A balk is one of the rarest calls in all of baseball, as explained in this hilarious article. The reason being that preventing a balk is ingrained in pitchers from the youth level, all the way through the major leagues.
Not issuing a balk is an automatic response. The windup stays the same every single time there is a runner on base. They have perfected their windup in accordance with the rules, and those rules have stayed the same for the entirety of their lives.
What Is a Balk and When Does a Balk Happen?
The balk rule is designed so that the pitcher at the start of each and every play cannot fool the batter and the runner.
A balk can only occur when there are runners on base. The runners can be on any base. A balk occurs before a pitch is thrown to a batter, and can occur at any time in the windup, delivery, or pick-off attempt.
How Does a Balk Happen?
When there are runners on base, a pitcher must change their windup from their usual perpetual movement and unique windup to a windup that features a pause. If a pitcher does not stop and utilizes their original windup they cannot make an attempt to pick-off a runner. The windup with runners on base is referred to as pitching “from the stretch.”
While pitching from the stretch, the pitcher must come to a complete stop for one full second. If the stop is not long enough, at the umpire’s discretion, he can call a balk and award the runners the next base.
A Balk from the Batter’s Perspective
The balk rule is designed to make the game fairer for the batter and the runner.
The batter must know when there is going to be a pitch to home plate or whether or not a pick-off attempt will be made on the runner.
If the pitcher makes a motion toward home plate after going through his stretch and stopping for one full second, the pitcher must finish his motion toward the batter and throw a pitch.
If the pitcher tries to fool the batter by faking a pitch and throwing a pick-off to get the runner, a balk will be called, and the runner will be awarded the base. There is no effect on the count to the batter, only the runner benefits from this play.
A Balk from the Runner’s Perspective
As a base runner, you are awarded certain protections on the field. One of which is that the pitcher must execute a move either towards you or towards home plate.
One of the most common types of balks is the illegal pick-off move balk. This is when the pitcher shades too close to home and then makes a play at the runner regardless of what base they are on.
The pitcher is only allowed a certain degree of stride toward home or toward the runner. The umpire determines this stride, and if the pitcher shades too far beyond the line as it relates to home plate or first base, the umpire will award the runner second base.
A pick-off from second base is rarer since the middle infielders take turns holding the bag. And since the pitcher has to spin toward the second, it is difficult to fake in both directions. This can happen at other bases as well.
The least common being third base as the pitcher, with no other runners to hold, and the increased risk of stealing home, will pitch from the regular windup.
A Balk from the Pitcher’s Perspective
From the pitcher’s perspective, a balk will only happen if they were to lose concentration or if the umpire is tighter on the call than others.
For many pitchers, the degree in which they step toward first base versus home plate is a matter of umpire’s discretion as to whether or not it is a balk.
The pitcher, by and large, has pitched from the stretch for decades and knows just how long their body needs to come to a rest in order to satisfy the one-second requirement by baseball. They know how to make a pick-off move to first base without triggering the umpire to make a balk decision.
There are rare occurrences where the pitcher will either lose concentration and attempt an illegal pick-off. They could also step too close to home plate and trigger a balk call.
There are also times where something outside of the pitcher’s control will happen to trigger a balk like a sneeze, or the pitcher will trip off the mound and hold on to the ball, hence the call to ban the balk rule.