In the thrilling and fast-paced world of baseball, understanding the rules can sometimes be as challenging as playing the game itself. One of these rules, often misunderstood, is the concept of a “balk”. In this article, we will demystify the term, exploring its definition, why it matters, and the consequences for players and their teams. Whether you’re a seasoned baseball fan, a budding player, or a curious newcomer to the sport, this guide will help you grasp the nuances of the balk rule and enhance your understanding of the game. From penalties to strategy implications, we will cover all aspects of a balk, providing you with comprehensive knowledge on this crucial aspect of baseball.
What is Balk in Baseball?
A balk in baseball is a term referring to a specific action, or more accurately, a series of actions, that a pitcher is prohibited from doing according to the official baseball rules. This includes any motion that, in the umpire’s judgment, deceives the baserunners. For instance, if a pitcher begins his wind-up motion without completing the pitch, or if he makes a motion towards the plate without actually throwing the ball, it is considered a balk. This results in all runners advancing one base. The exact rules and penalties for a balk can depend on the specific baseball league’s rules.
Different Ways a Pitcher Can Balk in Baseball
Rule #1: Consistency in Motion
Pitchers cannot start their pitching motion and then stop or add extra body movement. Whether it’s a full-blown pitch or a subtle start, once the motion begins, it must continue without interruption. Flinches, caused by unexpected events like a runner stealing or a fielder’s instructions, are common but still count as starting and stopping.
Flinching, often seen when a pitcher is not fully prepared, can lead to starting and stopping motions. After accepting the pitch, any body movements during the set position, apart from specific actions like delivering the pitch, stepping off the rubber, or making a pickoff move, can result in a balk call.
Rule #2: No Faking to First Base
Pitchers cannot fake a throw to first base without stepping off the rubber. The rules vary for righties and lefties, emphasizing the importance of executing legal pickoff moves.
- Righty Pickoffs to First: The back foot can move forward legally, but if a throw isn’t made, it’s considered a balk.
- Lefty Pickoffs to First: A legal step-off-then-throw pickoff move called the snap throw is allowed, but the traditional big hang move cannot be faked.
Rule #3: Direction Matters
While on the rubber, pitchers can’t throw to a base without stepping toward it. This rule applies to left-handed pitchers doing their hang move to first base or righties performing pickoff moves to third base.
Rule #4: Targeted Throws and Fakes
According to the rules, pitchers are not allowed to throw or fake a throw to a base that is not occupied by a runner. Their throws or fakes must be directed specifically towards a base that has an active runner. This rule helps ensure fair play and prevents deceptive tactics during the game.
Rule #5: Set Position Pause
When in the set position, the pitcher must come to a complete stop for at least one second before delivering the pitch. The hands coming together signify the set position, and any failure to pause may result in a balk.
Rule #6: Avoiding Quick Pitches
Quick-pitching, or delivering the ball before the batter is ready, has legal and illegal aspects.
- Legal Quick Pitch: Pitchers can alter their usual pace to surprise hitters, provided the batter is ready.
- Illegal Quick Pitch: Delivering the ball as soon as the batter puts one foot in the box without the umpire calling “play” can result in a balk. This illegal quick pitch is risky because hitters may not be prepared, looking down or adjusting their stance.
Rule #7: Pitchers Must Face the Batter Throughout the Delivery
Pitchers are required to maintain eye contact with the batter during their pitching motion. This rule aims to prevent pitchers from focusing on baserunners, particularly those on second base, while starting their delivery. The exact interpretation of “facing the batter” can be ambiguous, but it generally implies that the pitcher must be looking at the batter when initiating the pitching motion.
Rule #8: Once Set, Pitchers Cannot Separate Their Hands Without Stepping Back
Once a pitcher comes set, bringing their hands together, they are prohibited from separating them unless they first step back off the rubber. This rule adds a level of predictability to the pitcher’s movements, preventing deceptive actions after the set position. It ensures that any significant hand movement is associated with a deliberate pitch or pick-off attempt.
Rule #9: Dropping the Ball on the Rubber is a Balk
If a pitcher unintentionally drops the ball while on the rubber, it constitutes a balk. This rule emphasizes the need for pitchers to maintain control and avoid accidental disruptions during their pitching motion, contributing to the overall fairness and integrity of the game.
Rule #10: Ensuring the Catcher is in the Designated Box During a Pitch
The catcher must be positioned within the designated catcher’s box behind the plate during a pitch. This rule ensures that the catcher is properly placed to receive pitches and play a vital role in the game. It adds structure to the catcher’s positioning and contributes to the smooth execution of plays during a pitch.
Rule #11: Completing the Pitching Motion Exclusively on the Rubber
Pitching actions must take place on the rubber, emphasizing the need for pitchers to execute their moves from this designated area. This rule prevents pitchers from misleading baserunners by simulating a pitch or delivery when not positioned on the rubber, ensuring fair play and minimizing deceptive tactics.
Rule #12: Avoiding Unnecessary Delays in Baseball
To maintain the pace of the game, pitchers are not allowed to unnecessarily delay the game. Although rare, this rule discourages pitchers from engaging in activities that could intentionally stall the game, such as pacing around the field excessively. It acts as a deterrent to ensure a smooth and timely flow of play.
Rule #13: Pitchers Need the Ball When Standing on or Straddling the Rubber
When a pitcher is on the rubber or straddling it, they must have the baseball either in their hand or glove. This rule prevents pitchers from creating confusion among baserunners by implying an imminent pitch when they are not in possession of the ball. It ensures that actions on the rubber are always associated with a legitimate pitching threat.
Penalty for Balking and Specific Rules
In line with the regulations of Major League Baseball, certain deceptive moves such as the “fake to third, throw to first” play were classified as a balk starting from the 2013 season. This maneuver, where a pitcher feigns a throw towards third or second base and then turns to feint or make an actual throw to first base, has since been disallowed in an effort to maintain fairness.
If a pitcher commits a balkable action with no runners on base, generally, no penalty is applied. However, actions such as delivering a quick return or pitching while off the rubber, which would be considered balks with runners on base, result in a ball being called when bases are empty. If the pitcher performs an action confusing to the batter with no one on the bases, the play is simply restarted without any penalty following a time-out.
Repeated violations of these rules by a pitcher, even with no runners on base, can lead to severe consequences such as ejection from the game for persistently breaching the rules.
The rules also articulate a scenario referring to the “hidden ball trick.” If in the course of executing this trick, the pitcher stands on the rubber before the fielder reveals the ball and applies the tag, this is deemed a balk. As a penalty, all runners on base are allowed to advance to their next base.
Balk Records in MLB
Steve Carlton’s 90 Balks:
Hall of Famer Steve Carlton had a noteworthy career, marked by a surprising number of 90 balks. His ability to keep runners in check, or perhaps the occasional slip in adherence to the balk rules, added an interesting dynamic to his otherwise illustrious pitching record.
Dave Stewart’s 1988 Record:
In 1988, Dave Stewart set an unusual record by accumulating 16 balks in a single season while playing for the Oakland Athletics. This anomaly in Stewart’s performance raises questions about the circumstances leading to such a high number of balks and how it impacted the games during that season.
Bob Shaw’s Five Balks in a Game:
A historic moment occurred on May 4, 1963, when Bob Shaw of the Milwaukee Braves set the record for the most balks in one game with five against the Chicago Cubs. The intriguing aspect was the four balks in one inning, including a sequence involving the Cubs’ Billy Williams, showcasing Shaw’s struggle with a rule emphasis change.
Charlie Hough’s Nine Balks in an Exhibition Game:
Knuckleballer Charlie Hough faced an unprecedented situation in a single exhibition game in March 1988, being called for nine balks, seven of them in a single inning. Umpires’ efforts to enforce a stricter set position rule added a unique chapter to Hough’s career and raised questions about the challenges posed by rule adjustments.
Richard Bleier’s Unusual Three Balks in a Row:
On September 27, 2022, Richard Bleier of the Miami Marlins faced an unusual sequence, being called for three balks in a row while pitching to the New York Mets’ Pete Alonso. This incident, occurring after Bleier had never experienced a balk in his seven-year career, not only tied records but also sparked debates about the interpretation of balk calls and their impact on the game.
The balk, while a less commonly discussed aspect of baseball, has significantly impacted moments in the sport’s history. From Stewart’s exceptional season with 16 balks to Bob Shaw’s infamous game with five balks, these incidents underscore the intricacies of this rule. Hough’s struggle during a single exhibition game and Bleier’s unexpected sequence of balks further illuminate the sometimes controversial interpretations of the balk rule. These instances, while unique, provide a broader context for understanding the nuanced game dynamics and the ongoing evolution of baseball rules.