Thursday, May 4, 2017

MiLB - Wilhelms Ejects Lopez on Hidden Ball Trick Play

Carolina's successful hidden ball trick resulted in HP Umpire Ryan Wilhelms' ejection of Buies Creek Astros Manager Omar Lopez on Wednesday after the Single-A Advanced Mudcats employed the tricky live ball maneuver during the 7th inning of their eventual shutout victory.

Umpires Wilhelms & Jones listen to Lopez.
With one out and two on (R1, R2) in the top half of the inning, Carolina's baserunners attempted and completed a double steal with R1 Dexture McCall advancing to second base and R2 Kyle Tucker checking into third base ahead of the catcher's throw to third baseman Lucas Erceg.

Following field umpire Austin Jones' "safe" call on Tucker, Erceg opted to feign a throw back to pitcher Wuilder Rodriguez and keep the baseball hidden in his glove. Erceg then played the waiting game, hoping that baserunner Tucker would step off of the third base bag so he could tag him out.

As Erceg waited, so too did Umpire Jones, who diligently kept his eye on (or, more accurately, shifted his attention between) both ballcarrier Erceg and pitcher Rodriguez to watch for Erceg's attempted play on Tucker while ensuring that Rodriguez didn't engage in anything illegal during the sequence.

Following a 20-second standoff in which neither team appeared to have requested "Time," Tucker finally stepped off of third base and Erceg applied the tag.

Ersig tags Tucker as U1 Jones watches F1.
The only portion of the Official Baseball Rules that concerns delay-of-game is Rule 5.07(c), which states, "When the bases are unoccupied, the pitcher shall deliver the ball to the batter within 12 seconds after he receives the ball." Because the bases were not unoccupied (and pitcher Rodriguez never received the ball), this rule does not apply to this play. 6.02(a)(8) also makes it a balk for a pitcher to "unnecessarily delay[] the game" (but, again, that's a rule for the pitcher, not a fielder).

That said, Rule 7.03(a)(2) states, "A game may be forfeited to the opposing team when a team—Employs tactics palpably designed to delay or shorten the game." Yikes...but the spirit of this rule is intended for teams delaying for reasons concerning the whether/rain, getting a pitcher ready in the bullpen, or for other "non-live-ball" events, not for hidden-ball-trick schemes.

As for pitcher legality during a hidden ball trick, "It is a balk when—The pitcher, without having the ball, stands on or astride the pitcher’s plate or while off the plate, he feints a pitch" [Rule 6.02(a)(9)].

Rule 6.02(a) Comment clarifies why the balk rule exists and further explains provision nine of the rule: "Umpires should bear in mind that the purpose of the balk rule is to prevent the pitcher from deliberately deceiving the base runner...(A) Straddling the pitcher’s rubber without the ball is to be interpreted as intent to deceive and ruled a balk."

Is F1 Rodriguez astride the pitcher's plate?
Replays indicate Rodriguez stepped onto the mound and stomped his feet onto the white cleat cleaner that appears a few yards behind the pitcher's plate on most professional mounds, but no angle indicates whether Rodriguez actually approached the pitcher's plate itself nor whether he stood astride it (e.g., straddled it) during the play (thus, we are irrecusable).

In 2013, we considered a failed hidden ball trick in San Diego (Case Play 2013-07: Hidden Ball Trick Fails due to Time Out). Although this play ultimately proved unsuccessful because "Time" was out when the fielder tagged the runner, we discussed Rule 6.02(a)(9) [then known as Rule 8.05(i)], noting that under the Official Baseball Rules (OBR), a pitcher must actually be positioned in close proximity to his rubber/plate in order to balk: he must straddle it, touch it, or otherwise simulate that he has mounted and assumed his normal pitching stance. Standing on the mound without the ball is legal in professional baseball.

In NCAA college, the pitcher must be completely off the mound during this play lest he be called for a balk ("While not in possession of the ball, the pitcher stands with either foot or both feet on any part of the dirt area (circle) of the mound during a hidden-ball-play attempt," NCAA Rule 9-3-f).

In NFHS high school, the pitcher will balk on this play if he "positions himself within approximately five feet of the pitcher's plate without having the ball" (NFHS Rule 6-2-5).


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