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What is a balk in baseball? Examining the unique and complex MLB rule

What is a balk? Baseball has plenty of unique rules and stats that can be witnessed by fans on a regular basis. While many are familiar with the basic MLB rules, a balk is its own unique thing and often a source of frustration for pitchers.

Watch a few MLB games today and you’ll likely see an umpire stand up and signal a balk against a pitcher. When that happens, every runner who is on base advances forward one base and the pitcher who was called for a balk typically argues with the umpire.

Related: What is OPS in baseball?

Here, we’re going to explain what a balk is, provide examples of it and ensure you come away with more knowledge to make baseball games even more enjoyable.

What is a balk?

A balf is defined as any illegal motion a pitcher makes on the mound that the umpire determines was deceitful to the runner(s) on base. Once called by an umpire, each runner advances to the next base and the umpire rules a dead ball if the pitcher followed through on the pitch.

Pitchers often attempt to use some deception on the mound with runners on base in an attempt to either attempt a pick-off throw or to try and dissuade the opponent from attempting to steal. It’s left up to an umpire’s discretion whether or not they believe the pitcher made an illegal move to deceive the runner.

What is an example of a balk?

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A balk is anytime an umpire believes a pitcher committed an illegal motion in an act of deception against a base runner while the pitcher is on the mound. MLB Network provided in-depth video analysis of what constitutes a balk, with former pitcher Ryan Dempster providing examples.

Related: MLB standings

What are the 13 ways a pitch can balk?

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Under current MLB rules, there are 13 ways a pitcher can balk. If an umpire identifies any of the 13 acts being committed, they are permitted to call it on the pitcher and immediately award a base to each runner.

  1. Starting the pitching motion then stopping
  2. Faking a throw to first
  3. Throwing or faking a throw to an unoccupied base
  4. Throwing to a base without stepping toward it
  5. Performing a quick pitch – Throwing the ball once the batter steps into the box
  6. Pitching without facing the batter
  7. Not pausing for at least one second – The pitcher must come to a set pause for 1 second before delivering the pitch
  8. Separating hands after being in the set position
  9. Performing pitching motion without standing on the rubber
  10. Delaying the game – If a pitcher paces around the mound or disrupts the flow of the game, they can be called for a balk
  11. Standing on the pitching rubber without a baseball
  12. Dropping the baseball – If a pitcher is standing on the mound and drops the ball, it’s a balk
  13. The catcher steps out of the catcher’s box – Only applies if time wasn’t called

Importantly, a 14th instance was added to the MLB rulebook in 2023. You can find more information on that further below.

What is a balk and what isn’t?

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A pitcher can’t be called for a balk if there are no runners on base. If the pitcher doesn’t flinch during their set, they don’t alter their motion from the windup to the set without stepping off the rubber or they don’t mimic a normal delivery and then stop or try an deceive the runner, a balk typically won’t be called, per MLB.com.

Related: MLB power rankings

Most balks in a game

  1. Bob Shaw, Milwaukee Braves – 5 –May 4, 1963
  2. John Dopson, Boston Red Sox – 4 – June 13, 1989
  3. Vic Raschi, New York Yankees – 4 – May 3, 1950
  4. Bobby Witt, Texas Rangers – 4 – April 12, 1988
  5. Gene Walter, Seattle Mariners – 4 – July 18, 1988
  6. Rick Honeycutt, Oakland A’s – 4 – April 13, 1988

Has there ever been an intentional balk?

Kenley Jansen committed an intentional balk on June 14, 2019. Facing the Chicago Cubs in the 9th inning with a 5-3 lead and two outs, Jansen balked intentionally. He was immediately called for it, allowing Jason Heyward to advance to third base. Jansen later revealed he did it to prevent sign stealing, with Heyward moving to third not allowing him to see the signs put down by the Los Angeles Dodgers catcher. The move worked, as Jansen struck out Victor Caratini to record the save and secure the victory.

Can you appeal a balk?

Players are not allowed to appeal a balk and it is not eligible for replay review. However, umpires have the ability to reverse the call if they feel it is necessary.

New MLB rules create another balk

When MLB adopted new rules in 2023 to increase the number of stolen bases, it put restrictions on the number of pickoff moves and step-offs that can be attempted. Now, a third step-off by a pitcher during a single at-bat will result in a balk. The only exception is if at least one player on the hitting team advances a base or an out is made on the play following the step-off.

What is a balk penalty in MLB?

The penalty for the team that is called for it, either by the pitcher or catcher, is all runners get to advance one base and any pitch that was thrown is ruled a dead ball and doesn’t count towards the count of that at-bat.

Can a catcher balk?

Yes, a catcher can be called for a balk if they are out of position on a pitch. An umpire is allowed to call it if the catcher is not in the catcher’s box when the pitcher still has the ball in their hand.

What pitcher has the most balks in a game?

Milwaukee Braves pitcher Bob Shaw holds the MLB record with five balks in a game, occurring on May 4, 1963, against the Chicago Cubs.

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