What is a Balk in Baseball?

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

A Balk in baseball is an illegal act by the pitcher with a runner or runners on base, entitling all runners to advance one base. It’s a rule meant to prevent the pitcher from deceiving the baserunners. Understanding what constitutes a Balk helps ensure fair play and keeps the game’s integrity intact.

Baseball Balk Meaning

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

Getting called for a Balk

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 Balk. 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 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.

Pitching from the Stretch and The Set Position 

Almost all of the scenarios in which pitchers balk occur when they are pitching from the stretch. Pitchers throw from one of two deliveries: the wind-up or the stretch.

When there are no runners on base, pitchers often will throw from the wind-up. When there are runners on base, pitchers typically use the stretch.

In the stretch position, the pitcher’s body is turned perpendicular to the pitching rubber (forming a T with it). From the set position, pitchers must bring their hands together and come to a complete stop before 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 Balk. 

pitcher set position

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. A 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 Balks occur when a pitcher is trying to pick off a runner. One fundamental rule is that a pitcher cannot stand 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 rubber. 

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 step toward the base they are throwing to. From the set position, a pitcher cannot make a throw without stepping directly toward the base first.

This mainly applies to left-handed pitchers and their pickoff move to first base, but it also applies to right-handed pitchers when making a pickoff move to third base. If the pitcher steps off the rubber (disengages the rubber), they can then throw to any base without the requirement to step directly toward it.

Note that a pitcher cannot throw to an unoccupied base if he is still standing on the rubber.

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 to pick the runner off at first. This would be considered a Balk.

Before 2013, if there is a runner on first and third, and the pitcher fakes a throw to third and then attempts to pick off the runner on first, that was a legal move. In 2013, Major League Baseball amended the rules to eliminate the “fake to third, throw to first” pickoff move as a legal play.

Under the current rules, if a pitcher attempts this move, it is considered a Balk. This change was implemented to increase the pace of play and reduce the number of pickoff attempts during games.

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 Balk. 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 catcher’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 Balk. 

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. 


What is a walk-off Balk?

A walk-off Balk in baseball is a type of play that occurs when the winning run is scored as a result of a Balk by the pitcher. This can happen when the bases are loaded, and the batter is awarded a free base as a result of the Balk, allowing the runner on third base to score the winning run.

A walk-off Balk is a rare and unusual way for a baseball game to end, but it is considered a legitimate outcome according to the rules of the game.

The Balk rule: confusing for players and fans alike

The Balk rule can be confusing for players and fans alike. This post has outlined what a Balk is, the most common ways a pitcher can be called for a Balk, as well as some of the more obscure rules that are less commonly known. Hopefully, this information will help you understand why your favorite pitcher was called for a Balk and make watching baseball even more enjoyable.

  • A Balk in baseball is when the pitcher makes an illegal throw or motion intended to deceive the baserunner or hitter.
  • There are many ways to be called for a Balk in baseball, with the most common being related to the set position, throwing to a base, or dropping the ball.
  • Balks can also occur when a pitcher attempts a pitch without making contact with the rubber, makes an illegal pitch, or is deceptive in some other way.
  • “Balk” can often be misspelled at “baulk”, “bawk”, or “bock”.