Category Archives: Sign stealing

Signing Off: Were the Jays’ Eyes Pryin’, or Was Cueto Battered Into Paranoia?

Cueto stares

They say that a poor workman blames his equipment after something goes wrong. On Tuesday, Johnny Cueto was as poor a workman as he has ever been, allowing six hits, four walks and eight earned runs over just two innings pitched. Afterward, he did the baseball equivalent of blaming his equipment.

As relayed by teammate Edinson Volquez, Cueto’s rationale for his meltdown had something to do with Toronto stealing signs, both from the basepaths and from the furthest reaches of the Rogers Centre. It’s convenient, anyway, because there’s some history there.

In 2011, the Yankees openly accused Toronto of hustling signs from beyond the outfield fence, going so far as to have their catcher flash complex, highly coded signals to the pitcher, even with the bases empty (a situation that, with no chance of a baserunner peering in, teams usually keep things simple). New York’s aggrieved catcher at the time was none other than Russell Martin, who is, of course, the current Blue Jays catcher, and who has not said anything about it of late.

About a month after that, ESPN’s Amy Nelson dropped a bombshell article in which various opposing players detailed what they suspected was a complex system to relay signs within the Rogers Centre. It hinged on a guy in a white shirt, who, from the center field bleachers, would put his arms over his head for any pitch but a fastball, tipping hitters off.

The following year, Baltimore’s Jason Hammel made similar insinuations.

Baseball’s Code, of course, stipulates that while any potential sign filching from within the field of play is acceptable (provided that a player knocks it off once he’s caught), any advantage gained from a telescopic lens beyond the outfield fence is strictly verboten. (This is also against baseball’s actual rules.) The accusations against Toronto have lain dormant for a while, although to go by Cueto, ballplayers have continued to be vigilant about the possibility when traveling north of the border. (For what it’s worth, Royals manager Ned Yost and MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred both dismissed the likelihood of such shenanigans.)

Just as hitters swear the ability to discern when a pitcher has thrown at them intentionally, many pitchers claim to sense when things aren’t adding up during a given inning. “When you’re throwing a bas­tard breaking ball down and away, and that guy hasn’t been touching that pitch but all of a sudden he’s wearing you out and hanging in on that pitch and driving it to right-center, something’s wrong with the picture,” said former Red Sox pitcher Al Nipper in The Baseball Codes.

Of course, when a pitcher struggles as much as Cueto did, he’ll seek to rationalize it almost by default. It’s the paradox of the battered pitcher: If one is going well, there’s no need to call out possible sign stealing, but when one gets one’s teeth kicked in, it looks like nothing so much as a desperate hunt for excuses.

Maybe Cueto was on to something. Then again, none of the Royals were complaining of stolen signs a day later, after winning, 14-2.


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On the Benefits of Embracing the Moment, or: Not All Bat Flips Are Created Equal

Bautista goes yard II

Jose Bautista’s bat flip yesterday was so powerful as to obscure the wildest game many of us have ever seen. It has drawn endless opinions, many of which consisted of little more than the notion, “Wow, wasn’t that something?”—the hallmark of any sporting act powerful enough to draw the attention of the non-sporting public. Pure, visceral response to a pure, visceral moment.

It was something. And it was magnificent.

It was an all-world player at the peak of his powers, unleashing as violent a swing as you will see from a man entirely under control, against a fastball approaching 100 mph, in an inning that had already yielded so much drama as to leave fans emotionally drained, in a game upon which the season hinged, for a team that had not played for anything so meaningful in nearly a quarter-century.

It was all that. It was more.

There are those who feel that such displays—a hitter staring at his handiwork until after the ball has settled into the seats, then tossing his lumber with intensity approaching that of his swing—are beneath the sanctity of the game. They claim it shows up an opponent, that it offers disrespect, that in a world where self-aggrandizement has taken over the sporting landscape, humility is a necessary attribute for our heroes. Yesterday, many of those voices resided in the Rangers’ postgame clubhouse.

They’re not entirely wrong. But they’re not entirely right, either.

The moment would have carried no less gravity had Bautista simply laid down his bat and trotted around the bases. The hit would have been no less important. But the moment Bautista gave us was enduring, as physical a manifestation of pure emotion as will ever be seen on a baseball diamond. It was in every way a gift.

Sports fandom, at its essence, is about embracing the weightiest moments, win or lose. About being fully invested in the outcome of a given play, able to devote one’s emotional energy toward joy or despair, depending upon whether things break your way. Those who criticize things like bat flipping and chest pounding and hand-signs to the dugout after hitting innocuous doubles, who decry them for subjugating key moments at the expense of stoking egos, are correct. Let the moments breathe. A player’s initial actions are inevitably more powerful than his ensuing reactions.

Most of the time.

Sometimes, however, someone transcends it all. Bautista’s display didn’t distract from the moment, or even highlight it—it was the moment, part of it, anyway, as inexorably intertwined with our collective memory as the pitch or the swing or the baserunners or the fans. More so, in many ways. What do we remember of the last greatest Blue Jays moment? Was it the swing Joe Carter put on that ball in Game 6 of the 1993 World Series? Or was it his joyous reaction as he literally leaped around the bases? Do we recall Dennis Eckersley’s backdoor slider, or Kirk Gibson’s fist pump after he deposited it in the bleachers? Would Carlton Fisk’s homer in 1975 mean half of what it does today had he simply rounded the bases instead of physically willing it fair?

This wasn’t some preplanned shtick in some minor moment, no pulling Sharpie from sock following a midseason touchdown. This was one of the game’s great players coming through as profoundly as possible in literally the biggest moment of his career, and responding as such. It was so powerful that Adrian Beltre simply could not keep his feet, taking a seat on the turf as Bautista rounded the bases.

Bautista deserved it. We deserved it. Save the indignation for the .220 hitter who tosses his bat some Tuesday in July. I may well join you. For now, though, I’m going to savor this for as long as I can.


Filed under Bat flips, Toronto Blue Jays

Because Of Course He Did

It wasn’t so much that Jose Bautista unleashed the pure-attitude king-hell mother of all bat flips during Game 5 Wednesday, it was that the Rangers took notice and Ken Rosenthal still saw fit to ask him about it afterward.

Wherever we’re going, I guess we’re not there yet.


Filed under Bat flips, Toronto Blue Jays

Baseball Order of the Day: Have a Long Memory and Skip to My Lou

There is something beautiful about the mind of a ballplayer. For all the flak they might get for being dumb jocks, these guys occasionally flash steel traps the likes of which would make an elephant proud.

Case in point: Jose Bautista. On Sunday, not only did he recall years-old bad blood with Orioles pitcher Darren O’Day, but he remembered exactly what happened and how it played out.

On June 21, 2013, O’Day struck out Bautista to end an inning, then skipped his way toward the dugout.

On Sunday, Bautista homered off of O’Day, then skipped his way toward first base. (It didn’t hurt that O’Day threw a pitch behind him earlier in the game.)

These two have history:

  • After O’Day struck out Bautista in 2013, the two exchanged words on their ways off the field. (Examine the video here.)
  • That same series, Bautista went deep against O’Day, then shouted at him as he rounded the bases.
  • Last year O’Day drilled Bautista, ostensibly as retaliation for an earlier incident in which Marcus Stroman threw a ball over the head of Caleb Joseph.

“Emotion, the moment, there’s history there,” Bautista said in an report. “He’s hit me a few times, he’s thrown behind me a few times and I’ve gotten him a few times.”

It’s merely the latest in a litany of stories involving long ballplayer memories, from Billy North decking Doug Bird in response to being beaned by the guy several years earlier in the minor leagues, to Bob Gibson drilling Pete LaCock in an old-timers’ game because he never got the chance to do it when he was still active. Today, however, we look at an incident from the playing career of Chuck Tanner.

It started in 1955, when Tanner was a rookie outfielder with the Braves. He was on first base against the Phillies one day when Philadelphia second baseman Granny Hamner low-bridged him—throwing a relay to first base at the runner’s chin level, forcing him to the ground before he reached the base—in the course of turning a double play. As Tanner lay in the dirt, Hamner walked past. “Hey kid, this is the big leagues,” he said dismissively.

Fast forward a couple seasons. Tanner is traded to the Cubs. Again he finds himself on first base against Philadelphia. A double-play ball is hit to Phillies shortstop Chico Fernandez, who feeds Hamner for the relay. This time, however, the second baseman bobbles the ball, giving Tanner all the opening he needs. Tanner hits him high even as he throws his spikes into Hamner’s knee, knocking him backward toward center field.

That night, Tanner was out to eat when Hamner approached and offered to buy him a beer. “You know, Chuck, when you hit me I remembered what I said to you when you were a rookie,” he said.

Two years later, Tanner was sold to Cleveland—whose utility infielder was a guy named Granny Hamner. Tanner takes it from here himself:

“I go in the clubhouse. We had Granny, Johnny Temple, Billy Martin, Vic Power, Jimmy Piersall—a bunch of tough guys. I walk in the door, he sees me and I said, ‘Hi, Granny.’ He said to the guys, ‘Hey, be nice to that guy. He never forgets.’ They all laughed when he told them what happened. It took me a couple of years, but I never forgot it.

“That’s the game. That’s the way the game is.”

[Gif via Deadspin]

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Filed under Baltimore Orioles, Retaliation, Toronto Blue Jays

On the Radio: Who Needs Signs When One Has Bluetooth?

Billy MartinIn his ESPN column on Sunday, Buster Olney discussed a proposal to speed up play: outfitting players and managers with earpieces and microphones, obviating the need for signs:

If pitchers, catchers and infielders worked with wireless earpieces — say, the size of a hearing aid — and catchers could speak a code word into a microphone inserted into the heel of their gloves, rather than giving signs, then the issue of having a runner at second base would be circumvented. Pitchers could hear a sign, and if they wanted something different, they could shake it off, as they do now.

Similarly, managers could communicate with their catchers in this way, and perhaps coaches at third and first base could speak to baserunners. This would greatly reduce the need for mound conferences between players, and in turn, it would improve pace of play.

An interesting idea, but not exactly new territory. From The Baseball Codes:

While managing the Texas Rangers in 1974, Billy Mar­tin came up with what he felt was a surefire way to safeguard his signals— he installed a transmitter in the dugout that broadcast his orders to earpiece receivers worn by each of his base coaches, eliminating signs entirely. Such technology has since been outlawed, but even then it wasn’t always useful. With a runner on third and Cesar Tovar at the plate against the Red Sox, for example, Martin told third-base coach Frank Lucchesi to give the suicide-squeeze sign. The transmission was fuzzy, however, and Lucchesi couldn’t make out Martin’s order.

“Billy says, ‘suicide squeeze,’ ” recalled Rangers catcher Jim Sund­berg, “and Frank hits his ear like he can’t hear Billy’s command. Billy says it a little bit louder: ‘Suicide squeeze.’ And Frank’s tapping his ear again and shaking his head like he can’t hear.” Finally, Martin yelled into the microphone, “Suicide squeeze!” It didn’t matter; Lucchesi couldn’t hear a word. Red Sox pitcher Luis Tiant, however, could. He stepped off the mound, looked at Lucchesi, and said, “Frank, Billy said he wants the sui­cide squeeze.”

Sign decoding is a high art, and men like Joe Nossek, while unknown to most of the baseball world, are revered for their abilities in that arena. For all the potential benefits of going to an electronic system, such a move would deprive baseball of one of its most fascinating (if checkered) facets. Worth it? Who knows. Regrettable on many levels? Undeniably.

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Everybody Needs Somebody, Even in the Center Field Bleachers: Victor Martinez, Chris Sale is Looking at You

We’ve said it before and we’ll say it again: Stealing an opponent’s signs from the basepaths won’t exactly be met with a smile and warm handshake, but neither will it elicit too many bad feelings—especially if the thief knocks it off once the jig is up.

Nipping them from beyond the field of play via spyglass or binoculars, however …well, that’ll get ’em every time.

On Wednesday it sure did. Chicago’s Chris Sale appeared in every way to be convinced that something was happening beyond the center field wall at Comerica Park. During the course of the game he pointed toward center field in anger and he pantomimed binoculars from the bench and, most notably to the would-be beneficiary of allegedly stolen signs, he drilled Victor Martinez to fully express his dissatisfaction with the situation.

In the cases of hitters being drilled for perceived slights (“I don’t like how you flipped your bat after that home run”), critics of such old-school retaliation are standing on solid ground. This, though, is different. If Sale was correct, Martinez and his team were benefitting at Sale’s expense via shady and illegal practices that would otherwise be beyond discipline. Sale wasn’t talking afterward, but a well-placed fastball is the time-tested and very effective behavior-correction method of choice.

Some pertinent details: Martinez is hitting .517 with three homers in 29 career at-bats against Sale (including a .647 mark in 17 at-bats in 2013). Nobody who has faced the left-hander that much has done better. But those numbers are home and road both, and it’s a safe assumption that Martinez is not getting signs from the stands on the road, at least on a regular basis. (Oh, what a story it would be if he was.) Still, when the pitcher at the wrong end of those numbers is a perennial Cy Young contender, it’s easy to see how he might think something is up.

The thing is, Sale went 1-0 with a 1.88 ERA in two starts at Comerica Park last season, and this year struck out 10 while giving up one run in six innings in his only start there. So it’s clearly not a team-wide thing that has the guy riled. And, frankly, team-wide things are pretty much all that’s on the public record when it comes to this kind of activity.

In May, the Braves all but accused the Marlins of signaling hitters via their scoreboard. In 2011, the Yankees said that the Blue Jays were doing it from the Rogers Centre … and so did the Red Sox … and the Orioles. Whatever came of it? Not a whole lot. Even with damning evidence, when Phillies coach Mick Billmeyer was caught training binoculars on Rockies catchers in 2010, it elicited nothing more than a light warning from MLB’s home office.

And so Sale took action on his own. By the looks of it, the rest of his team was keyed to the moment, as well. From an report:

In the first inning Wednesday, with Ian Kinsler on second and two outs, Ventura made a rare early visit to the mound. Sale threw two pitches outside of the zone and then intentionally walked Martinez.

Martinez stepped to the plate in the third with runners on first and second and two outs, and struck out swinging. On the last fastball to Martinez, catcher Tyler Flowers set up inside but the deciding pitch landed high and away. That pitch sequence followed two visits to the mound by Flowers and Sale taking a couple of looks back toward center. After the strikeout, Sale turned toward right-center field and tipped his cap. That was followed by a wave in the same general direction.

During the argument in the sixth, Sale appeared to reference Martinez’s “guy out there,” and Martinez said after the game that White Sox right fielder Avisail Garcia told his one-time teammate during the scrum that the White Sox suspected sign stealing. Sale claimed postgame Wednesday that his hat tip was to a fan who was wearing him out during his pregame bullpen session, but Sale was unavailable for comment prior to Thursday’s contest. The left-hander was excused by the team for the game for personal reasons.

Perhaps one day he’ll talk about what was tipping him off, and the possibility exists that it was all just an elaborate ruse to throw at Martinez simply because the hitter’s protracted success against him finally got under his skin. Either way, evidence suggests merely that Martinez is just a very good hitter who likes the kind of stuff Sale throws.

Hell, he’s hitting .556 in 18 career at-bats against Colby Lewis, and Lewis hasn’t even bothered to drill him once.


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Undercover in Miami? Braves Hint at Sign Stealing in Marlins Park

Marlins sculpture

They’re getting squirrely in Miami—or so the Braves would have us believe.

As the Marlins touched Aaron Harang for nine runs on 10 hits Wednesday night, folks in the Atlanta dugout grew suspicious that something afoul might be afoot. Just a week earlier, after all, Harang struck out 11 of those same Marlins at Turner Field in six innings of one-run pitching.

The suspicion was that Miami players were being tipped to Harang’s repertoire by some sort of relay system within the stadium.

After the game, Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez told the tale in an Atlanta Journal-Constitution report: “If you would have taken a look at our dugout at one point in the game, it was like the fourth or fifth inning, they were hitting balls everywhere, we got three guys looking at the scoreboard. You got two guys looking at their bullpen. I’m calling (bullpen coach) Eddie (Perez), ‘Eddie do you see anything?’ I’m looking at (catcher Evan) Gattis, thinking he’s maybe tipping his pitches. Carlos (Tosca) is looking in the bench over there, maybe somebody is whistling or something.”

This wasn’t just nervous energy from a manager whose team was getting hammered. Generally speaking, pitchers accept being beaten when things go poorly, and can live with the fact that even good pitches are occasionally hit well. But when everything’s working—good velocity and bite to one’s pitches, outstanding control—eyebrows tend to shoot up if the opposition begins consistently teeing off.

Gonzalez even laughingly referenced Mick Billmeyer, the former bullpen coach in Philadelphia who, four years ago, offered a sign-stealing lesson straight out of the Michael Pineda Subtlety in Cheating handbook.

Added to Gonzalez’s suspicions was the fact that left-hander Alex Wood brought a 1.54 ERA into Tuesday’s start, then gave up seven earned runs in five innings (more than in his previous five starts, combined). For what it’s worth, the Marlins are hitting .307 at home this year, but just .215 on the road. (Giancarlo Santon’s home/road split: .323/.200. Marcel Ozuna: .375/.208. Casey McGehee: .362/.234.  Jarrod Saltalamacchia: .360/.194.)

None of this necessarily means anything, of course. Teams tend to do better at home than on the road. And Aaron Harang is, at the end of any given game, still Aaron Harang.

Even if something is afoot, sign stealing is generally accepted as a baseball practice … right up to the point that a team leaves the field of play to do it. Spyglasses and TV cameras are verboten by the Code (let alone the actual rulebook), and teams don’t take it lightly when suspicions are aroused.

(Most recently, the Blue Jays were accused of nabbing signs from the Rogers Centre in 2011. Then again in 2012.)

Still, the Braves bench was able to find nothing amiss, going so far as to have their eyes on a guy in the bleachers wearing a red hat and orange shirt—an easily identifiable outfit for somebody signaling hitters—right up until he got up to visit a concession stand.

Regardless, Gonzalez has done his Code-related duty. By talking about the issue without leveling specific charges, he let the Marlins know that if anything is going on, the Braves are on to it and expect the practice to stop.

You can bet that the Dodgers, in town tonight for a three-game set, will be paying some attention of their own.

Update (5-3): Saltalamacchia laughed it all off.



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