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May 30, 2013

Skewed Left

Bring Back the Hidden Ball Trick

by Zachary Levine

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Among the game’s many unquantifiable mysteries—up there with how many extra wins or losses a good or bad manager contributes to a team—is how many wins a season baseball teams pass up because of decorum.

It’s probably a small number. Talent, plus some small deviations for statistical noise and fluctuations in #TWTW, is still what determines the standings. But I would venture to say that it’s a non-zero number. In other words, teams are too nice to each other or have too much respect for the game.

For instance, people talked a lot leading up to the Wild Card playoff last year about ideal strategy for pitching, and one idea that came up was a quick switch from a lefty to a righty or vice versa to trap the opponent in a sub-optimal lineup. You could really do this any time an off-day gave you two pitchers who were rested enough to throw as long as you had a relatively leak-proof relationship with the media. It would be especially helpful in the National League, where teams would be reluctant to substitute early in the game. If you didn’t want to burn your other real starter, you could start a reliever for one batter and then have the opponent guess which pitcher you’d use.

Anyway, the implementation would be bumpy, and there is some risk involved if it’s not done properly. But teams are passing up an opportunity for an almost entirely risk-free reward every day, and the dearth of attempts brings us to a sad anniversary.

Next week will mark six years since Major League Baseball’s last successful hidden ball trick.

It’s so long ago that finding video of the play, in which then-Red Sox shortstop Julio Lugo duped Alberto Callaspo of the Diamondbacks, has proven elusive on the internet. Before that, the last successful hidden ball trick (the HBT acronym is unfortunately taken) was executed in 2005 by the Florida Marlins, when Mike Lowell caught another Diamondback, Luis Terrero, with the ploy at third base. The video isn't embeddable, but it's viewable in full at MLB.com. Here's the crucial moment:

Since then, silence. Lugo tried again in a different uniform in 2010 but was foiled by a lingering time call.

And that sums up the last decade or so of the hidden ball trick. But the hidden ball trick is a highly profitable play. In that 2005 example, the Marlins had a 59 percent win expectancy, pitching with a one-run lead in the top of the eighth with one out and men on the corners. Erase the lead runner with a hidden ball trick, and that changed to an 82 percent win expectancy. The difference rounded to 0.22 in Baseball-Reference’s play-by-play, and while it’s sort of a silly exercise, by today’s standards of $5 million per win, that was a $1.1 million play that the Marlins pulled with no chance of it going wrong.

While success rate would almost certainly go down with increased attempts, it’s not like stolen bases, where there is a cost to failed attempts. If Terrero sniffs it out and gets back to the bag or the pitcher errs and stands on the rubber or somebody calls time and it’s granted, then the Marlins are no worse than before.

Still, we wait for its years-too-late return to the game. At least fans of the hidden ball trick have YouTube, so we can see some of its wonders at other levels of baseball. It’s easy to get lost in a YouTube vortex of hidden ball tricks at all levels, which basically serves as an instructional guide for major league teams to follow if they were so inclined.

Here, the Florida Gators execute the hidden ball trick in its purest form, making the runner believe the pitcher has the ball because why wouldn’t the pitcher have the ball? Yet the third baseman has the ball and the result is an easy out.

Then there’s a fun variant of the hidden ball trick, where deception is used in the opposite direction. The pitcher has the ball when the baserunner thinks it’s rolling around center field.

Or maybe, as in this related clip, nobody knows who has the ball as the catcher throws to third on an attempted steal of second.

Sometimes if you execute it well enough, like UC-Irvine did in the NCAA Super Regional against LSU, the umpire will be so impressed that he won’t care that the runner was actually safe.

Even when the call is correct, something about it still doesn't feel quite right.

Baseball has a really complicated relationship with deception, as it does with all of its gray areas, like when and how much it’s okay to celebrate and in what score-inning situations it’s okay to try hard. It has legislated out some deception with the balk rule, but it obviously hasn’t succeeded in removing all deception from the game.

Stephen Strasburg, supposedly one of the game’s good guys, was on multiple occasions caught trying to act like he was throwing a fastball but have it come out slower so that the batter would swing too early and look like an idiot. To date, he has not been plunked for this, but as a National Leaguer, his payback is probably coming soon.

A friend who has taken coursework in ethics pointed me to a list at The Hardball Times, which crowdsourced the ethical soundness of certain situations in baseball from the most unethical—killing an umpire with a bat—to the least unethical—feigning a catch on a ball that hits the outfield wall to freeze the runners.

In a perfect way to bring this back to a regular topic here at BP, the hidden ball trick scores almost exactly the same on the 0-1 scale—within one one-thousandth of a point—as catcher framing.

As the emphasis on the latter has grown, the former has disappeared. The hidden ball trick is a silly novelty, but given the value of any out recorded with runners on base, I’d love to see a team make it a regular part of its plan—something they would practice in spring training drills and use semi-regularly in games.

I’m 93 percent sure it would be the Rays who would try the hidden ball trick a couple times a week. They seem like a team that just doesn’t give a bleep when it comes to things that will make them better, given some of the histories of their recent acquisitions. They’ll do anything to gain a 2 percent edge.

And even if they never got an out from it, would the reputation alone serve to shorten opponents’ leads or make baserunners uneasy in a way that would prevent an extra base once in a while?

Come next Saturday, it will be six years since we last saw the hidden ball trick. It’s time to do the right thing and bring it back. Or do the wrong thing, or the weird thing, or whatever it would be. Just bring it back. And this time not against the poor Diamondbacks.

Zachary Levine is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Zachary's other articles. You can contact Zachary by clicking here

Related Content:  Ethics,  Hidden Ball Trick

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