Category Archives: Sign stealing

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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Hey Baby, What’s Your Sign? Chipper Doesn’t Take Kindly to Accusations

In The Baseball Codes, longtime Tigers catcher Bill Freehan had some advice for players looking to respond to a perceived indignity with overt action.

“You don’t want to light a guy up,” he said. “Just let a sleeping dog lie.”

At age 49, Jamie Moyer should by now have learned this commonsense maxim, which is espoused in every big league clubhouse.

Saturday night, however, he went out and, in Freehan’s terminology, lit a guy up—and it cost him. In the fifth inning of a game Moyer’s Rockies led 6-2 against Atlanta, he thought that Chipper Jones, at second base, was relaying signs to the hitter, Brian McCann. What spurred his suspicion is unclear, but Moyer responded by turning around and tellilng the Atlanta superstar to knock it off. (Watch it here.)

Jones did not receive it well.

“He accused me of relaying a sign down 6-2 with a 3-0 count to Brian McCann,” he said after the game, in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, referencing the fact that McCann would likely taking the next pitch, no matter what it was, thus nullifying the need to tip him off. “I have never relayed a sign to anyone while I’m on second base.”

That’s certainly possible—some players abhor the practice, for a variety of reasons—but Jones’ tenor makes it sound as if sign relaying is something done primarily by lowlifes and scoundrels. In fact, it’s so common that most pitchers won’t even retaliate should they see it happening—they’ll just have the catcher change the signs. In slightly more extreme circumstances, they’ll ask the baserunner to knock it off. (It’s not even the first time the issue has been raised this season.)

Moyer opted for the latter tack, telling Jones, “I see what you’re doing.” Unfortunately for the pitcher, circumstances do not seem to corroborate his suspicion. Jones said he was having a conversation with Rockies shortstop Troy Tulowitzki at the time—a claim that Tulowitzki confirmed, adding that Jones “wasn’t doing anything”—and was befuddled by the accusation. Actually, he was outraged. The third baseman went to some length after the game to explain precisely how neither he nor anybody on his team does anything like that—with enough specifics to make it very believable.

“I literally am standing on second base and I’m talking to [Tulowitzki], and I turn around and [Moyer] is coming set,” he said in the AJC. “So I get ready and take my lead, and [Moyer] goes, ‘I see you.’ And I go, what the [bleep] do you see? What the [bleep] are you talking about?’ I go, ‘I was [bleeping] talking to your shortstop. And he said something else with his back turned, like he yelled but didn’t face me. I go, that’s [bleeping] B.S. And I turned around to Tulo and Tulo’s like [holds hands up].”

Jones also said that the only sign stealers during his time with the Braves were Jeff Blauser and Mark Lemke—both of whom last played with the club in 1997—and that since then, “nobody’s ever done it.”

Moyer compounded matters in the bottom half of the inning, when he came to bat and informed Atlanta catcher McCann that things like sign stealing are “how people get hurt.” Jones took notice, as did several other members of the Braves. They responded in the most painful way possible: at the plate.

Colorado’s lead had extended to 8-3 by the time Moyer spoke to McCann. Atlanta’s first two hitters the following inning, Matt Diaz and Jason Heyward, then hit long home runs, followed by a single from Tyler Pastornicky. That ended Moyer’s night.

Three batters later, Jones singled off reliever Esmil Rogers to drive in two (Pastornicky’s run was charged to Moyer), and two batters after that the game was tied. Atlanta went on to win, 13-9.

“That was all on Jamie Moyer,” Jones said. “He woke a sleeping giant tonight. . . . I don’t know why he’s so paranoid. But to be honest with you, every pitch he throws is 78 [mph]. So it’s not like we really have to relay signs.”

Moyer declined to comment after the game beyond saying in the Denver Post that “whatever happens on the field stays on the field.” Unfortunately for him, that’s not the case—and the facts don’t appear to support him.

“Jamie’s been known to be a little paranoid before,” said Diaz. It’s just one of those things where it made absolutely no sense in the situation.”

(Diaz also said that he’s been trying to get the Braves to relay more signs—like, any signs—from second base, because it was practiced on the other three teams for which he’s played, but has gotten no traction. “Chip’s the reason we don’t,” he said. “He’ll say, ‘No, we don’t do that.’ So it’s funny that he got called out on it. Ironic even.”

Ultimately, Moyer’s response would have been entirely appropriate had Jones actually been stealing signs. But like the mugger who tries to roll a plainclothes policeman, it appears that in Jones, Moyer simply picked the wrong target. The facts don’t suggest that signs were being stolen, and the vehemence of the accused lends credence to his claims.

What Moyer saw to raise his hackles, we still don’t know, but it helped spur an outburst of offense against him. Next time, he should probably be certain.

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Are You Looking at Me?: Basepath Espionage Breaks Out Across the Land

Pablo Sandoval and Willie Bloomquist get acquainted.

Less than a week into the season, and we already have sign-stealing controversies breaking out on both sides of the country. The more prominent of the two came in Baltimore yesterday, when Yankees catcher Russell Martin lit into Orioles second baseman Robert Andino as the final out of New York’s victory was being recorded.

Andino had been a runner at second, which led to speculation that he was either tipping signs or location, or was doing something that looked remarkably similar to tipping signs or location.

Andino was quick to temper following Martin’s accusation, screaming toward the Yankees as they proceeded through their post-game handslaps. (Watch it here.) He later denied everything, calling it a misunderstanding, and came up with the line of the young season when, asked whether the Yankees might retaliate against him, he said, “I ain’t a future teller.”

Martin, of course, is no stranger to ferreting out this type of shenanigan. Last year, he went public with accusations that the Blue Jays were stealing signs at the Rogers Centre during the course of an eight-run first inning against Bartolo Colon. (Joe Girardi backed him up a day later by continuing to mandate the use of complex signs, even with nobody on base.)

Meanwhile, on Sunday in Phoenix, Giants third baseman Pablo Sandoval took exception to some of the movements of Diamondbacks shortstop Willie Bloomquist, at second base with one out in the seventh, as the Giants clung to a 6-5 lead. His ideas about Bloomquist’s motives appeared to closely mirror those Russell Martin held about Andino. During a mid-inning visit to the mound, Sandoval turned toward Bloomquist and let fly with some choice sentiments. (Watch it here.)

Bloomquist had a chance to argue his side of things only moments later, when a walk to Justin Upton loaded the bases, forcing him to third. Sandoval didn’t want any part of an argument and immediately waved away his previous accusation, but by that point it didn’t matter—if Bloomquist had been signaling pitches, he’d already been caught, and his approach was going to have to change.

Which is the thing about sign stealing: Were Bloomquist stealing signs, his actions mandated little more than a brief warning (and a new set of signs), which is precisely what was delivered. (Arizona did go on to score twice in the inning to take the lead, but both runs came on infield errors; if D’Backs hitters continued to be tipped off after Sandoval’s discussion with Bloomquist, they certainly didn’t do much with the information.)

Things will get particularly interesting should such accusations persist the next time these sets of teams meet, or if other clubs begin lobbing similar indictments toward the O’s or D’Backs. Until then, they’ll likely continue to take ‘em as they can get ‘em—just like always.

- Jason

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Accusations Against the Blue Jays Explode: Sign Stealing at the Rogers Centre?

Back in July, when Joe Girardi intimated that the Blue Jays might be employing some beyond-the-field methods of acquiring other teams’ signs at the Rogers Centre, people didn’t pay much attention.

When Hardball Talk suggested that the Red Sox felt similarly, based on the fact that catcher Jarrod Saltalamacchia was putting down complex signs for Clay Buchholz in Toronto, even with nobody on base, it made barely a ripple. Jorge Posada did something similar when the Yankees came to town, but still, not much was said.

Now that ESPN.com has given us more than 2,000 words on the topic, however, featuring an anonymous reliever threatening to hit Jose Bautista “in the fucking head” if the Blue Jays don’t knock off their sign stealing, eyes are starting to settle on happenings north of the border.

In the piece, by Amy Nelson, four unnamed relievers from the same team offered details: The guy doing the relaying was wearing a white shirt, for better visibility from the plate; he was positioned in the center field stands, just beyond the pitcher, to be easily seen by the batter without being detected; he put his arms over his head for any offering but a fastball; and he was stationed only 25 yards from the bullpen, which is how the relievers came to see him so clearly.

Some of the pitchers recalled seeing the guy doing something similar at the tail end of the 2009 season. They quickly called the dugout and had their catcher start mixing up his signs. An inning later the man in white departed.

Bautista confirmed the confrontation, but denied that A) it had been about sign stealing, and B) the Blue Jays do anything of the sort, highlighted by the phrase, “We do not cheat.” Later in the story, Blue Jays GM Alex Anthopoulos offers a similar denial.

So how to reconcile these viewpoints? The Blue Jays’ home record doesn’t reflect any improprieties—they’re 28-27 at home, 30-30 on the road—but other statistics appear to be damning. See the ESPN story for a full rundown, but here’s a smattering of examples:

  • Toronto’s home run rate on contact at home last season was 5.4 percent, about 50 percent higher than on the road, yet their opponents hit fewer homers in Toronto than at a neutral ballpark.
  • From 2005-09, the Rogers Centre saw .002 more home runs for every ball put in play than average. In 2010, that number shot up to .011—but only for the Blue Jays.
  • In 2010, the Blue Jays had the highest isolated power (slugging percentage minus batting average) of any team since 1954—most of which came at home. (The 150 homers they hit in Toronto were three shy of the all-time home record set by the Rangers in 2005.)
  • Seven Blue Jays regulars had an OPS at least 50 points higher at home than on the road; six of them were more than 100 points higher; three were 200 points higher.

This season, the Blue Jays have hit 71 homers at home and 57 on the road, despite having fewer than half their plate appearances at the Rogers Centre. They also have wide home/road splits for batting average (.261/.249), slugging percentage (.444/.389) and OPS (.770/.701). (All numbers are through Tuesday’s games.)

There’s also the case of Vernon Wells, as detailed by Hardball Talk. The slugger featured relatively equitable home-road OPS splits while playing for the Blue Jays—until last season, when he hit .991 at home, and .708 road. This number gathers momentum when combined with his .622 OPS this season with the Angels.

None of it, of course, is conclusive. Wells is in a new environment, has had his share of struggles as of late, and could simply be aging. The Blue Jays might simply be that much better at home than everybody else. For what it’s worth, J.P. Arencibia has denied everything, with some colorful language, on Twitter.

Ultimately, it comes down to this: Rare is the ballplayer or manager who sees sign stealing from the basepaths as anything more than an indication that it’s time to get better signs. When things move beyond the field of play, however, tempers can get testy, quickly.

(Wild home-road splits are a common indicator that something shady is going on. Though nothing was ever proved, the fact that the Rangers performed much better at home than on the road in recent years made them prime suspects around the American League.)

The Baseball Codes details the travails of pitcher Al Worthington, who in 1960 was traded to the White Sox—in part because he didn’t approve of the sign stealing done by his former team, the Giants. When he arrived in Chicago, however, he found an elaborate system in place in Comisky Park.

When the team played at home, Chicago’s pitching instructor and former Tigers standout, Dizzy Trout, watched the oppos­ing catcher from inside the recently installed Comiskey Park “exploding” scoreboard—a pyrotechnic exhibition unlike any seen in baseball up to that time. Trout then triggered a light hidden amid many others in the center-field display, that signaled hitters to the type of pitch about to be thrown—blinking meant breaking ball, solid meant fastball. It could be seen from both the plate and the White Sox dugout along the third-base line, but not from the visitors’ dugout near first. The scheme was incredi­bly effective, helping the Sox build a 51-26 record (.662) at home that year, even as they struggled to a 36-41 mark (.468) on the road.

Worthington complained to manager Al Lopez, who insisted that the system was morally acceptable. Said the pitcher: “I thought later, Well, if it’s okay to do it, why don’t they tell everyone?”

Toronto’s methods (if the allegations are true) are not nearly that complex, and aren’t even original. Former Tigers catcher Bill Freehan talked about similar situations during his own playing days:

You’d have a buddy on Oakland, and he’d tell you hey, we’ve got a guy out there in the background, so we aren’t looking at the pitcher, we’re looking over his head and somebody’s putting his right hand up for a fastball. As a catcher—especially when your team’s getting lit up—you start to think, “Uh-oh, have they got them here?” There would be guys in the wall at Fenway, and sometimes you had to make changes every inning.

So: Fenway, Oakland, Texas, San Francisco, Chicago. In the 1940s the Indians pinched signs with a military-grade gun sight brought back from WWII by Bob Feller. The New York Giants did something similar during the fabled 1951 season of The Shot Heard ‘Round the World. (Visiting teams, for that matter, were known to steal signs from the center field clubhouses of the Polo Grounds.) The Cubs spent much of the 1960s signaling hitters from the Wrigley Field scoreboard.

It’s safe to say that this kind of thing happens more than outsiders (or even insiders) care to imagine. The one commonality between all these accusations: Once they’re caught, the allegedly guilty parties are expected to stop.

So even though the league office has yet to field a complaint about the Blue Jays, expect extra vigilance from visitors to the Rogers Centre and an almost certain disappearance of the man in the white shirt. Should anybody see something suspicious, things have now reached the point at which hitting somebody “in the fucking head” (or, more appropriately, in the fucking hip), is a real possibility.

Update (8/11): Bautista says the team making accusations is the White Sox. (This was actually sussed out earlier by the Steal of Home blog, which not only fingered Chicago, but provided some screen caps of the possible man in white.)

Updated 2 (8/11): In Toronto to face the Blue Jays, A’s reliever Grant Balfour told the San Francisco Chronicle that he was aware of the rumors about the man in the white shirt, but has seen no evidence to support it. “If you’re [stealing signs like that], you’re going to wear it,” he said. “That’s the way it goes. Be prepared to get worn out. Go ahead, but know that that’s the unwritten rule.”

- Jason

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Sign-gate at the Rogers Centre, Day II: Are the Blue Jays Going Above and Beyond?

Well, things have officially gotten interesting. A day after Yankees catcher Russell Martin accused the Blue Jays of stealing New York’s signs, New York manager Joe Girardi injected some seriousness into the charge.

During the course of the Yankees’ 7-1 loss to Toronto, Girardi had Martin display complex sign sequences for pitcher Freddy Garcia even with the bases empty—a time during which catchers ordinarily utilize only the most basic signals. The only possible reason for this: the prospect that the Jays employ a comprehensive system for sign stealing, likely from somewhere beyond the field of play.

When questioned about it, Girardi didn’t hold much back.

“Sometimes we have inclinations that certain things might be happening in certain ballparks and we are aware of it and we try to protect our signs,” Girardi said in an ESPN.com report.

In response to a question about whether that could mean using foreign devices such as binoculars or even TV cameras, Girardi said, “Could be,” and added that “there are ballparks where you need to protect your signs.” The manager softened his stance somewhat by pointing out that he was “not accusing anyone” of impropriety.

Not directly, anyway.

Blue Jays manager John Farrell, of course, denied everything. “I have no idea what that might be referring to,” he said. “Honestly, why that would even come out, I don’t know. We play this game to compete every day and we don’t look to any other means than what takes place between the lines.”

Accusing a team of stealing signs from the basepaths is mild, usually serving merely as a preventative method against it happening again. When entire ballparks—and binoculars and relay systems and everything else associated with pilfering signs from beyond the field of play—are brought under scrutiny, things become significantly more charged. Rare is the player who won’t forgive a basepath sign stealer; even rarer is the manager willing to forgive an institutional breach of confidence such as the one to which Girardi alluded.

As referenced yesterday, this is hardly new territory, with the Phillies standing accused of similar tactics last season. They had a solid base on which to build; the Yankees themselves served as some of the first practitioners of off-field espionage. In 1905, back when they were still known as the Highlanders, the team rigged a hat-store advertisement on their outfield wall so that the crossbar in the letter “H” could be manipulated in accordance with the upcoming pitch. In 1909, Highlanders manager George Stallings rented an apartment behind the right-field fence of the team’s Hilltop Park, from which he had someone relay signs by flashing a mirror at the batter. (On cloudy days, a similar crossbar continued to come in handy—this time in a “Highlanders” sign.) When Detroit went to New York for a must-win series at the end of that season, Tigers manager Hughie Jennings—having heard the rumors and willing to take no chances—showed up to the ballpark early and, with some help from his team, tore down the scoreboard in which the New York spy—the guy relaying the signals—had been hiding.

A more modern implementation came courtesy of Billy Martin, during Game 1 of the 1976 World Series. A commotion was raised in the middle innings when three New York scouts were found in the ABC-TV booth, gathered around a television set and speaking into walkie-talkies. Cincinnati had previously granted permission for the scouts to assist with defensive alignments from on high, but watching them in action raised Red flags and they were removed from the premises.

Going public with his own complaints is a decent gambit for Girardi. Save for annoying Farrell and other members of the Blue Jays, there’s little downside to thinly veiled accusations—but by bringing the subject to the media, Girardi has insured vigilance not just from their own dugout, but from the public at large. Had the Blue Jays been stealing signs with a TV camera or some other such device, they’d be hard-pressed to continue the practice, at least in the short term.

The primary question with which we’re left: If Girardi feels that “certain things might be happening in certain ballparks,” where else might they be happening, and who else knows about it?

Which is all the Yankees really want.

- Jason

Related: Break Out the Binocs—There’s Thieving to be Done

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Filed under Sign stealing

Signs of the Times: Yanks Accuse Toronto of Signal Snatching

Russell Martin: Time for new signs.

It’s been a while since a good sign-stealing controversy erupted in the big leagues. That type of eruption, of course, is contingent on an eruption of offense, which is what the Blue Jays had against the Yankees on Thursday.

On its surface, Toronto’s 16-7 victory was little more than a solid whooping, as the Jays jumped on Bartolo Colon for eight first-inning runs and touched four New York relievers for at least a run apiece.

Then Russell Martin went and opened his mouth.

“You move your head one way it’s a fastball, you move your head the other way it’s a slider,” he said in an ESPN report. “It was pretty blatant.”

Martin was referring to Blue Jays baserunners, particularly the ones frequently camped at second, who he accused of looking in to his signs and signaling upcoming pitches to the men at the plate. These are the kinds of things that happen when one’s starting pitcher throws 42 pitches over two-thirds of an inning, resulting in six hits and eight runs (three earned).

Martin’s primary issue was that he (or anyone else in the dugout) didn’t catch on to the Jays’ system (if that’s indeed what it was) until the fourth inning, when he noticed Jose Bautista acting strangely (moving his head this way or that, perhaps) while at second base.

Turns out that Toronto has a bit of a history with the subject. From The Baseball Codes:

Marty Barrett played second base in Boston for nine seasons in the 1980s, every one of them with right fielder Dwight Evans. While playing the field, Evans liked to know the pitch that was coming in advance, to help him get an early break on balls hit his way, so Barrett would make a fist and put it behind his back. If his hand didn’t move, a fastball was imminent. If his arm wiggled, it would be something softer.

In Fenway Park, the bullpens for both teams are located in right field, allowing visiting relievers a clear view of Barrett’s machinations. The only club to pick up on his tactic, though, was the Toronto Blue Jays. Through much of the 1980s, bullpen coach John Sullivan would look over the fence at Barrett’s arm, then signal the hitter with a towel (draped over the fence meant fastball, off the fence meant curve). Sometimes, so as not to draw too much attention, Toronto pitchers would simply stand up or sit down, depending on the pitch type, in accordance with prearranged signals. During Barrett’s final two seasons as a full-time player in Boston, the Blue Jays went 13-0 in Fenway Park (as compared with 6-7 when the teams played in Toronto). “Haywood Sullivan [the Red Sox general partner] came down a couple of times and said, ‘I think they’re getting our pitch­ers’ pitches,’ ” said Bill Fischer, the Red Sox pitching coach at the time. “We would look at the videotape for hours, and we couldn’t find anything.”

“You’re taught to catch things on the field,” said Blue Jays manager Bobby Cox, who helmed the sign-stealing operation. “You watch body language with coaches at first and third, and runners with their body lan­guage when the hit-and-run and squeeze is on. There’s tip-offs and tells throughout a nine-inning ballgame. If you pay attention, you might catch something.”

Fischer eventually discovered the secret, but only after he joined Cox’s Braves staff in 1992, at which point the manager fessed up and told him that Toronto “had every pitch” the Red Sox had thrown.

The standard major league attitude toward these kinds of activities is that teams are expected to do whatever they can to get an edge within the boundaries of fair play, and if somebody’s getting his signs picked it means mostly that he needs better signs. Once a team is caught trying to pinch them, the activity is expected to cease (or at least be carried out more discreetly); should this happen, everybody tends to go on their merry way.

(This should not be confused with stealing signs via a telescope or any other equipment beyond one’s own observational power from field level—a tactic that is never sanctioned. When Phillies bullpen coach Mick Billmeyer was spotted pointing binoculars at Rockies catcher Miguel Olivo last year—followed shortly thereafter by Shane Victorino on the dugout phone, ostensibly to receive and relay whatever signs Billmeyer had picked up—the commissioner’s office stepped in to offer a watchful eye. The Yankees, in fact, had their own run-ins with the Phillies on this subject during Game 4 of the 2009 World Series, when catcher Jorge Posada visited pitcher CC Sabathia six times in the first inning, then eight more times in the fifth—because, said the rumors, New York had suspicions of Philadelphia stealing signs via in-house TV cameras.)

To his credit, the just-change-our-signs mentality is precisely the one Martin employed. “It’s up to us to catch it and change the signs,” he said. “I’m not blaming them for anything. . . . It’s one of those things you don’t really talk about, but it’s part of baseball. It’s always been.”

In an AP report, Yankees manager Joe Girardi detailed some of the ways to tell if a team might have your sign. “You watch some of the swings that clubs are taking,” he said. “Are they fooled on any of the pitches? Are they bailing when you’re throwing the ball in? There’s a lot of things that you watch for.”

Former Red Sox pitcher Al Nipper put it more bluntly in The Baseball Codes: “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.”

In the fourth inning, Martin saw something along those lines, and responded by switching up his signs with pitcher Hector Noesi. The batter, Aaron Hill struck out swinging. (Changing signs is easier than it sounds; the signs themselves remain the same—only the indicator for which sign to pay attention to changes.)

Like Martin, Girardi failed to find fault with the Blue Jays for stealing his signs, if in fact that’s what they were doing.

The surest tell? When asked about it later, Toronto manager John Farrell didn’t flatly deny that it was happening, but claimed to be “unaware” of those types of activities.

Of course he was. Even Bobby Cox expressed outrage when asked about Toronto’s system utilizing Marty Barrett’s signals—about 20 years after the fact. He finally settled in and discussed the topic, but still refused to confirm many specifics.

His answers, however, left enough wiggle room to see exactly how much he knew. Which is all part of the espionage.

- Jason

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Filed under Russell Martin, Sign stealing