According to the Dodgers, the Cubs are stealing signs. Also according to the Dodgers, the Dodgers don’t like it.
As evidence, Los Angeles catcher Yasmani Grandal pointed to the eighth inning of Saturday’s Game 1 of the NLCS, when Ben Zobrist reached second base—the perfect location from which to peer in at the catcher’s hands—and Addison Russell’s at-bat changed considerably.
“All the sudden, Russell is not taking good swings at sliders, looking like he’s looking for a fastball and in a certain location,” Grandal said in a Los Angeles Times account. “Did we know Zobrist had the signs and was doing something for it? Yeah, we did. That’s why we do it.”
The “it” to which Grandal referred was a continuous loop of sign changes and mound meetings, the better to stifle would-be thieves.
“We are literally paranoid when it comes to men on second and they are trying to get signs,” he added. “We know who is getting the signs. We know what they’re doing. We know what they do to get it. In the playoffs, one relayed sign could mean the difference between winning the World Series and not getting there.”
Ignore for a moment whether there’s any difference between literal paranoia and figurative paranoia. Are the Dodgers so certain that Zobrist and the Cubs are spying on them? Zobrist assures us otherwise.
It seems likely that he’s obfuscating, if only because it doesn’t take a hardball savant—even somebody unable to decode a catcher’s signs—to signal location. Former infielder Randy Velarde once looked at me like I was half an idiot when I asked him about the ease of relaying stolen signs from second base. “It’s the easiest thing in the world,” he said. “I’m amazed that everybody doesn’t do it.”
Ultimately, of course, it doesn’t matter. The barest suspicion of such chicanery should prompt the very response the Dodgers appear to be embracing—cloaking their signs in any way possible. What said response does not include is getting angry at the Cubs … and the Dodgers seem to be fine on that front, as well.
Changing signs can be as easy as swapping out the indicator, or the sign after which the actual sign takes effect. Maybe it’s the sign following the second signal for fastball. Maybe it’s based on the count (a 2-0 pitch would trigger the second sign in a series, while a 3-2 count would trigger the fifth, etc.). It could be the number of signs a catcher puts down rather than the signs themselves. The possibilities are limitless.
The only trick is to not make things so complicated that the pitcher gets confused. (Giants pitcher Sam Jones, for example, killed the National League in 1959, going 21-12 with a 2.54 ERA everywhere but Wrigley Field. In Chicago, of course, the Cubs’ practice of stealing signs from the scoreboard led to an 0-3 mark with for Jones with an 8.53 ERA. Why didn’t the Giants just switch up their signs like the Dodgers have recently done? Jones had trouble recognizing all but the simplest signals.)
Stealing signs from beyond the field of play is illegal, of course, not to mention frowned upon from a moral standpoint, while stealing signs from the basebaths—as Zobrist is accused of doing—is widely considered acceptable practice. (At least up until one is caught, at which point an increased degree of subtlety is expected). There are red-asses through the history of the game partial to on-field accusations (one example from spring training of this year seems to reinforce the idea that the Cubs might really be into this type of thing), but the low-key approach Los Angeles is taking—calling it out in the press is a surefire way to make sure everybody’s paying attention—is the right one.
Ultimately, the Dodgers are also displaying another sort of best practice. The ultimate recourse available to a team whose signs have been pilfered is to switch ’em up, then go win ballgames. Which is exactly what Los Angeles is doing.