The primary topic in San Francisco these days concerns Tim Lincecum and his disappearing dominance. His velocity’s down, his ERA’s up—way up—and his confidence is so shaken that he changed the mechanics he’s been using since he was a teenager in Washington state.
Another possibility came to light last week: His pockets are being picked.
After Adam LaRoche hit a three-run homer off Lincecum in the first inning of Friday’s game, Giants broadcasters Duane Kuiper and F.P. Santangelo focused in on the guy who had been at second base, Stephen Drew.
The video evidence is difficult to refute. It shows Drew tugging at the brim of his cap before the first pitch of the at-bat (a likely indicator for pitch type or location), then turning his head to the left, toward second base, before the third pitch—on which LaRoche connected. (Watch it here.)
Later, the broadcast showed replays of Drew in the dugout, mimicking Lincecum’s delivery for teammates, ostensibly to show his teammates what the pitcher was giving away.
There are two possibilities here if Drew was, in fact, tipping off LaRoche. He might have been reading catcher Buster Posey, which appears to be the case for the pitch that was hit for the homer. All it takes is a glance at a catcher’s setup to indicate whether the pitch will be inside or outside, which is precisely what Drew did.
The other option is that he was stealing signs directly from Lincecum. In May, I discussed this very topic with former big leaguer Morgan Ensberg. Here’s what he told me:
You’re leading off at second base; estimate you’re probably around 30 feet from the pitcher. If the pitcher hasn’t been taught to protect it, you can see everything that’s in his glove. You can see his hands, you can see his fingers, you can see the ball, you can see the seams.
Generally, pitchers will hold ball in same spot in the glove. On certain pitches you can see some red from the seam, but on other pitches you don’t see the seam. You might see something in the way he holds his glove. All this is just patterns. I’ve been at second base 100,000 times in my life, and learned to pick up patterns in the way a pitcher grips a baseball.
This was clearly on Lincecum’s mind, as well. Shortly after LaRoche’s homer, he tweaked his delivery to move his pitching hand closer to his body, in an effort to better impede a baserunner’s view of his grip.
Did it work? Following the three-run first, the pitcher allowed only one run over his final five frames, none over the last three—something he hasn’t done since his last win, on July 30.
In Arizona’s post-game clubhouse, denials abounded when players were confronted with questions about the video evidence—some delivered more half-heartedly than others.
Diamondbacks manager Kirk Gibson denied that Drew had done anything untoward, while simultaneously positing that it was a tactic at which his team needs to improve.
“Actually, I don’t think we’ve done a very good job at it . . .” he said in an MLB.com report. “It’s a hard thing to master because there’s a lot to it. And I can tell you last night that wasn’t the case, OK? . . . It doesn’t mean we won’t try tonight, but last night that was not the case.”
Drew, in the Arizona Republic: “Nope. Didn’t do that. Sure didn’t.”
LaRoche, however, hewed closer to the likely truth, when asked if he got any assistance on the pitch he hit. “If I did,” he said, “I wouldn’t repeat that to anybody.”
Of course, players are taught to deny everything, because that’s what public perception mandates. On the field, however, they’re simply playing baseball.
Sign stealing isn’t just tolerated, it’s expected. Even Giants manager Bruce Bochy dismissed the allegations, telling MLB.com that “all teams do that.”
The Giants’ concern after the game had little to do with Drew or LaRoche, and everything to do with making sure that Lincecum conceals his grip and Posey gives away no unnecessary clues to the opposition.
Lincecum makes his first start since then tonight, against the Rockies. We’ll see how well the lesson’s been learned.