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.

 

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.

 

Sign stealing

Red Sox and Binocs and Smart Watch, Oh My

Them Apples

Three facts as pertain to today’s news:

  • Sign stealing in baseball is ages-old. It’s why signs exist in the first place: Teams constantly attempt to get the drop on the opposition’s communication.
  • Sign stealing in baseball is tolerated. Pretty much every team does it to some degree, with the understanding that if somebody breaks your code, the appropriate response is more or less to simply change your signs.
  • Sign stealing in baseball, as meets the above definitions, is a pursuit undertaken strictly from the field of play, with the naked eye. When teams branch out to video feeds and spyglasses in scoreboards it becomes an entirely different beast. At that point, the thievery is breaking not just the players’ unwritten code, but actual MLB rules.

As detailed in The New York Times, the Yankees recently filed a complaint with the league office—complete with video evidence—which began an inquiry into Boston’s sign-stealing practices at Fenway Park. What investigators found: the Red Sox had a clubhouse-bound employee pick up opposing catchers’ signals via a video feed, then transmit them to assistant trainer Jon Jochim in the dugout via an Apple watch. Jochim relayed the information to players.

The first piece of evidence New York cited occurred during the first game of a series in August, when Boston went 5-for-8 with runners at second base. Whereas players in that position are generally seen as having a good vantage point to peer into a catcher’s signals on their own, in this case they were relaying signs from the bench.

Where this story takes a turn away from the legions of similar such pursuits across baseball history is that the Red Sox admitted culpability (while insisting that manager John Farrell and GM Dave Dombrowski knew nothing about the scheme).

For those who might interpret this as a symbol of illegitimacy to Boston’s lead in the American League East, well … it’s complicated. Stolen signs haven’t helped Chris Sale or Drew Pomeranz become dominating starters, and they didn’t help Rick Porcello win the Cy Young Award last year. Without knowing exactly when the Red Sox started the practice (the Times reported that it had been in place for “at least several weeks”), they are just about league average when it comes to batting average, and are dead last in home runs. They actually average more runs on the road than they do at home (4.79 per game vs. 4.66). There’s also the fact that, even though Boston went 5-for-8 with runners at second on Aug. 18 to arouse New York’s suspicions, Red Sox hitters subsequently went 4-for-16 in identical situations over the series’ final two games, hardly the stuff of intrigue.

My own lingering question is that, with New York’s signs available in the dugout, why the Red Sox waited until a runner was at second base to relay them. Not only did this limit Boston’s opportunities, but placed the Red Sox at far greater risk of being caught. Much simpler would have been a verbal system such as the one Hank Greenberg enjoyed in Detroit in the 1940s, in which “All right, Hank” indicated a fastball, and “Come on, Hank” meant a curve. Other iterations have included shouts of encouragement using either a player’s first name or last name to mean different things, or a simple whistle, which Yankees pitcher Bob Turley used to notify his teammates that an upcoming pitch would be different than the one preceding it.

The Red Sox responded by filing their own complaint against the Yankees, who they claimed were stealing signs at Yankee Stadium via a TV camera from the YES Network.

The history of such pursuits is legion:

  • In the 1950s, the “exploding scoreboard” at Comiskey Park housed not only a platform from which an employee with binoculars could spy on the opposing catcher, but a hidden light—visible from the plate and the home dugout, but not from the visitors’ side of the field—that flashed in accordance with the upcoming pitch.
  • Pitchers Bob Feller and Bob Lemon, Hall of Famers both, helped set up a relay system in Cleveland in 1948 using a military-grade gun sight that Feller brought back from World War II. With it, the Indians won 19 of their final 24 games (all but four of them at home) to force a one-game playoff with the Red Sox for the AL pennant (which the Indians also won, even though it was played in Boston).
  • In 1959, the Cubs placed traveling secretary Don Biebel and a pair of binoculars inside the Wrigley Field scoreboard. Biebel would signal hitters by placing his feet into an open frame.
  • Also, of course, the Shot Heard ’Round the World.

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.

 

Sign stealing

Wood Barks, Green Leaves and Seasons Turn: Dodgers, Padres Engage in Sign-Stealing Dustup

 

Wood barks

When it comes to things like sign stealing, one can frequently assume that ill will between teams is the result of a hot-headed player who doesn’t fully understand the dynamics of the situation. Signs are stolen all the time, at which point the primary response can be summed up with the phrase, “We’d better change our signs.”

When a runner at second base is too obvious in the practice, his aggrieved victim is within rights to call him out, either verbally or via a warning pitch. Either way, it’s then time for the relayer’s team to cool things off for a while. They weren’t subtle enough, they’d been caught, and laying low is a noncontroversial stance.

When the hot-heads in question are the adults in the room, however, things take on a whole different look.

Yesterday in San Diego the managers got into it, with Andy Green of the Padres and LA’s Dave Roberts both being ejected over an argument about stolen signs.

At issue: In the bottom of the first, Dodgers starter Alex Wood took issue with Padres left fielder Jose Pirela, who he thought was signaling the hitter, Manuel Margot, from second base. Wood turned around and suggested (in salty language) that Pirela should cease and desist. The reaction was reasonable—far preferable to Wood drilling Margot for the perceived infraction. Early in the game as it may be, at that point it was up to Pirela and the Padres to knock off their shenanigans for a while.

Wood’s warning—“If you keep giving away location, I’m going to fucking drill you”—was overheard by second base umpire D.J. Reyburn, after which plate ump Greg Gibson issued warnings to both benches, likely to head off further action from Wood. (This seems like an overreach. If Wood wanted to handle the situation with a fastball, he likely would have done so against Margot. Watch Wood’s reaction here.)

Both managers came out for an explanatory meeting before the start of the second inning, at which point various ideas were exchanged. Green felt that Wood should have been tossed, a patently ludicrous idea, and offered some pointed criticism of the pitcher as he turned toward the dugout. (Both managers declined to recount his exact verbiage.) Roberts responded, racing toward Green and bumping him in the process. Benches had to empty to separate the men. Possibly noteworthy is the fact that Roberts spent five seasons as a Padres coach before moving to the Dodgers when San Diego’s managerial job went—without Roberts getting so much as an interview—to Green.

This is where both managers were tossed. Their postgame comments to reporters serve to illustrate their respective positions:

  • Green: “I think the No. 1 thing I took issue with was the threat on the mound from their pitcher to our player that he was going to drill him, with some expletives mixed in. It’s unacceptable, and I don’t think there’s anyone on our club that’s going to tolerate that and just yield to that. I voiced how I felt about what their player had done … and I said it probably dripping with a little bit of sarcasm.”
  • Roberts: “I was just wanting to get his attention. I probably got too emotional, but I think we all care about our players. When things are said about your player, I think you get a little bit more sensitive to it.”
  • Wood: “I just thought they were giving location. I’ll never know if they were or they weren’t. … I didn’t mean to overreact if that’s how it came across. I just got caught up in the moment.” (This itself is dubious. Wood’s suspicion had to have been stout to elicit such a reaction. And if the Padres were signaling location, it would have been a simple matter for Dodgers catcher WHO to simply set up a little bit later.)
  • Padres starter Clayton Richard: “It’s nice to be in this fraternity of baseball players where there are so many legitimately tough people involved, because it’s such a grind, physically and mentally, to go through a season. Unfortunately, there’s a few guys that act fake-tough when they’re given an opportunity.”

While both managers can be cited for rash behavior, they can also be commended for fulfilling one of a manager’s most essential duties: standing up for his players. Roberts defended Wood, and then lost his mind a little when the pitcher was insulted. Green took anger directed at one of his players and made it his own business, handling things (rightly or wrongly) the way a good boss should.

That’s the good part. The bad part is leaders of men, who are supposed to be setting examples, acting like little kids.

The rest of the game, a 10-4 Dodgers victory, was played without incident.

Sign stealing

Can Sign Stealing That’s Not Really Sign Stealing Still Be Counted As Sign Stealing?

Cabrera signs

Standard practice when a team catches an opponent sign stealing is to inform said sign stealers that the jig is up and that it’s time to knock it off. The details therein are up for debate (verbal warnings frequently suffice, though some pitchers prefer to use inside fastballs to deliver the message), but the parameters are fairly universal.

In Houston last weekend, Texas caught Miguel Cabrera, at second base, signaling to the hitter about pitch type. The wrinkle was not that Cabrera was caught, but how he was caught. The guy lacked so much subtlety that he may as well have been shouting across the diamond to hitter J.D. Martinez.

That’s because Cabrera wasn’t stealing signs, he was offering a scouting report.

Cabrera, the first hitter to face Rangers reliever Sam Dyson, was surprised by the number of changeups he saw as Dyson warmed up. That’s because the Tigers had been informed that Dyson is not a changeup-heavy pitcher.

So after Cabrera doubled (having seen only fastballs during his three-pitch at-bat), he let his teammate know what he’d learned, as clearly as possible, repeatedly flashing a changeup sign over his head.

That Cabrera wasn’t picking specific signs lends a patina of innocence to the entire affair. Texas’ middle infielders Elvis Andrus and Roughned Odor—like Cabrera, Venezuelans—helped calm the situation in the moment, and the Tigers burned some calories in the postgame clubhouse explaining that whatever Cabrera was doing out there, he was decidedly not stealing signs.

“If he was stealing signs, he certainly wouldn’t be that blatant about it,” said Detroit manager Brad Ausmus in a Detroit Free Press report. “Miggy was just trying to let the bench know that (Dyson) has a change-up—that was all it was. It was a misunderstanding. He wasn’t stealing signs. I just think Dyson, for some reason, thought he was.”

Well, of course Dyson thought he was. Because that’s what somebody who steals signs looks like.

Yet and still, despite his innocence on that particular charge, Cabrera was nonetheless signaling helpful information to his teammate during game action. He was trying to give an advantage, from the basepath, that a teammate would not have otherwise enjoyed. (For what it’s worth, Martinez struck out swinging … on a changeup. So did the next hitter, Justin Upton.)

Had Cabrera opted simply to wait until either he scored or the inning ended, he could have informed the entire Tigers bench of his realization without so much as an eyebrow being raised in response.

Of course Dyson is allowed to take issue with it. Just because Cabrera’s action was the more innocent of two options doesn’t make it normal.

Retaliation, Sign stealing

Johnny Cueto Doesn’t Care For Your Sign Stealing, Sir

Cuetto PB

The Dodgers denied it, sort of, but it sure appears that they were stealing signs in San Francisco on Wednesday.

On one hand, it’s not such a big deal. Every team has players who do it and who appreciate when their teammates do it for them. And ultimately, a team getting its signs nabbed is mostly an indication that it needs better signs.

Wednesday, however, had some wrinkles—the most photogenic being Cueto’s response: a head-high inside fastball that eventually led to both benches clearing.

Cueto cutter
The pitch Grandal hit.

It started in the first inning, when, with Justin Turner at second base, Dodgers catcher Yasmani Grandal golfed an inside cutter off his shoetops into the right-field corner for an RBI double. On one hand, it was the kind of pitch that seems impossible to connect with firmly without knowing it’s coming. On the other hand, Buster Posey was set up middle and slightly away—so there’s no way that Turner was signaling location—and was falling to his knees to block it as Grandal made contact. It’s possible that Posey’s location was a decoy and that the cutter simply sank more than he expected, but if the catcher didn’t know the pitch was coming, how could the hitter?

No matter.

When Grandal next came up, Cueto responded with a message pitch that, while high and inside, the hitter didn’t have to move to avoid. Posey, however, having called for something low and away, was unable to adjust in time to stab the ball, which sailed to the backstop and allowed the runner at third, Chase Utley, to score.

After Grandal flied out to end the inning two pitches later, he began jawing at Cueto, pointing at his head in a clear gesture of having not appreciated the location of Cueto’s previous offering.  Cueto jawed right back. That’s when players from both teams streamed onto the field.

Afterward, Grandal alluded to other instances that may have aroused Cueto’s suspicion, which involved Grandal not only receiving signs, but sending them. “It caught me by surprise,” the catcher said in an MLB.com report, speaking of the conversation he had with Cueto during the pitcher’s third-inning at-bat. “I’m trying to get a walking lead because I’m slow. He thought I was giving out signs.” This could only have happened after Grandal’s sign-aided* double in the first, which was the only time he reached base all day. (Don’t forget that Cueto has some experience with this type of thing. At least the players also managed to iron out their differences during the conversation, each offering apologies for their behavior according to post-game recollections from each of them.)

Grandal also denied that he had known what was coming earlier in the inning. “Making contact [on the double] has nothing to do with knowing it was coming,” he said. “I probably wouldn’t have swung at it if I had known where it was.”

Dodgers manager Dave Roberts was less guarded, all but admitting Cueto’s suspicions. “He obviously didn’t appreciate if we were doing something like that,” he said in a San Francisco Chronicle report. “If we were, that’s a part of the game.”

Ultimately, Roberts is correct. The Dodgers have every right to steal whatever signs they can, just as Cueto has every right to inform them in safe and reasonable ways that he’s on to their shenanigans.

“He said, ‘Sorry for the misunderstanding. Let’s just move on,’ ”said Cueto after the game in an AP report, recounting his third-inning chat with Grandal in the batter’s box. “I’m not going to use that as an excuse, but they were relaying signs.”

Ultimately, it wound up just as multiple instances of mixed communication have ended up this season—worse than it needed to be, thanks to a substandard understanding about how things are supposed to work. (Examples of this abound.)

If Cueto had any clue about the game situation, he’d never have intentionally thrown a pitch that had a chance to get by Posey with a runner at third base. (If history teaches us anything, it’s that this type of thing is simply how Cueto responds to certain situations.)

If Grandal had recognized that Cueto’s contact-free message message could have effectively ended the tension right there, he might have kept his mouth shut.

But these players, like so many of their colleagues, have forgotten (or never learned) the deeper meaning behind some baseball actions, or the responsibility inherent in performing them. The result was another unnecessary conflagration spurred by players who were just a little confused about the proper response to things that in previous generations were considered normal.

* Maybe.

 

Sign stealing

Today’s Question: What to do With Spying Eyes?

spy

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.

New York Mets, New York Yankees, Retaliation, Sign stealing, The Baseball Codes

Lots of Drama in Showdown between Big Tex and the Mets

Teixeira screams

Mark Teixeira sure knows how to get under guys’ skin. Sometimes it mandates hollering at them after being hit by a pitch. Sometimes it’s more or less just standing around near second base.

It’s rivalry week in New York, and Teixeira got things off to a rollicking start yesterday by homering against Mets starter Steven Matz in the second inning, then yelling at him after the lefty plunked him in his next at-bat.

Of far more interest was what happened in the seventh, when Mets reliever Hansel Robles got a little nutty about Teixeira’s presence at second base, overtly accusing the bemused Yankee of stealing signs.

First things first. Matz was shaky from the get-go, having already given up three runs on five hits and a walk when Teixeira came up with two outs in the second inning and two men on base. The slugger quickly added three more runs to Matz’s line with an opposite-field homer into the right-field bleachers.

Matz remained in the game and quickly settled down, retiring the next eight hitters he faced … until Teixeria came up again, at which point he hit him in the shin. The hitter was incredulous. “You’ve got to be kidding!” he screamed toward the mound, inspiring both dugouts to empty despite no moves being made to fight. (Teixeira shouted all the way to first base, drawing an escort from Mets catcher Rene Rivera, but the exchange was so relatively tame that the relievers only half-heartedly filtered from the bullpens, wandering barely past the warning track before heading back in. Watch it all here.)

Although Teixeira didn’t address it directly, Matz’s rookie status likely played into the first baseman’s response. Speaking with the YES Network after the game, Teixeira called him “a good kid” while saying “when you miss a pitch that bad right after I hit a home run, you’re going to get a reaction.” Matz himself addressed the issue, saying in a New York Post report that, “Me being a rookie I can understand why he was mad.’’

The evening’s headliner, however, was Teixeira’s seventh-inning exchange with Robles. The reliever, having given up a single, a double and two walks among the first six batters he faced, was pitching to Starlin Castro with the bases loaded, Teixeira on second, with two outs in the seventh, when he came a bit unhinged.

Whatever Teixeira was doing as a baserunner was taken by Robles, and possibly Rivera, to be signaling the catcher’s signs and/or location to Castro. The pitcher glared toward second, telling Teixeira precisely what was on his mind. In response, Teixeria made an effort to live up to the accusations, mock-signaling the plate by overtly touching different parts of his face.

Castro reached on an RBI infield single, and Robles was removed. As the pitcher returned to the dugout, he had a cross-field conversation with Teixeria (by that time standing at third), about his suspicions. Guilty or not, Teixeria’s response was perfect: a smile and a point to his own helmet, indicating his presence in Robles’ head.

“That’s not the way you play baseball,” Robles said afterward in an MLB.com report. “You have to play baseball as a man.”

In that, Robles is wildly mistaken. Stealing signs is, and has long been, an accepted part of the game. The reliever was within his rights to call out Teixeira for any perceived indiscretions, but that’s pretty much where it had to stop. At that point, it’s up to Teixeira to knock off whatever it was he was doing (he denied the accusation in a New York Times report, saying only that “I was breathing”). Even more importantly, it’s up to the Mets to change their signs (a simple task, even mid-inning). Most of all it’s up to Robles to move right along with the task at hand, retiring the hitter.

That’s not what happened. Teixeira, seeing the discord, pounced. Just as Gaylord Perry had great success making people think he was throwing a spitter, even when he was not throwing a spitter—especially when he was not throwing a spitter—because Teixeira got Robles to think about sign stealing, he managed to distract him at least somewhat from pitching to Castro.

Afterward, Teixeira denied stealing signs, but was on the mark with the rest of his analysis.

“I’ve never gotten inside of someone’s head just by standing there,” he said. “That’s a talent, I guess. Listen, if you think I have your signs, just change them. That’s part of the game. I try not to do it a lot. I don’t like it, trying to steal signs. If you think I have them, then change the signs. Don’t try to challenge me to a duel.”

That pretty much sums it up. The next pitcher, Josh Edgin, walked Teixeira home, and the Yankees won, 9-5. The teams meet tonight for the final time this season. Teixeira’s misdeeds, if they existed, do not merit further response unless they continue unabated. With the way things went yesterday, however, who knows?

Sign stealing, The Baseball Codes

Did the Peeking, Pesky Padres Plant a Peeper in Their Park?

Who was the binocular-toting man in the center field batter’s eye at San Diego’s Petco Park yesterday?

A checklist of information:

  •  He was positioned with a direct view into the catcher’s signals.
  • He was spotted while the Padres were at bat, late in a close game against St. Louis.
  • He was wearing a Padres-logoed polo shirt.
  • He was holding GOSHDANG BINOCULARS.

Putting a spy  in the scoreboard would hardly place the Padres in unique company. Most of their peers in the sign-thievery business, of course, are a bit more suave about the endeavor, at least to the point that the visiting catcher doesn’t notice what’s happening from his post behind the plate, more than 400 feet away.

For their part, the Padres offered the only logical explanation short of outing themselves as signal felons, saying the man was part of their ballpark’s security apparatus. San Diego manager Andy Green went so far as to claim that he was the one who alerted plate ump Sean Barber to the guy’s presence, objecting to the possible distraction to hitters caused by his white shirt.

Never mind that Green appears to be telling the truth—the TV broadcast shows Barber and Cardinals catcher Yadi Molina looking toward the Padres dugout before turning their attention to the outfield. It’s much more fun to believe that something shady is going on.

 

Petco CF
The camera well in Petco’s center field.

Sign stealing, of course, carries different tenors within the game, depending on who’s doing it. A runner at second base has relatively free reign to peek in to the catcher’s signals and relay what he wishes to the batter. If he’s caught, the aggrieved team’s usual reaction is to simply change its signs. Occasionally the runner will receive a verbal warning, and even more occasionally an intentionally errant fastball might find its way toward the batter’s box.

That, however, is far different than a team utilizing technology and non-uniformed personnel to do its dirty work from beyond the field of play—a tactic that is against baseball’s actual rules in addition to those of the unwritten variety. Which doesn’t mean it doesn’t happen. Chicago’s old Comiskey Park was famous for signaling White Sox batters with its exploding scoreboard. Bobby Thomson’s Shot Heard Round the World benefited from pilfered signals.

More recent occurrences:

Some of my favorite sign-stealing stories are much older, and took place on the north side of Chicago. From The Baseball Codes:

In 1959, Chicago finished in fifth place even though the team had a spy in the Wrigley Field scoreboard for much of the sea­son. He was traveling secretary Don Biebel, who, armed with binoculars, signaled hitters by sticking his shoe into an open frame used to post scores. Even through the losing, however, the Cubs still managed to arouse suspicion. Most skeptical were the Giants, whose ace, Sam Jones—the runner-up in that year’s Cy Young voting—got lit up every time he pitched in Chicago. (Against the rest of the league that year, Jones was 21-12, with a 2.54 ERA, and struck out a hitter every 1.25 innings; at Wrigley Field, he was 0-3 with an 8.53 ERA, and struck out a hitter every six innings.) It wasn’t long before San Francisco players identified the cause of the discrepancy.

“We just got wise and looked up, and sure enough in the scoreboard there was a big empty square,” said pitcher Mike McCormick. “Same scoreboard they have today, where they hand-place the numbers. There was somebody sitting up there in an empty square—one foot in the win­dow was a fastball, two feet was a curveball, no feet was a changeup. You let a major-league hitter know what’s coming, and he might not hit it all the time, but it certainly makes him a better hitter.”

Jones was particularly affected by the Cubs’ system, said Biebel, because he had trouble handling anything but the simplest signs, which kept Giants manager Bill Rigney from stymieing would-be thieves with a more complicated system. Instead, he dealt with the matter in a different way: six-foot-four, two-hundred-pound outfielder Hank Sauer, who was sent to the scoreboard to get some answers.

“Between innings I saw [first-base coach Wes] Westrum and Sauer and Bill Rigney get over in the corner of the dugout, and they were chatting,” said Biebel. “Sauer went out of the dugout and up the ramp, and I told the groundskeeper who was in the scoreboard with me, ‘You better lock this thing up—I think we’re going to have some company.’ About ten or fifteen minutes later, here comes Sauer along the back fence of the bleachers. He walks all the way out there and he starts pounding on our little door, shouting, ‘Let me in!’ He pounded for a while, but when he finally knew he wasn’t going to get in, he turned around and left.”

Biebel was good for more than stealing signs, of course. He was also proficient in catching opponents who were doing it. In 1960, Braves pitchers Bob Buhl and Joey Jay were dressed in street clothes and sta­tioned in the Wrigley Field bleachers with a pair of binoculars, lounging in the sun as if they had just popped in from a North Side apartment. The pair vigorously waved their scorecards whenever a breaking ball was on its way, and Biebel caught them immediately. “It was easy to spot them,” he said. “I knew who they were. You have a good view in that scoreboard, and back then the bleachers were pretty empty.” Biebel informed the dugout of his discovery, and ushers soon escorted the pair from their seats.

Those Cubs, of course, were terrible. Stealing signs, it seems, only served them to lose by a few fewer runs than they might have otherwise.

Are the Padres in that kind of company? Who knows? It sure is fun to think about it, though.