Outside of the salaries and facilities and attendance and everything, there are two significant differences between the minors and the majors. One big difference is that the players in the majors are a whole lot better. There’s a stark difference in the quality of gameplay. Another big difference is that the players in the majors are first and foremost trying to win. In the minors, players get to be more selfish; they have to be more selfish, because the goal is to draw attention and get promoted. The minors are all about player development, because no one goes into baseball with the dream of topping out in Double-A. Players want to be as good as they can be. If their team wins more than it loses, all the better, but that’s a secondary concern.
So consider the hidden-ball trick. There’s less incentive to try it in the minors, because the idea is to get a cheap out, and, in the minors, players don’t care so much about cheap outs. If anything, a well-executed hidden-ball trick robs the pitcher of a development opportunity. At the same time, there’s more incentive to try it in the minors, because it’s clever and delightful, and you have to pass the time somehow. The stakes are lower, and trick plays are fun to be a part of. This season, the Rochester Red Wings have pulled off the hidden-ball trick two times.
The most recent occasion was made possible by Willians Astudillo. By the terms of my contract with FanGraphs, I can’t allow this to pass without it being remarked upon. So let’s review what happened to the poor, unsuspecting Dawel Lugo.
You, presumably, understand the basics of the play. A runner is on base. The defender nearest him has the baseball. The defense makes it look like that defender has returned the baseball to the pitcher like normal, but, in reality, the pitcher’s glove is empty. The baserunner doesn’t know it, though, so he begins to take his standard lead, and as soon as he comes off the bag, the defender with the ball tags him. Sometimes the closest umpire has been aware of the situation from the start. Other times, he’s as surprised as the opposite dugout. But just seeing the defender with the ball is convincing enough. The umpire doesn’t worry about how it all happened. The defenders chuckle smugly, while the baserunner looks around and shrugs for a while.
Here’s an article about the Astudillo hidden-ball trick, complete with a summary and quotes. That’s a fun one to read, but if all you want is a video clip, here’s a tweet:
— Rochester Plates (@RocRedWings) August 9, 2018
Dawel Lugo had reached on a double. He moved to third on a fly to right by Mikie Mahtook. That’s where the trick play began. Gregorio Petit wound up with the ball, and he tossed it to Astudillo at third. Astudillo, of course, received the ball far too late to make any immediate play on the runner, but as Astudillo prepared to return the ball to the mound, he noticed something:
Lugo and the third-base coach were looking somewhere else, having themselves a little chat. In theory, now, the entire opposing team ought to be paying attention to what’s going on on the field. In practice, in a moment like this, responsibility falls to the runner and the coach. They’re supposed to be situationally aware. The assumption is always that play is proceeding how play normally proceeds — the third baseman gives the ball to the pitcher, and the pitcher gets ready to throw his next pitch. Astudillo didn’t give the ball to the pitcher. The pitcher wanted it:
That’s Chase De Jong, glove open, asking for the ball. At this point, only Astudillo knows what’s happening. The hardest thing about this play might be silently communicating to the pitcher exactly what is going on. If the pitcher says “hey dumbass, give me the ball” out loud, everything’s ruined, and you look like a moron. A second or two later, De Jong was still asking for the baseball:
If anything, this is where the play should’ve broken down. Lugo and the coach couldn’t have been having that long of a chat. If they’d looked up, they might’ve noticed the pitcher with his glove open and empty. They might’ve noticed the shortstop staring intently at the third baseman. I still can’t really blame them, though, for simply letting their guard down. Maybe I’m being too charitable, but it’s exhausting to be paying attention all of the time. We’re allowed to sometimes take things for granted. To sometimes operate on autopilot. Almost literally every single time Lugo has been on third base, the third baseman has not attempted the hidden-ball trick. That’s exactly the magic of the hidden-ball trick. It’s clever and it’s deeply unfair, both at the same time. I’m in no position to judge. Last year someone came in and stole a hundred dollars from the first floor of our apartment while I was working, with the door open, on the second floor of our apartment. Awareness waxes and wanes.
Anyway, with a subtle shake of the head, Astudillo eventually communicated the play to De Jong. That’s when De Jong turned into an actor. The difference between being an actor and being a pitcher is all about whether there’s a baseball in your glove. De Jong was holding no baseball, but he still busied himself in the way that pitchers do before pitches. Everything looked normal, so Lugo did what he would normally do. And that’s when Astudillo pounced:
Lugo responded in the only way anyone knows how to do:
As far as Lugo was concerned, he was called out through the forces of magic. At first, he remained on the base, hands on his hips, uncertain whether there was anything addressing magic in the rules. But then Lugo understood he had to leave. You don’t want to protest too loudly in the presence of wizards. So Lugo sulked back to his dugout, all the while wondering why magical baseball players were toiling in the International League.
One of my favorite things about this play is what’s evident in the background. Baseball is a team game without being a team game. A clubhouse can be tightly-knit, sure, and every team has its group practices and strategies, but as you can see here, a team can attempt a play without most of the team knowing it. A basketball play involves the whole team. A football play involves the whole team. This hidden-ball trick involved Willians Astudillo and Chase De Jong. That’s Tyler Austin standing a little off of first base:
De Jong had already celebrated, throwing his fist in the air. Astudillo, of course, made the whole play happen. And Austin just kind of watched from a distance. He was a spectator, entirely unaware of his own team’s scheming. After a few seconds passed, Austin signaled “two outs” to the outfield. The signal was conveyed with the body language of someone left out.
In case you were wondering, the Gameday window didn’t really know what to do with this after it happened, so it settled on incomplete English:
Now, there’s something I haven’t talked about yet. When I saw this circulating on Twitter Wednesday night, I saw dozens of people saying the umpires got the play wrong. It should’ve been called a balk, people said. The pitcher didn’t have the ball, and in high school and college, when the pitcher doesn’t have the ball, he’s not allowed to go within about five feet of the rubber. Do Jong was obviously well within five feet of the rubber. In pro ball, though, there’s a different rule. This is the rule book. If you look at rule 6.02(a):
If there is a runner, or runners, it is a balk when:
(9) The pitcher, without having the ball, stands on or astride the pitcher’s plate or while off the plate, he feints a pitch;
Sure enough, I get behind the mound and I’m straddling the rubber and I see Lugo come off the bag and [Astudillo make the tag]. The umpire [Adam Beck], I don’t know if he thought he was joking or what, but once he made the tag and saw he had the ball, he called him out and I was ecstatic.
By De Jong’s own words, he was straddling the rubber, and according to the rules, that would be a balk. “Astride” and “straddling” mean the same thing. But De Jong wasn’t straddling the rubber after all. We don’t get clear and conclusive evidence, but here’s the last visual we have of De Jong with the rubber in sight:
De Jong was taking one small step with his left foot. He then brought his right foot in closer to his left foot. That’s when Astudillo applied the tag. We can’t say for *sure*, but it certainly looks like De Jong was a little behind the rubber the whole time. I asked former MLB umpire Dale Scott for his own evaluation, and he agreed, saying it wasn’t a balk, although it came close. Whether the umpires in the game were looking at De Jong’s feet, I don’t know. Could be they just got lucky. But regardless of how aware anyone was, the proper call was made. By the rules, there was no balk.
I wonder whether we see the hidden-ball trick enough. I wonder this in part because I never see footage of failed hidden-ball tricks. As far as I know, it works 100% of the time. Whenever anything works 100% of the time, it’s not being attempted enough. It feels like something we should see more in the majors, because even if it were to fail, there’s no actual cost to the failure. Unless this is just something along the same lines as managers not asking for pine-tar checks. Pretty much every pitcher is cheating, and, similarly, pretty much every baserunner and base coach has lapses of awareness. Trying the hidden-ball trick might invite opponents to try the hidden-ball trick against you. And then nobody wins. Or do people still win? What if a team tried it in a high-leverage moment? What if it worked in the World Series? I’m sure this is somewhere in the vicinity of the unwritten rules of sportsmanship. But that just means it’s something a certain kind of team might think to exploit.
As far as Willians Astudillo is concerned, he’s back in Triple-A, but he did at least get a brief chance in the majors. And one of the last times we checked in with him, it was after he executed a no-look pickoff in spring training. Clever plays are rare, but as a consequence of that, it doesn’t take many clever plays to develop a reputation. Astudillo was already known for being maybe the best contact hitter in the world. Now he might also be known for being a heads-up defender. That doesn’t mean he makes a clever play every time he gets a start. But, if you’re Astudillo, all you want is to get back to the bigs. With that objective in mind, it couldn’t hurt to pad the ol’ résumé.
Jeff made Lookout Landing a thing, but he does not still write there about the Mariners. He does write here, sometimes about the Mariners, but usually not.