The “Hidden Ball Trick” that Ryan Goins performed this year was a common “fan favorite” moment in a generally disappointing 2017 season.
It’s a rare event that we think of more as a play to be expected in little leagues or in movies like Rookie of the Year. It’s a controversial play and whenever it happens, lots of fans debate whether or not it is a legal play.
For those who are not familiar, the hidden ball trick is a play in which a player from the defensive side deceives a base runner to think they, the defender is not holding the ball when in fact they are. A base runner, thinking he is safe to walk off the bag to dust himself off, or to take a lead off the base, puts himself in peril by leaving the safety and security of the bag. In this instant the fielder who was hiding the ball tags the player to record the out.
Interestingly, this type of play isn’t explicitly named in the Major League Baseball rule book, but how the play is executed determines whether or not it is legal.
The most important rule in question relates to balks. This may be surprising, because it is almost exclusively a position player that performs the trick. Balks are illegal actions performed by a pitcher in an attempt to deceive a runner. There are 13 different types of balks which are described in Rule 6.02a of Major League Baseball’s official rule book.
Rule 6.02a-9 states it is a balk if “The pitcher, without having the ball, stands on or astride the pitcher’s plate (the rubber) or while off the plate, he feints a pitch.” The first part of this rule is the key to whether or not a hidden ball trick is legal or not, so I’ll repeat it:
“The pitcher, without having the ball, stands on or astride the pitcher’s plate.”
If you watch closely, players tend to only leave the base they occupy when the pitcher approaches or has reached the pitching rubber in possession of the ball, unless timeout is called. The rules don’t let the pitcher go to the rubber without the ball because the pitcher approaching the rubber lets the runner know it’s ok to start their lead off.
This means that you can only do the hidden ball trick if the pitcher is not standing on the rubber. Next time you see the hidden ball trick performed watch the replay closely. You’ll notice the pitcher is not on the rubber and usually is a good distance from the mound.
If a hidden ball trick is attempted without the pitcher on or straddling the rubber it is legal, but if the pitcher is on or straddling the rubber a balk should be called and each baserunner would be awarded a free base. Nobody would be out, not even the baserunner that was tagged.
Remember the balk rules are designed to prevent pitchers from deceiving baserunners— but nothing prevents a positionplayer from doing so. As long as the pitcher doesn’t commit a balk in the process, the hidden ball trick is completely legal. This is fortunate for Blue Jays fans, since it made for a memorable play by Ryan Goins this season.
By the way, for those of you that remember the hidden ball trick in the movie Rookie of the Year, that one was illegal. The main character and child pitcher for the Cubs, Henry, straddles the mound holding a Rosin bag, pretending it’s a ball during the movie’s version of the Hidden Ball Trick. That’s illegal and a balk should have been called, but that’s Hollywood for you!