Don't Peek, Sign stealing

The Pitcher Is That Way, Sir, Out Toward The Middle of The Diamond

Chapman peeks

While accusations continue to fly in Boston about high-tech sign-stealing espionage, similar gripes arose in Oakland on Wednesday that appear mainly to do with batters peeking at the catcher. Apparently, Moneyball budgets don’t cover Apple watches.

In the second inning, Angels catcher Juan Graterol began a discussion with the hitter, Oakland outfielder Mark Canha, that grew animated enough for plate ump Mike Everitt to separate them. TV cameras picked up Everitt informing LA’s dugout that the catcher suspected A’s players of stealing signs. Canha said later that Graterol told him to quit looking back at his signals, and that the catcher had already delivered a similar message to infielder Chad Pinder.

“I’ve never [peeked] in my career,” Canha said in a San Francisco Chronicle report. “I thought it was just a Scioscia-Angels-Graterol tactic to make young players get uncomfortable, just get in my head. I was just like, ‘OK, play your little games and I’m just going to focus on the task at hand.’ ”

The issue came to a head in the fourth inning, shortly after Oakland’s Matt Chapman stepped into the batter’s box, when he and Graterol went nose to nose. According to Chapman, the second-inning exchange was only the latest example of LA accusing Oakland players both relaying signs from second base and peeking back at the catcher pre-pitch to pick up additional information.

“The catcher kept staring at the hitters as they were digging into the box,” Chapman said. “That’s not a very comfortable feeling having the catcher staring at you. It’s a little disrespectful. So when I got into the box, I just let them know we were not stealing signs and there was no need to be staring at us. He obviously didn’t take too kindly to that.”

It’s a thin argument. Just across the bay, Giants catcher Buster Posey—one of the sport’s headiest players—looks up from the squat at batters’ eyes all the time. Nobody has yet accused him of making them feel bad by it.

Angels manager Mike Scioscia offered a straightforward assessment. “They have a habit of glancing back,” he said about A’s batters. “On a day game or a night game when you can see shadows and a catcher’s head, it’s easy to look back and pick up some locations. So, Juan was just saying, ‘Hey, man, don’t look back.’ ” Given that Scioscia was among the best defensive catchers of his generation, it’s safe to assume that he knows whereof he speaks.

Graterol offered his own version of his conversation with Chapman. “I told him, ‘Don’t peek at the signs,’ because I saw him,” he said. “Chapman told me, ‘We don’t peek at the signs.’ I said, ‘Yes, you did.’ ”  At that point, Everitt stepped between them. When Chapman continued to chirp, he was ejected for the first time in his big league career.

To gauge by the clip above, Chapman was indeed looking backward when he stepped into the box. Maybe it was in response to chatter from his teammates about Graterol giving hitters the evil eye, and he wanted to check it out. Maybe he was peeking for signs or location. Ultimately, it doesn’t matter—because Chapman offered the appearance of malfeasance, he left the Angels little recourse but to believe that was his intent.

Just as the primary responsibility for a team that’s getting its signs nabbed is to change the signs, Graterol had a number of options. He could have set up late in the sequence, once the hitter’s full concentration was on the pitcher. He could have set up early in one spot, and then shifted. He could have slapped his glove on one side of the plate while setting up on the other. Or he could have utilized the most surefire—and dangerous—peeker deterrent: calling for something away while he and the pitcher both understood that the next pitch would be high and tight. The Baseball Codes discussed a 1979 incident in which Rangers pitcher Ed Farmer gave suspected peeker Al Cowens just such a treatment, throwing a high, inside fastball after catcher Jim Sundberg had set up outside. Farmer caught Cowens leaning over the plate, with disastrous results:

The ball crashed into Cowens’s jaw, crumpling him instantly. Pete LaCock, who had been standing in the on-deck circle, was the first member of the Royals to arrive. “His glasses were still on and his eyes were bouncing up and down and I didn’t know if he was still breathing or not,” said LaCock. “I reached into his mouth and grabbed his chew, and right behind it came pieces of teeth and blood. It was an ugly scene.”

“I have to say he was throwing at me, maybe not in the face, but it was intentional,” Cowens said angrily after the game through a wired-together jaw. “That was his first pitch, and the two times before, he was throwing outside. He pitched me so well before. I can’t figure out why he pitched on the outside corner, struck me out, and then hit me.”

Farmer’s reply was equally pointed, though he avoided a direct accusa­tion. “[Cowens] thinks I’m guilty of throwing at him,” he said shortly afterward. “I think he’s guilty of looking for an outside pitch and not moving.” It may not have been the result he intended, but the pitcher felt justified in protecting his own interests. “It’s a fine line out there,” he said. “You don’t want to hurt anybody, but you don’t want anybody to take advantage of you.”

In that regard, Graterol’s handling of the situation was downright genteel. Regardless, even though it was the final meeting between the teams this season, it’s unlikely that Chapman & co. will take similar liberties—or anything that resembles them—in the future.

 

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Bert Blyleven, Bert Blyleven, Don't Peek, Hotfoots

A Selection of Blyleven, in Honor of the Hall

Today we’re honoring Bert Blyleven’s acceptance into the Hall of Fame with a pair of Byleven-based excerpts—the first from The Baseball Codes, and the second from the book’s initial draft, which didn’t make the final cut.

The right-hander’s kookiness is legendary, as was his penchant for practical jokes—one in particular.

The undisputed master of the hotfoot was pitcher Bert Blyleven. The right-hander pitched in the major leagues for twenty-two years, and if Cooperstown applied the instigation of podiatric discomfort as one of its entry criteria, he would have been enshrined five years after his 1992 retirement. How good was he? For a time, the fire extinguisher in the Angels’ clubhouse read “In case of Blyleven. Pull.”

Ordinary hotfoot artists settle for wrecking their teammates’ cleats, but Blyleven was so good that he took the rare step of drawing the opposition into his line of fire. In 1990, the pitcher, then with the Angels, set his sights on Seattle manager Jim Lefebvre, who made the mistake of conducting an interview near the Anaheim dugout. Never mind that Lefebvre was there at the request of Angels analyst Joe Torre; Blyleven was deeply offended. There was, in the pitcher’s mind, only one appropriate response.

“I crawled behind him on my hands and knees,” Blyleven said. “And I not only lit one shoe on fire, I lit them both on fire.” Torre saw it all, but continued the interview as if nothing was happening. As Blyleven retreated to the dugout to enjoy the fruits of his labor, he was dismayed to see that Lefebvre refused to play along. “We all stood there and watched the flames starting,” said Blyleven. “The smoke was starting to come in front of [Lefebvre’s] face, but he was not going to back down. By God, he was going to continue this interview. And Joe was laughing, trying not to roll.”

Torre offered up an apology as soon as the interview wrapped, but Lefebvre was too busy trying to extinguish his feet to pay much attention. He also knew exactly whom to blame. Blyleven, the following day’s starter for the Angels, found out later that Lefebvre offered a hundred dollars to anyone on his team who could hit a line drive off the pitcher’s face. Part of the reason the manager was so angry was that he was deeply superstitious about his shoes; in fact, he continued to wear the scorched pair for several weeks, despite the damage.

In the end, Lefebvre wasn’t the prank’s only dupe. “Bert really screwed me up with that one, because Lefebvre thought I was in on it, and I wasn’t,” said Torre. “Lefebvre didn’t think it was very funny—they were brand-new shoes and he got embarrassed in public. Blyleven was nuts—absolutely nuts.”

The unpublished excerpt has to do with the topic of peeking—a hitter looking backward in an effort to pick up the catcher’s signs. This, as Blyleven explains, is strictly forbidden.

The day before one of his starts as a member of the Minnesota Twins, Bert Blyleven was watching his team’s game against the Milwaukee Brewers on the clubhouse TV. Incredibly, he could swear that as Paul Molitor fiddled with the bat resting on his shoulder, the hitter took the opportunity to look back at catcher Tim Laudner.

“I ran down between innings and told Laudner, ‘Next time Molitor comes up there, you tell that son-of-a-bitch that I’m pitching tomorrow, and I caught him peeking.’ Well, the next time Molitor gets in the box, I see my catcher talking to him. Laudner told him, and you could see Molitor step out and kind of shake his head. After the inning was over I went over to Timmy and said, ‘Timmy, what’d he say?’ He said, ‘Tell Bert I’m not peeking.’ Well, I saw him peeking.”

When Blyleven started the following day, Molitor led off the game. “I damn near knocked his helmet off,” said Blyleven, whose intimidation set the stage for strikeouts in Molitor’s first two at-bats. “He was a pretty easy out the rest of the day.”

The point being that the absence of concrete evidence didn’t matter a bit. Blyleven thought Molitor was peeking, so Molitor was peeking.

So congratulations, Bert. The Hall of Fame is about to become a much livelier place.

– Jason