What is a Balk in Baseball?

The balk: what it is and why you should care
Written by Mark Bailey
Last updated on

If you’re a fan of baseball, you’ve probably heard the term “balk” used before. But what does it mean? A balk is basically an illegal move by a pitcher. But there are several different things that can constitute a balk, so let’s take a closer look at what they are.

What is a Balk

The balk can be a very controversial play in baseball. A simple definition for a balk is when the pitcher makes an illegal throw or motion intended to deceive the hitter. Like many calls in baseball, it is up to the discretion of the home plate umpire or the field umpire.

There are many ways to be called for a balk in baseball. When a pitcher is called for a balk, the runners, if any, are allowed to advance one base. This one base can also include going home. If there are no runners, then the pitch will be declared a ball. If there are no runners on bases, it is declared simply an illegal pitch.

The many scenarios where a balk can be called can get complicated. There there are more than 10 different ways that a picture can be called for a balk. Let’s focus on some of the most common examples that you would see a balk called in a game.

But first, check out this great compilation video to see examples of balks.

The Set Position 

Almost all of the scenarios in which pitchers balk occur in the set position. Pitchers throw from one of two deliveries: the wind-up or the set position. When there are no runners on base pitchers often will throw from the set position. This is when their body faces the batter and they step back rock and throw.

The set position is when the pitcher’s body is turned perpendicular to the pitching rubber (forming a T with it). In the set position, pitchers are required to bring their hands together and come to a full stop before kicking/sliding and delivering the ball to home plate. If the pitcher brings their hands together and does not stop and simply delivers the ball to home plate – that is considered a ball. 

An interesting note is that when the pitcher attempts to pick off a runner (at any base) they do not have to come to a complete stop. The complete stop is only required for a pitch to home plate. 

Pickoff moves present several different challenges for a pitcher. You will notice that most balls occur when a pitcher is trying to pick off a runner. One fundamental rule is that a pitcher cannot stand on the mound on the rubber if they do not have the ball.

You may wonder why a pitcher would want to stand on the mound without the ball. The simple answer is the hidden ball trick. The hidden ball trick is when an infielder hides the ball in their glove and then tries to catch the runner leading off their base. When this occurs, the pitcher cannot be on the mound. 

One final important note in regard to the set position, pitchers cannot flinch or shrug their shoulders while in the set position. They can turn their head to look at the runner, but they cannot move their shoulders or fake with a flinch. This is considered a balk. 

Throwing to a Base 

When a pitcher attempts to pick off a base runner, they must make a move to throw to the base. What this means is that from the set position, a pitcher can’t just make a throw without stepping towards the base first.

This mainly applies to left-handed pitchers and their move to first base, but can also apply to a right-handed hitter attempting a pickoff move to third. If the pitcher steps off the rubber, then they can make a throw to the bag without stepping to it. 

Fake Throws

First base is the only base that you cannot fake a throw to without stepping off the rubber first. If you make a move towards first – you have to throw to first. Any time that a pitcher steps off the rubber, they can throw or fake a throw to any base. However, the pitcher cannot fake a pickoff move to first. 

In addition to first base, pitchers cannot make a fake move to a base that is not occupied by a runner. For example, if there is a runner on first, the pitcher cannot fake a throw to third and then try and pick the runner off at first. This would be considered a balk. However, if there is a runner on first and third, and the pitcher fakes a throw to third and then attempts to pickoff the runner on first – that is a legal move. 

Dropping the Ball

One of the simplest ways of balking is also one of the least common ways: dropping the ball. If there are runners on base and the pitcher is in the set position, dropping the ball is considered a balk.

You might see this happen when a pitcher is holding the ball and looking in for the sign. Pitchers may also drop the ball transferring it from behind their back to the glove. In any case, if the pitcher drops the ball, it is considered a balk. 

Not Touching the Rubber 

Another example of a balk is when the pitcher attempts a pitch without making contact with the rubber. This is the type of error that you typically see in players in younger leagues. When in the set position, the pitcher’s rear foot should be up against the rubber when the pitching motion begins.

In the windup, pitchers cannot start their delivery off the rubber, It must begin with contact on the rubber. You cannot make a pitch without contact with the rubber. 

Illegal Pitches

Illegal pitches are also considered balks. These can occur whether there is a runner on base or not. If there is no runner on base, then the pitch is counted as a ball. Illegal pitches can be quick pitches, pitches with an altered delivery style, pitches where the pitching motion is performed but the pitch isn’t delivered, standing on the mound without the ball, or starting a pitch when the catcher is not in the cather’s box.

If any of these scenarios occur with a runner on base then that runner advances. Again, if the bases are empty then it is merely considered a ball. 

Pitcher Deception

The basis of any balk call is that the pitcher is deceiving the runner or batter. While there are 13 different ways that a pitcher can balk, you will find that most occurrences deal with pickoff moves to a base. Balks are judgment calls by umpires and can be the subject of many on field arguments. 

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