What Is A Balk?

Yesterday, Washington starter Gio Gonzalez made a costly mistake in the first inning while facing Alexei Ramirez with 2 outs and the bases loaded and a full count.  Home plate umpire Phil Cuzzi called a balk on Gio for making an illegal action while stepping off the rubber.  So, what is a balk?

The balk rule was introduced in 1898. It is meant to prevent the pitcher from confusing the batter or base runners.  The home plate umpire will call a balk if a pitcher does any of the following things:

  • Switching from the windup to the set without touching the rubber
  • While standing on the rubber, he goes into his delivery and does not throw the ball
  • When about to pitch, fails to make a complete stop with hands clasped together
  • Trying to pick a runner off a base with the body of the pitcher towards home plate
  • Throwing a ball to first, with the base vacant
  • Stepping away from the rubber to make a pickoff attempt at first (You are allowed to do it at 2nd and 3rd)
  • Throwing a ball right after receiving the ball from the catcher
  • Dropping a ball while standing on the rubber, with 0, 1, or 2 outs
  • When intentionally walking a batter, delivers a pitch when catcher is out of the catcher’s box with 1 or 2 feet
  • Delays the game for no apparent reason
  • Pitching when not standing towards the batter 
  • Separating his hands on the rubber, not throwing
  • Fakes a pitch with out a ball 
  • Throwing to first when the first baseman is not there

The full rules are in the MLB Rule Book in Sections 4.03, 7.07 and 8.0.  Here is rule 8.01(a) from the official MLB Rule Book on what a pitcher can do from a windup position. And I’ll explain what Gio did wrong.

The Windup Position. The pitcher shall stand facing the batter, his pivot foot in

contact with the pitcher’s plate and the other foot free. From this position any natu-
ral movement associated with his delivery of the ball to the batter commits him to
the pitch without interruption or alteration. He shall not raise either foot from the
ground, except that in his actual delivery of the ball to the batter, he may take one
step backward, and one step forward with his free foot.
When a pitcher holds the ball with both hands in front of his body, with his pivot
foot in contact with the pitcher’s plate and his other foot free, he will be considered
in the Windup Position.
Rule 8.01(a) Comment: In the Windup Position, a pitcher is permitted to have his “free” foot
on the rubber, in front of the rubber, behind the rubber or off the side of the rubber.
From the Windup Position, the pitcher may:
(1) deliver the ball to the batter, or
(2) step and throw to a base in an attempt to pick-off a runner, or
(3) disengage the rubber (if he does he must drop his hand to his sides).
In disengaging the rubber the pitcher must step off with his pivot foot and not his free foot first. He may not go into a set or stretch position—if he does it is a balk

Gio is a left handed pitcher.  He was pitching from the windup because the bases were loaded.  He stepped off the rubber with his right foot first.  This broke the rule which says that in a windup the pitcher “pitcher must step off with his pivot foot and not his free foot first.

I think this probably the right call by the ump, but it was a bad break for the Nats.  This is kind of a complicated rule and it didn’t look like he was trying to fool the batter.  But when you pitch in the major leagues you should know all the rules and not break them on a dumb mistake.

The penalty for a balk is that all runners advance a base. If there aren’t any runners on base, then there is no penalty.

Yesterday, the White Sox actually had bases loaded with a full count, so when Gio was called for a balk, Jeff Keppinger scored from third. On the next pitch, Ramirez popped out to Denard Span to end the frame for the Sox.  So if Gio did not balk, he would have gotten out of the inning with no runs scoring.  Instead, he ended the first down 1-0.  That was a very important run for the Sox because it ended up being a 1-run game.  The Nats won 8-7, but it could have been 8-6.

In 2012, Cincinnati Reds ace Johnny Cueto was the NL leader in balks, as well as the MLB leader. In the AL, Ivan Nova, Clay Buchholtz, Luis Mendoza, Jake Peavy, and Felix Hernandez were tied for 2. For the Nationals, Mike Gonzalez, Gio Gonzalez, Ross Detwiler, and Henry Rodriguez each had one.

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