What Is a Balk in Baseball?

A balk is an illegal move in baseball that occurs when a pitcher performs a motion with the intention of deceiving the runners on base. According to the official baseball rules in the Major League Baseball (MLB) rulebook, when a balk happens with one or more runners on base, each runner is entitled to advance one base. 

You must have noticed it; a player makes a motion to throw a ball, gets stopped midway by the umpire, and the runners advance a base. 

That, fellow baseball players, is a balk.

Read on if you want to understand exactly what this intricate rule is all about.

Understanding Balks in Baseball

Balks are intended to keep pitchers in check by limiting their ability to confuse or mislead other players. 

There are many things the pitcher can do that can be considered a balk. If a pitcher fakes a pitch or a pick-off throw and the umpire deems it deceitful, it may be considered a balk.  

If a balk is called and the pitcher goes through with the pitch, and the batter hits the ball while the runners fail to advance by one base or more, the balk stands. The hitter will not be penalized and will remain at-bat.

However, when there are no runners on base when a pitcher balks, the motion is referred to as an illegal pitch. Instead of letting the base runners advance one base each, a ball is added to the count. 

The History of Balk

Though we started playing baseball as early as 1845, the balk did not make it into the Major League Baseball rule book until much later. Until 1898, a pitcher could fake a throw and get away with it. 

Major League History holds a record of 22 balk-offs, or walk-off balks, since the year 1914, with the most recent one occurring on August 19, 2018. We also witnessed what many refer to as the “Year of the Balk” in 1988 when nine balks were given in a spring training game to pitcher Charlie Hough.

13 Ways to Balk in Baseball

Whether you’re a fan of the game or a professional baseball athlete aspiring for the big leagues, you’ll need to familiarize yourself with the official baseball rules, including balk rules.

Here are 13 ways you can be penalized with a balk:

1. Starting the Pitching Motion Only to Stop Before Making the Delivery

If you second-guess your stance or change direction, you can get called for a balk. According to the official 2019 MLB rules, once you start a pitching movement, you can’t stop. Players need to make one continuous motion when pitching.

This includes subtle body movements. If a pitcher starts pitching and stops midway while touching the pitching plate, even if there is no intention of foul play, the pitcher would still be liable for a balk. 

A pitcher is only allowed to move his/her body when picking off to a base, delivering a pitch, or when the pitcher is no longer on top of the rubber. 

Any body movement that the umpire perceives to be beyond the natural pitching motion counts as starting and stopping. However, this natural motion differs from one pitcher to the other.

2. Faking a Throw to First or Third Base

Faking a throw is enough grounds for a balk. If a pitcher swings a free foot past the pitcher’s rubber, the pitcher needs to employ the pick-off move to throw to second base, except when pitching to the batter. 

Pick-off move:

  • Right-handed pitcher: When the main move is done with the back foot off the rubber (a pickoff move) and the pitcher throws to first base, it is legal.
  • Left-handed pitchers: If the lefty pitcher fakes a throw to first base by stepping back from the rubber, it’s called a snap throw and is legal.

If the pitcher is engaged with the rubber, he cannot fake a throw to third base. Once the pitcher takes a step towards it, any pitching movement must end in a delivery. 

Faking a throw to second base, however, is illegal.

3. Failing to Step Directly Towards a Base While on the Pitching Rubber

Pitchers, while touching their plate, would fake throwing to third base, then quickly turn to throw to first base. 

This tactic was thrown out by a rule stating that any pitcher who fakes a throw to third is required to step in the direction of third base, instead of putting his foot right back towards home after lifting it. 

An imaginary line, drawn at a 45-degree angle towards the first base, was employed by umpires to enforce this rule. If the pitcher’s foot is perceived to have crossed the line, it’s considered moving towards home base.

To put it simply, a pitcher cannot reset the pivot foot from the ground towards home and steer away from the windup position without expecting a balk call soon after. If a pitcher turns his free foot without stepping directly towards the base, it’s a balk.

4. Throwing or Feinting a Throw To an Unoccupied Base 

Pitchers, while touching the pitcher’s plate, cannot throw to a base where there is no base runner. 

The only time this is considered not a balk is when there is a runner on second base. More often than not, it results in runners advancing to third base.

Sometimes, the “squeeze play” tactic is used, which consists of a sacrifice bunt with a runner on third. 

5. Making an Illegal Pitch

If a pitcher comes to a set position, the pitcher must make a complete stop and wait for a second or two before delivering the pitch. Making a pitch the moment you get into a roll-through position is not allowed. 

Players are advised to fully pause in the stretch position before making a delivery.

If the pitcher makes an illegal pitch without runners occupying the bases and it crosses the foul line, it will be called a ball. If it doesn’t, it will be called “no pitch.” 

A foul line is a straight line that extends from the rear corner of the home plate. 

6. Performing a Quick Pitch

The quick pitch is very versatile. It occurs when a pitcher delivers the pitch when the hitter is not ready in the batter’s box. 

The pitcher delivers a pitch as soon as the hitter puts one foot into the box. Whether or not this calls for a balk is determined by time. 

Umpires usually regulate time in and time out by calling out “play” to the pitcher once the batter is ready to hit.

7. Pitching Without Facing the Batter

The pitcher must be facing the batter while throwing a pitch.

8. Performing a Pitching Movement When Not on the Rubber

The entire act of pitching is this: The pitcher stands on the pitching rubber to pitch the ball. 

If you’re not on the rubber, don’t start to pitch in a bid to deceive the batter or runners. However, once a pitcher steps off the rubber, everything is fair game.

9. Unnecessarily Delaying the Game

As with any sport, delaying the game without a valid reason is considered a violation of the rules. When a pitcher unnecessarily delays the game, it’s grounds for a balk.

10. Feigning an Actual Pitch

Pitchers cannot trick the runners into thinking they’re actually pitching when they’re not. Once a pitcher is in a legal pitching position, he cannot remove one hand from the ball without throwing a real pitch to base.

11. Letting the Ball Slip While on the Rubber

If a pitcher intentionally drops the ball while on the pitcher’s plate, he’ll be liable for a balk. The same applies when the pitcher drops the ball unintentionally. 

12. Separating the Hands Once in a Set Position

If a pitcher’s hands are in a set position, the only way he can break the position without breaking the balk rule is by stepping off the rubber first. Once he does that, he can separate his hands without triggering a balk.

13. Pitching When the Catcher is Not in the Catcher’s Box

As a general rule, a pitcher must ensure the catcher is in the catcher’s box before throwing. If a pitcher gives an intentional base on balls, it violates rules and a catcher’s balk occurs.

The catcher must be in the box until the ball leaves the pitcher’s hand. 

Does the Balk Reflect Badly on the Pitcher?

Despite being a legitimate baseball rule, errors are not awarded to any player when a balk results in a dead ball. 

An immediate dead ball period occurs when a batted ball becomes dead and base runners are allowed to advance a base without any liability. The same applies when an individual tries to intentionally interfere with a ball.

A delayed dead ball on the other hand occurs when the batter runner interferes with the catcher attempting to play on a runner. If the catcher’s throw does not result in an out, the ball will be considered dead.

The Takeaway

Knowing what comprises a balk in baseball and how to avoid it can help players score better. 

And while it doesn’t necessarily go on record, a balk is still a balk. It will affect the outcome of the game, so make sure to steer clear from getting a balk called.