If you watch enough baseball, at some point in time, you’re going to see an umpire raise his hands, yell “balk!” and direct a baserunner(s) to the next base. Sometimes it’s obvious what led to a balk getting called and sometimes despite your best effort, you can’t figure out what just happened. Don’t worry – you’re not alone!
So, what is a balk?
A balk is called when a pitcher makes an illegal motion with at least one runner on base. When a balk is called, all runners advance one base. The rule was put into place to prevent pitchers from trying to deceive the baserunner(s). A balk can only get called with a runner on base.
Balks can come in all shapes or sizes. Sometimes, it’s a small flinch at the wrong time that a fan in the upper deck won’t see, while other teams it’s a little more obvious. So let’s address the burning question…
What Is a Balk in Baseball?
You may have heard of a balk and wonder what it is, or maybe you’re a person who doesn’t watch baseball and has never heard of a balk.
If you don’t know or are just confused, that’s perfectly fine. Balks are strange and random enough that even regular observers might not entirely get it.
In short, a balk is when a pitcher makes an illegal motion or fails to step directly toward a base with a runner or runners on base, to deceive the baserunner(s). The penalty is all runners advance one base.
The keyword there is “runners”, as you can only balk when someone is on base. Batters do not advance to first base on a balk when the base is open. If the bases are empty, an action that would normally constitute a balk is just a no-pitch, or sometimes an illegal pitch (depending on what happened, but that’s for another day).
The balk was perhaps best personified in a particular scene in 42. Jackie Robinson was dancing off third base, which led to the pitcher to dropping the ball, committing a balk and allowing Robinson to score in the process.
A young child in the stands was trying to explain what just happened to his clearly flustered mother. For a lack of a better term, the child exclaimed, “Jackie discombobulated him!” So, yeah, a discombobulation of the pitcher may seem about right.
However, there’s a lot more that goes into the rule than causing the pitcher to mess up.
If you take a look at the rulebook, Rule 6.02 lays out no less than 13 different scenarios to balk.
Now, I talked with one high school baseball umpire who said that he’s been told by various supervisors that there are 30 ways to balk, or 37, or 39, or even as many as 50.
In reality, all of those scenarios are variations of the 13 ways to balk that are lined out in Rule 6.02.
Baseball Rules on Balks
Well, let’s get right to it, shall we? This list of all 13 ways to balk comes from Rule 6.02 with some editing for clarity:
If there are runners on base, a balk can get called when:
- The pitcher, while touching the pitching rubber, makes any motion naturally associated with his pitch and fails to make such delivery (essentially, he starts and stops his pitching motion). This is often cited if a pitcher happens to flinch when in the set position.
- The pitcher, while touching the rubber, feints a throw to first or third base and fails to complete the throw.
- You will see this more often with a left-hander throwing (or not throwing) to first base without first stepping off the rubber.
- The pitcher, while touching the rubber, fails to step directly toward a base before throwing to that base.
- This is best personified in the so-called “45-degree rule,” where there’s an imaginary line pointed 45 degrees from the mound away from home plate towards first base (for a lefty) or third base (for a righty). If a pitcher’s foot is deemed to have crossed the line, it is considered a move to home. If he crosses the line but decides to throw to a base, it’s a balk.
- The pitcher, while touching the rubber, throws, or feints a throw to an unoccupied base, except to make a play (i.e. if a runner is running before the pitch).
- The pitcher makes an illegal pitch. Usually, this is a so-called “quick pitch,” which is made before the batter is “reasonably set” in the batter’s box.
- The pitcher delivers the ball to the batter while he is not facing the batter.
- The pitcher makes any motion naturally associated with his pitch while he is not touching the rubber.
- The pitcher unnecessarily delays the game.
- The pitcher stands on or astride the pitching rubber without having the ball and feints a pitch.
- This also covers the seldom-used hidden ball trick, which requires the pitcher to be off the mound entirely (since he doesn’t have the ball) for the trick to be performed legally. Otherwise, it just backfires.
- 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.
- This also covers a pitcher coming to a set position, then breaking his hands without stepping off the rubber
- The pitcher, while touching the rubber, accidentally or intentionally has the ball slip or fall out of his hand or glove. This is what happened in that scene in 42 that was mentioned earlier.
- The pitcher, while giving an intentional base on balls, pitches when the catcher is not in the catcher’s box.
- This one is a dinosaur in many levels of baseball, with intentional walks now automatic throughout most levels of professional baseball (this is still possible in some independent leagues), as well as college, high school and most youth baseball organizations.
- The pitcher delivers the ball from a set position without coming to a stop.
Did you get all that? If not, it’s okay. It can be a lot to take in.
The same umpire we spoke to says that there are certain types of balks we see more often than others.
In particular, he cited numbers 1, 2 and 13 as the most common ones you’ll see, particularly at the professional levels, adding that numbers 4, 9, 10 and 11 are commonly seen in youth baseball. Very rarely will an umpire call a balk on a pitcher for delaying a game (see 8).
Now that all of the legalese is out of the way, you may wonder what the point of having all these rules on balks are if they don’t come up too often.
How Often Do Balks Happen?
Balks aren’t the most common plays by any stretch. According to Baseball Reference data, 153 balks were called in 2019 over 4,858 games—one every 31.75 games. In other words, in 2019, each MLB team committed, on average, about five balks over the course the 162-game season.
With the exception of one very weird season (more on that later), balks have been rather rare throughout baseball history. Ever since 1950, when Major League Baseball’s balk rule evolved into essentially their modern form, teams averaged 4-8 balks per season in most years.
Why Do We Have a Balk Rule? When Did It Originate?
The simple answer to the “why” part of the question is, balks exist to facilitate base-stealing, and on a wider scale, increasing run-scoring and overall action. The rule is in place to limit pitcher deception while runners are on base to make it easier for baserunners to steal.
With a few exceptions, stolen base trends have mostly followed balk trends throughout the 20th century. In general, when more balks are called, stolen base totals tend to be higher.
This trend is part cause and effect.
If umpires are tightly policing pitchers’ tactics of holding runners on base, more balks will be called, and in general, runners will be more tempted to run on pitchers who have to be careful about not balking. This also makes the pitchers easier to read.
If enforcement is lax, pitchers will be able to get away with more when trying to keep runners close to their bases, making it more difficult to steal.
On the other hand, if current trends make base stealing more or less appealing, then pitchers will adapt their methods of holding runners on base, likely leading to a fluctuation in balk calls in either direction.
Now, for the more complicated answer as to how we got here.
The first mention of “balk” in the baseball rules goes back to what is commonly accepted as the first baseball rules, which were written by Alexander Cartwright in 1845. Inconveniently, he failed to define exactly what it was or how you did it, so there was no definition of what it was or why he put it in.
That rule got a definition in 1857, which also added the enforcement of all runners advancing a base that still exists today. Seven years later, the rule was amended requiring pitchers to make one continuous motion when pitching.
In 1884, it was added that a pitcher could be called for a balk by intentionally stalling. Yes, even in the 19th century, Major League Baseball was concerned with pace of play. (Side note: other ways to balk were also in place at the time, but do not apply anymore, so they are omitted for clarity’s sake).
Arguably the biggest change in the geometry of the baseball field took place in 1893, when the 4-by-6 foot flat box standing 50 feet from home plate was replaced by a raised pitching mound, with a set pitching rubber 60 feet, 6 inches from home plate.
This change required a change to the balk rule, though exactly when some of those were amended to their modern form is murky. We do know that the rule was updated in 1898 to state that a pitcher must throw to a base if he motions towards it (in other words, you can’t fake a pickoff).
By this point, most pieces of the modern rule were in place.
In 1950, the stipulation that a pitcher pauses while in a set position for at least one second before his delivery was added. The last change was in 2013, when faking a pickoff to third with the pitcher on the rubber was outlawed.
After the one-second rule was added in 1950, stolen base totals (which were at their lowest point in history in the 1930’s and 40’s) began an upward trend that spanned more than three decades, with balks also rising (less dramatically) over that time.
When stolen bases started declining in the 1990’s (and continued to do so leading up to the present day), balks also declined.
So there you have it, all you need to know about balks!
Definition of a Balk in Baseball
The Major League Baseball definition of a balk is, “A balk is an illegal act by the pitcher when one or more runners are on base. The rule is in place to prevent a pitcher from deceiving the baserunners.”
- Remember when I mentioned one very weird year? Well, in 1988, MLB enhanced enforcement of the one-second pause rule, resulting in an insane 924 balks league-wide—dwarfing the second place single-season total of 407.
- The Oakland A’s balked 76 times (nearly half the 2020 MLB total), with A’s hurler Dave Stewart leading the way with 16. The rule was rescinded the following year.
- Foreshadowing the so-called “Year of the Balk,” pitcher Charlie Hough was called for nine balks in a spring training game in 1988, including seven in one inning.
- The record for balks by one pitcher in a regular-season game is 5, set by Milwaukee Braves pitcher Bob Shaw on May 4, 1963, against the Chicago Cubs. At one point in that outing, Shaw walked Hall of Famer Billy Williams, then proceeded to commit three straight balks, allowing Williams to score. That game occurred during a brief period of increased balk enforcement in the National League that lasted less than half a season.
- Hall of Famer Steve Carlton has the record for most balks, committing 90 in his career.
- Since 1914, there have been at least 22 walk-off balks, or “balk-offs,” in Major League history. The most recent one occurred on August 19, 2018, when the Mariners beat the Dodgers on a Dylan Floro balk in the tenth inning.
What Is a Quick Pitch in Baseball?
A quick pitch is a pitch that’s made before the batter is ready in the batter’s box. With no runners on base, a quick pitch results in a ball. With runners on base, a quick pitch is considered a balk, and all runners move up one base.
What Is an Illegal Pitch in Baseball?
Major League Baseball defines an illegal pitch as, “(1) a pitch delivered to the batter when the pitcher does not have his pivot foot in contact with the pitcher’s plate; (2) a quick return pitch. An illegal pitch when runners are on base is a balk.”
What Is the Catcher’s Box?
The catcher’s box is the area behind home plate, directly in front of the umpire, that a catcher must stay in until the ball leaves the pitcher’s hand. If the catcher isn’t in the catcher’s box at the time the pitcher delivers the pitch, it’s considered a balk and all runners advance one base.
Can a Pitcher Fake a Throw to First Base?
A pitcher can fake a throw to first base, as long as he steps off the rubber to throw to first. If a pitcher fakes a throw to first base while engaged to the rubber, the pitcher will be called for a balk.
Can a Pitcher Fake a Throw to Second Base?
Pitchers can fake a throw to second base as long as they take a step directly toward the base with their free foot. If a pitcher feints a throw to second base but doesn’t step toward the base, the pitcher will be called for a balk.
Can a Pitcher Fake a Throw to Third Base?
A pitcher can’t fake a throw to third base if he is engaged with the rubber. Once the pitcher takes a step toward third, he must throw the ball to the base or the result is a balk. This prevents pitchers from faking a throw to third and then picking off an unsuspecting runner on first.
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