What Is A Balk In Baseball?


Baseball enthusiasts are well-acquainted with the balk rule, a perplexing aspect of Major League Baseball. When an umpire signals a balk in baseball against a pitcher in a game, it often sparks a scenario where the batter disputes the decision, and all base runners advance by one base.

This rule, which can be confusing even for dedicated fans, serves as a nuanced element of the game, introducing complexity and occasional controversy.

Understanding what constitutes a balk in baseball is essential for both seasoned fans and newcomers, as it significantly impacts the dynamics of play.

This guide aims to demystify the balk, providing examples and insights to enhance appreciation for this intricate rule in baseball.

What Is A Balk?

In baseball, a “balk” is when a pitcher makes an illegal move while trying to throw the ball. It’s like a no-no in the game, and any umpire (the referees in baseball) can say it happened.

This usually occurs when a pitcher is making a throw with one or more players on bases or when they try to do a quick throw in a way that’s not allowed.

The word “balk” comes from old English games like rounders and cricket. Back then, it meant someone broke the rules about where they could move their feet during the game. Now, in baseball, it keeps players from being sneaky and trying to cheat.

Here’s how it works: if the umpire thinks the pitcher did something tricky to fool the players on bases, they call a balk. Then, each player on a base gets to move one base forward. If the pitcher still throws the ball, the umpire stops the game for a bit.

Pitchers often try to be sneaky, especially when players are on base. They might do things to trick the other team or stop them from stealing bases. The umpire decides if what the pitcher did was okay or if it was against the rules.

So, if you’ve ever wondered what people mean by “balk” in baseball, now you know! It’s all about keeping the game fair and making sure everyone plays by the rules.

Types Of Balks

In baseball, there are certain rules for pitchers, one of which is about a “balk.” A balk happens when a pitcher does something not allowed, and there are 13 rules for it.

Let’s break them down in simple terms:

  • If a pitcher doesn’t throw the ball to the batter after making their normal pitching move, it’s a balk.
  • If a pitcher pretends to throw the ball to 1st base but doesn’t really throw it, and they’re touching the rubber (that’s the pitching spot), it’s a balk. But they can pretend to throw to 2nd or 3rd base if there are runners on base. They don’t have to throw if the pitcher steps back off the rubber.
  • If a pitcher doesn’t step directly toward a base before throwing to that base, it’s a balk. Umpires check if the step was toward the base, like within a 45-degree angle for 1st base.
  • If a pitcher throws or pretends to throw to a base where no player is, except for a specific play, it’s a balk. For example, if a runner tries to steal 2nd base, the pitcher can throw there, even if the runner looks towards 1st base.
  • If a pitcher makes an illegal pitch, like a quick one or throws from off the rubber, it’s a balk.
  • If a pitcher throws the ball to the batter without facing them, it’s a balk.
  • If a pitcher does any pitching move without touching the rubber, it’s a balk.
  • If a pitcher takes too long and delays the game, it’s a balk.
  • If a pitcher pretends to throw the ball without actually having the ball, whether on the rubber or not, it’s a balk.
  • If a pitcher, after getting ready to pitch, takes one hand off the ball (except during the actual throw), it’s a balk.
  • If a pitcher drops the ball on purpose or by accident while on the rubber, it’s a balk.
  • If a pitcher, while purposely giving a base on balls, throws when the catcher is not in the catcher’s box, it’s a balk. The catcher has to start in the box and then move outside to catch the ball. Some call this a “catcher’s balk.”
  • If a pitcher, when pitching from the set position, doesn’t stop clearly and just changes direction, it’s a balk, sometimes called rolling through the pitch.

So, those are the 13 rules about balks in easy words. It’s all about making sure the pitcher plays fair and follows the rules.

Common Causes Of Balks

Checking how many balks different baseball teams have can help us see some trends in how these calls happen.

Usually, there are more balks when there are runners on bases compared to when there are no runners. This is because pitchers often try to trick their opponents by quickly throwing the ball when they might not be ready.

Understanding why umpires call balks can be useful for both players and coaches. If players and coaches know what can cause a balk, they can work together to prevent them. This is important to avoid getting penalties and to keep the game going smoothly.

The Set Position

Most times when pitchers, whether they throw with their left or right hand, make a balk in Major League Baseball, it happens when they are in the set position. Pitchers can throw in three ways: the stretch position, windup position, or set.

They often choose the set position when there’s no one on a base. In this position, they step back, rock, and throw while facing the batter.

In the set position, the pitcher’s body makes a T shape with the pitching rubber turned sideways to it.

Before kicking, sliding, and throwing the ball to home plate in the set position, pitchers must bring their hands together and stop completely.

If a pitcher brings their hands together, doesn’t stop, and just throws the ball, the umpire says it’s a balk.

It’s important to know that pitchers in the set position can’t shrug their shoulders or flinch because that’s against the rules.

They can look at the base runner by turning their heads, but they can’t make any sudden movements. If they do, it’s called a balk.

Fake Throw

First base is the only base where a pitcher can’t pretend to throw without first stepping off the rubber. If they want to fake a throw first, they have to step away from the rubber first.

But once they leave the rubber, pitchers can throw or fake a throw to any base. They can’t pretend to throw to first, though, if they want to do a pickoff move.

Pitchers also can’t trickily move to any base other than first. For example, if there’s a runner on first, the pitcher can’t pretend to throw to third and then try to catch the runner at first. This would be a balk.

Before 2013, baseball rules allowed pitchers to try to catch the runner on first by pretending to throw to third when there was a runner on first and third.

But in 2013, MLB changed the rules to make this move, called “fake to third, throw to first,” against the rules.

Penalties For Balks

When umpires say there’s a balk in baseball, the pitcher did something against the rules. The plate and field umpires are in charge of spotting these rule-breaking actions. Every move they make for a pitcher must be like a continuous motion towards home plate.

The umpire can call a baulk if their foot goes the wrong way. How strict this rule is enforced can depend on the situation and the league where the game is happening.

In Major League Baseball, if a pitcher does something on the mound that tricks the base runner, it’s called a balk. The plate umpire decides this.

When a balk is called, any runners who were already in a good scoring position get to move to the next base. Plus, if the pitcher threw the ball, it’s like a do-over – the pitch is ruled a dead ball.

Here’s a tricky part: even though we talk about balks a lot, there’s no official count for them, like there is for hits or home runs. It’s kind of like how we don’t officially count mistakes for fielders.

So, it’s tough to know exactly how many balks happen in each game. To better understand how their players are doing, some teams keep their own count of balks during games. This helps them see if there are patterns or things they need to work on.

Strategies To Avoid Balks

Base Coaches’ Role

  • Stay informed about current base-running trends.
  • Guide runners on whether to advance confidently or hold their position.
  • Help runners decide when it’s a good time to try stealing a base.

Pitchers’ Reminder

  • Keep the pivot foot stable until the pitching motion is completed.
  • Avoid sudden movements to prevent a balk call.

Team Strategies for Avoiding Balks

  • Understand and practice strategies to prevent balks.
  • It is especially crucial in tie-game situations.
  • Focus on scenarios with runners in scoring position.
  • Maximize chances of scoring while minimizing the risk of a balk being called.

Coaching Approach

  • Teach players strategies to avoid making a balk.
  • Ensure everyone knows how to move around the bases safely.
  • Improve the team’s chances of scoring without facing penalties.

How Balks Affect A Game

In simple terms, a balk messes up the game and can be seen as a way for a pitcher to cheat by getting an unfair advantage.

Even though balks don’t affect how good a pitcher seems based on their earned run average (ERA), they do add up in their total base count.

The most common kind of balk happens when a pitcher moves away from the pitching plate before throwing the ball to home plate.

When this happens, the pitch doesn’t count, and all runners get to move one base from where they were. If there are runners on bases, this could mean the other team gets extra bases or even a base hit.

Balks can also happen when a pitcher tries to pick off a runner or if they do something extra after getting ready to throw but don’t actually throw.

In these situations, all runners move one base from where they were, and this might lead to the other team scoring more points and changing how the game turns out.

Since balks can seriously affect a pitcher’s stats, they need to avoid making these mistakes to do well in the game.

Notable Instances Of Balks In Baseball

John Tumpane’s story shows how balks in baseball can really impact players. In 2014, he was playing 3rd base for the Pittsburgh Pirates, and he pulled off a hidden ball trick against the St. Louis Cardinals.

Unfortunately, this move led to two balk penalties for his team, and they ended up losing the game.

Understanding the rules about balks is essential for players and teams in baseball. If you don’t have good strategies to avoid these penalties, your team could face problems quickly because each penalty gives advantages to the other team.

So, players and coaches must have plans to prevent these issues and be prepared in case they happen during games.

The Debate Over The Balk Rule

People have been talking a lot about the balk rule in baseball for a long time. One big question is whether a pitcher can make certain movements on the mound without getting penalized with a balk.

For example, is it okay for a right-handed pitcher to step off the rubber with their right foot and turn towards 1st base, even if their left-hand doesn’t move simultaneously? Or can a left-handed pitcher slightly turn away when they start moving towards third base without breaking any rules?

According to MLB, any movement by the pitcher that’s considered “not part of continuous motion” is seen as a balk.

This means if a pitcher begins their delivery and then stops or changes direction after reaching a certain angle from home plate to 1st base (for righties) or third base (for lefties), it might be seen as breaking the rules, and the umpire might call a balk.

So, understanding what actions count as balks can give teams helpful insights, maybe helping them perform better in the game.


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In summary, the balk in baseball is a complex and often confusing aspect of the game.

This guide provides insights into what constitutes a balk, the types of balks, common causes, penalties, and strategies to avoid them.

The rule significantly impacts gameplay, offering opportunities for base runners to advance and potentially altering match outcomes.

The ongoing debate over the balk rule centers on interpreting pitcher movements. Notable instances like John Tumpane’s hidden ball trick highlight the rule’s practical implications.

Mastering the nuances of the balk rule is crucial for teams seeking to enhance their performance and adds appreciation for the strategic elements of baseball.


Q: What is an example of a balk in the MLB?

A: In this situation, the pitcher is fully prepared and set, ready to deliver the pitch ahead of time. Once the batter places one foot into the batter’s box, the pitcher releases the pitch. If the umpire determines that time was already “in,” under these circumstances, it could result in a balk call.

Q: How many ways can a pitcher balk?

A: In the MLB rulebook, there exist 13 distinct instances classified as balks. For instance, one situation involves the pitcher going through their usual pitching motion but failing to deliver the ball to home plate. Another case involves the pitcher faking a throw to first base while in contact with the rubber but ultimately not executing the throw.

Q: Why is it called balk?

A: Derived from the Dutch term “balk,” signifying a beam, and the German counterpart “Balken,” the existing connotations in English have metaphorical origins, drawing from the concept of a balk in agricultural fields as a form of hindrance or obstruction.

This association, especially the latter, provides a meaningful explanation as the term “balk” inherently represents an obstacle.

Q: How does an umpire call a balk?

A: A notable concern arises when umpires declare a stoppage in play due to a pitcher’s balk. In such instances, it is advised to vocally signal “balk” if the pitcher delivers the ball.

It is recommended to maintain the current position and proceed with calling the pitch. Similarly, if a balk occurs during a throw to a base, vocalize “balk” and patiently observe the unfolding events in the play, following Rule 8.05 Approved Ruling (1).