Aaron Harang, Greg Maddux, Morgan Ensberg, Sign stealing

A New Angle on Sign Stealing

Morgan Ensberg was a big-leaguer for eight seasons, an All-Star in 2005. Now retired, he wants to join the media.

The first step in this endeavor is a blog, Morgan Ensberg’s Baseball IQ, on which he posts articles and interacts with fans. Yesterday, he wrote about the same Jerry Crasnick article I referenced for this site (in which Crasnick interviewed three prominent pitchers about the unwritten rules)—only Ensberg approached it from the standpoint of a hitter.

One thing he said—not in the article, but in response to a reader comment—caught my attention: “Stealing signs from second is mostly done out of the pitcher’s glove . . . not the catcher’s signs.”

This blew me away. In more than 200 interviews with big leaguers and ex-big leaguers as research for The Baseball Codes, not one of them mentioned this facet of sign stealing.

I quickly got Ensberg on the phone to discuss this most specialized of skills. Here’s what he said:

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.

Greg Maddux gripped the majority of his pitches out of the same ball placement within the glove. He’d put the ball in the same spot, the seams in the same spot within his glove. He was able to develop what looked like a changeup grip 100 percent of the time, but as he started to pitch, he adjusted his grip and we wouldn’t be able to see what was being thrown.

Clearly he was aware that baserunners were trying to look into the glove, so he developed a thing where every single grip would start out as a changeup grip, and then he’d adjust it once he started his motion, and we’d lose it.

Pitchers can prevent this simply by angling their hands; instead of the knuckles of their glove hand facing the plate, they can turn them toward either first or third base to shield them from the runner at second.

Ensberg also addressed the notion that not every hitter wants to know what’s coming. Like, say, Ensberg himself. He described an instance of a pitcher’s tell that he once picked up from the plate.

Aaron Harang with the Reds used to have his glove straight up on a fastball and sideways on off-speed out of the windup, 100 percent of the time. You don’t get opportunities like this, ever. It was the most blatant example I’ve ever seen. I see his glove go fastball, first pitch, and he came in at 92, a four-seamer at chest height. I came out of my shoes, swinging and missing.

I thought, what are you doing? That ball’s up under my chin. I step back in. He goes into his windup and he does it again—fastball again, chest high. I come out of my shoes again, swinging and missing. Now I’m 0-2.

Third time, here it comes, same height, same everything. Three fastballs chest high, three swings, three misses. Go sit down. I’m walking back thinking, that’s embarrassing. You know the thing’s coming, you have zero discipline, you got too pumped up—you deserved that. It’s complete self-hate.

Great stuff from a guy who lived it.

– Jason