Cheating, Joel Peralta, Pine Tar

The Question is Raised: How Much Inside Information is Too Much?

Not to beat on the Maddon-Johnson pine tar affair too much (it may already be too late), but it’s given rise to at least one more interesting point. From Buster Olney’s column at ESPN.com:

When a player is traded and later faces his old teammates, his old team will change its signs, as a matter of course. It’s considered fair game to ask an incoming player for information about his previous team’s signs, or about how to pitch to batters on his old team, or about some other elements of that club. I’ve heard of teams specifically acquiring a player recently dumped by a rival largely for the information—especially catchers, who are the information highways of the sport.

But where is the line about what information you can use?

The key here, at least to me, is in a team’s ability to adjust. Catcher Bengie Molina went from the Giants to Texas in mid-season 2010, and when the teams met just over three months later in the World Series, the discussion was raised about how much advantage the Rangers might gain from his insider knowledge.

To judge by San Francisco’s five-game victory, not much. There’s a simple reason for that, at least as far as signs are concerned: They’re astoundingly simple to switch up. For all the gyrations a third-base coach goes through in delivering coded instructions to a baserunner, they typically don’t mean a thing until he hits his pre-designated indicator signal (such as, say, wiping across his belt buckle or touching his left shoulder), at which point the actual directive will follow. In this situation, changing signs can be as easy as switching the indicator.

Catchers’ signals are similar, in that many of the signs put down are subterfuge; the trick is knowing what to look for. It can be based on the count (a 3-1 count added together means the hot sign is the fourth one the catcher drops) or the number of outs or whether it’s an even- or odd-numbered inning. Sometimes the signs themselves are meaningless, and the pitcher is simply reading the number of pumps, or times the catcher flashes something. There are myriad possibilities, and for most players, changing from one to another is sufficiently simple to do multiple times during the course of a single game.

There’s also the reality that because many pitchers are particular about the signs they use, catchers have individual sets for different members of the pitching staff. This means that if a pitcher is traded, there’s a real possibility that he has little clue about what’s being used by any number of his former teammates.

This is a simplistic overview, of course, and teams can bring far more nuance to the practice—about which inside information may prove useful. Ultimately, though, I think there’s a straightforward answer to Olney’s question of whether sharing an ex-team’s signs is comparable to sharing intel about a pine tar habit: It isn’t. In Joel Peralta’s case, the fact that his pine tar was okay for the Nationals when he used it in Washington, but not okay for them once he left town, speaks to some hypocrisy. When it comes to signs, however, all teams use them, all players learn them, and they’re introduced with the understanding that, while they’re to be protected as closely as possible, they will inevitably have to be changed at some point.

If a former player hastens that inevitability, it’s simply part of the game.

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