In baseball, a balk is an illegal motion by the pitcher with runners on base.
Reasons balks are called
To avoid runner deception
So that a pitcher cannot throw a quick-pitch at the batter, significantly disadvantaging their ability to hit the ball
A balk can only be called when there is a runner on base. That is because the penalty for a balk is to award all runners their next base.
A balk results in a dead ball.
The umpire call is spoken, “That’s a balk. Time. That’s a balk”, and then they award each runner the next base individually. They must call time to avoid the pitch being thrown. If the pitch is delivered before the call, then the balk is negated and, the play stands as executed.
Pitcher’s Plate: also called “the rubber” is the small white plate on the mound.
Disengaging the rubber: When the pitcher’s throwing side foot, also called their pivot foot, is off the pitcher’s plate. This changes the pitcher from pitcher to infielder. That changes what they are allowed to do and what the umpire will call.
No matter the number of people on base, a pitcher is allowed to deliver any pitch in two ways, from the windup or the set positions. However the windup is rarely used with runners on.
Windup Position: The pitcher begins their motion with both shoulders facing, but not necessarily squared, to the batter.
Set Position: This is really just the backend of the windup delivery. The pitcher begins with their shoulders facing either 1st or 3rd, depending on whether they are left or right handed, and they are holding the ball with both hands in front of their body.
Pitcher’s Limitations on Delivery
In both positions, at least half of the pitcher’s throwing foot must be in contact with the rubber at the start of their motion.
Pitching Motion: Before a pitch is thrown, both the pitcher’s hands must come together and the pitcher must come to a discernible stop before proceeding with the pitch. For discussion purposes, we’re calling this the ‘set stance’.
You'll see in this video highlighting Brothers' delivery just how important that pause is to the process of pitching.
Below are some of the most common balk calls. Let’s look at them in order of most to least commonly called. There are 20 balk rules. We’ve chosen to explain them using possible scenarios where a balk may be called because balks are both easier to understand, and quicker to explain, in the context of situations.
1) If the pitcher’s hands are still in motion when the leg comes up into the stretch, then that is not coming to a discernible stop and a balk is called.
A pitcher can stop as short a time as they like but they must act with distinction because the definition relies on the break in motion.
Not pausing in the set stance is also called change in direction or a bounce. If the pitcher comes up from the lean forward, into the set stance and fails to pause between set stance and forward motion that is a balk. This includes “bouncing” their hands up and down or simply going from downward to upward motion with their hands without a stop. It also includes pitching through, which is defined by the pitcher brings their hands down but not hesitating before shifting to their back foot to deliver the pitch.
2) Once a pitcher is in the set stance they have only three options:
(a) Pitch the ball
(b) Disengage from the rubber and become an infielder
(c) Throw to a base
Any other movement, outside these options, constitutes a balk.
3) Once the pitcher has set, with their hands together, if they lean back over to talk to the catcher, that’s a balk. Once the hands are set, the only options are the three listed above. This is the most common type of balk called.
4) In the lean, a pitcher can move their shoulders left to right, check out the players on the bases around them. However, once in the set stance, they can only move forward with their body. Any rotation in the shoulders, or movement in the knees, can be called balks. The head is the exception. That can move as much as they like, in any direction.
5) Double set: In the lean, the pitcher brings their hands together with their body facing toward the plate. They get the sign from the catcher and then come up to fully standing. This is not allowed. It is not one of the three movements listed, so it’s a balk.
6) Standing in contact with the rubber, or making any pitching motion, without possession of the ball is a balk.
7) Making any pitching motion while not in contact with the rubber is a balk. If the pitcher does this with no one on base, the hitter is awarded a ball.
8) A pitcher can be on the rubber, or in front of the rubber, with their throwing foot. If they are in the set stance and their throwing leg is behind the rubber, however that is a balk.
9) Stepping off of the pitcher’s plate: the pitcher must step off with the throwing arm’s foot. Stepping off with their glove-side foot is a balk.
10) At any point in the windup, if the pitcher drops the ball, that is considered a balk.
There is one exception. If, when the ball comes loose, it rolls forward and crosses the 3rd base foul line, it now becomes a ball in favor of the batter in the pitch count.
11) Hesitation: When the pitcher is leaned over, getting the signal from the catcher, they cannot begin to come up into the set stance and then, halfway up, go back down. Once the pitcher makes the motion to set, they must come up to the set stance. Not doing so will constitute a balk.
If a pitcher is unclear what they want to do, once in that set stance, they can simply step off the pitcher’s plate with their back leg, which is also their throwing, leg. This resets the pitcher and acts as a “do over”.
12) Once a pitcher is in the set stance, they can still step out of the pitch but must do so by raising the ball out of the glove and stepping behind the rubber simultaneously. If they do these as two separate motions, a balk is called. Once they do this they must release their hands, break them apart and bring them down to their sides, before stepping back into position and starting over.
13) Stepping to an unoccupied base: With a runner on first, making a move toward third to fake them out is a balk. A pitcher must step toward occupied bases only.
14) When the base is occupied, faking a throw to 2nd is allowed. If a pitcher moves toward 1st or 3rd to throw the runner out however, they must throw. No fake to either base is allowed. Unless the pitcher has disengaged from the rubber, and become an infielder before the fake, it will be called a balk.
In this instance, where the pitcher’s foot was, in relation to the rubber on delivery, is crucial. The runner will be awarded one base whenever the throw comes from a pitcher.
If the pitcher throws as an infielder however, and throws the ball out of the field of play, the runner is awarded two bases because the throw came from a fielder.
Immediately following the fake, if a pitcher fails to disengage their foot from the rubber before beginning to pitch again, then a balk will be called.
15) With runners occupying 1st and 3rd, a pitcher cannot step toward 3rd and then spin and throw to 1st for the put out. This used to be allowed but, as of 2013 MLB Rules, this is now ruled a balk.
16) On an intentional walk, if the pitcher begins pitching while the catcher is outside the catcher’s box, a balk will be called.
17) Removing the pivot foot from the rubber during delivery for any purpose other than to pivot constitutes a balk.
18) Pitching while not facing the batter will be called a balk.
19) An umpire can call a balk for excessive delay of game by the pitcher.
20) If the pitcher attempts a quick pitch, that is pitching before the batter is set in the box, a balk will be called. If there is no one on base when this happens, the batter’s count is credited with a ball.
A left-handed pitcher can see the runner on 1st. To throw them out, from the set stance, a pitcher must step more towards first than they do toward home. There is an imaginary 45-degree angle between home and 1st and, when the pitcher steps more toward home than first, a balk will be called.
This can be difficult to see from the umpiring positions. An indicator for the officiating staff is if the pitcher lifts their glove leg and crosses the middle of their own body. In that instance, the pitcher is required to go to home and deliver the pitch.
As you can see the balk is a very complex and difficult rule to get your brain wrapped around. It requires specific attention on lot of different moving parts simultaneously. Those parts move quickly and are hard to see from all angles of the field. Even before a pitch is thrown, there can be a lot going on. This is one of those things you can now keep your eye on while you wait for the next pitch to be delivered.
Pay close attention to the call on Rea. The announcers say no balk. Watch the video, then reference #1 on the list. Listen close, during the explanation the play-by-play announcer gives, you’ll hear him mention the exact reason the balk is actually called.
As you can now see, this happens fast. Think about that the next time you’re tempted to yell, “Hey Ump, what are you looking at?”