What Is A Balk In Baseball?

The balk is one of the most confusing rules in baseball. The amount of grey area in this rule can be frustrating to fans, coaches, and players. Additionally, the balk rules are very complex often varying by age and league along with being up to interpretation by the umpires. Nevertheless, a clear understanding of balks is essential in baseball, as it can significantly impact the game. This article will clear up some of this confusion and serve as a guideline for the balk in baseball.

In this article, we’ll cover:

Definition of a Balk in Baseball

In baseball, a balk is a pitcher’s illegal motion while on the mound with runners on base. This act results in the advancement of all runners on base. The main purpose of the balk rule is to prevent pitchers from deceiving baserunners or gaining an unfair advantage on the hitter. 

The specific rules for balks were first introduced in 1898 to prevent pitchers from intentionally deceiving baserunners. Over the years, there have been many updates to the balk rules as the game has developed. Keep reading to learn the 13 ways a pitcher can balk, or check out this helpful video below:

All 13 Ways a Pitcher Can Balk

1. Starting the pitching motion and stopping, or having an extra body movement

Once a pitcher starts his delivery towards the plate, he cannot stop for any reason. This stop results in a balk. Additionally, if the pitcher is set and about to deliver a pitch, but flinches or has any subtle movement, this can result in a balk. Oftentimes this can be caused by a runner stealing early or a fielder/coach yelling at him to do something. Any action that stops the pitching motion or adds an extra body movement results in a balk. See examples in the video below. 

2. Faking a throw to first base

If you do not step off the rubber, you cannot fake a throw to first base. If you step directly toward the base, you must make the throw. This mainly applies to lefties who step directly towards first on the pickoff. It also applies to righties when they disengage off the front of the rubber when picking toward first. Either way, you cannot fake the throw or it will be a balk. 

3. While on the rubber, you can not throw to a base without stepping towards it

When picking off, the pitcher must gain distance and direction towards the base they are picking off. This rule mostly applies to left-handed pitchers picking off toward first base. They must step towards the base and not towards home when picking off to avoid a balk call. The same is true for right-handed pitchers attempting a pick-off to third base. 

4. You cannot pick or fake a throw to an unoccupied base

A pitcher cannot pick off to a base that does not have a runner occupying it. This will result in a balk being called. However, the pitcher is allowed to throw to a base where a runner is running. 

5. You must come set and pause in the stretch position before delivering the pitch

When the pitcher is in the set position with runners on base, he must come set before pitching the ball. This means that his entire body has a discenerable pause for a moment signaling that he has come set. Many pitchers will stop their feet, but their hands will continue to move, resulting in a balk. The pitcher must stop completely to avoid a balk. 

6. You cannot quick pitch the hitter

A quick pitch is delivering a pitch before the batter is ready in the box. Often the batter establishes that they are ready by making eye contact with the pitcher. Quick pitches can be dangerous since hitters are often looking down at their feet when they first step in the box and not at the ball coming towards them. Quick pitch balks can be confusing since it is up to the umpire to determine if the batter is ready or not for the pitch. 

7. You can’t pitch while not facing the batter

This rule is an example of an old rule that is still included in the current rule book. The pitcher must present to the batter by facing them before pitching the ball. This rule is to prohibit pitchers from surprising the hitter by thinking they are not ready to deliver the ball. It is similar to the quick pitch rule above, although rarely called today. 

8. The pitcher makes any motion naturally associated with his pitch while he is not touching the pitcher’s plate

This rule prohibits pitchers from deceiving the runner by making them think they are about to pitch when they are not touching the rubber. This could cause runners to take larger leads prematurely or attempt to steal when the pitcher is not on the rubber making them easy outs. Any act similar to a pitching motion when not on the rubber results in a balk. 

9. Delaying the game unnecessarily 

This rule is to prohibit the pitcher from holding the ball for an unnecessary amount of time and messing up the pace of play. It is not one you will see called often, but it is an important rule to have as it prevents the pitcher from manipulating the game. 

10. Standing on the rubber without the ball

This rule is to prohibit the pitcher from tricking the runners into thinking he is about to pitch. You often see this balk called when teams are attempting the hidden ball trick play. In this play, the fielder will have the ball and the pitcher pretends to step on the rubber forcing the runner to lead off. The fielder then tags the runner with the ball. Due to this rule, that would be a balk since the pitcher stepped on the rubber without the ball. 

11. Separating the hands after coming to the set position 

Once the pitcher comes to a set position, he cannot separate his hands or it will result in a balk. Once the set position has been established, the pitcher must pick off, pitch, or step off the rubber. Any other action will result in a balk being called. 

12. Dropping the ball while touching the rubber

This is a simple rule that you often see at younger ages as pitchers are learning the mechanics of pitching. 

13. The catcher must be in the catcher’s box for a pitch 

Back when you had to throw 4 intentional balls to the batter, the catcher had to stay behind the plate until the ball was on its way to the plate. If the catcher moved away early, the resulting call was a balk on the pitcher. Recent rule changes have made this rule all but obsolete. The only way to see this balk nowadays is on a pitch-out.

Umpire's Role in Calling Balks

Depending on the level you are playing at, the ruling on a balk will be different. At the younger levels, many leagues give each pitcher one warning on a balk before the umpire starts awarding a base to the runners. Additionally, high school rules often specify that all balks are dead balls the moment the balk occurs. The umpire will signal this by calling time, pointing out the balk, and awarding runners bases. 

In the MLB and college, balks are live balls and the runners are awarded bases after the play fully develops. If a balk is called and the batter hits the pitch, all the runners including the batter must advance safely one base for the play to stand. If the batter hits the ball and gets out or all the runners do not advance at least one base, then the balk would stand and the runners get to move up one base.

Consequences of Committing a Balk

A balk can play a pivotal role in the course of the game. All runners get to move up one base which means that a run can score when a balk occurs. Additionally, a balk can also be a flustering moment for a pitcher, knocking them off their game and rattling their confidence. Balks can move runners into scoring position or ruin the chance at an inning-ending double play. 

FAQs about Baseball Balks

Are balk rules the same in all baseball leagues?

No, balk rules can vary across different leagues. For example, at younger ages, some leagues grant each pitcher a warning on a balk before they start awarding bases to runners. In high school, balks are immediate dead balls. In MLB and College balks are still live. Be sure to look at the rules for your league to see what balk rules they are using. 

Can a pitcher balk with no runners on base?

Yes, when this occurs it is called an illegal pitch, and a ball is awarded to the batter. 

Can a pitcher fake a pickoff throw without it being a balk?

The only way the pitcher can fake a throw to any base is by stepping off the back of the rubber first. If they step directly to the base, they cannot fake the throw or it will be a balk. 

Can a pitcher intentionally balk to manipulate the game?

Yes, a pitcher can intentionally balk to move up the runners. There have been a few examples in the major leagues of pitchers intentionally balking a runner to third to avoid having to use a sequence of signs with them on second. Here is an example: