One of the most misunderstood rules at all levels of amateur baseball involves the balk, which can be declared by any umpire on the field. Under High School Federation baseball rules, a balk is an immediate dead ball, negating all action which occurs after it is called. Under Major League Baseball rules, this is not true. The problem relates to the experience of players witnessing a plate umpire raising both arms overhead to signal time out, perhaps even walking away from the plate, as he declares the balk. These actions are appropriate only if the balk occurs at a point after which the pitch will not be immediately delivered. In all other cases, the continuous action of the pitcher causes the balk declaration to become a delayed dead ball ruling.
The Proper Procedure to Declare a Balk
Professional umpire schools now teach umpires to point at the pitcher, extending their arm parallel to the ground and state, “That’s a balk.” The umpire should then wait to observe whether the pitcher breaks off his delivery. Failure to apply this proper procedure may deprive the team at bat of its opportunity to advance as allowed by the rules, potentially creating grounds for a protest. The rules allow the pitcher to deliver the pitch or throw to a base after the balk is called. Should his throw, for example, go into the outfield, and all runners advance at least one base, the balk is disregarded. Umpires should follow the guidelines below when deciding whether to call a dead ball and enforce the balk.
When to Call a Dead Ball and Enforce the Balk
1. The pitcher does not throw to a base or deliver a pitch.
2. The pitch is delivered and the catcher catches the ball (unless the pitch is ball four and
the base-on-balls will enable all runners to advance one base).
3. A pickoff attempt is caught by a fielder.
4. A pitch hits a batter (unless the batter advancing to first base will enable all runners to
5. A batter hits the pitched ball and it becomes obvious that all runners, including the
batter, will not advance at least one base (fly ball caught, infield fly rule declared, etc.).
With a runner at first base and no outs, the count is 2 balls, 1 strike. The pitcher commits a balk. With no break in his delivery, he throws a wild pitch. The runner at first base advances to second and is thrown out attempting to advance to third. What is the correct ruling? Answer: Since a runner may attempt to advance at his own risk beyond the base which he is entitled to by the balk, the out stands. The balk is still acknowledged, since the batter did not reach first base. The count remains: 2 balls, 1 strike. The batter does not receive the advantage of the pitch being called a ball because of the runner’s mistake. If the runner had been safe, he would be allowed to stay at third, but the pitch would be nullified. If the pitch had been ball four, the batter would be awarded first, the runner would be awarded second and may advance further at his own risk. The play would proceed without reference to the balk because everyone advanced at least one base. Similarly, if a runner on second steals third on ball four (not a passed ball or wild pitch), the play proceeds without reference to the balk.
The rules of baseball are intended to be scrupulously fair. Players and umpires are well advised to study the rulebook to understand them and their underlying intent.