Baseball Coaches: How to Get Your Pitcher to Avoid the Balk
It’s Rule No. 8.05 in the Official Baseball Rules (OBR), and it seems to be interpreted in many ways by many umpires.
“OBR 8.05 is the Balk Rule that most people refer to. Many other organizations derive their balk rules from the same rule,” explained Mike Debelak, a youth league umpire and baseball coach who also teaches umpiring.
“Most players, coaches, fans, and yes, even some umpires do not understand the rule,” he said. “Some umpires hesitate to call it because they do not understand it, and some umpires actually over-call it because they do know it, or at least how it is written, and want to use it at every opportunity.
Rule 8.05 starts with “if there is a runner, or runners, it is a balk when ...” and then goes on to list 13 violations (A through M), along with the penalties and approved rulings. Pitchers are always trying to gain an advantage to keep runners close to base or throw off their timing in running bases. The purpose of the balk rule is to prevent the pitcher from deliberately deceiving the base runner(s).
As an umpire you look for mechanical balks such as the pitcher properly engaging and disengaging the pitching rubber, and if he’s properly coming to a set. Are they moving their body in ways that could be taken as movement to begin a pitch or pick off, but end up doing neither?
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There are technical balks such as being on or astride the rubber without the ball - yes the ol’ hidden ball trick. Dropping the ball while on the rubber, the catcher being out of the catcher’s box before the ball is released by the pitcher - like on an intentional walk. There are mistake balks like a pitcher turning to throw to first and failing to throw, or starting to pitch and failing to release the ball or he starts to deliver a pitch and just stops.
The fact that in some instances play continues when a balk is called makes some fans come unglued.
In OBR, any umpire can call a balk, but it is not an automatic deadball/time out. Play should continue until the ball has stopped moving (and in many cases as the umpire calls “that’s a balk” all play does stop), and then the awards are made and penalties enforced. A lot of players, coaches, and fans do not understand this.
The reason for this is to penalize the defense and not the offense. Picture this. Runner on first. Pitcher does not come to a complete stop and delivers to the batter. Base umpire calls “that’s a balk,” and the batter proceeds to hit the ball out of the park. If the umpire had killed the play the offense would have lost two runs. By letting the play finish, and by rule, the balk is disregarded and the offense gets the two runs on the home run. If however, when the umpire called “that’s a balk” and the pitcher did not deliver and just stopped, the umpire would then call time, and award the runner another base.
Debelak said the rule of enforcement can be massaged depending on what the organization or league, as well as the age level, dictates. “Some leagues ask umpires to warn their pitchers when they balk, and not enforce it. Others want the rule strictly enforced,” noted Debelak.
The veteran umpire said the most common balks he sees “by far,” are pitchers not coming to a complete and discernible stop in their set.
“When it comes to 8.05, umpires need to understand it, how to explain it and enforce it. But most importantly, a good umpire does not have to go on a ‘balk hunt’,” he said. “Some umpires who have had the rule explained to them go out to prove they know it, and will call it every time they “think” it was a balk, even though it might not be.”
OK, so what should a young pitcher not do, to avoid a balk call?
“First, a pitcher needs to be taught proper mechanics when runners are on base. If they learn what they should do that will fix the Don’t Do’s.”
Debelak recommends young pitchers arm themselves with knowledge before taking the mound. “Learn to engage and disengage the pitching rubber, particularly from the stretch position and preliminary set positions. Practice this again and again until it becomes very comfortable.
“Practice coming to a set/stop - a complete and discernible stop in the set position.
“Practice keeping the shoulders still and not turning when you look to first. A good coach will teach them to change their timing and length of how long they stay in the set position before delivering a pitch, picking off, or disengaging.
“Practice throwing to the bases from the set position, particularly first base so they gain distance and direction.
“Don’t try to make up new moves or think of ways to trick the runners. The game has been around a very long time, and just about every conceivable, ingenious trick has been tried. If it looks strange and an umpire has not seen it before, it’s probably a balk.”