What is a balk in baseball? The Major League Baseball rule book has pages and pages attempting to answer that very question. A Supreme Court Justice once said of obscenity, “I know it when I see it.” Some baseball fans feel like this is the best definition of a balk to date. And it is certainly true: sometimes a balk is obvious to fans when it happens. If a pitcher is halfway through the stretch, kicks his free leg, and then drops the ball, nobody doubts that a balk has been committed.
Other times, an umpire calls a balk against a pitcher and nobody is sure what they saw. Play-by-play announcers and color commentators attempt to explain to the viewers why a balk was called, and sometimes none of them are saying the same thing.
Other times, understanding what is illegal begins by understanding what is legal. What is a balk in baseball? Well, anything outside of a legal pitch is illegal. That may be as good a starting place as any. Beginning there, we will attempt to explain a balk in baseball.
What Is a Legal Pitch?
A fundamental and legal baseball pitch is made up of the set and the windup. Together, the windup and the set are often referred to as the stretch. Pitching from the windup takes longer than pitching from the set and is often used when there are no base runners. Pitching from the set can be executed more quickly, so it is preferred by many pitchers when runners are on base.
A pitcher is considered to be in the windup when his he has the ball and stands on the pitching rubber at the peak of the mound. His feet are pointing toward home plate.
From the windup, the pitcher may legally step backward toward second base or laterally to first or third base with his free leg. The free leg is the opposite of the pitching hand. A right-handed pitcher has a left free leg, and a left-handed pitcher has a right free leg.
Delivery From the Windup
When delivering a pitch from the windup, the pitcher must take a step forward toward home plate. Before stepping forward, a pitcher has the right to step off the rubber with his pivot foot. The pivot foot is the opposite foot from the free leg. He can also step toward a base to throw or fake a throw toward a base runner.
A pitcher is considered to be in the set when he has the ball and stands on the rubber with his toes pointing toward first or third base depending on whether he is a right-handed or left-handed pitcher. In the set, the pitcher has his hands at his sides.
From the set, the pitcher may legally make several movements. The pitcher can step toward any base with a base runner to throw the ball or fake a throw. He may also step off the rubber.
Delivery From the Set
Delivery of the pitch from the set begins when the pitcher brings his arms together in the front of his body, sometimes called the coming set. The pitcher takes a step toward home as he delivers the pitch.
Often, from the set, pitchers use a high leg kick to generate momentum as they lunge toward home plate. Other pitchers use a faster delivery by using a slide step with a faster and more direct motion toward home plate.
What Is a Balk in Baseball?
Anything outside the legal description of a pitch is ultimately a deception, whether done purposely or accidentally. What is a balk in baseball? In its purest form, a balk is a movement by the pitcher to deceive the opposition. It can be anything from a deliberate flinch after entering the set position to accidentally dropping the ball in the set position.
Think of it this way: umpires cannot read minds. If officials had to determine the intent of pitchers in unusual movements, it would be a lost cause. Therefore, anything outside the legal components of a pitch is a balk.
A left-handed pitcher must commit to pitching toward home. At that point, throwing anywhere else would be considered a deception. A rule of thumb is when the left-handed pitcher’s right foot crosses his left knee, he must complete the pitch to home plate. If he commits to home, then throws to another base, he has committed a balk.
Once the pitcher has received his sign from the catcher, he enters the set position. From the set, the pitcher’s right foot must go toward the base he throws to. Umpires often use this general rule as a guide to calling a balk.
Every pitcher must come to a set position before beginning his motion to throw toward home. Conversely, the pitcher must complete the pitch once he starts his motion. If he begins his pitching motion and stops before completing the pitch, he has committed a balk. If the ball, purposefully or otherwise, falls to the ground before the pitch is completed, the pitcher has committed a balk.
Likewise, if a pitcher begins his motion toward a pick-off throw, the throw must be completed unless he steps off the rubber. For a right-handed pitcher, the left foot must go toward the base he is throwing to. If he pitches to the batter, his left foot should end up in the direction of home plate.
If a right-handed pitcher makes a pick-off throw to first base, his left foot should move toward first base. If he throws to third, his left foot should end up toward third base.
Definition of a Balk
What is a balk in baseball? A balk is committed when a pitcher in the set or windup positions makes any pitching motion and does not complete the pitch, complete a pick-off throw, or feign a throw to first, second, or third base. A balk also includes deceptions based on the pitcher’s failure to step directly with his free leg toward the base he throws to.
Some specific examples of behavior that can result in a balk call by the umpire include a pitcher who takes a second step toward home plate. A legal pitch only allows for one step toward home.
A legal pitch also requires the pitcher to come to a complete stop when he enters the set position. Failure to do so can result in a balk. Anything else the pitcher does to “quick-pitch” the batter can be ruled a balk by the umpire.
On the other hand, intentional delays in pitching can result in the umpire calling a balk. Pitchers may not throw to a base where there is no base runner. It is also illegal for a pitcher to feign a throw when he does not have the ball.
When a pitcher commits a balk, each base runner freely advances to the next base. A base runner on third base scores when a balk is committed. If there are no base runners, the balk is considered an illegal pitch. An illegal pitch with no base runners is counted as a ball.
An illegal pitch on ball No. 4 results in a walk. Illegal pitches that either hit a batter, result in an error, or in any way allow the batter to reach base, result in the runner being awarded the base.
Balk Revision in 2013
A revision to the balk rule was met with mixed emotions in 2013. At that time, it had been common for pitchers to use a legal maneuver in which they made a fake throw to third base followed by a pick-off throw to first base. The goal was to entice the first base runner to advance to second as the pitcher threw to third, only to realize that the pitcher had not thrown the ball.
It was not as if this maneuver worked very often, but the occasional gullible runner was picked off first base as a result. As of 2013, the move was declared to be a balk. Interestingly, the thought process behind the rules change had more to do with the speed of play than the fundamentals of a balk. Because the move so rarely worked, it was considered a waste of time that slowed an already long game.
Many pitchers at the time argued that the move was not intended to pick off runners, though it was a cherry on top when it happened. The move was intended to keep the runner closer to the base due to fear of uncertainty.
Others in baseball’s hierarchy suggested that by the letter of the law, the move should have already been deemed a balk. At best, many admitted the move took place in a gray area. What is a balk in baseball? Was it not a movement by the pitcher to deceive the opposition?
The baseball players union originally rejected the rule. Baseball leadership then unilaterally enacted the rule change under provisions in the labor agreement at that time.
While some actions of a pitcher, such as dropping the ball during the windup, are objectively a balk, the 2013 controversy illuminated the fact that there is always a gray area surrounding balks. This was the case when Johhny Cueto was tagged with a balk in 2016.
Johnny Cueto and Clayton Kershaw were going head-to-head in a pitching duel. On the night, Kershaw pitched eight innings, gave up only five hits, and walked no batters while striking out 13.
On the other end, Cueto pitched eight innings, gave up only three hits, walked no batters and struck out eight. The difference in the one-run game? A balk called against Cueto. The pitcher did a small shimmy that he was known for, and the umpires called a balk. A debate ensued: was it illegal or simply awkward?
The bigger point of debate centered around why the shimmy had happened so many times before with no balk called. What is a balk in baseball? Some actions are gray, especially where balks are concerned.
Baseball attempted to define a balk for the first time in 1857. At that early stage a balk was called when a pitcher stepped over a line 45 feet from the plate while delivering the pitch. Forty years later, the official definition of a balk in MLB’s rule book was more than 3,600 words. What is a balk in baseball? It has continued to evolve over time, and the 2013 evolution is probably not the final say in the matter.
Conclusion on the Balk
What is a balk in baseball? Most baseball fans can understand that anything outside the legal description of a pitch is ultimately a deception and therefore a balk. As it plays out over the course of 2,430 regular-season MLB games every year, gray areas arise. A veteran MLB umpire once claimed he had never called a balk because he didn’t understand the rule.
There are certain things that, as a player, you should always avoid if you do not want to be called for a balk.
- Begin your pitch without completing it
- Throw to a base without stepping directly toward the base
- Throw or fake a throw to an unoccupied base
- Fail to come to a complete pause in the set position
- Drop the ball
- Pitch when the catcher is not in the box
If you or your team do any of those things, you have no right to complain that a balk has been called. However, no sport is perfect, and every competition has an element of subjectivity from those officiating. The balk was first identified in 1857; the very fact that the game has thrived through the year 2019 makes it hard to be too critical.
We hope this discourse on the balk has helped you understand the nature of the rule, the intention of the rule, and debates surrounding the rule. Knowledge is key, so hopefully you’ve learned something that helps you enjoy America’s pastime a little bit more.