Category Archives: Sign stealing

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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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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