A balk is an act a pitcher does during a game of baseball that is illegal. When the pitcher balks, each person on base advances one base. This concept can get confusing because multiple acts can be considered a balk.
A pitcher can do any one of 13 acts during the game. These acts are considered mistakes because they benefit the opposing team. Some acts are more commonly seen than others, but we’ll explain each one in more detail.
Pitchers should learn these rules, so they don’t make mistakes during the game, especially at key moments. Knowing what to do and what not to do can make all the difference during a game of baseball.
Did you know balks are not always performed by pitchers? And there is one type of balk that has never occurred during an MLB game.
What is a balk?
The short answer is that a balk is an illegal act performed by the pitcher, unintentionally, that results in each player on base advancing one base. This is a complicated concept because there is more than one way to balk.
Coaches should work with their pitchers, especially young pitchers, to help them avoid balking during games. They should help their pitchers stay mentally tough, relaxed, and calm, so they don’t react when something unexpected happens.
Other rules about balks
Let’s go more in-depth. A balk only counts when the opposing team has at least one player on base. If the pitcher balks, each player on base advances one base.
If there aren’t runners on base, the balk is considered an “illegal” pitch, and a ball is added to the hitter’s count.
If the pitcher balks but still delivers the ball across the plate, the batter can swing. It is a good idea for the batter to swing because even if they don’t get a hit, the runners still advance.
If the catcher is not in the catcher’s box, this can also be considered a balk. This is rarer than pitchers balking, but it can still happen.
Now let’s dive into each way a pitcher can balk.
13 ways a pitcher can balk
1. Starting the pitching motion then stopping
The first way a pitcher can balk is by starting the pitching motion but stopping before they deliver the pitch. This also includes extra body movements before the pitch.
This means that once a pitcher starts his motion, he must deliver the pitch. The pitcher can not stop the pitching delivery for any reason; otherwise, it is a balk.
When a pitcher starts his pitch with a subtle motion, then changes his mind, it is a balk. This is one of the most common ways a pitcher balks because it includes movements like flinching or twitching.
A pitcher may do this because a runner on base started stealing, someone distracted him or called his name, or because he tripped or fell.
All extra body movements and flinches are balks. They count as starting and stopping. The pitch delivery must be smooth and free of erratic movements. The pitcher can only deliver the pitch, step off the rubber, or pick off to a base.
2. Faking a throw to first
Pitchers can not fake a throw to first. Most pitchers have a first base pick-off move, but while they are free to actually throw to first, they can’t fake throw to first unless they step off of the rubber completely.
A pitcher can step off the rubber and fake a throw. As long as they are completely off the rubber, they are just like any other fielder. The balk rules only apply when the pitcher is on the rubber and does not actually throw the ball.
It is not considered a balk when the pitcher fakes a throw to second or third. This is a perfectly legal move.
3. Throwing to a base without stepping toward it
Another type of balk is when the pitcher throws to a base while standing on the rubber without stepping towards the base they are throwing to. This balk is more common with left-handed pitchers.
Left-handed pitchers face first base, so it is easy to throw to first without stepping towards it. Right-handed pitchers face third base, so they are more likely to step off before they throw to a base.
Right-handed pitchers balk when they do not step off base to throw to second or third, but it is rarer for a pitcher to pick off a runner at third, so this rule mostly applies to left-handed pitchers.
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4. Throwing or faking a throw to an unoccupied base
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This type of balk is the easiest to identify. A pitcher can not throw or fake a throw to a base with no runner.
This does not include throwing to a base a runner is running to. The rule only applies when there is no runner on that base or the base before it. For example, if there is a runner on third but no runners on other bases, the pitcher can’t throw or fake a throw to second.
5. Not pausing for at least one second
Pitchers must come set then pause for at least one second before delivering the pitch. This means the pitcher can’t roll through the pitch delivery.
After a pitcher has come to a set position, he must stop completely. The set position refers to a pitcher’s hands coming together.
6. Performing a quick pitch
Not all quick pitches are balks. Some are legal moves, while others are illegal.
A quick pitch is a pitch delivered before the batter is ready. Pitchers sometimes quicken their delivery to throw the hitter off. This type of pitch is legal and is not considered a balk.
The quick pitch that is a balk refers to pitching the ball as soon as the batter steps on foot into the batter’s box. The umpire will most likely call this a balk.
This type of balk does not happen too often because the umpire regulates when playing time is. Umpires will usually signal that time is “out” until the batter is ready. Then they will point to the pitcher and signal “play” when the batter is ready.
When the umpire is not regulating this time, a pitcher might pitch before the batter is ready. This is not considered a balk because the umpire did not call time out between pitches.
7. Pitching without facing the batter
One of the rarest ways to balk is to pitch without facing the batter. The pitcher’s body must face the batter before the pitch. This doesn’t mean the pitcher can’t turn his head and face second base.
The details of this type of balk are fuzzy because it has never happened during a professional baseball game. The rules simply state that the pitcher must face the batter before the pitch.
8. Performing the pitching motion without standing on the rubber
A pitcher must stand on the rubber before pitching. The rubber is there for a reason: so the pitcher does not deceive or trick the batter or runners.
As a pitcher, you can’t act out your pitching motion unless you are standing on the rubber. This is a balk because it would scare runners into running before the pitch, which would make them easy targets.
9. Delaying the game
This type of balking is also rare. Pitchers can delay the game by pacing around and delaying each pitch.
Since there is no good reason to do this, balking by delaying a game doesn’t happen often. However, some pitchers may throw a fit if something didn’t go their way. It is up to the umpire to decide what a balk is.
10. Standing on the rubber without a ball
Standing on the rubber without a ball is also considered a balk. This rule is similar to the rule that states pitchers can’t perform the pitching motion if they are not on the rubber.
Both of these rules are in place to prevent pitchers from tricking runners. For example, standing on the rubber without holding a ball might trick runners into running and becoming easy outs.
If a pitcher stands on the rubber or puts one foot on each side of the rubber, he must be holding the ball either in his hand or in his glove.
11. Separating hands after the set position
The set position is when pitchers meet their hands together before the pitch. Any separation of the hands after the set position is a balk. Once the hands have met, the pitcher must either pitch the ball or pick off a runner.
During the set position, the pitcher’s hands meet for the first and last time before the pitch. If the pitcher wants to separate his hands, he must first step off the rubber. When the pitcher comes off the rubber, he is just like any other fielder.
12. Dropping the ball
If a pitcher is standing on the rubber and drops the ball, it is a balk. This is a common mistake young pitchers make, but it can still happen in professional games.
If the pitcher was not standing on the rubber when he dropped the ball, it is not considered a balk.
13. The catcher stepping out of the catcher’s box
The catcher can also balk. The only way a catcher can balk is by not being in the catcher’s box for a pitch. The catcher must be behind the plate inside the catcher’s box for every pitch.
More about balks
Now that we know all the different ways a pitcher (or catcher) can balk, let’s dive even further into the rules around balks.
When was the balk rule put in place?
The rules of balks were put in place in 1898. This rule prevented pitchers from tricking baserunners and batters.
Before balk rules were put in place, pitchers could do whatever they pleased to fool baserunners or scare them from stealing. This resulted in more conservative base running.
Once the rules were put in place and pitchers could no longer pitch however they wanted, pitchers had to conform to strict pitching movements. This created a more fair game with less, or no, deception.
Swinging at a pitch after a balk
The batter can swing after a balk if the pitch is still delivered.
The batted ball will result in the runner or runners advancing, which is what would have happened anyway, but the runners might be able to advance more than one base, and the batter can advance to first. If the batter makes a hit, the balk is disregarded.
When the batter hits a pitch after a balk, he and any runner can still be thrown out. The play still stands despite the balk.
If the batter hits the ball and gets an out or the runners don’t advance one base, the balk still counts, and the runners advance anyway. The pitch counts as a ball added to the player’s count, and the batter can resume his at-bat.
How can you avoid balks as a pitcher?
If you are new to pitching or find yourself balking often, there are ways you can reduce balks during games.
The first thing you should do is learn exactly what a balk is. Once you know what you can and can’t do, you can practice pitching in a way that avoids these illegal acts.
Pitching requires mental toughness, and the more you do it, the better you’ll be. It is important to stay relaxed and quiet between pitches. Figure out which pre-pitch routine works best for you and practice often.
Are balks errors?
Balks are not considered errors in baseball. After a balk, no errors are added to any player’s stats. The only thing that happens is a ball is added to the count, and each runner advances one base.
What are illegal pitches?
The only illegal pitch is a quick pitch, which refers to pitching the ball before the batter is ready. The umpire will usually signal to the pitcher when it is ok to pitch the ball.
This pitch is illegal because it is dangerous, among other reasons. If the batter is not ready for the pitch, they are more likely to get hit by the pitch.