There have been times when I'll be watching a game and in the moments before a crucial pitch, seemingly out of nowhere, the batter starts pointing at the pitcher. I'll have no idea what's going on until the umpire steps out, points at the pitcher as well, and calls a "balk." In last night's New York Mets - San Francisco Giants game, Mike Pelfrey, of the Mets, balked three times, the most in a game since Al Leiter did the same with the Blue Jays back in 1994. In the bottom of the eighth inning of this afternoon's Blue Jays game, Octavio Dotel made a motion that could have balked in the potential game-winning run. The rule was not enforced in that case, but was it a balk or not?
Now, almost every baseball fan knows what happens when a balk occurs -- all the runners move up one base -- but if you don't know what actually constitutes a balk, don't worry, you aren't alone.
Well, let's take a look at what the rules actually call a balk (courtesy of http://mlb.mlb.com/mlb/official_info/official_rules/pitcher_8.jsp), Rule 8.05 of MLB's Official Rulebook. Please bear in mind that I've only highlighted the more common balk occurrences:
The pitcher, while touching his plate, makes any motion naturally associated with his pitch and fails to make such delivery
The pitcher, while touching his plate, fails to step directly toward a base before throwing to that base
The pitcher, while touching his plate, throws, or feints a throw to an unoccupied base, except for the purpose of making a play
The pitcher unnecessarily delays the game (Steve Trachsel)
The pitcher, after coming to a legal pitching position, removes one hand from the ball other than in an actual pitch, or in throwing to a base
The pitcher, while touching his plate, accidentally or intentionally drops the ball
But this, to me, is the most important part of Rule 8.05 . . .
Comment: Umpires should bear in mind that the purpose of the balk rule is to prevent the pitcher from deliberately deceiving the base runner. If there is doubt in the umpire’s mind, the "intent" of the pitcher should govern
And, so, what we see is that when umpires are calling balks on pitchers who are distracted by runners -- unless there is a deliberate attempt to deceive -- they aren't actually enforcing the rules as written. There is no such thing as an "accidental balk," because if it is accidental then it is, by definition, not a balk.
When left-handed pitchers make "balk" pickoff moves, where they step halfway between home and first base, they are breaking the rules for stepping directly towards a base before throwing to it and they are doing it to deliberately deceive the base runner. However, there is some sort of unwritten policy amongst Major League Baseball that they do not enforce this rule. I am not sure about how long this policy has been in effect, but the most balks any pitcher has had in his career is 90 by Steve Carlton, who also picked off 144 baserunners. Imagine how difficult it would be to run on him today, when lefties don't worry about being called for balking at all.
So why do umpires enforce the balk rule when a pitcher is not deliberately trying to deceive the runner, but they do not enforce the rule when the pitcher is?
Well, some of them don't. Former MLB umpire Ron Luciano has said, "I never called a balk in my life. I didn't understand the rule." Well, perhaps that's because the way the rule is enforced today is not the way that it's written.