Baseball is filled with statistics, rules, and archaic terms that can often form what sounds like a foreign language. Sons of Sam Horn’s glossary provides a better understanding of these terms through straightforward definitions, clear explanations, and examples pulled straight from the baseball world. If there is anything you would like us to add to our glossary, please contact us.
A balk is an illegal action performed by a pitcher while his foot is on the rubber with at least one runner on base. If the pitcher begins his natural throwing motion and does not deliver a pitch, feign a throw to a base, or step directly toward a base and throw to that base, then a balk will be called. Once a balk is called, the ball is dead and all baserunners advance one base. If the result of the play was a wild pitch or an errant throw, then the runners may advance beyond that one base at their own risk.
Clayton Kershaw’s mistake here is that he does not step directly toward first base.
Free Foot vs. Pivot Foot
A pitcher’s dominant foot is considered his pivot foot, while his other foot is his free foot. Once he steps on the rubber with his pivot foot, he may only come off the rubber with the ball by stepping off of it with his pivot foot toward second base. Leaving the rubber in any other direction with the ball, without releasing the ball, results in a balk.
If, during the windup, the free foot swings past the back edge of the rubber then the pitcher must throw a pitch, or perform a pick-off maneuver toward second base. If he does not, then a balk should be called.
The Set Position
A pitcher must also enter a set position before delivering the pitch or a balk will be called if men are on base. The set position is indicated when the pitcher is facing the batter with his pivot foot on the rubber while his free foot is either in front of, on, or next to the rubber, with both his glove hand and throwing hand on the ball. The only body parts allowed to move while in the set position are above the shoulders so that the pitcher may check on runners and communicate with the catcher. Umpires are explicitly instructed to watch for the halt during the pitcher’s mechanics indicating the set position. If a pitcher does not come to a set position and no runners are on base, then the umpire may rule it a quick pitch and award a ball to the batter regardless of its location.
Kershaw uses the set position to both keep an eye on and throw off the timing of the baserunner. Pitchers will vary the amount of time they spend in the position from pitch to pitch in order to throw off a baserunner’s timing.
Rex Brothers does not enter the set position on either of these pitches, resulting in two balks in a row. He strikes out Michael Young on the next pitch, but it takes three attempts to get the third strike because Brothers fails to use the set position.
Other Examples of Balks
A balk can be called against the pitcher for the following reasons:
- Dropping the ball while standing on the rubber.
- Throwing to an unoccupied base, if the umpire deems that it was in an effort to delay the game.
- Simulating the natural throwing motion when not in contact with the rubber, or when not in possession of the ball.
- Spinning to first base if right-handed or third base if left-handed. The pitcher must turn and then step directly toward the target base.
- Snap throws to a base followed by a step.
- Straddling the rubber to deceive runners about his true position. This is to prevent runners from being caught in the “hidden ball” trick.
- Tampering of the ball such as scuffing, applying a foreign substance, or a spitball if the opposing manager does not accept the result of the play.
- After coming to the set position, dropping either the glove hand or the throwing hand from the ball.
These are actions by the catcher that result in a balk called on the pitcher:
- Leaving the catcher’s box before the pitch is thrown. This would most likely occur during an intentional walk, though it is rarely, if ever, called.
- Committing catcher’s interference when a baserunner on third is stealing home or the offense has a squeeze play on.
Why is this Complicated Rule in Place?
The balk rule is enforced to prevent pitcher’s from deceiving baserunners into starting their leads or running before a play really starts. Since it is the pitcher in baseball that determines when the play shall begin, the pitcher cannot be allowed to trick a baserunner into leaving early. This allows baserunners a fair chance to steal bases and to take safe leads.
Pete Hodges has written about the call up of a top prospect, an odd tradition, and Leo the Lip.
Follow Pete on Twitter @PeterWHodges.