There are a lot of rules in baseball, but the one rule that seems to be the most elusive for both fans and players is the balk rule. Most people have heard about the balk rule and they understand runners normally get a free base, but there are a lot of conditions around what constitutes a balk. Because of all of these conditions around a balk, most people tend to wonder “what is a balk in baseball”?
In short, a balk in baseball is an illegal action made by the pitcher that results in all base runners advancing one free base. An illegal action consists of, but is not limited to, flinching, dropping the ball, not stepping towards a base during a pickoff move, and failing to deliver a pitch.
The rules around what constitutes a balk are described in section 6.02(a) of the official MLB Rulebook and they are there to limit a pitcher’s ability to deceive base runners. As it turns out, the MLB has defined 13 ways to balk in baseball, but any move that is outright deceitful for a runner can be ruled a balk. In the rest of this article, we’ll cover what exactly a balk is as well as all the different caveats around a balk.
Why is a Balk Illegal?
One of the best ways to understand a rule is to understand the intent behind the rule.
The balk rule was introduced to baseball in the year 1898 with the purpose of limiting a pitcher’s ability to deceive baserunners. Contrary to what a lot of people believe, the balk rule wasn’t introduced to prevent a pitcher from deceiving baserunners, it was introduced to prevent pitchers from blatantly deceiving baserunners.
Without a balk rule in place, pitchers would be free to perform any number of actions that could intentionally confuse both the base runners and the batter. For example, if the balk rule didn’t exist, pitchers would be free to fake a pickoff attempt to first base then quickly hop back on the pitching rubber and deliver a pitch.
Moves like this are blatantly deceitful and they would give the pitcher an unfair advantage over the offense.
Learn more about why is a balk illegal in baseball.
What is a Balk in Baseball?
As a general rule, a balk in baseball is any action made by the pitcher that blatantly deceives a base runner, usually while the pitcher is in contact with the pitching rubber. However, the MLB has defined 13 ways a pitcher can balk.
1) Pitcher Fails to Deliver the Pitch
Simply put, a pitcher must deliver a pitch once they begin their pitching motion. If a pitcher stops for any reason, a balk is called.
The first balk rule from the official MLB rules state “The pitcher, while touching his plate, makes any motion naturally associated with his pitch and fails to make such delivery” – Rule 6.02(a)(1).
There is also one additional comment in the MLB rulebook around this balk rule: “If a left-handed or right-handed pitcher swings his free foot past the back edge of the pitcher’s rubber, he is required to pitch to the batter except to throw to second base on a pick-off play.”
Some examples of this balk rule include:
- The pitcher flinches while touching the pitching rubber
- The pitcher slips or falls during their windup
- The pitcher brings their free foot (not the knee) past the back edge of the pitching rubber and makes a pickoff attempt to first or third base
2) Faking a Pickoff Attempt to Third or First Base
Prior to the 2013 MLB season, the only base pitchers were not allowed to fake a pickoff attempt to was first base. But at the beginning of the 2013 season, this second balk rule was adjusted to state that pitchers are unable to fake a pickoff attempt to first or third base.
The official MLB rules state “The pitcher, while touching his plate, feints a throw to first or third base and fails to complete the throw” – Rule 6.02(a)(2).
This means that the only base where pitchers can fake a pickoff attempt is second base. Read more about when pitchers can fake a pickoff attempt in baseball.
3) Pitcher Fails to Step Directly Toward a Base During a Pickoff Attempt
If a pitcher does not step towards the base they are throwing to before they release the ball from their hand, a balk is called. A balk is also called if a pitcher does not step towards the base after performing a spin move.
The official MLB rules state “The pitcher, while touching his plate, fails to step directly toward a base before throwing to that base” – Rule 6.02(a)(3).
There is also one additional clarifying comment around this rule that states a balk will be called if a pitcher performs a spin move and throws without stepping or that a balk will be called if the pitcher throws before the actual step occurs.
So regardless of the scenario, a pitcher must step towards the base they are throwing to while they are touching the pitching rubber. However, if a pitcher steps off the pitching rubber, they are considered an infielder and they are allowed to throw to a base without stepping.
4) Pitcher Throws or Fakes a Throw to an Unoccupied Base
Pitchers almost never throw to an unoccupied base and they almost never fake a pickoff attempt to an unoccupied base, but if they perform either action, a balk will be called.
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)
The MLB also added one additional clarifying comment to this rule that if a pitcher throws to an unoccupied base, umpires must determine if the base runner gave the impression they were trying to advance to that base. If umpires believe it looked like the base runner was advancing, a balk will not be called because the pitcher was attempting to make a play.
Even though it is illegal for a pitcher to throw to an unoccupied base, there are actually a few very specific scenarios where pitchers are allowed to throw to an unoccupied base without a balk being called. Learn more about the 3 scenarios when a pitcher can throw to an unoccupied base.
5) Pitcher Throws an Illegal Pitch
There are two types of illegal pitches in baseball:
- When a pitcher delivers a pitch while their pivot foot is not in contact with the pitching rubber
- When a pitcher delivers a pitch while the batter has not had a reasonable amount of time to get ready in the batter’s box (also known as a quick-pitch)
For this fifth balk rule, the official MLB rules simply state “The pitcher makes an illegal pitch” – Rule 6.02(a)(5).
This rule also has one additional comment that reinforces the idea of a quick-pitch being an illegal pitch.
Note that this rule is different from the pitcher not coming to a complete stop while in the stretch position. Not coming to a stop is the 13th balk rule for pitchers and we’ll cover that a little later in this article.
6) Pitcher Delivers Pitch While Not Facing the Batter
Although you never see pitchers deliver a pitch while not facing the batter, there is a balk rule that clarifies that pitchers must face the batter while delivering a pitch.
The sixth balk rule in the official MLB rules states “The pitcher delivers the ball to the batter while he is not facing the batter” – Rule 6.02(a)(6)
This is one type of balk you’ll most likely never see called because all pitchers face the batter while delivering a pitch. But this rule does prevent pitchers from delivering a pitch from behind their back.
7) Pitcher Makes a Pitching Motion While Not Touching the Pitching Rubber
Another type of balk rule you will most likely never see in a game is when a pitcher goes through their pitching motion, or part of their pitching motion, but they are not actually touching the pitching rubber. Performing a pitching motion while not touching the pitching rubber is an obvious attempt to deceive a base runner and it is not allowed.
Note that this rule is actually different from delivering a pitch while not touching the pitching rubber. Faking a pitch while not touching the pitching rubber is the ninth balk rule and we’ll cover that balk rule later in this article.
This seventh balk rule is defined in the official MLB rules as “The pitcher makes any motion naturally associated with his pitch while he is not touching the pitcher’s plate” – Rule 6.02(a)(7).
8) Pitcher Delays the Game
Pitchers are in control of the baseball for most of the game, which means pitchers naturally have a lot of influence on the length of a baseball game. If an umpire determines a pitcher is unreasonably delaying the game, a balk will be called.
This eight rule is simply defined in the official MLB rulebook as “The pitcher unnecessarily delays the game” – Rule 6.02(a)(8).
Because there are additional rules in the MLB rulebook around a pitcher delaying a game, there is also one clarifying comment around this eighth balk rule that states a balk will not be called if a pitcher is given a warning for delaying the game. But, if the pitcher has already received a warning and the pitcher gets ejected, a balk will be called.
This comment also clarifies that if a pitcher delays the game because they didn’t deliver a pitch in time (pitcher delay) and there are no runners on base, a ball will be called.
9) Pitcher Fakes a Pitch While Not Holding the Baseball
In general, pitchers are not allowed to fake pitches, but they are definitely not allowed to fake a pitch while they are not holding the baseball. This rule even makes it illegal for pitchers to fake a pitch while they are straddling the pitching rubber without the baseball, even though standing like this makes a pitcher an infielder.
This ninth balk rule is outlined in the official MLB rulebook as “The pitcher, without having the ball, stands on or astride the pitcher’s plate or while off the plate, he feints a pitch” – Rule 6.02(a)(9).
If this rule didn’t exist, fans would see a lot more attempts at the hidden ball trick.
10) Pitcher Removes Their Hand From the Ball After Coming Set
This rule applies to how pitchers can perform their windup after receiving the sign from their catcher. After receiving the sign and coming to a set position, pitchers are not allowed to remove their hand from the ball until they either make a pick-off attempt, deliver a pitch, or step off the pitching rubber.
This tenth balk rule is defined in the MLB rulebook as “The pitcher, after coming to a legal pitching position, removes one hand from the ball other than in an actual pitch, or in throwing to a base” – Rule 6.02(a)(10).
11) The Ball Falls Out of the Pitcher’s Glove
Although this is rare, mistakes do happen and a ball can accidentally fall out of the pitcher’s glove.
If the ball falls out of the pitcher’s glove and there are runners on base, a balk is called. If there are no runners on base, the call will either be a ball if the baseball crosses the foul line or it will be a “no-pitch” if the ball does not cross the foul line.
The eleventh balk rule is outlined in the MLB rulebook as “The pitcher, while touching his plate, accidentally or intentionally has the ball slip or fall out of his hand or glove” Rule 6.02(a)(11).
However, when there are no runners on base, umpires defer to another rule that is outlined later on in the MLB rulebook, which states “A ball which slips out of a pitcher’s hand and crosses the foul line shall be called a ball; otherwise it will be called no pitch. This would be a balk with men on base.” – Comment of Rule 6.02(b).
12) During an Intentional Walk, the Catcher Stands Outside the Catcher’s Box
At one point in baseball’s history, a pitcher needed to actually throw 4 balls in order to intentionally walk a batter, but after that rule went away at the beginning of the 2017 season the defense could simply allow a batter to take first during an intentional walk. This rule change to the intentional walk essentially eliminated this 12th balk rule.
However, the 12th balk rule is commonly referred to as the “catcher’s balk” and this rule outlines that a catcher must be standing inside the catcher’s box during an intentional walk. If the catcher is outside of the catcher’s box during an intentional walk, a balk will be called.
The wording for this twelfth balk in the MLB rulebook is “The pitcher, while giving an intentional base on balls, pitches when the catcher is not in the catcher’s box” – Rule 6.02(a)(12).
Interested in knowing who set the record for the most intentional walks in a game? Learn more about how many intentional walks are allowed per game.
13) Pitcher Delivers Pitch From the Set Position Without Coming to a Stop
The final balk rule the MLB defines is how the pitcher must come to a complete stop while they are pitching from the set position, also known as pitching from the stretch.
This thirteenth balk rule is defined by the MLB as “The pitcher delivers the pitch from Set Position without coming to a stop” – Rule 6.02(a)(13)
While a complete stop is not defined in the MLB rulebook, a good rule of thumb for pitchers to follow is to come to a complete stop for at least one second.
All Base Runners are Awarded One Free Base on a Balk
Now that we know how to define what a balk is in baseball, the next thing most people are wondering is what is the penalty for a balk and what happens on a balk?
As a general rule, all base runners are awarded one free base on a balk. However, a balk can be called off if the batter safely reaches first base and all base runners safely advance one base.
Although it’s rare to see a batter swing at a pitch that is called a balk, it has happened on occasion. In fact, Kolten Wong hit a home run on a balk pitch on September 8, 2016.
Even though it’s possible for batters to swing at a balk, most balk calls don’t happen during the delivery of a pitch so it’s very rare to see a hitter swing at a balk.
This means the penalty for a majority of balk calls is that the ball is dead and all base runners advance one free base. If a run scores on a balk, no batters are credited with an RBI, but the pitcher is charged with an earned run.
Learn more about what is the penalty for a balk in baseball, including what happens when a pitcher balks with no runners on base.
Balks are fairly rare in Major League baseball, but whenever they do occur you tend to see some similarities around why pitchers balk. The most common ways for a pitcher to balk is by flinching while in the Set Position and by not coming to a complete stop while pitching from the Set Position.
In addition to those two examples, there are also some additional similarities among all the pitchers who balk. Read my other article on the 8 common examples of a balk in baseball to see some additional examples of balks.
What is a Balk-Off?
Balks don’t happen very often in professional baseball, which makes balk-offs an even more rare occurrence. A balk-off is defined as any game that ends in a balk.
A balk-off will happen in the bottom of the last inning or the bottom of an extra-inning when there is a runner on third base, the game is tied, and the pitcher accidentally performs an illegal action and balks. Once the runner on third crosses home plate, the game is over.
Learn more about what is a walk-off balk in baseball, including the number of times a walk-off balk has occurred.
How Often Do Balks Occur in MLB?
Looking at the stats from Baseball Reference for how many balks occur in the MLB, there are generally between 140 and 175 total balks that occur in any regular season. This equates to about .03 to .04 balks per game.
So balks are pretty rare in professional baseball, but they are still common enough where they can have an impact on a game, especially in close games where every run counts.