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How to Earn a 3-Ball Walk in Baseball

While watching a baseball game, you may have seen the rare three-ball walk occur and wonder what had happened. You might be wondering if you missed a pitch because you only saw three balls, but the batter is on their way to first base and acting as if they had walked. On the other hand, baseball is full of one-off scenarios with their rules so maybe there is a rule that allows batters to walk on three balls. What is a 3-ball walk in baseball?

As a general rule, a three-ball walk is when a batter is awarded first base after three balls have been thrown in the at-bat. A three-ball walk normally occurs when an umpire has incorrectly counted the number of balls during an at-bat.

Catcher is confused and looking back at the umpire. The text reads "How to Earn a 3-Ball Walk in Baseball"

While it is rare for a 3-ball walk to occur in baseball, it has happened before. In the rest of this article, we’ll look at some of the common reasons for a 3-ball walk as well as some examples of this actually happening during baseball games.

What Is a 3 Ball Walk in Baseball?

Most baseball fans understand a walk is when four balls are delivered during an at-bat, but some fans have seen a batter walk on three balls instead of four. How is that possible?

While hitters should never be walking on three balls, it is a rare event that happens. In fact, this same exact scenario happened to me in a game and I was able to walk on three balls.

So I wanted to take my experience and share what the most common scenarios are for a player to walk on three balls.

3-Ball Walks Can Occur When An Umpire Gets the Count Wrong

The most common reason a player would walk on three balls is that the umpire has an incorrect count.

A lot can happen in a single pitch and if an umpire gets distracted with the rest of the play, they may count one ball twice.

For example, if a runner on first steals second, the home plate umpire might initially call a pitch a ball. Then after the play is over, the umpire might think they forgot to count the last pitch and end up counting a ball again.

Home plate umpires are more prone to getting distracted during a pitch when some crazy plays happen. Like if the defense makes a couple of bad throws and some runners score, the umpire has a lot more to watch than just the count of the at-bat.

3-Ball Walks Can Occur When A Hitter Gets the Count Wrong

Another scenario where a hitter can walk on three balls is if the hitter gets the count wrong. And not only does the hitter get the count wrong and go to first, but the rest of the defense also thinks the hitter walked and they do not challenge it.

This scenario is less likely because the umpire tends to let the catcher and the hitter know about the count after every pitch, but if a hitter successfully makes it to first base on three balls and the defense doesn’t say anything, umpires will typically let the play continue as if the hitter walked.

Examples of Three Ball Walks

1) I’ve Been Allowed to Walk on Three Balls

Believe it or not, I got walked on three balls the day before I was planning on writing this article. This has been the only time in my baseball career where I’ve actually walked on three balls and it just happened to occur the day before I wrote this article. What are the odds?

In my scenario, the count was actually 2-1, but as I was stepping into the box I heard the umpire say “3-1”. I knew right away the umpire had the wrong count, but I just rolled with it. After all, the umpire is responsible for the count of the at-bat and I wasn’t going to argue something that was in my favor.

My guess is that the umpire accidentally counted the previous ball twice because a lot had happened during the last pitch.

On the previous pitch, the pitcher delivered a pitch for a ball and the runner on first base stole second. The catcher threw the ball down to second base, but it was a bad throw and the runner was able to advance to third.

So somewhere in all that commotion, the umpire must have accidentally counted the last pitch twice.

The next pitch was a ball. I looked directly at the umpire to make sure he was giving me first base and he was signaling to me with his left hand to take first base.

As I was trotting down to first, I was expecting someone on the other team to say something about the count. To my surprise, no one on the defense said anything and the play continued.

And by sheer luck, that’s how you pull off a three-ball walk in baseball!

2) Carlos Santana Walks on Three Balls in an MLB Game

The video above does a great job of showing how Carlos Santana walked on three balls during an at-bat on 8/15/22.

As you can see, the count was actually 2-2, but Santana walked to first after the third ball. Neither the umpires nor anyone on the defense questioned the play and Santana was able to walk to first base after 3 balls.

As you can also see from the box score of that game on Baseball Reference, the count was still 2-2 on the last pitch before Carlos Santana walked in the top of the ninth inning.

Do 4 Balls Equal a Walk?

In a standard at-bat, four balls always equals a walk. In very rare occurrences, a batter will walk with three balls, but that typically happens because the umpire accidentally counted one pitch as two balls.

Also, keep in mind that a walk is not a dead ball. So after a hitter walks on four balls, the ball is still live and that runner can try to steal second base before the pitcher delivers the next pitch.

A Walk is Not an Official At-Bat

After a player walks, you might notice their batting average doesn’t change. And if you’re paying attention, you might also notice that they have one less at-bat than other players. So what gives? Is a walk an at-bat?

A walk is not counted as an official at-bat. A walk will still count as a Plate Appearance (PA), but it is not counted as an At-Bat (AB). So a walk will not affect a player’s batting average.

If a batter ends up walking on three balls, the same rule applies. That walk would not count as an official at-bat.

For more information on what is an at-bat, I recommended reading my other article on what is an at-bat in baseball.

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Steve Nelson

I'm the owner of Baseball Training World. I live in Denver, Colorado and I enjoy playing baseball in an adult baseball team in the surrounding area. Read more about Steve Nelson.