In baseball, a pitcher may commit a number of illegal motions or actions which constitute a balk. The balk is called "no pitch" and each runner is awarded one base and the batter returns to bat with the previous pitch count.
There are two motivations behind the balk rule. A pitcher is constrained to a certain set of motions prior to and during a pitch; if these are violated, a procedural balk will be called (see also pitching positions). Pitcher's actions that illegally deceive baserunners are called punitive balks.
The first balk rule in Major League Baseball was introduced in 1898.
With a runner on base and the pitcher on or astride the rubber, it is a balk when the pitcher:
- switches his pitching stance from the windup position to the set position (or vice versa) without properly disengaging the rubber;
- when going from the stretch to the set position, fails to make a complete stop with his hands together before beginning to pitch;
- throws from the rubber to a base without stepping toward (gaining distance in the direction of) that base;
- throws from the rubber to a base where there is no runner and no possibility of a play;
- steps or feints from the rubber to first base without completing the throw;
- pitches a quick return pitch, that is, pitches with the intent to catch the batter off-guard;
- pitches or mimics a part of his pitching motion while not in contact with the rubber;
- drops the ball while on the rubber;
- after a feint or throw to a base from the rubber, fails to disengage the rubber before reengaging and pitching;
- after beginning to pitch, interrupts his pitching motion;
- begins to pitch while the catcher is out of the catcher's box when giving an intentional walk;
- while pitching, removes his pivot foot from the pitching rubber, except to pivot or as a natural consequence of stepping forward to release the pitch;
- unnecessarily delays the game;
- pitches while facing away from the batter;
- after bringing his hands together on the rubber or engaging the rubber with his hands together, separates them except in making a pitch or a throw;
- stands on or astride the rubber without the ball, or mimics a pitch without the ball; or
- steps to first base and throws to the first baseman who, because of his distance from the base, is (or would have been) unable to try a tag against the runner at first base
In addition, if a pitcher commits any of the following illegal actions, it may result in a balk under certain circumstances:
- expectorates on the ball, either hand or his glove;
- rubs the ball on his glove, person or clothing;
- applies a foreign substance of any kind to the ball;
- defaces the ball in any manner; or
- delivers a ball altered in a manner described above or what is called the “spit” ball, “shine” ball, “mud” ball or “emery” ball.
In relation to these illegal actions related to defacing the ball, under Official Baseball Rules 8.02 (b) and (d), under certain circumstances if a play follows a violation called by the umpire, the manager of the team at bat has an option whether to accept the play. In those instances, if the manager does not elect to accept the play, the penalty is an automatic ball and, if there are any runners on base, a balk. In case of a play where the manager does accept the play, or where the manager does not have an option of accepting the play, there is no balk.
Note that some subtle balks which are called in high levels of play may be ignored at lower levels of play; conversely, some pitchers have poor habits or mechanics which are tolerated at higher levels, but would be called as a balk in lower levels that focus on developing good fundamentals.
A pitcher is allowed to feint toward third base, and then turn and throw or feint to first base if his pivot foot disengages the rubber after his initial feint. This is called the "fake to third throw to first play".
If no runners are on base and the pitcher commits an otherwise balkable action, several consequences may result. Most balks are deceptive to runners but not to the batter; these infractions are ignored when no runners are on base. When a pitcher commits an illegal action that is confusing to the batter, time will be called and the game will restart with a normal pitch; there is no further penalty. Finally, illegal quick return pitches are penalized by adding one ball to the batter's count. If a pitcher repeatedly commits illegal actions without runners on base, he may be subject to ejection from the game for persistently violating the rules.
While the purpose of the balk rule is to prevent the pitcher from deliberately deceiving the base runner (per comment to Rule 8.05, OBR), there are many legal ways for pitchers to deceive runners: pickoffs
, look backs, and quick deliveries all arguably employ deception in various ways. Only actions that violate the balk rules, however, may be penalized with a balk.
A common misconception is that when in the set position, a pitcher must step off the rubber before attempting a pick-off. This is incorrect, as stepping and throwing to a base is one of the three actions a pitcher is allowed to do per rule 8.01(c).
Particularly at lower levels of play, a batter will sometimes step from the box without being granted "time" by the umpire and the pitcher will stop his delivery. This is often mistaken as a balk; it should not be per rule 6.02(b), the Comment to which states that "Both the pitcher and batter have violated a rule and the umpire shall call time and both the batter and pitcher start over from 'scratch'."
Major League Balk Records
- The Major league record for career balks is held by Steve Carlton with 90. The single season record is held by Dave Stewart, with 16.
- - Stu Miller recalls his balk in the 1961 All-Star Game