Category Archives: Sign stealing

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 MLB.com 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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Mattingly No Fan of Cards’ Pryin’ Eyes

Jose OquendoSo Don Mattingly is peeved that the Cardinals were apparently interested in his team’s signs during last year’s NLCS. They were looking into the Los Angeles dugout, he told ESPN LA at the winter meetings. Runners at second may have been picking off catcher A.J. Ellis.

This is a weird one. This kind of thing not only happens all the time, to the extent that it’s accepted practice, but virtually every team does it to some extent. It’s a near certainty that the Dodgers do it themselves.

It’s weird because Mattingly doesn’t decry it outright, instead saying things like “We felt like we had to be sure we kept an eye on their first-base coach and their third-base coach,” and “[Third base coach Jose Oquendo] is a guy at third who’s always looking for my signs from our dugout.” Mattingly said it was on the Dodgers to stop it if was happening.

But if one possesses such entirely mainstream attitudes, why bring up the subject in the first place? These are the comments of a guy who says he has no axe to grind, even while he’s looking up from the axe grinder.

That said, let’s look at Oquendo for a moment. Back in 2008 or so, I interviewed him for The Baseball Codes. (He has been the St. Louis third base coach since 2000, and was the bench coach the season before that.) He addressed many of these issues, minus the part where he’s actually maximizing his team’s advantage:

“I steal signs every day as a coach. But one thing I don’t do, I don’t tell the hitters. Now, when somebody’s on base, I’m going to say to my runner when to run and when not to run. That’s part of the game. But I would never tell a hitter what’s coming. It’s respect. If a player asked me to do it, I would never do it. That’s my personal opinion, I respect the game in that way.”

So you sit on the coaching line and get the signs and use them to tell guys when to run?

“If I see a breaking ball, I know to have our guys steal. Or if a pitcher has a tell when he’s going to first, that stuff you take advantage of. To tell a hitter what’s coming, that’s never been my style. …”

How easy is it to steal signs, particularly if there’s a runner on?

“If nobody’s on base, I don’t even look at the signs. I don’t care with nobody on. Now with somebody on base, I might want to know if he is going to throw a pitchout, when they are going to throw to first, stuff like that. …

“I don’t “steal” the signs, I just see them. It’s pretty easy a lot of time—you see it from the catcher or from the pitcher. I’d say half of the catchers in the National League, I can see the signs from third base. [Mike] Matheny [then the Cardinals catcher, now the Cardinals manager] knows about it—he looks at me every time he’s going to put signs down. I drive him nuts at third base, but he knows that I’ll get it from him or from the pitcher. I’m gonna get it somewhere.

Draw your own conclusions.

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Hey Brother, Can You Spare Some Binocs?

Research for my next book, about the Oakland A’s dynasty of the 1970s, to be published by Houghton Mifflin in 2015, has turned up boundless examples of unwritten rules from that bygone era. The latest installment, from Ron Bergman of the Oakland Tribune, June 30, 1972:

binocsThe A’s have accused the White Sox of stealing catcher’s signals from the scoreboard on another vantage point in the park. “We switched signals every inning tonight,” [manager Dick] Williams said. “I had a message delivered to [Chicago manager] Chuck Tanner saying I’d sure hate to see a better get messed up on a sign and end up flat on his back with a baseball in his ear. He sent back a message asking if we had any high-powered binoculars because his guy had dropped his and broken them.”

This was hardly the first time an opponent had accused the White Sox of nipping signs from their scoreboard. (We’ve touched on some of them previously in this space.) For more current examples of sign thievery, go here.)

Tanner, of course, ended up helming the A’s himself in 1976. No word yet about sign-stealing schemes he may or may not have enacted at the Oakland Coliseum.

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Girardi to O’s: You Can’t Hide Your Spying Eyes

ShowalterWhether Orioles third base coach Bobby Dickerson was signaling pitch location to his team’s hitters is almost beside the point. The Yankees thought he was doing it, and that’s enough.

The dispute emerged at the end of the first inning of Monday’s game, when Buck Showalter raced from his dugout to yell at Joe Girardi for giving Dickerson a hard time from the Yankees dugout. According to Dickerson, the abuse started with Baltimore’s first hitter of the game, Nick Markakis (who hit a ground-rule double).

” ‘I know what you’re doing,’ ” Girardi yelled, according to Dickerson.

This means that if Dickerson was doing something suspicious, it probably wasn’t the first time. The only way the Yankees could be on something like that so quickly is if they were already aware of it and paying particularly close attention from the game’s first pitch.

“Yelling it, body language, pointing at me,” Dickerson said in an MLB.com report. “That’s it. And I’m a grown man, that’s all. I don’t see why he was yelling at me. I just said, ‘You don’t know anything. You don’t even know me to be yelling at me.’ ”

Showalter should be commended for taking up for his guy—which he did in the most visible way possible, with sufficient animation that the benches cleared (watch it here)—but Girardi is the one on solid footing here.

If Dickerson was indicating location (Yankees catcher Austin Romine insisted that he had the signs themselves well protected), he was fulfilling a longstanding duty of base coaches throughout the history of the game. Not all of them do it, of course, but it’s expected—and accepted—that a certain number will.

Coaches may bend at the waist to indicate one type of pitch, and stand upright for another. When Leo Durocher was coaching third while managing the Brooklyn Dodgers in the mid-1940s, he’d whistle to the hitter to indicate he knew the pitch. (Not only would he take it from the catcher, but he’d also peer in to the pitcher’s grip for clues.) Giants right-hander Ace Adams made a point once of showing him a curveball grip, which Durocher dutifully relayed. Adams, however, threw a fastball right at the batter. That, he said, stopped the whistling in a hurry.

In the early 2000s, the Cardinals were convinced that Cubs first-base coach Sandy Alomar was signaling pitches to Sammy Sosa. St. Louis coach Jose Oquendo handled the situation via a face-to-face confrontation with Alomar, during which he urged (at top volume) the cessation of such activity. That said, Oquendo himself carries a reputation as an accomplished sign thief. In an interview for The Baseball Codes, he admitted to stealing signs “every day” from the first-base coach’s box, but insisted that he used the information only to inform strategy for his team’s baserunners, never passing it along to hitters.

All told, such efforts to tamp down this kind of activity are entirely expected. Which is precisely what Girardi did. As a manager, it’s his job to call out such intransigence as soon as he’s aware of it, at which point it becomes incumbent of the offender to knock off whatever it was he had been doing.

Had Showalter played by the unwritten rules and remained in his dugout while making sure Dickerson laid low for a while, the outcome would have been no different—we’d just have heard nothing about it.

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Sign Stealing in C-Town? Mat Latos Thinks So

With a runner at second base in the fourth, Casey Kotchman takes Mat Latos deep.

Mat Latos thinks the Indians were stealing his signs. To judge by the evidence, he may be on to something.

After a 10-9 loss to Cleveland on Monday, Latos—who gave up seven runs on eight hits over four innings—identified what he felt were telltale signs:

  • When Cleveland had runners at second, possibly peering in to catcher Ryan Hanigan’s signs and relaying the information toward the plate, hitters were sitting on what Latos felt were good pitches.
  • After reviewing video, he said that the Indians hit the ball significantly better with runners at second base than they did otherwise.
  • With Shin Soo-Choo at second in the fourth inning, Hanigan changed things up. What had been the sign for a curveball turned into the sign for a slider; Latos said that the next hitter, Asdrubal Cabrera, was subsequently looking for a breaking pitch and got jammed.

All of this, of course, could be mere coincidence. It could also mean that Cleveland is a team that likes to know what’s coming.

Either way, it doesn’t much matter. A team’s primary recourse in such a situation is to change signs, and that’s exactly what Cincinnati did; the following day, the Reds held Cleveland to three runs over 10 innings.

Situation solved.

Even Latos, who was more outspoken about the practice than most pitchers who are similarly (allegedly) victimized, was quick to admit that his lack of sharpness prevented stolen signs from being his primary issue. And he didn’t come anywhere close to threatening retaliation.

“Stealing signs is part of the game—that’s not the problem,” said Reds manager Dusty Baker in an interview for The Baseball Codes in 2006. “The problem is, if you get caught, quit. That’s the deal. If you get caught, you have to stop. . . . That’s the truth.”

Then again, Baker also made the point Tuesday in an MLB.com report that “you don’t really have to steal signs when the ball is over the heart of the plate and up”—which it most certainly was for Cleveland on Monday.

Indians manager Manny Acta denied that anything was amiss.

“Ninety-nine-point-nine percent of the players don’t want to know what’s coming, anyway,” he said in a Cleveland.com report. “Because you really don’t want to be taking a chance of leaning out over the plate for a 78 mile-per-hour change-up and have a 95 mile-per-hour fastball in your helmet. By the time you go and complain to the runner on second base, you might be with the paramedics.”

Acta is certainly correct about the negative repercussions, but there’s no way he actually thinks that only three-quarters of a player (yep, that’s the math on 99.9 percent of 750 big leaguers) wants to know what’s coming. There are certainly some holdouts and guess hitters out there, but it’d be a safe bet to say that at least half the hitters in baseball would jump at that type of advantage.

Look no farther than one of Acta’s own players, Johnny Damon, who, while denying that he stole signs against Cincinnati, added that he’d want to know if any of his teammates were, “because I would like to know what’s coming next time.”

There is also another possibility to explain Latos’ frustration on Monday—one that could hurt the pitcher far more than the occasionally pilfered sign.

“Tell [Latos] you don’t have to steal signs when you’re tipping pitches,” said an unnamed Cleveland hitter at MLB.com. And so the intrigue begins anew.

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Somebody Else Has Accused the Blue Jays of Stealing Signs from the Rogers Centre

Another year, another pitcher making veiled accusations that the Blue Jays are stealing signs from the far reaches of the Rogers Centre.

Okay, that’s not entirely fair. Some of the accusations aren’t veiled at all.

The latest came from Orioles starter Jason Hammel, who gave up nine hits and four runs over 6.2 innings Wednesday in a 4-1 loss at Toronto. He entered the game with a 6-1 record and 2.78 ERA, having allowed three home runs all season. Wednesday, he gave up four.

“They’re a very potent offense and if you don’t make your pitches down they’re going to get them out,” Hammel said in a Baltimore Sun report. “They were taking some pretty big hacks on my breaking stuff too, which leads me to believe it was something else. It is what it is. I need to keep the ball down.”

Last August, ESPN ran a fairly extensive piece detailing a man in a white shirt who would signal upcoming pitches to the plate from the stands. The Yankees also had some things to say about possible shenanigans north of the border.

The rule here is simple: If a team is stealing your signs from within the field of play, it means mostly that you need better signs. (The Orioles were themselves accused of this somewhat recently.) But if the theft is being done via spyglasses or TV monitors (which is against the actual rules, not just the unwritten ones), it’s game on.

A quick look at the stats doesn’t helpToronto’s cause.

As a team, the Blue Jays are hitting .262 with a .471 slugging percentage and .803 OPS at home, where they’ve hit 42 homers in 828 at-bats. On the road, those numbers are .231/.369/.660, with 30 homers in 937 at-bats. Edwin Encarnacion has 12 homers and a .311 batting average in 25 home games, but is batting .243 with 5 homers in 26 games on the road. Last year the Blue Jays hit 10 points higher at home than on the road, with 20 more homers.

Meanwhile, Toronto’s team ERA is more than a quarter-run better at home than on the road—3.98 to 4.26—so it’s not like visiting teams are experiencing that same type of success inToronto.

Then again, Jose Bautista is playing significantly better away from the Rogers Centre. Either he’s an indicator that nothing is amiss, or he doesn’t like to receive stolen signs.

“When you’re locating your fastball, you’re going to give up some home runs there, but the swings they were taking on he breaking stuff, it was pretty amazing to me,” Hammel said. “I don’t think you can take swings like that not knowing they’re coming. I don’t know. That’s all I can say.”

In Toronto’s defense, all four of their homers Wednesday came on fastballs.

ESPN’s man in white is apparently no longer anyplace to be seen, but the methods a team can use to pilfer and relay signs via in-stadium technology is virtually limitless. From The Baseball Codes:  Indicators range from the digital clock at Kansas City’s Municipal Stadium (“You know the two vertical dots which separate the hour from the minutes?” asked groundskeeper George Toma. “One dot for a fastball, two for a curve”) to dummy TV cameras reportedly placed in center-field wells at places like Candlestick Park and Dodger Stadium that would signal hitters with phony “on air” lights.

So it’s not like teams haven’t done this before. The difference is, the others all stopped—or at least the accusations against them did. That hasn’t been the case in Toronto, and we’re left wondering how far the organization is willing to go to win a baseball game.

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