The balk rule in baseball can be a complicated rule to understand, even for veterans of the game. There are 13 ways to balk in baseball, but what makes the balk rule more complicated is that there are certain aspects of the rule that you don’t see too often. One part of the balk rule that people wonder about is what happens when a pitcher throws to an unoccupied base. Can a pitcher throw to an unoccupied base?
A pitcher is only allowed to throw to an unoccupied base with the intent of making a play. If a pitcher simply throws to an unoccupied base while still touching the pitching rubber, a balk is called. If a pitcher properly disengages with the pitching rubber, they can throw to an unoccupied base.
There are a lot of caveats to this rule so let’s dive into the three scenarios where pitchers are allowed to throw to an unoccupied base.
This article explains one small part about what constitutes a balk in baseball. Learn more about what is a balk by reading The Balk Rule in Baseball: A Complete Overview.
3 Scenarios When It’s Legal to Throw to an Empty Base
According to the official MLB rules, a balk will be called on the pitcher when “the pitcher, while touching his plate, throws, or feints a throw to an unoccupied base, except for the purpose of making a play” (Rule 6.02(a)(4)). So, is it a balk to throw to an unoccupied base?
As a general rule, it is illegal for a pitcher to throw to an unoccupied base. However, a pitcher is allowed to throw to an unoccupied base when they have the intent of making a play.
Let’s cover those 3 scenarios where it’s legal for a pitcher to throw to an unoccupied base.
1) The Base Runner is Stealing
If a base runner is trying to steal, the pitcher may throw to the base that the runner is attempting to advance to.
For example, if there is a runner on first base and that runner is attempting to steal second base, the pitcher may throw to second base. In this scenario, second base is unoccupied, but the pitcher is allowed to throw to second base because they are attempting to make a play.
One thing to note is that there is a difference between a base runner attempting to steal and a base runner faking a steal. The umpire will be the one to determine whether or not the base runner was attempting to steal, but if the umpire determines the runner was not attempting to steal, the pitcher will be called for a balk when throwing to the next base.
As an example, imagine there’s a base runner on first base who is faking the steal to second base. If the pitcher throws to second base, it is a balk because second base is unoccupied.
It can sometimes be tricky to determine the base runner’s intent, but the final ruling will come down to what the umpire saw. If the umpire believes the runner was attempting to steal, the play is legal. If the umpire believes the runner was not stealing, the play is a balk.
2) Pitcher Can Throw to an Unoccupied Base to Appeal a Play
On occasion, the defense will appeal a play where they believe the offense messed up. A common type of appeal is when the defense believes the runner left early when tagging up on a fly ball or when the defense believes a base runner did not touch a base when advancing.
In these situations, the offense can appeal a play by having the pitcher throw to an unoccupied base after the play has finished and the ball is live. A lot of plays in baseball will end with the offense or the defense calling time, so the umpire must signal the ball is back in play before an appeal is made.
The most common way for the defense to appeal a play is to wait for the ball to be live, which means the pitcher will need to have the baseball in their hands and positioned on the mound. Once the umpire signals a live ball, the pitcher can then throw the ball to the base where they believe the offense made a mistake. There is no penalty for throwing to an unoccupied base when the pitcher is appealing a play.
However, pitchers will need to be careful when appealing a play. The defense can lose the appeal if one of the following occurs:
- The throw goes out of play
- The pitcher balks
- A pitch is made to the next batter
- A play is made before the appeal (like a pick-off attempt)
So, if a pitcher were to balk by performing any of the 13 ways a pitcher can balk, then the defense is unable to appeal the previous play.
3) Pitcher Properly Disengages with the Rubber
Whenever a pitcher properly steps off the pitching rubber, they become an infielder. Once a pitcher becomes an infielder, the balk rules do not apply and they can basically do whatever they would like.
The one exception to this would be the balk rule that “the pitcher unnecessarily delays the game” (Rule 6.02(a)(8)). If the umpire determines the pitcher is unnecessarily delaying the game, then either a balk could be called or the pitcher could be ejected from the game.
But when a pitcher properly steps off the pitching rubber and they have a reason to throw to an unoccupied base, a balk would not be called.
The scenario this could be beneficial to the pitcher would be if we used the example above, where a base runner is faking a stolen base attempt. If a pitcher steps off the base, they can throw to the next base (which is unoccupied) without worrying about a balk being called.
Another example would be when the defense is wanting to appeal a play. A balk would technically be considered a play, so the pitcher can eliminate that potential call by properly disengaging with the rubber and throwing the ball to the unoccupied base to appeal the previous play.
All Balk Rules Still Apply When Throwing to an Unoccupied Base
Whenever a pitcher is legally allowed to throw to an unoccupied base, they still need to follow all of the other ways a pitcher can balk in baseball.
The most common balk rules to keep in mind when throwing to an unoccupied base are that the pitcher needs to step towards the base before throwing and the pitcher is not allowed to cross the plane of the pitching rubber with their front leg.
If any other balk rules are violated while the pitcher is legally able to throw to an unoccupied base, a balk will be called.
Learn more about the 13 ways a pitcher can balk in baseball.
Can a Pitcher Fake a Throw to an Unoccupied Base?
When reading the official MLB rules around throwing to an unoccupied base, it specifically mentions faking throws. As a reminder, the official MLB rules state “the pitcher, while touching his plate, throws, or feints a throw to an unoccupied base, except for the purpose of making a play” (Rule 6.02(a)(4)).
According to the MLB rules, a pitcher is allowed to fake a throw to an unoccupied base, but only when they have the intent of making a play. If the pitcher simply fakes a throw to an unoccupied base, a balk will be called on the pitcher.
While it is very uncommon for a pitcher to fake a throw to an unoccupied base, one scenario they might fake a throw is when a base runner is stealing. If the defense was not ready for the steal, the pitcher may stop their throwing motion to prevent a throw from going into the outfield.
While pitchers may be able to fake a throw, they are almost always unable to fake a pickoff attempt. Read more about when pitchers can fake a pickoff attempt.
Can You Pickoff to an Empty Base?
In baseball, it is illegal to pickoff to an empty base. Performing a pickoff to an empty base violates the rule about throwing to an unoccupied base. Therefore, a balk will be called when a pitcher tries to pickoff an empty base.