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Why is a Balk Illegal in Baseball?

Whenever I’m playing baseball and a pitcher makes an illegal move, it seems like many players understand what constitutes a balk. But the thing that doesn’t get talked about very often is the “why” behind the rule. Understanding what actions are illegal is a great thing to know, but what usually helps players more is knowing the why behind a rule. Why is a balk illegal?

The balk rule exists to limit the pitcher’s ability to deceive the batter and any base runners. The balk rule consists of specific actions a pitcher is unable to make and these actions are illegal because they help level the playing field between the pitcher and the offense.

Right-handed pitcher wearing number 48 in the middle of his windup with overlaying text that reads "Why is a Balk Illegal in Baseball?"

Unlike what most people think, the balk rule is intended to limit the pitcher’s ability to deceive the base runner, not prevent their ability from deceiving the base runner. For the rest of this article, we’ll dive deeper into the why behind the balk rule as well as describe what would happen if the balk rule didn’t exist.

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.

The Balk Rule Limits a Pitcher’s Ability to Deceive the Offense

Most people believe the balk rule exists to prevent the pitcher from deceiving the runner. While that may be partly true, it’s not entirely accurate. So, why is balking a thing?

Balking is a rule that limits a pitcher’s ability to deceive the batter and any base runners, but it is not intended to prevent a pitcher from deceiving runners. Without balk rules, pitchers would have an unfair advantage because they would be allowed to utilize a fake pitch to get an easy out.

After all, the purpose of a pick-off attempt is to get a base runner out and the best pick-off moves are the ones where the runner believes the pitcher is delivering a pitch. A pitcher needs to deceive a base runner to have a chance at successfully picking-off a runner. Balk rules just limit how a pitcher is allowed to deceive those base runners.

If the balk rule did not exist, pitchers would be free to utilize unfair tactics such as the hidden ball trick, fake pitches, fake throws to bases, and quick-pitching batters. While the hidden ball trick is something that can still be done, the balk rules limit how the defense can hide a ball when a runner is on base.

The MLB also lays out the reasoning for the balk rule with a comment in their official rulebook.Umpires should bear in mind that the purpose of the balk rule is to prevent the pitcher from deliberately deceiving the base runner. If there is doubt in the umpire’s mind, the “intent” of the pitcher should govern. However, certain specifics should be borne in mind” (Rule 6.02(a) Comment)

There may be some debate around what is considered “deliberately deceiving the base runner”, but as long as the pitcher adheres to the balk rules, they are allowed to deceive a base runner (to an extent).

This MLB comment also means that balks can be called at the umpire’s discretion, even if the action of the pitcher doesn’t fall within one of the 13 ways a pitcher can balk. And once a balk is called, all base runners advance one base.

Learn more about what is the penalty for a balk in baseball.

Fake-to-Third & Throw-to-First Move is a Balk

At one time, pitchers were allowed to fake a throw to third base, then immediately spin around and throw the ball to first base. While this move wasn’t all that effective in professional baseball, it was still deemed to be an illegal move at the beginning of the 2013 season.

This move was deemed illegal because pitchers were obviously trying to deceive the runner at first base. While this move rarely worked in the MLB, it was a common move I grew up with while playing Little League and high school baseball.

In fact, the “fake throw to third and throw to first move” is still a legal move in most high school baseball leagues. But because the MLB changed this rule, it’s best to first check your high school league’s rules to make sure this move is not a balk.

Learn more about when pitchers can fake a pickoff attempt.

The Balk Rule Prevents Catchers From Moving to an Unfair Spot

In addition to preventing the pitcher from deceiving the offense, the balk rule also prevents the catcher from moving too far away from home plate.

In baseball, catchers are the only defensive position that is allowed to line up in foul territory, but they only have a small space in which they can operate. If catchers move outside of this space, a catcher’s balk is called and runners are allowed to advance a base.

Catchers have a “catcher’s box” behind home plate where they must have both feet inside. Once the pitcher delivers the ball, the catcher’s feet may leave this box so they can catch the ball. If one of their feet leaves the catcher’s box before the pitch leaves the pitcher’s hand, a balk is called.

The reason for the balk rule on the catcher is to prevent the catcher from lining up in a position that would allow them to gain an advantage on any base runners.

If this balk rule wasn’t in place for catchers, catchers would be allowed to line up halfway down the third baseline, which would put them in a very good position to pick off a runner at third.

Balk Rules Help Reinforce When a Pitcher is Not a Fielder

Pitchers have two roles on defense: pitch the ball and field the ball. The balk rules help reinforce when a pitcher is a pitcher and when a pitcher is a fielder.

When the player becomes a pitcher, they have a different set of rules they need to follow in order to deliver a legal pitch. If any of these rules are broken, a balk can be called.

On the other hand, when a pitcher steps off the pitching rubber, they are considered a fielder. When they are a fielder, they can move around and make plays like any other fielder.

The balk rules simply help reinforce when a pitcher is delivering a pitch and when a pitcher is fielding a ball.

Balk Rules Help Batters Better Time Pitches

Most people think of the benefit to base runners when thinking about why balk rules exist, but balk rules also help batters. Specifically, balk rules help batters with their pitch timing.

In baseball, you don’t have very much time to react to a pitch, which means timing plays a big factor in hitting the baseball. When pitchers have a certain set of rules they need to follow, batters are better able to figure out when the ball will leave the pitcher’s hand.

The more consistency there is with the delivery for pitchers, the better batters will be able to time the pitch.
However, timing is only one crucial element of hitting. Learn more about the 12 characteristics of highly successful hitters.

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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.