Understanding the Balk in Baseball

The rules governing what pitchers can and cannot do while on the mound are some of baseball’s most complex and misunderstood tenets. More specifically, many fans and players have an incomplete knowledge of the laws concerning balks. This is not a reflection of collective ignorance as much as it is a testament to the intricacy and extensiveness of the balking rules.

In the official rule book, more than 3,600 words are devoted to the explanation of legal and illegal actions for pitchers. This guide will simplify those rules, help you understand exactly what constitutes a balk, and provide some tips on how to avoid committing them during games.

Legal Actions

With runners on base, you may begin from either the windup or the set position. In the windup, you must stand facing the batter, with your pivot foot in contact with the rubber, and your other foot free (for right-handers the pivot foot is the right foot, for left-handers it is the left foot). Your free foot may be on the rubber, in front of it, behind it, or to the side. The first image at the top shows a young pitcher in the proper pre-pitch windup position.

Most of the time, you will utilize the set position with runners on base. Before coming set, you must have your pivot foot in contact with the rubber, your free foot in front of the rubber, and one hand to your side. From both the windup and set positions, you must take the sign from the catcher while in contact with the rubber. The second image above to the left shows a pitcher in the proper position before coming set.

From this position, you come set by bringing your hands together and coming to a complete stop. The third image to the left indicates the proper set position. Once you are in the windup or set position, you have three options:

  • Deliver the baseball to the batter.
  • Step and throw to a base in an attempt to pick-off a runner.
  • Disengage the rubber (you must first step off with your pivot foot). Once you are clear from the rubber, you can make any movement you want without risk of a balk.

The Balk Rules

According to the official rules, if there are one or more runners on base, it is considered a balk when:

  • While in contact with the rubber, the pitcher makes any motion naturally associated with his pitch delivery, but fails to make the pitch. In many cases, a simple flinch of the shoulders is a violation of this rule.
  • The pitcher switches his pitching position from the windup to the set (or vice versa) without properly disengaging the rubber.
  • While in contact with the rubber, the pitcher fakes a throw to first base and fails to complete the throw.
  • While in contact with the rubber, the pitcher fails to step directly toward a base before throwing to that base.
  • While in contact with the rubber, the pitcher throws or fakes a throw to an unoccupied base.
  • The pitcher delivers the ball to the batter while not facing the batter.
  • The pitcher delivers a pitch while not in contact with the rubber.
  • The pitcher makes any motion naturally associated with his pitch delivery while not in contact with the rubber.
  • The pitcher unnecessarily delays the game, or attempts to “quick pitch” the batter.
  • The pitcher stands on the pitcher’s mound without the ball.
  • After coming to a legal pitching position, the pitcher removes one hand from the ball, but fails to deliver a pitch or make a legal throw to a base.
  • While in contact with the rubber, the pitcher drops the ball (accidentally or intentionally).
  • While giving an intentional base on balls, the pitcher pitches when the catcher is not in the catcher’s box.
  • The pitcher delivers a pitch from the set position without coming to a stop.
  • While in the windup position, the pitcher steps backwards with his free foot, but fails to complete the pitch delivery. If the pitcher wants to step off the rubber while in the windup, he must first step off with the pivot foot.
  • The ball slips out of the pitcher’s hand and crosses the foul line.
  • The pitcher makes a snap throw to a base in an attempt to pick-off a runner. To avoid a balk, the pitcher must first step directly toward the base before making a throw, or disengage himself from the rubber.
  • From the set position, the pitcher makes a throw to first base when the first baseman, because of his distance from the base, is unable to make a play on the runner.

Amazingly True Story

On July 11, 1961, Giants’ pitcher Stu Miller made his first appearance in an All-Star game when he relieved Sandy Koufax in the ninth inning of the Mid-summer Classic. Weighing in at just over 150 lbs, Miller’s slender frame and underwhelming velocity had never hindered his performance until that day.

As he stood on the rubber preparing to pitch, a strong gust of wind at San Francisco’s Candlestick Park pushed Miller backwards slightly. This resulted in perhaps the most infamous balk call in baseball history. Miller, however, was the winning pitcher in a 5-4 National League victory.

The penalty for a balk is that the ball is dead, and each runner advances one free base. The exception to this is if the play continues after a balk is called, and the batter reaches base on a hit, an error, a walk, or a hit-by-pitch, and all the other runners advance at least one base. In this case, the play is allowed to stand without a balk call. Because of this, you should never complete a pitch after a balk is called. You would rather give up one free base than risk the batter hitting a home run.

Avoid Balking

Although there are more than a dozen different ways to commit a balk, the majority of them are the result of a tiny flinch while in the set position. The best advice you can receive regarding balking is to always maintain poise and composure on the mound.

Whether you’re in the windup or the stretch, planning to pitch or attempt a pick-off, or trying to hold a runner on base, you should always know exactly what you’re going to do before you do it. Visualize it in your mind before you do it, and you can minimize accidental movements. As the pitcher, play doesn’t start until you’re ready, so you have to be totally in control of the tempo of the game.

When you’re in the stretch, don’t be in a rush. Come set by bringing your hands together, take a breath, and “settle” with your shoulders. This will ensure that you come to a complete stop, and that your body is relaxed before you make a pitch. Since balks often happen in an instant and can be difficult to recognize, umpires usually look for awkward movements or abnormal motions. You can prevent these by being deliberate with everything you do on the mound, and always maintaining poise.

Relax & Focus

Finally, you have to be comfortable. Most balks happen when the pitcher is flustered or trying to rush. When in doubt, step off the mound. If a runner is bothering you, or you’re unsure about a sign, don’t like the pitch you’re about to throw, or just don’t feel right, simply step off the back of the rubber with your pivot foot. Then take a deep breath and refocus yourself. If you stay composed, you can practically eliminate your risk of balking.

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