- Must discernibly pause (for at least one second or slightly more) before delivering the pitch when coming set.
- Cannot perform a quick pitch, i.e., throwing before the batter is ready in the box.
- Can’t drop the ball while on the rubber, which is unfortunate since it could be unintentional.
- Can’t pitch without facing the batter.
- Must have the ball in hand or glove when he stands on the rubber or straddles it.
- Can’t separate their hands once they’re in the set position with the hand and ball in the glove.
- Can’t unnecessarily delay the game.
- Must wait for the catcher to be in their box for a pitch, where a catcher’s box is drawn in chalk.
- You can’t perform part of the pitching motion when you’re not on the rubber.
From the Set Position on the Mound
Most balks are called from the set position. When a pitcher takes the ball on the mound and is preparing to pitch, he will use one of two pitching deliveries, either the wind-up or set position. The wind-up is generally used by starting pitchers when there are no runners on base. The pitcher will face the hitter, step back, rock forward, and deliver the pitch.
The set position is used with runners on base, although many relief pitchers throw from the set entirely. The position is used because the pitcher can deliver the ball to the plate quicker, giving the catcher a better chance to throw out potential base stealers. In this position, the pitcher’s body is turned roughly at 90 degrees to the rubber. From this position, the pitcher must bring their hands together and come to a complete stop before beginning their motion toward home plate to throw the pitch.
If the pitcher fails to come to a complete stop, he has committed a balk.
It must be noted that if a pitcher attempts to pick off a runner from any base, he isn’t required to come to a stop before throwing to the base. This only applies to a motion toward home plate to deliver a pitch.
Pitchers can turn their head to look at a baserunner, but they are permitted from flinching or shrugging their shoulders. Any such movements detected by the umpire will result in a balk being called.
The pitcher cannot stand on the rubber if they don’t have the ball. Therefore, the pickoff can be challenging to complete without committing a balk. One reason a pitcher might stand on the mound without the ball is the hidden ball trick. While this doesn’t often work, the hidden ball trick is when an infielder tries to hide the ball in their glove and try to get a runner that might be napping while taking their lead off a base. In this scenario, the pitcher cannot be on the mound.
Pitchers will often throw to a base to try to pickoff a runner or simply to keep them close, so they don’t try to steal a base. When a pickoff attempt occurs, the pitcher must make a move to throw to the base. A pitcher cannot simply make a throw to a base without stepping toward that base.
However, a new rule in 2023 allows a pitcher to attempt two “disengagements”, i.e a step-off or pickoff attempt without a penalty. A third attempt is called for a balk unless runners on base advance, or an out is made.
It’s nearly impossible for a right-handed pitcher to make a throw to first base without stepping toward it, so this applies primarily to left-handed pitchers. This can apply to pitchers who try to pickoff a runner at third, although this situation is much rarer than the pickoff attempt at first base. If the pitcher stays on the rubber, then he can make a throw to a base without stepping on it.
Note that a pitcher cannot throw to a base without a baserunner unless he steps off the rubber. Failure to comply in any of the above scenarios results in a balk.
Faking a Throw
A pitcher can fake throws to bases without stepping off the rubber, with the exception of first base. If you move toward first base, a pitcher must make a throw. If a pitcher steps off the rubber, he can make a throw to any base but cannot fake a move to first base.
If there is a runner on first base, a pitcher cannot fake a throw to second base or third base and then try to pickoff a runner on first base. The umpire will certainly declare a balk in this situation. However, if a pitcher fakes a throw to third with runners on first and third and then throws to first, that is a legal move. If you’ve watched enough baseball, you’ve seen this type of pickoff attempt.
Dropping the Ball
A very uncommon way for a balk to occur is when the pitcher drops the ball from the set position with a runner on base. Although rare, sometimes a pitcher will drop the ball on the mound while looking for a sign from the catcher or when moving the ball from their hand to the glove. A balk will not be called if a pitcher drops the ball when the bases are empty.
Failing to Touch the Rubber
More often seen in younger leagues, another scenario where a balk occurs is when the pitcher tries to make a pitch without touching the rubber with his foot. While in the set position, the pitcher’s back foot must be up against the rubber at the start of the delivery. If a pitcher is in the wind-up, he cannot begin the delivery off the rubber. In either case, a balk will be called.
In reality, all balks are called on the basis that the pitcher is in some way deceiving the runner or the batter. Most of these forms of deception are with pickoff moves to first base. Balks are judgment calls by umpires and can cause many arguments from both the team in the field for disputing a call or the hitting team, thinking a balk occurred that wasn’t called.
Any illegal pitch is considered a balk, and it doesn’t matter if it occurs with runners on base or the bases empty. Illegal pitches can be in the form of one with an altered delivery, one where the motion is made, but the pitcher doesn’t make the pitch, a quick pitch, standing on the mound without having the ball, or starting a pitch when the catcher is not in position in the catcher’s box. If there are no runners on base, it is simply called a balk without consequence. However, if the infraction occurs while bases are occupied, each runner advances one base.
Frequently Asked Questions
What Is a Walk-off Balk?
Although quite rare, a walk-off balk occurs, resulting in the winning run to score. A walk-off balk can happen whenever a balk is called with a runner on third base. There have been very few instances of the walk-off balk, but it’s a possible scenario based on the rules for a balk.
Can You Balk With Nobody on Base?
If there are no runners on base, it is simply called a balk without consequence.
Is It a Balk if You Drop the Ball?
If the pitcher drops the ball whist on the rubber, with runners on base, and the ball does not cross the foul line, then yes, that is a balk. However, if the ball breaks the foul line with runners on base, that is considered a ‘wild pitch’ and the ball remains live. If there are no runners on base and the ball does not cross the foul line, that counts as a “no pitch”.
There are numerous ways that a pitcher can be called for a balk. They are all forms of deception by the pitcher which can occur from the set position, failing to touch the rubber, standing on the mound without the ball, dropping the ball, or other illegal pitches.
While the balk rule can be confusing for fans and players, it is a part of the game that will occur from time to time. The balk is a judgment call by the umpire, which can cause arguments from both teams.
The next time you see a balk called, you’ll have a better understanding of the reason behind it, which can make viewing the game more enjoyable and interesting.