Sign stealing

Astros Spy Scheme Outed By One of Their Own

Photo by Roy Luck.

Ken Rosenthal and Evan Drellich of the Athletic have posted an enormous piece detailing illegal sign stealing within the Astros organization. According to their sources, the club placed a camera somewhere beyond the center field fence in Minute Maid Park to deliver a video feed of the opposing catcher to a monitor in the tunnel alongside the home dugout. When the signal for a breaking ball or offspeed pitch was given, spotters would bang on a trash can loudly enough for the hitter to hear it.

This is not the first we’ve heard of such things. During the ALCS, the Yankees complained about Houston players whistling signals from the dugout. During last year’s playoffs, the Astros placed a representative in a photographer’s well, who kept turning his phone toward the opposing team’s dugout. Neither of these activities is kosher.

We’ve covered the concept of sign stealing extensively in this space over the years, from players nabbing a catcher’s signals while leading off from second base (totally legal), to those like the Astros who (allegedly) utilize devices in their pursuit. (Totally not legal.) To me, the most interesting part of this story is a primary source for Rosenthal and Drellich: A’s pitcher Mike Fiers, who played for the Astros from 2015 to 2017.

“I just want the game to be cleaned up a little bit because there are guys who are losing their jobs because they’re going in there not knowing,” he explained in the article. “Young guys getting hit around in the first couple of innings starting a game, and then they get sent down. It’s (B.S.) on that end. It’s ruining jobs for younger guys. The guys who know are more prepared, but most people don’t.”

Fiers said that he informed his teams subsequent to the Astros—the Tigers and A’s—what to look for when traveling to southeast Texas. Perhaps thanks in part to Fiers’ warnings, the A’s went 4-5 at Minute Maid Park in 2019—not bad against the putative best team in baseball, and a better mark than they had while playing the Astros in Oakland.

This all brings up a number of issues, primary among them being why, if Houston has been doing this so obviously for so many years, more opponents have not called them out. The easy answer is that the Astros are hardly alone in this type of pursuit, and if another club has its own skeletons to protect, the prospect of quid pro quo (the term of the moment, it seems) provides sufficient discouragement. It’s why teams so rarely cry about pine tar use from the opposing pitcher: They don’t want to invite examinations of their own staff.

In the early going, the A’s organization has backed Fiers … to a point. GM David Forst, contacted by the San Francisco Chronicle, said that he was aware of “concerns among our staff and players,” and that “our players have voiced concerns about what other teams are doing.” Even then, though, he hedged his bet.

“It’s not about it being Houston or a team in our division,” Forst said. “You want the playing field to be level. I have to trust the people in MLB will get involved and address it.”

A player like Fiers speaking publicly about underhanded dealings by a former team carries real risk. The pitcher is 34 years old and going into the second year of a two-year contract. He’s a nine-year vet coming off his best season, and has shown a willingness to sport the least conventional facial hair in big league history. If he puts up another solid campaign in 2020, it’s safe to assume that his services will be highly valued in the free-agent marketplace. Maybe.

It’s not difficult to picture a team that bears its own secrets—whether it’s pitchers loading up baseballs or something along the lines of the Red Sox Apple Watch scandal from 2017—wanting to avoid potential headaches from a do-gooder gumming up the works with something so silly as morality. Suddenly, Fiers’ ongoing ability to pitch a baseball is not the only consideration for teams that consider signing him.

Baseball has seen this happen before. In The Baseball Codes, there’s an entire chapter on sign stealing via things like spyglasses and cameras. It opens with a story about a pitcher named Al Worthington, whose Giants team was doing that very thing in the 1950s. Worthington disapproved, and took corrective steps by threatening to publicly out manager Bill Rigney if he didn’t correct course. Cornered, Rigney acceded, and it might have cost his team a spot in the playoffs. I spoke with Worthington some 50 years after the fact, and his stance hadn’t softened a bit. “Once [Rigney] quit stealing signs, I felt good about that, ” he told me. “I didn’t think he should be doing that anyway. That’s not honest.”

The resulting story is a great lesson about what can happen to players who place a higher premium on morality than on victories, guys who want only to win the right way. Below is the entire excerpt. It’s long, but it tells a great and very relevant tale.

Allan Worthington was a quality pitcher, a right-hander who came up with the New York Giants in 1953 and moved with them to San Francisco five years later. By 1959, he was not only one of their most trusted bullpen members, but one of the most reliable relievers in the major leagues.

Then, over the course of a single season, everything changed. He was traded twice within a span of six months, playing for three teams in 1960 alone, and shortly thereafter quit the game altogether, at age thirty-one. Worthington was neither a bad character nor a headcase. He was throwing as well as he ever had. In fact, he had only one problem, which was enough to sour him in the eyes of more than one ballclub: Al Worthington wasn’t a cheat.

At the tail end of the 1959 season, San Francisco was battling the Dodgers and Braves for the National League pennant, holding first place into the season’s final week. In an effort to gain an edge on its competi­tion, the club asked former coach and proven sign stealer Herman Franks, who had left the Giants the previous year, to return and set up an espi­onage system. His resulting handiwork had various members of the organization, armed with binoculars, placed in the far reaches of San Francisco’s Seals Stadium to pick up signs and relay them to the dugout. When Worthington first heard about the operation, he was appalled.

The pitcher had seen a similar system over the first four years of his career, when the Giants played in New York’s Polo Grounds before moving west. Although it bothered him, he was never certain enough about his standing on the team to speak his mind. In 1958, however, Worthington found religion at a Billy Graham rally at San Francisco’s Cow Palace, and from that point forward refused to tolerate inequities on the field.

When he found out about Franks’s scheme in ’59, Worthington pulled Giants manager Bill Rigney aside and demanded that the practice cease, threatening to abandon the team if it didn’t. Rigney was stuck: Worthington was a valuable member of the bullpen, and losing him would be a blow. The binoculars were shelved, and the Giants immediately lost three straight to the Dodgers (and seven of their last eight), to finish four games back in the National League.

At that point, of course, Worthington’s fate hardly hinged on the team’s success; when the season ended, the Giants couldn’t get rid of him fast enough, trading him to the Red Sox for spare parts prior to the 1960 campaign. Boston in turn shipped him to the White Sox that September. Chicago, only three games behind the Orioles, was looking to bolster its bullpen, but nobody in the organization bothered to ask the Giants about their new acquisition. This would have been beneficial, considering that the White Sox used a sign-stealing system even more complex than the one in San Francisco. 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.

The benefit hardly outweighed the detriment in Worthington’s eyes. It was illicit behavior, and by the time he arrived in Chicago, the pitcher was already practiced in his response. Shortly after learning of the system, the right-hander informed manager Al Lopez in a hotel lobby in Kansas City that he wanted nothing to do with it, that he “didn’t want to play for a team that cheats.”

“As a player it was none of his business what we were doing,” said Lopez. “But I did say, ‘Show me in the rule books where it’s wrong.’ I told him I respected his religious beliefs. I said I hoped he would respect mine, and that my religious beliefs would not permit me to do anything I thought wrong.”

“Al Lopez said that it wasn’t cheating . . . ,” said Worthington. “I thought later, Well, if it’s okay to do it, why don’t they tell everyone?”

Lopez sent Worthington to speak with general manager Hank Greenberg, which only made things worse. Greenberg, after all, freely admitted to his own preferences for receiving pilfered signs during his Hall of Fame playing days with Detroit. “Baseball is a game where you try to get away with anything you can,” he said. “You cut corners when you run the bases. If you trap a ball in the outfield, you swear you caught it. Everybody tries to cheat a little.”

After less than a week with the White Sox, Worthington was fed up enough to quit, going home to Alabama and enrolling at Samford University. The team’s official explanation was that he left over a salary dispute. This was the first time the White Sox had been challenged about a system that had been in use for years. It had originally been implemented by Frank Lane, the team’s general manager four years before Greenberg came along, as a response to the abundant stories about other clubs’ use of similar schemes. According to Sam Esposito, a utility infielder with the Sox, it started when Lane brought his complaints to two of the team’s third basemen—future Hall of Famer George Kell and his backup, Bob Kennedy. Esposito said that the pair devised a system far more devious— not to mention effective—than the then-standard practice of having a coach peer at the opposing catcher through binoculars from the bullpen, and manually signal the hitter by placing (or removing) a towel atop the fence.

That type of system was easily identified. The way Esposito tells it, Kell and Kennedy’s plan to use the scoreboard light couldn’t have been more effective. “It was hump city . . . ,” he said. “You’d be sitting in the bullpen or dugout, the pitcher would be winding up, in his motion, and our hitter would still be looking up at center field, waiting for the light to come on. Sherm Lollar loved the light, Walt Dropo loved it. Nellie Fox wouldn’t use it. Nellie was a slap hitter, and he was afraid if he knew it was a fastball that he’d muscle up on the pitch and end up hitting a long fly ball, one of those warning-track outs.”

“I doubt if there is one club that hasn’t tried it at one time or another in recent years,” wrote White Sox owner Bill Veeck in his autobiography, Veeck—As in Wreck. “There is absolutely nothing in the rules against it.”

Though most ballplayers admit that the stealing of signs is pervasive within the game and accept it as an unavoidable facet of a complex sport, even those who embrace the practice have a difficult time defending those who go beyond the field of play to do it. Any sign deciphered via a mechanical device (usually binoculars or hidden video feeds) is roundly denounced. Don Lee, a reliever with the Los Angeles Angels in the early 1960s, could stand up in some well-placed bullpens and, with his naked eye, read the catcher’s signs from beyond the outfield wall. When he relayed those signs to hitters by placing his hand (or not placing his hand) atop the fence, it was generally considered acceptable because he was picking them up unaided. (“Sounds impossible, but he was able to do it,” said his teammate, catcher Buck Rodgers. “I was there. I was a beneficiary.”) Stick a telescope in Lee’s hands, however, and he’d have a roster full of enemies in the opposing dugout the instant he was caught. “Bootling information to the batter through a hidden observer equipped with field glasses is a dastardly deed,” wrote Red Smith in 1950. “But the coach who can stand on the third-base line and, using only his own eyes and intelligence, tap the enemy’s line of communication, is justly admired for his acuteness.”

Even Al Worthington was willing to admit as much. “Sign stealing is as old as baseball,” he said. “You watch a coach from the dugout and you try to figure out the signs he’s giving to the batter, but it’s the coach’s job to hide them from you. . . . There’s nothing wrong with that. But to spy with binoculars . . . that’s cheating.”

The White Sox, unable to trade Worthington after word got out about his moral stance, banished him to the minors for the next two years. The pitcher was claimed by Cincinnati in the Rule 5 draft prior to the 1963 season, and after being sold to Minnesota in 1964 spent six productive seasons with the Twins, leading the American League in saves in 1968, at age 39.

Here’s hoping that Fiers’ journey, whatever it might be, is smoother than that.

RIP

RIP Ron Fairly

Longtime big league player and broadcaster Ron Fairly passed away on Wednesday at age 81. He played for six teams, primarily the Dodgers, starting in 1958, making two All-Star teams over a 21-season career (including in 1977, at age 38) and being a part of three World Series winners.

Fairly sat for an extensive interview for The Baseball Codes in which he proved himself to be unyieldingly old-school. The conversation took place in 2008, four years before Yasiel Puig’s debut with the Dodgers, back when bat flipping and excessive posturing was still relatively taboo, when Barry Bonds was more outlier than influencer. Even by those standards, Fairly’s outlook provided a charming glance into the way comportment once was held within baseball, and the type of man for whom such things mattered.

You don’t embarrass, you don’t show up the other team. And you don’t make fun of them by hitting a home run and flipping the bat and doing a twirl or jumping up in the air. … It used to be that when you hit a home run, you didn’t do anything—you just ran around the bases. By hitting the ball out of the ballpark, you’d done all the damage you needed to do. You’d hit a home run, so run around the bases and get off the field. That’s changed. Today it’s a more fancy, more showboat-type of play. Take an easy play and make it look a little tougher than it really is. That changed probably when they started doing the sports highlight shows. They don’t put routine plays on the air—only if someone makes a fancy play of some sort. It’s become habit with a lot of players. Instead of just making the play and throwing the guy out, they have to do something to make the play appear to be more difficult than it really is. The best example I can give you is, if you think back just a few years ago, watching Alan Trammell field a ball at shortstop and throw somebody out, versus watching some of the same type of plays today. I thought Alan Trammell’s fundamentals were as good as anyone I’ve ever seen. He was a fantastic shortstop. And he didn’t feel the need to be fancy.

He also offered some philosophy about pitchers intentionally throwing at batters.

There has to be a reason to knock you down. Good golly, if you’re making out after out after out, why in the world would they throw at you? You’re an out man! Why would they throw at you and wake you up? It’s when you’re doing something against the opposing team like hitting the ball out of the ballpark, like getting base hits with runners in scoring position, when you’re doing something to hurt them like driving in runs—then they’ll turn around and say, “Well, let’s find out a little bit more about this guy.” Then you’re liable to be knocked down. The idea is to see how you react to being knocked down. If it doesn’t bother you, they’ll turn around and say, “Well, if it doesn’t bother him, we’re not going to do that. We’ve got to figure out a different way to get him out.” …

Don Drysdale was the best at protecting his hitters. Don said, “You go up and swing as hard as you want to, because if they throw at you they’re only going to do it once. I’ll take care of it.” Don always said it was two for one—two of theirs for every one of ours—so I never had to say a word to anybody, ever.

In addition to playing alongside one of the sport’s great enforcers in Drysdale, Fairly played against the only guy in Drysdale’s class when it came to that sort of stuff:

I talked to opponents all the time [while playing first base]. There were some guys who didn’t like it, like Bob Gibson. I said, “Hi, Bob. How are you tonight?” And he says, “Why don’t you shut the fuck up?” That was the last time I talked to Bob at first base.

In the years since that interview, I’ve used the phrase “He’s an out man!” countless times. From a personal standpoint, I remember Fairly best as a Giants broadcaster in the late-1980s and early 1990s. He was a capable describer of game action, even though his stories—and there were a lot of them—tended to be about the Dodgers. (Then again, why wouldn’t they, considering that he spent his first dozen seasons in LA, which included four World Series.)

Baseball lost one of its good ones.

Umpire Relations

No Strike 3 For You: The High Cost Of Scuffing An Umpire’s Ego During the World Series

Game 5 of the World Series gave us a particularly interesting moment during the course of an otherwise dull blowout: After a host of questionable ball-strike calls, plate ump Lance Barksdale outdid himself during the sixth inning.

Nats right-hander Tanner Rainey threw a 2-2 fastball to Michael Brantley that should have been called strike three, after which catcher Yan Gomes popped up from his crouch to toss the ball around the infield. Apparently he did so a bit too quickly, preempting Barksdale’s official decision. To teach Gomes a lesson, Barksdale called the pitch a ball and kept the at-bat alive.

“You were taking off on me,” Barksdale said when Gomes asked what happened.

The catcher was incredulous, replying, “Oh, it’s my fault?”

A few things happened here. One, Gomes turned around to converse with the plate ump. In a world of sensitive egos and well-established rules of comportment, this is an absolute no-no. Catchers question umpires’ calls all the time, but they inevitably do so from the squat, while facing the pitcher. “You never show them up—that’s the worst thing you can do,” former Tigers catcher Jim Price said in an interview for The Baseball Codes. “Don’t ever turn around to talk to them.”

Occasionally, the umpire will walk around and dust off the plate in order to face the catcher and offer an eye-to-eye retort. It can be vocal and it can be personal, but it’s also private, done behind a mask. Nobody watching from the stands or on TV realizes anything is happening. This is time-tested baseball tradition.

“The best advice that I can give is to have a little dialogue with the home plate umpire throughout the game,” longtime catcher Michael Barrett told ESPN in 2007. “Break the tension a little bit. Realize that the home plate umpire is the authority and make sure to communicate with him during the game and as the game goes on. It’s important to understand that the umpire is human, he’s going to make mistakes like everyone else, and we are going to have a better relationship if we are talking.”

Who knows what Gomes might have already said to Barksdale over the course of the game, though in light of the umpire’s consistently shaky calls, some sort of dialog between them wouldn’t be surprising.

Former Yankees reliever George Frazier once found himself in a similar situation as pertains to prematurely reacting to what he believed to be strike three. As Frazier told it during an interview for The Baseball Codes, it was the ninth inning in Baltimore, and Len Sakata was at the plate with two strikes and two outs.  

“I painted a slider and took a hop toward the dugout,” he said. “I’m looking in [at plate umpire Durwood Merrill], and he’s looking at me. Then he comes out toward the mound. I’m from Oklahoma, and he was a big OU football recruiter—he recruited Billy Sims from Texas. He said, ‘What are you doin’, Okie?’ I said, ‘Man, come on! That ball was right there.’ He says ‘OK, put it there again and we’ll ring him up.’ ”

Frazier agreed … but didn’t execute.

“I threw a pitch that literally bounced a foot out in front of the plate,” he said. “Durwood had already started his wind to ring him up, and he’s walking off. The umpires had to go down our dugout steps, where I’m walking off too, and he’s growling, ‘Don’t ever do that to me again.’ Sakata was right behind him, yelling, ‘You’ve gotta be kidding me!’ ”

“Durwood said to me, ‘What are you doing?’ I said, ‘You shoulda rung him up on the other one!’ ”

(For what it’s worth, Frazier never faced Sakata in the described circumstance. As is the way with ballplayers telling decades-old stories, details are known to inadvertently blur.)

The difference between Frazer and Rainey was that Lance Barksdale was working the freaking World Series. Petty displays of ego shouldn’t be part of an umpire’s tool kit in the first place, but in the postseason they need to be put away entirely. Luckily, the call on Brantley had no bearing on the game’s outcome, but strikes are strikes and balls are balls and, sure, calls might get blown, but for a guy to try to teach a lesson to a veteran catcher on the sport’s biggest stage is downright shameful.

Sign stealing

Astros Whet Their Whistles While Yankees Fume

The Yankees, it was reported yesterday, took exception to some whistling emanating from the Houston dugout during Game 1 of the ALCS. It was, they felt, an ongoing signal to hitters about either the type or location of the upcoming pitch. According to SNY, a Yankees coach—who didn’t come forward directly, but was outed to the network by three sources—called out the Astros about the practice during the game, leading to some back-and-forth yelling across the field.

“The whole dugout was pissed,” SNY’s Andy Martino quoted one of the sources as saying. “Everyone was chirping.”

On one hand, sign stealing is a long-accepted practice around the league, with the clear-cut caveat that it not be technologically aided. A runner relaying signs to the hitter from second base might be viewed by opponents as annoying, but his presence means mostly that the victimized team needs better signs.

Take the practice beyond the fences, however, and real issues arise. Never mind that spying on an opponent’s signals via a ballpark video camera is against the actual rules—it’s also seen as below-board chicanery by people who would otherwise harbor a soft spot for thievery of a more legitimate (ie: non-technically aided) persuasion.

Which is where things grow hazy about New York’s accusations. If the Astros were whistling from the dugout, it almost certainly means that they were getting their information from someplace else within Minute Maid Park. Unless New York catcher Gary Sanchez was dropping his fingers so far below his squat that his signs could be read from the sideline, folks in the Houston dugout would have no legitimate way to figure out what to signal and when.

There’s also the not-insignificant detail that the Astros were accused of this very thing just last season.

Then, a team employee named Kyle McLaughlin was stationed in a dugout-adjacent photographer well (without appropriate credentials, it should be noted) and caught aiming a cell phone into the dugouts of both Cleveland (Houston’s opponent in the ALDS) and Boston (during the ALCS). The Astros claimed that McLaughlin was placed there to insure that their opponents were not spying on them, using then-recent allegations of Apple Watch sign-stealing impropriety lodged against the Red Sox. (Why McLaughlin was snooping on Cleveland remains unclear.)

Last year, it wasn’t whistles that the Astros used to signal their hitters, but claps or audible whacks of a trash can. That info that came from the A’s and Dodgers, both of whom aired similar suspicions about Houston’s shenanigans, the latter during the World Series.

This is hardly the first time that a team has whistled signals to hitters. In The Baseball Codes, I recount an instance in which the Yankees, in a turn, did some whistling of their own. It happened during the late-1950s and early 1960s, and began with pitcher Bob Turley, an extremely proficient practitioner when it came to stealing signs. Turley was so good, in fact, that he was occasionally utilized as a first-base coach for that very purpose. From the book:

Turley’s relay system was simple—he’d whistle whenever a pitch was different from the last one. Hitters would start every at-bat looking for a curveball, and if a fastball was coming, so was Turley’s whistle. He’d then stay silent until something else was called. The pitcher was so good that when he went on the disabled list in 1961, manager Ralph Houk wouldn’t let him go home, instead keeping him with the team to decipher pitches. (Roger Maris, in fact, hit his sixty-first home run of 1961 on a pitch he knew was coming because third-base coach Frank Crosetti, doing his best Turley imitation after watching the pitcher for years, whistled in advance of a fastball.)

Eventually, people began to catch on. Among them was Detroit Tigers ace Jim Bunning, who grew increasingly angry as Turley whistled and the Yankees teed off during one of his starts. Finally, with Mickey Mantle at bat, Bunning turned to Turley in the first-base coach’s box and told him that another whistle would result in a potentially painful consequence for the hitter. Sure enough, Turley whistled on Bunning’s first pitch, a fast­ball at which Mantle declined to swing. With his second offering, Bun­ning knocked Mantle down. The on-deck hitter, Yogi Berra, could only watch in horror. When it was his turn to bat, Berra turned toward the mound, cupped his hands around his mouth, and shouted, “Jim, he’s whistling, but I ain’t listening.”

Positioning a sign thief in a coaching box is the primary non-technology-aided method the Astros might be able to employ if they are indeed stealing signs. It seems like a longshot, but, needless to say, nobody in that clubhouse is talking about it.

I collected more recent examples of illicit, beyond-the-field-of-play sign-stealing accusations from around the league for my post on the Red Sox smartwatch controversy:

The Blue Jays were accused repeatedly, by numerous opponents, of similar activity at the Rogers Centre, to the point that ESPN commissioned an expansive expose on the practice.

The Phillies drew the ire of multiple teams—including the Yankees, in the World Series—for their alleged ballpark shenanigans. It didn’t help that, in 2010, their bullpen coach was caught on the field with binoculars.

In 2014, Chris Sale accused Victor Martinez and the Tigers of having somebody in center field.

The Padres have had (probably baseless) accusations thrown their way, as have the Marlins.

Last year, MLB responded to the allegations from and about the Astros by sending an additional nine staffers—three from baseball ops and six from security—to monitor the next game, including placing somebody in each team’s video-review room. Ultimately they declared that Houston did nothing wrong.

This year, we’re getting more of the same. Suspicions about Houston’s use of surveillance technology in its home ballpark has continued unabated. “They are NASA,” said a major league coach in the SNY report. “If a pitcher is tipping and the players can see from the dugout, no biggie. If they get it from somewhere else, that’s dicey.”

Ultimately, all this subterfuge didn’t help the Astros. New York starter Masahiro Tanaka pitched six shutout innings, and the Yankees pounded Zack Greinke and four relievers in a 7-0 victory.

In Game 2, we saw New York starter James Paxton and catcher Gary Sanchez changing signs throughout the game, even with nobody on base, which is as clear a sign as one can get that a team is harboring some nasty suspicions.

This affair is just getting started. If the series makes it back to Houston and the Yankees suspect that the practice is still going on, expect some bloody hell to be raised.

In the meantime, the Nationals have a good long while to figure out how to handle the situation should the Astros advance. The spy game, it seems, is alive and well in baseball.

Update 10-18: According to Ken Rosenthal, baseball has cleared the Astros of wrongdoing.

Gamesmanship

Soto Shuffles His Way Into Game 1 Controversy

In baseball, the lights shine brightest during October. Those who embrace that notion are already halfway to stardom.

In that vein, anybody in St. Louis who hadn’t heard of Juan Soto before the NLCS kicked off last night sure as shootin’ knows who he is now.

Soto went a quiet 1-for-5 with two strikeouts against the Cardinals in Washington’s 2-0 Game 1 victory, so it wasn’t his play that turned heads at Busch Stadium. It was what he did between plays that drew ire.  

In Washington, they call it the “Soto shuffle”—a between-pitches routine in which the hitter squats, scrapes his feet through the box and shimmies his shoulders in a way that falls someplace between a samba and performance art. He will occasionally lick his lips and adjust his cup, the latter tending to particularly rankle given that he undertakes the entire affair while staring down the pitcher—some of whom tend to take exception.

Last night, that was St. Louis’ Miles Mikolas.

There are pitchers for whom such a display—and let’s be fair here: that was the Soto Shuffle on steroids—might inspire a retaliatory fastball. Whether Mikolas is among their ranks has yet to be seen, as, nursing a one-run deficit, the right-hander had no wiggle room with which to yield a free baserunner to the opposition. Instead, after wriggling out of a bases-loaded jam in the fifth inning, he grabbed his crotch right back at Soto.

Soto has said that his batter’s box choreography helps him synch his timing. Indeed, he did it against Milwaukee’s Josh Hader in the wild-card game, just before sealing Washington’s 4-3 win with a three-run single in the ninth. Then again, last week he also said that “I like to get in the minds of the pitchers, because sometimes they get scared.” Gamesmanship at its finest.

After the game, Mikolas laughed off Soto’s act, saying in a Washington Post report that “I was just having fun,” while adding that Soto is a great hitter, “and great hitters have routines.”

“That’s part of his routine,” he said, “his shtick.”

In the Nationals clubhouse, Soto took a similar tack, saying, “He got me out so he can do whatever he wants. … I’m just going to laugh about it.”

The thing is, the Cardinals—team and fans alike—hew toward traditionalism. Showboating has no place in their ballpark (with a few notable exceptions). Just last week, closer Carlos Martinez got into it with Atlanta’s Ronald Acuña Jr. over the hitter’s celebratory practices. Hell, Cards catcher Yadi Molina has already disparaged Soto this season for taking too much time between pitches. Their fans offered requisite verbal confirmation of this displeasure, raining boos down upon Soto.

Even Soto’s own manager, Dave Martinez—something of a traditionalist himself—stumbled when asked about the player’s routine, saying in the Post: “I thought, you know . . . it’s a little, you know . . .”

At that point, Martinez quickly shifted into manager mode, where protecting his players becomes a priority and his feelings about the Soto shuffle take a distant backseat to making sure its progenitor is in a proper place to give his best possible performance. If that means harboring the occasional unseemly display, so be it.

“After talking to him and watching him, it’s a routine that he uses to get to the next pitch,” Martinez continued. “I mean, when you talk to him he really feels like that’s his batter’s box, he owns that batter’s box. And when he does that, it’s basically just saying, ‘Hey, I’m going to get back in here and I’m going to get ready to hit the next pitch.’ ”

As noted in the Post, last season Soto did something similar to Aníbal Sánchez, then pitching for the Braves. Sánchez, who can freely talk about it now that he’s Soto’s teammate in Washington, said that he’d never seen anything like it in his 13 years as a big leaguer. “I’m like, ‘What’s going on here?’ ” Sánchez said. “I thought this guy was going to fight with me. It was kind of funny to me at that point.”

Sánchez, however, handled it perfectly, being more amused by it than anything else. Soto ended up going 0-for-6 against him across three games.

He also went 0-for-3 with a strikeout against Mikolas. Perhaps the rest of the Cardinals staff has something to learn from their interaction.

Pitch Tipping

Pitch Tipping Tempest Tops Tampa As Astros Off To ALCS

The Astros are moving on to the ALCS, and a lot of people are pinning at least some of their success Thursday on the way Rays starter Tyler Glasnow held his glove upon coming set. Above the letters, Houston hitters seemed to figure out, meant that a fastball was on the way; somewhat lower indicated curveball. This might be how a pitcher who topped 98 mph against every hitter he faced, and supplemented his heater with one of the sport’s better curveballs, nonetheless managed to serve up four first-inning runs. The 15-mph differential between Glasnow’s fastball and his breaking pitches should have been more than enough to throw off the timing of Houston’s hitters. For most of that first inning, he didn’t come close.

Sure enough, various Astros were seen prepping each other for what was to come, with Alex Bregman going so far as to inform Carlos Correa that “if it’s down, it’s a curveball; if it’s up, it’s a fastball.”

Judge for yourself, courtesy of @Jomboy_:

In the postgame studio, Alex Rodriguez, breaking down film, posited that he was “99 percent” sure the pitcher displayed a tell.

There is also the less-discussed possibility that on at least one pitch, Glasnow opted to grip his curveball right out in the open, for everybody to see.

Whatever advantage the Astros got from Glasnow’s miscues, their tactics were not only legal, but are a goal in every clubhouse across the land. Houston has recent history with this sort of strategy, winning the 2017 World Series after Carlos Beltran noticed that when Dodgers starter Yu Darvish re-gripped the ball while bringing it to his glove, he gave away whether he was about to throw a fastball or a breaking pitch. Darvish faced the Astros twice in the Series, throwing a total of 48 sliders and cutters, against which Houston batted .556. He didn’t make it out of the second inning either time, giving up five runs over 1.2 innings in the deciding Game 7.

In this space over recent years we’ve discussed pitch-tipping issues with Tim Lincecum, Ben Sheets, Johan Santana and Tampa Bay’s own Matt Moore. More pertinently to today’s discussion, in last season’s ALCS, Luis Severino was thought to have been tipping his pitches to the tune of a 16-1 Red Sox victory in Game 3. Similarly to what we saw with the Astros last night, Boston players spoke to each other in certain terms about pitches that had yet to be delivered.

In the post about Severino, I excerpted a passage in The Baseball Codes that offered some history about the phenomenon:

Hall of Fame spitballer Burleigh Grimes was done in by his cap. Although he shielded the ball with his glove to keep hitters from knowing whether or not he was preparing for a spitter, members of the Phillies realized that the brim of his hat—visible above the top of his glove—would rise when he opened his mouth to spit, and laid off the ensuing pitches. It worked beautifully, at least until the pitcher wised up and got a bigger cap.

Picking up tells can be a veritable art form, with master practitioners noticing things about a player that escape even their most astute. Bob Turley, for example, in addition to being a great sign thief, could also pick up tells better than almost anybody in the game.

“When (Connie Johnson) starts his windup, he’ll move his foot to the other end of the rubber if he’s going to throw his screwball,” he once told Mickey Mantle, as reported in Baseball Digest. “Billy Pierce always wore a long, heavy sweatshirt, no matter how hot it was. When he went into his glove to grip a fastball, you would see the back of his wrist. When he was going to throw a curve, he would get deeper in there and you would not see his wrist. Early Wynn, when he pitched from the stretch, where were his hands before he threw? If he was going to throw a knuckleball, they were at his belt. For a fastball, he’d come up under his chin. Slider, around his nose. Curve, up at his forehead. Jim Bunning altered his windup a little depending on what he was going to throw.”

As for Glasnow, he himself admitted that “it was pretty obvious, as far as the tips go.” That was more than the Astros would say, possibly out of professional courtesy, and possibly out of the understanding that the less they give away, the more likely that they’ll be able to continue taking advantage again next season.

Glasnow seemed to correct course, maybe as soon as mid-inning. He struck out Correa and Josh Reddick to end the first, then set down the next five straight hitters before being removed in the third.

By then, of course, it was far too late. The Astros won, 6-1, to secure their spot against the Yankees in the ALCS. They get to figure out if Severino is still tipping, while Glasnow has the winter to work this particular kink out of his delivery.

Retaliation, Showboating

Up 13-1, Cardinals Had Leeway To Respond To Atlanta However The Hell They Pleased

Tensions are heightened come playoff time, which may explain why Ronald Acuña Jr.’s excitable response to his ninth-inning, two-run homer off of Carlos Martinez in Game 1 of the NLDS proved so annoying to the St. Louis pitcher. Acuña had absolutely smashed the ball—455 feet, as measured by Statcast—to close the Cardinals’ lead to 7-5, and gesticulated wildly toward his teammates in the Braves dugout as he rounded the bases.

This followed a notable moment in the third, when Acuña failed to run hard out of the box on what he assumed would be a home run, but which ended up as a single when the ball bounced off the wall. Acuña ended up stranded on base when he might otherwise have represented what would be a vital run for his team.

Acuña’s home run celebration was enough to shake Martinez to the point that he had to be calmed down by Yadi Molina. The right-hander then gave up an even longer home run two batters later, to Freddie Freeman, although he did finally close out what would be a 7-6 victory. Martinez was so upset after the game that he closed out the game by screaming at the Braves dugout, then said afterward: “I wanted [Acuña] to respect the game and respect me as a veteran player.”

And so we find ourselves back in the noman’sland of baseball celebrations, which have been officially sanctioned by the commissioner’s office even while a number of pitchers continue to bristle at them. Would Acuña’s antics have drawn notice had his Game 1 homer given his team the lead, rather than coming as it did with the Braves up, 3-1? Would Martinez have cared less had Acuña not already pulled something similar, with disastrous results, earlier in the game? Who knows?

Typically, the postseason is not a place to settle old scores. Even a remote possibility that an ill-timed retribution HBP can come back to bite you is enough to keep teams in line until stakes are lower. Sure enough, the series’ second, third and fourth games never saw either club with a lead of more than three runs.

Game 5, however, was different. St. Louis scored 10 in the first, one in the second and two more in the third, and led 13-1 when Acuña stepped in against Jack Flaherty with two outs in the fifth inning. Flaherty drilled him in the upper arm. Acuña slowly made his way to first base, chirping toward the mound all the while.

The evidence against the pitch being intentional: There was a runner on; it came on the fifth pitch of the at-bat, with three of those pitches being strikes (including a foul ball); it was a fastball, but not Flaherty’s fastest, the two-seamer coming in at just 90 mph.

The evidence for it being intentional: Apart from the history between the teams, it was mostly the Flaherty’s comments after the game. Via Jeff Jones: “It hit him. He took exception to it. That’s the guy he wants to be. That’s how it is. He’s been having all his antics all series. The guy hits a ball off the wall, he gets a single out of it. So he wants to take exception to it, he can do whatever he wants. He can talk all he wants. But we tried to go in, we talk, our scouting report is go in, we go in. So it got away, it hit him. He wants to take exception to it, he can do whatever he wants.”

Sure sounds to me like a guy with a grudge.

Flaherty denied intent as part of his diatribe against Acuña, but Cards skipper Mike Shildt seemed to feel otherwise in his postgame speech to the team after they finally put Atlanta away.

The primary takeway after a game like that is that with a 12-run lead, pitchers with malice aforethought have leeway to do whatever they think is right, even during a playoff game. The Braves have all winter to consider this, and how they might respond come next spring.

The Cardinals, meanwhile, now on to the NLCS, have more pressing matters on their minds.