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What is a Balk in Baseball? A Pitchers Game in Deception…

Every sport has a set of rules, that when violated, result in actionable consequences. There are a number of illegal actions that can occur in baseball, one of which is the ‘Balk’.

A Balk is an illegal pitch where the pitcher executes an intentional deception to trick the hitter or runner.

Essentially, the pitcher pretends to throw a pitch when they have no actual intention of doing so.

An example of this would be a fake throw. The pitcher may attempt to do this in order to throw off opposing players and run them out. 

Balk rules ensure that the pitcher does not get an unfair advantage in trying to knock out runners. For example, a pitcher could fake a throw in one direction and then spin around quickly to run out another player.

These are the kinds of things that umpires have to pay close attention to in order to keep pitchers in check. 

How Many Ways Can You Balk in Baseball?

There are a number of different actions or motions that are considered to be balk in baseball. Some common balks that can be committed by a pitcher are outlined in section 8.05 of the rules of Major League Baseball (MLB). These include:

  • Beginning the pitching motion without completing the pitch
  • Faking a throw to first base, or flinching while on the mound
  • Throwing to a base without moving toward that base (while standing on the rubber)
  • Throwing or faking a throw to an empty base (unless a runner is running towards that base)
  • Making an illegal pitch such as a quick pitch
  • Not facing the batter while pitching
  • Not touching the pitcher’s plate/rubber during any part of the pitching motion
  • Delaying the game without reason
  • Standing on the pitcher’s plate without the ball
  • Taking one hand off of the ball after assuming the ‘windup’ or set position, and not making a pitch or throwing to a base
  • Dropping the ball while getting ‘set’ standing on the pitcher’s plate
  • Pitching while the catcher is not present in the catcher’s box
  • Pitching from the set position without making a complete stop

What Happens When a Pitcher Balks?

A balk is a violation of play that leads to a ‘dead ball’ or ‘delayed dead ball’. A dead ball halts the play, typically resulting in a penalty that grants a single base advancement to each runner on base (excluding the player at bat). 

Intentional Balks

The intentional balk was famously brought to the game in recent times by MLB player Kenley Jansen. However, Bob Wickman is largely credited with inventing the intentional balk back in 2005.

As its name indicates, this type of a balk is intentionally performed by a pitcher who does not hide the fact that they are about to perform it. As such, they may announce to umpires and other players on the field that they are about to commit a balk. An intentional balk may be used in situations where the pitcher may want to take control of the game situation.

For example, a pitcher may want to move a player standing at second base to third so that the hitter can no longer send signals to them (as the baseman would not be in clear sight of the hitter once he moves to third base).

The intentional balk is a tactical move that we may or may not see more of in the game in the future, but it is nonetheless important and interesting to know about.  

What is a Balk in Baseball?: Balk Rules Explained 

It’s important to learn about what specific types of actions and motions constitute a balk so that you can better understand what balk rules are. In a high energy, high performance sport like baseball, things can get complicated fast! This is why it’s important to have guiding rules and standards to foster fair play. 

Why do we have Balk Rules?

Balk rules essentially regulate the game of the pitcher to ensure that there is no tampering on their part.

While pitchers have relative autonomy over their play and style, they must follow some pretty strict rules with respect to their form, positioning and motions at the pitcher’s mound. 

Here we will try to understand the rules of pitching and balks a bit more in depth.  There are key rules that govern the positions and motions of the pitcher at any given time during play. Any violation of these rules is a balk. Some of these include:

Stepping out of a windup position using the wrong foot.

At the pitcher’s plate, you cannot freely change from one position to another. To change position (i.e. from a windup position to a stretch position), you must first step off the pitcher’s plate using your foot from your ‘throwing arm’ side.

In other words, if you are a right-handed thrower, you must step off the plate using your right foot. If you step off using the wrong foot, you would commit a balk move.

This is because if you use your ‘glove side’ foot to step off, it could look like you’re going into a wind up, which could be seen as a deceptive move. Once you step off the plate, you become an infielder, and from there, you are then free to change your position and resume. 

Dropping the ball in the windup position is considered a balk.

When changing direction, you must come to a complete stop before throwing the ball.

If you want to change direction, for example from facing first base to third base, you must change direction and then come to a pause or stop before proceeding with your throw. If there is no pause, this is a balk. 

Hesitating during a play.

If you give a signal that you are starting the pitch i.e. if you begin a windup move, and then stop, this is considered to be a balk. You therefore cannot stop or hesitate after initiating a play. 

When changing position, your body parts cannot move.

When you change position, your shoulders, hips, legs and feet have to come to a stop. Movement of any of these parts results in a balk.

For example, you cannot move your shoulders or twitch your knees. Moving your head is fine though.

You can only step towards a base that has a runner on it.

You cannot step towards an unoccupied base. For example if there is someone on third base but no one on first base, you can step towards third, but not first base. You must also make sure you turn your body when throwing towards a base. 

Third to first base move. If you want to change direction from one base to another, you must step towards the current base you’re directed towards and then make your turn to the other one. So if you’re at third base and want to turn to first base, you have to step or make a movement towards third base, and then turn and go to first. You cannot bring your foot down next to your other one (from the wind up position) and then turn and go to first. 

There are a lot of things to keep in mind with respect to balk rules. So how should you deal with all of these rules as a pitcher?

The best way is to be strategic and take control of the situation. Assess the circumstances and check the details. This includes making sure you are in sync with your catcher, so pay attention to their signals.

Also check the runners at the bases, making sure that you can see them well. If you’re not sure about something, feel free to step off the mound (remember, with your ‘throwing arm’ side foot) to make necessary adjustments in your position.

Above all, do not rush and take your time! 

What is a Balk in Baseball? Key Summary Points

So as we’ve learned here, pitchers are under intense scrutiny by umpires, who are on the constant watch out for illegal, or balk actions and moves. Below is a summary of balk rules and guidelines:

  • Any action or movement by the pitcher that is intentionally used to deceive the opponent is called a balk.
  • The penalty for a balk is a single base advancement for runners.
  • There are over a dozen different actions and motions that can lead to a balk (the MLB has a list of 13).
  • There are specific rules concerning position and movement at the pitcher’s plate – violation of any of these results in a balk.
  • To avoid balks, pitchers should carefully assess situations before making any moves and importantly, not rush the game.

And, to round this post off here’s a great video of the MLB’s worst balks – Enjoy!

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