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.

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.

Sign stealing

Sign Stealing Intrigue Grips Little League World Series

Baseball’s unwritten rules have reached the Little League World Series, and serve to illustrate the difference between what goes on in the big leagues and how youth-league teams should conduct their business.

Barrington, R.I., beat Goffstown, N.H., 6-4, in Saturday’s New England regional final to earn a trip to the Series. Goffstown did not take it easily. The secret to Barrington’s success—or a secret, anyway—said Goffstown manager Pat Dutton, had to do with stolen signs.

“You can see [runners on second base] leaning in, looking in and they’re doing hand gestures to their kid [at the plate], indicating what kind of pitch it is and where it’s located,” Dutton said after the game in a New Hampshire Union Leader report. “You can do that in big league ball, but in Little League it’s unsportsmanlike, it’s dishonorable, and it’s disgusting. They did it the whole tournament and got away with it, and now that’s what’s representing New England in the Little League World Series. It’s just a bad look.”

Dutton first noticed a pattern when the teams met earlier in bracket play on Aug. 8, in a game that Goffstown won, 2-1. As Dutton told it, he alerted the umpires, who subsequently issued warnings when Barrington stole a sign on the next pitch after Dutton had raised the issue. The offense is punishable by ejection for both player and manager, but everybody was allowed to remain in the game.

The point was enumerated by Giants broadcaster and former 20-game winner Mike Krukow in The Baseball Codes:

Krukow received an angry response from a number of Bay Area parents after praising pitcher Tyler Walker on the air for launching a retaliatory strike against Mark Mulder after the A’s ace hit two Giants, including Barry Bonds. “They’re pissed off that they have Little Leaguers and I’m teaching them the wrong baseball,” Krukow said. “But I’m not teaching Little League baseball. Their fathers teach them Little League baseball. I’m explaining what goes on here at the major-league level. And if Walker doesn’t do what he did, then he’s got to answer to Barry Bonds. And Barry Bonds has every right to get in his face, and every other pitcher’s face, that doesn’t protect him.”

If these comments seem at all inflammatory, it must be pointed out that Krukow is an ex-pitcher, a baseball man, whose opinions reside in the mainstream of the sport. He understands how baseball as an institution is improved by the Code, and, just as important in his role as a broadcaster, he understands how those who don’t pay close attention might fail to comprehend that fact. It makes for a tough balancing act.

However those comments sound now, when they were made—the game in question happened on July 4, 2004—they were in the mainstream of baseball thought. And though retaliation is far different than stolen signs, both topics are found in the sport’s unwritten rulebook.

Back at the Little League level, Dutton did not protest the game, but was profoundly disappointed.

“It’s just frustrating to see teams and kids having to go about it that way when clearly they were playing better than we were,” he said in the Union Leader. “They didn’t have to do that. That’s something these kids don’t learn on their own. That’s something that they’re taught. They’re coached to do that. Obviously the team condones it, they coach it, and, personally, that’s something that I’m completely against. Little League is supposedly against it, but you wouldn’t know it this week.”

Barrington Little League denied everything, but pick up the below video at about 31:30 to see what’s happening. (The exact moment comes at 31:43.)

Speaking personally, I’m a coach on my son’s travel ball team, and there have been a few instances in which I could clearly see a catcher’s signal from the first- or third-base coach’s box. I subsequently implemented a lightly disguised verbal signal to let the hitter know when a breaking ball was coming. It was intentionally simple, and the opposing coach inevitably caught on quickly, at which point he instructed his catcher give signs from deeper between his knees, and lay his glove hand atop his leg to further obscure things—a real-time lesson in proper setup. Nobody on the other team ever took offense, and one coach actually thanked me for the wake-up call. (It probably helped that we were playing in a local tournament and not the Little League World Series.)

This is different from a player peering in from second base after the catcher has set up about as well as he can—a tactic that my team does not endorse. Dutton’s concerns seem founded. Now we just have to wait to see if Barrington keeps it up now that people are paying attention.

Barrington opens the tournament at 3 p.m. EST today, against Southeast Division champ South Riding, VA.

Sign stealing

Fed Up With Complex Signs, Jansen Turns To Little-Used Tactic: The Intentional Balk

In the ninth inning on Friday, with Jason Heyward on second base and the Dodgers holding a 5-3 lead over Chicago, Kenley Jason had had enough. With catcher Russell Martin putting down the type of advanced sequencing used to prevent runners in Heyward’s position from easily reading signs and relaying them to the hitter, LA’s closer grew confused. With one out, he called Martin out for a conversation about his 0-2 selection against David Bote. Then Jensen struck out Bote with a cutter.

That presented options. With a two-run lead and little concern for Heyward, Jansen took the easiest path toward returning to simple signs: He intentionally balked the runner to third — where Heyward’s view toward Martin’s signals would be impeded — making sure to shout his plan to second base ump D.J. Reyburn in advance, to make sure that nothing was missed.  

Jimmy O’Brien, a Yankees-centric blogger who goes by the handle Jomboy, offered an expert and entertaining breakdown:

Believe it or not, this kind of thing has happened before. It’s right there in The Baseball Codes. From the chapter on sign stealing:

Trying to hold a 4–2, ninth-inning lead over Minnesota in 2005, Indians closer Bob Wickman came upon an uncomfortable realization: Michael Cuddyer had been at second base for two consecutive batters, which to the pitcher was an eternity. About two weeks earlier, Wickman had blown a save in Anaheim when Garrett Anderson hit a low outside pitch for a bloop single to drive in Darrin Erstad from second. The stout right­hander was convinced that the only reason Anderson made contact was that the pitch had been tipped by the baserunner. (When faced with Wickman’s accusation, Erstad just smiled. “I guess we’ll never know, huh?” he said.)

Wickman had no inside knowledge that Cuddyer or the Twins had done anything untoward, but he wasn’t about to be burned twice by the same tactic. Rather than take a chance, the pitcher opted for an unortho­dox approach. If Cuddyer was on third base, reasoned Wickman, his view to the catcher would be significantly hampered. So Wickman invented the intentional balk. Before his first pitch to the inning’s fourth hitter, Shan­non Stewart, the right-hander lifted his left leg as he wound up, then froze. After a long beat, he returned to his starting position. “As I did it, I’m thinking to myself, ‘There it is, dude, call it,’ ” said Wickman. Plate umpire Rick Reed did just that, and sent Cuddyer to third. Wickman’s decision was based on perverse logic—given Cleveland’s two-run lead, Cuddyer’s run didn’t matter, but Stewart’s did. Stewart, said Wickman, was “a semi–power hitter, and he possibly could have hit one out on me if he knew what pitch was coming.” It was the first balk of Wickman’s thirteen-year career.

Of course, the pitcher nearly shot himself in the ERA by subsequently walking Stewart, who promptly stole second, giving him the same vantage point from which Wickman had just balked Cuddyer. The pitcher, how­ever, managed to strike out Matt LeCroy on a full count to earn his sixth save of the season. “Some guys couldn’t believe it, but to me as the closer my job is to finish the game without giving up the lead,” Wickman said. “There are so many things that come into play. I’d have no problem doing it again if a guy’s standing there too long.”

I spoke to Wickman about it a couple of years after the fact, and he remained remarkably serious about it all. “When it’s a two-run lead and there’s absolutely zero chance that a shortstop or second baseman is holding the runner on, and you call an inside pitch and see the guy at second going back toward the base, you ask yourself, ‘Why the hell is he going back to second?’ ” he said. “The middle infielders aren’t anywhere near him. He just tipped off where the pitch is going to be.” The pitcher was less worried about stolen signs than stolen location, he told me

“Some guys couldn’t believe it,” he added, “but to me, as the closer, my job is to finish the game without giving up the lead, no matter what the situation.”

Same for Jansen, apparently, who struck out Victor Caratini to end it. All’s well that ends well for inventive closers.

Sign stealing

Did The Dodgers Take Advantage Of Stolen Signs In Game 2? It Sure Seems Like It

Manny signals

There are lots of reasons to dislike Manny Machado. Stealing signs isn’t one of them.

It’s not that he doesn’t steal signs. To the contrary, according to a piece by Bleacher Report’s Scott Miller, Machado is an active sign stealer, and the Red Sox know all about it.

Just don’t hate him for it, because that kind of action puts him firmly in baseball’s mainstream.

According to Miller, during the fourth inning of Wednesday’s Game 2 in Boston, Machado, on second base, went through a series of gyrations that signaled to the hitter, Kike Hernandez, what kind of pitch was about to be delivered. From that vantage, of course, Machado had a clear view into the signs catcher Christian Vazquez was giving to David Price, and relayed them appropriately to the plate. Hernandez hung in for nine straight pitches, giving his teammate plenty of opportunities.

From Bleacher Report:

As Price was coming set, Machado, leading off from second, would place his hands on his hips. Then, just before each pitch, Machado would begin a series of motions: touching his helmet with either his right or left hand, sometimes then touching or pulling the script on his jersey afterward and other times grabbing or touching the thigh/groin area of his pants.

Red Sox pitching coach Dana LeVangie caught on to it right away, and was primed to visit the mound to inform Price about it. The left-hander, however, ended up striking out Hernandez, and the coach opted against interfering with his momentum. With the score 1-1, it was a gamble.

The next batter, Yasiel Puig, made Boston pay. Machado signaled him from the start, just as he had with Hernandez, and Puig slapped Price’s first pitch into center field for a single to bring home Machado and give LA the lead.

“I saw Manny the entire time,” said LeVangie after the game. “I knew what he was doing.”

This kind of stuff happens constantly, and is rarely cause for alarm. Mostly it just means that the team being pilfered needs better signs.

The Dodgers alone have been on the receiving end of things that have blown up to the point that the media took notice at least twice over the last few seasons, and have at least once been accused.

The Baseball Codes offers an entire chapter on sign stealing, which opens with an incident from a game in 1997 in which the Expos beat the Giants 19-3. From that passage:

San Francisco’s frustration boiled over when manager Dusty Baker spied Montreal’s F. P. Santangelo—at second base for the second time in the inning—acting strangely after ten runs had already scored. One pitch later, the guy at the plate was drilled by reliever Julian Tavarez. Two bat­ters later, the inning was over. “They were killing us,” said Baker. “F.P. was looking one way and crossing over, hands on, hands off, pointing with one arm. I just said, ‘That’s enough. If you are doing it, knock it off— you’re already killing us.’ ”

Former Boston pitcher Al Nipper described the sentiment like this: “When you’re throwing a bas­tard breaking ball down and away, and that guy hasn’t been touching that pitch but all of a sudden he’s wearing you out and hanging in on that pitch and driving it to right-center, something’s wrong with the picture.”

It doesn’t even have to be that complicated. All a baserunner has to do to be effective is signal location—where the catcher’s setting up. If the pitcher hits his spot, the batter has a profound advantage. Not that the Red Sox were angered by Machado’s efforts, per se.

“Oh, it’s clean,” LaVangie said. “It’s baseball. If you’re not hiding your stuff with a runner on second base and you’re giving them a free view, that’s on you, the pitcher and the catcher. It’s up to the pitcher and catcher to manage that and to us to oversee it and make sure we’re going about it the right way.

“We see this all the time. Not just him, with everyone. We are very respectful of all this, and it’s a big part of who we are and what we try to manage. As far as our pitching staff, we want to make sure we control those guys at second base and [that] they’re not stealing our signs. We’re changing our signs constantly, every pitch. Typically, every one of our pitchers will change every pitch.”

This isn’t as difficult as it might seem. Teams usually use an indicator sign to notify the pitcher that whatever comes next is the one he should pay attention to. Changing signs can be as simple as changing the indicator. Still, it’s a layer of subterfuge that teams would rather not have to take.

We’re now at the point at which both teams have a decision to make. Dusty Baker summed up the Dodgers’ end when he was discussing the Giants-Expos incident from back in ’97. “Stealing signs is part of the game—that’s not the problem,” he said. The problem is, if you get caught, quit. That’s the deal. If you get caught you have to stop.”

In a few hours we’ll see if the Dodgers do stop. If they don’t, just as Baker insinuated, that’s the point at which real problems might arise.

Sign stealing

MLB Clears Astros Spy Of Wrongdoing, Because Whose Interests Is It Really In To Call Out That Kind Of Thing At This Time Of Year?

Astros camera

Some people think the Astros were illegally stealing signs from the stands during the playoffs. Okay, a lot of people think the Astros were illegally stealing signs from the stands during the playoffs.

According to Metro US and Yahoo’s Jeff Passan, a guy named Kyle McLaughlin, working for Houston, was perched in a dugout-adjacent photographer well without appropriate credentials and aiming a cell phone into Cleveland’s dugout during the ALDS. He was also caught doing it to the Red Sox during the current ALCS.

Houston said that it was a counterintelligence effort, an attempt by the Astros to ensure that opponents were not spying on them. Of primary concern were last year’s allegations that a Red Sox coach used an Apple Watch to steal opponents’ signs.

Passan’s report, however, details other allegations against the Astros that don’t much square with their defense. Among others, members of the Oakland A’s “noticed Astros players clapping in the dugout before pitches and believed they were relaying stolen signs,” with the Dodgers airing similar concerns during last year’s World Series. Other players noted various Astros banging a trash can in the dugout during games as a supposed method of communicating pinched signs.

As has been noted many times in this space, there are different layers to this kind of thing. If the signs are being stolen from the field of play without use of mechanical aid, that’s normal. If, for example, a baserunner at second has a clear view in to the catcher’s signs, and if the catcher has not mixed things up to the point that said baserunner can quickly and easily decipher them, and if those signs are then relayed to the hitter at the plate prior to the pitch being thrown—well, that’s mostly on the defensive team for not implementing better signs. Even if the runner is indicating only location—where the catcher places his target pre-pitch—that too can be countered by the catcher setting up too late in the sequence for the runner to do anything about it.

It’s all totally legal.

What’s not legal, either in the unwritten rulebook or the actual one, is the use of binoculars, TV cameras, radio devices and the like, including Apple Watches. Unless a pitcher was exhibiting an obvious tell, it’s extremely unlikely that the Astros would be clapping or banging garbage cans in their dugout based on something they saw directly. Much more feasible is that somebody with a video feed was passing them timely information.

In my Apple Watch post I offered some brief history on illicit sign stealing, including the 1950s “exploding scoreboard” at Comiskey Park, the military-grade gun sight that Bob Feller used to help the Indians to the 1948 pennant, and the Cubs’ traveling secretary, who used binoculars to nab opponents’ signs from the Wrigley Field scoreboard in the 1950s. Such affairs are hardly a relic of the past, however. From that post:

More recently, 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.

All of which is to say that this is nothing new. If you haven’t heard about repercussions from those other incidents, you likely won’t remember the fallout from this one either. Assuming that the Red Sox knock it off, you can expect it to quietly disappear.

Perhaps the Red Sox didn’t knock it off, and Houston’s excuse that they were just being vigilant is valid. Or perhaps many teams are involved in this kind of thing, and are only very rarely caught, and the Astros were just trying to get away with something. (That said, we’re in the playoffs now. TV cameras are everywhere and people are paying attention. Houston really has to be smarter.)

MLB responded to the affair by increasing its security detail at Tuesday’s Game 3, sending an additional nine staffers—three from baseball-ops and six from security—to monitor the game, including somebody in each team’s video-review room. Its takeaway: Houston did nothing wrong. The official statement:

Before the Postseason began, a number of Clubs called the Commissioner’s Office about sign stealing and the inappropriate use of video equipment. The concerns expressed related to a number of Clubs, not any one specific Club. In response to these calls, the Commissioner’s Office reinforced the existing rules with all playoff Clubs and undertook proactive measures, including instituting a new prohibition on the use of certain in-stadium cameras, increasing the presence of operations and security personnel from Major League Baseball at all Postseason games and instituting a program of monitoring Club video rooms.

With respect to both incidents regarding a Houston Astros employee, security identified an issue, addressed it and turned the matter over to the Department of Investigations. A thorough investigation concluded that an Astros employee was monitoring the field to ensure that the opposing Club was not violating any rules. All Clubs remaining in the playoffs have been notified to refrain from these types of efforts and to direct complaints about any in-stadium rules violations to MLB staff for investigation and resolution. We consider the matter closed.

Look away. Nothing to see here.

Of course, even as the Astros claimed vindication—”They’ve done their investigation and cleared us” crowed Houston GM Jeff Luhnow prior to Game 4—there’s a lot more to unpack here. Taking Luhnow’s claims of innocence at face value means that, at the very least, his opponents—specifically Cleveland in the ALDS and Boston currently—may well be doing the things that the Astros have themselves been recently accused of. At a minimum, Houston’s suspicions were strong to station a non-credentialed employee in a sensitive location to enact shady surveillance tactics in response.

Is that actually likely? MLB’s claims to support the theory suggest that it is. Or maybe it’s just that the league office wants to avoid a spygate controversy blowing up on the cusp of the World Series, potentially sullying the eventual champion, whoever that might be.

When a baserunner is caught trying to relay pinched signs to a hitter, it’s incumbent upon his team to knock things off, at least for a while. My own guess is that the knock-it-off message here is coming from an institutional level, not from one player to another but from the commissioner’s office to the Astros, telling them that this entire affair is bad for business and it’d be best for everyone if it was quickly forgotten.

Which it no doubt will be.

Gamesmanship, Sign stealing

Baez Blocks Basepath, Stuns Suspected Sign Stealer

Baez blocks

Javier Baez has made inventive baseball a hallmark of his short career. Usually, this involves doing wondrous things with his glove. On Sunday it was by using his head in an especially curious way. In the era of the defensive overshift, this was maybe the overshiftiest move of all.

In the third inning of a game in Colorado, Baez suspected that DJ LeMahieu—the runner at second base—was relaying signs to the hitter, Nolan Arenado. Usually, this isn’t much of a problem; signs are easy to change once such suspicions arise, and a brief word to the suspected thief almost inevitably curtails the activity, at least for a while.

Baez, however, took another tack, literally positioning himself between runner and plate while catcher Victor Caratini was dropping down signals, before bouncing back to his regular spot prior to the pitch. The idea was to block LeMahieu’s view. Unsurprisingly, LeMahieu wasn’t too thrilled with the idea, especially after Baez began talking loudly about it after Arenado struck out.

“I said, ‘See the difference when they don’t know the signs,’ ” Baez recalled after the game, in a Chicago Tribune report, “and then [LeMahieu] said something,” Baez said. “He told me, ‘Then change the signs.’ ” Umpire Vic Carapazza eventually had to step in to calm things down.

The Cubs had been wondering about potential sign theft since the fifth inning of Saturday’s game, when the Rockies scored five runs on four two-out hits, every one of them coming with a runner at second.

There are a couple of things at play here. One is that this kind of thing goes on all the time. Whether LeMahieu was signaling pitch type or location—or even if he wasn’t signaling anything at all—standard procedure for the Cubs would simply have been to switch things up. It’s not a complicated process; the only thing that needs to change is the indicator—the sign telling the pitcher that the next sign is the one that counts—which can be done between every pitch if need be. Hell, teams can base signs on the count (on a 3-1 pitch, the fourth sign is live), the score or the inning. Catchers can switch to pumps, with the number of signs given being the key, not the signs themselves. Hell, during Nolan Ryan’s second no-hitter, he didn’t take any signs at all. Suspecting the opposing Tigers of foul play before the game even began, he called his own pitches for catcher Art Kusnyer, touching the back of his cap for a fastball, and the brim for  a curve.

The other thing to consider is simple decorum. By positioning himself between LeMahieu and the plate, Baez may have been able to interfere with some sign pilfering (though even that rationale is suspect given that the runner was four inches taller and could shift in either direction for a better view), but he also interfered with the playing of actual baseball. Jimmy Piersall was once tossed from a game for running back and forth while playing in the outfield as a ploy to distract Ted Williams at the plate. Was this so different?

Ultimately, the runner’s behavior was well within baseball norms. Baez’s was not. It’s not against the rules, as far as I can tell. Rule 6.04(c) states, “No fielder shall take a position in the batter’s line of vision, and with deliberate unsportsmanlike intent, act in a manner to distract the batter.” Though there’s nothing similar in play as pertains to baserunners, Baez’s tactics ran counter to the spirit of sportsmanship. There are countless other ways to deal with sign thieves that don’t interfere with the playing of actual baseball.

Next time this happens, Baez should avail himself of any, or all, of them.