The Baseball Codes

Willson Contreras Would Like To Inform You, Good Sir, That He Is Tired Of Being Hit By Pitches

Sometimes things accumulate.

Willson Contreras getting plunked by Milwaukee reliever Brad Boxberger last night should not have been a big deal. It was clearly unintentional, a pitcher who had just been activated trying to protect a 4-0 lead against the leadoff hitter in the ninth. The pitch barely ran inside to a batter known for leaning over the plate, and didn’t even hurt, plunking off of Contreras’ arm guard.

It would likely have gone unnoticed had Contreras not been hit in the helmet a night earlier.

Contreras was mad, but not mad enough for a full charge. Still holding his bat, he took several steps toward the mound, I guess so that Boxberger could more clearly hear whatever it was he was shouting, but never threatened physical contact. Catcher Omar Narvaez was coolly escorting Contreras to first base when benches emptied in an entirely unnecessary fashion, resulting in a whole lot of nothing.

In a general sense, people should be upset by head-high, inside fastballs. Also in a general sense, Contreras has now been drilled six times in his last 12 games against Milwaukee.

More specifically, however, is the reality of Contreras’ approach. The guy crowds the plate and leans into pitches, which had little to do with his helmet shot from a night earlier but quite a bit to do with the triggering pitch from Boxberger. Contreras led all of baseball in HBPs last season, for good reason.

The response wasn’t great, but it is better than a Cubs pitcher taking things into his own hands and drilling a Brewer in retaliation. Then again, this dustup came in the bottom of the ninth, after Cubs pitchers were finished for the day. The teams conclude their three-game series this afternoon, then meet again in Milwaukee next week. Here’s to cooler heads prevailing.

The Baseball Codes

It’s Opening Day, So Let’s Talk Some Unwritten Rules

abrowncoat

It’s opening day, so we’re bound to encounter a new round of gratuitous “unwritten rules are stupid” stories, swinging at low-hanging fruit while failing to make any sort of actual point.

I mean, the unwritten rules are stupid, some of them anyway, but even the dumb ones have reasons behind them that make for worthy discussion. You can tell a hack column in this category by the fact that it lists off items without thought for how they came to be, or why they may have endured over the years, or even why they might be outdated beyond an “I don’t like this therefore it sucks” mentality. These pieces are hackery to the highest degree.

Like, say what Pete Blackburn wrote for CBS yesterday, titled “Ranking the Dumbest Unwritten Rules in Baseball.”

Does he check all the boxes for questionable content in the category?

* List? Check. Seven items

* Nearly complete lack of context? Check.

* Strange inclusions that aren’t actually part of the unwritten rules? Check. (No crying in baseball? Last I checked, baseball doesn’t base its code off of Tom Hanks movies.)

* Removal of all nuance? Check. Items like “Don’t steal bases with a big lead” and “Don’t show up the opposition” are universally respected axioms. It’s the point in the game at which people begin observing them that draws differences of opinion, and is the primary reason either category holds interest.

Let’s dig in, shall we? Blackburn offers his list in inverse order, so in that order we shall examine it.

“7. Don’t yell while a defensive player is trying to make a catch”

Probably not a great strategy to come out of the box defending Alex Rodriguez in one of his shadiest moments as a ballplayer. Rodriguez, of course, shouted as he ran the bases behind Blue Jays infielder Howie Clark during a two-out popup back in 2007, leading Clark to drop the ball. Should Clark have caught it anyway? Of course. Is it a douchebag move that came to define a career of douchebaggery for Rodriguez? Yup. Blackburn calls it hilarious trolling. Others might call it outright cheating. I’ll use my own litmus on this one: If it’s something that, as a Little League coach, would inspire a talk about sportsmanship with one of my players, I sure as hell don’t want to see it in a big league game.

“6. Don’t walk in front of the catcher”

Man, Blackburn ain’t much for respect. The idea is that the space between the mound and the catcher’s box is a de facto office for the battery, the space between them dedicated to the singular task of getting the baseball from the pitcher’s hand to the catcher’s mitt. Walking between them on the way to hit, rather than around the back of the box, is a minor affair, but does display a degree of inattention that needn’t exist. Forget baseball for a moment. Across life, why not do the courteous thing for your fellow citizen when the effort required is virtually the same as the alternative? This is low-grade fuck-your-feelings culture that has undeniably left us worse off than we were before.

“5. No crying in baseball”

Doesn’t exist. That Blackburn strikes me as somebody who would gladly write a column excoriating a big leaguer for crying on the diamond shall go without further examination at this moment.

“4. Don’t rub it”

Okay, this rule is pretty dumb, but at least the rationale behind it makes sense. By refusing to acknowledge temporary pain after being drilled by a pitch, the hitter sends a subtle message to the pitcher that he can’t be hurt. Does such action ever help his cause? Who knows? Then again, a tough-guy image is certainly more appealing to most pro athletes than the alternative.

“3. Don’t steal bases with a big lead”

This is where we get into the good stuff. Virtually everybody in the sport agrees that one should not run up the score after a certain point. The disagreement arises over what that point is. The most interesting thing about the unwritten rules in general, and this rule in particular, is how they’ve evolved over the years. Once, a four-run lead in the seventh inning was considered sufficient to shut down the running game. That eventually became five, and as ballplayers got bigger and ballparks got smaller and baseballs got juicier, the number grew and grew. Is it defensible to manufacture offense with a 10-run lead late in a modern-day game? Maybe. It’s in said defense that the intrigue lies.

“2. Don’t bunt during a no-hitter/blowout”

Again, the nuance makes this rule. Having spoken to dozens of big leaguers about this topic, I can say with relative authority that it is not a prohibition against bunting per se, but that players for whom bunting is not part of their offensive repertoire should refrain from attempting it in this particular situation. If a pitcher is dealing no-hitter worthy stuff, the idea holds that he should be beaten with the best the opposition has to offer. If the best includes bunting—if Ichiro Suzuki drags one to reach base—that’s very different than if a backup catcher—say, Ben Davis—who has never bunted for a hit in his career does something similar. If the score of the game is beyond the necessity for a single baserunner, this becomes even more pronounced.

“1. Don’t show up your opponent”

Oh man, Pete, did you miss the big picture on this one. This is what you gave us:

“The most common examples of ‘showing up an opponent’ include bat flipping, admiring a home run or taunting a batter/pitcher.”

This is what you should have given us:

“That baseball has come to accept on-field celebrations is a remarkable embrace of foreign customs, the likes of which would have been unimaginable a generation ago. MLB’s decision to base an entire marketing campaign—Let the Kids Play—around the concept speaks to the undeniable influence of players from Latin America and elsewhere. The history of how this came to be is fascinating. Let’s start with the World Baseball Classic …”

Ultimately, Blackburn said that he ranked his list based on stupidity. So then, shall I conclude with a list of my own. It contains but a single point:

No. 1: Pete Blackburn’s column about the unwritten rules.

The Baseball Codes

RIP Stan Williams

Stan Williams passed away over the weekend at age 84. I became fully aware of his career while researching the Intimidation chapter of The Baseball Codes, after ex-players of a certain vintage kept talking about the scariest guy they’d ever faced: an enormous Dodgers right-hander who somehow wasn’t Don Drysdale. That was when I began to compile a dossier on Williams, and began to consider him as a vital interview for the book.

As it happened, connecting with the guy was easy. Williams was scouting for the Devil Rays at the time, and came to San Francisco on assignment. He was more than happy to chat.

By that point, the person who scared the bejeezus out of a generation of big league hitters was no longer evident. Instead, I found a jovial baseball lifer who embraced his reputation with levity. He described his approach to me as “tongue-in-cheek intimidation.”

“What really inspired me to throw at a batter was if he came up to home plate with a bat in his hand,” he grinned. “I never threw at anybody that wasn’t in my zone. All I wanted was one yard on each side of the plate. You get in my zone, you’re fair game.”

That was a joke, but it was also a learned trait, taught to Williams when he turned pro.

“It was pretty well known among the Dodgers that if you didn’t knock the hitters on their butts, you wouldn’t be around very long,” he said. “When I came out of high school, I didn’t know what a knockdown pitch was. I dropped a few people, but it was because I was wild. Finally, I learned the hard way. They told me that every time I went two strikes and no balls on a hitter, I had to throw high and inside. I guided the first two or three in there, and they got tattooed for home runs or long doubles. I got fed up with that, so I started throwing as hard as I could, right at their chin. And that became a very good knockdown pitch.”

As his reputation grew, Williams took to throwing breaking balls that started at hitters’ shoulders, and yelling “Watch out!” as the pitch left his hand. “The guy would lean back and the pitch would break over the plate,” he said.

It was a different era.

Williams left such an impression that I wrote an entire passage about him in the first draft of The Baseball Codes, only a small portion of which made it into the final copy. Today it seems appropriate day to share the whole thing. Rest in peace, Mr. Williams.

***

The Los Angeles Dodgers of the 1960s employed one of the most intimidating pitching staffs in major-league history. Batters feared Sandy Koufax because he was better than them. They feared Don Drysdale because he was better than them, and he might also plant a fastball into their ribs.

But the guy they really feared was Stan Williams.

Williams was not nearly the equal of Koufax or Drysdale, although he had decent success over a 14-year, injury-marred big league career, winning as many as 15 games and making an All-Star team. That was not why hitters feared him.

They feared him because he was scary.

At 6-foot-5 and 230 pounds, Williams was not only willing to throw baseballs at batters, but seemed to enjoy it. The right-hander was intimidating because he was big, he was intimidating because he threw extremely hard, and he was intimidating because, as far as hitters were concerned, he may well have been crazy.

“You try to get them out legitimately the first time around, and if that doesn’t work, then you drill them in the ribs and start over again,” Williams said, describing his pitching philosophy. “You try everything at your disposal first, and if a guy just keeps wearing you out—well, it’s either him or me, and I’m going to do my share to make it him. That’s what it was all about.”

Williams was wild when he first came up, itself an intimidating characteristic in a pitcher who threw as hard as he did. He was so wild, in fact, that the Dodgers tied his bonus money to walks allowed, giving him financial incentive to issue fewer free passes. The team’s mistake, at least according to hitters around the league, was failing to draft a similar clause for hit batsmen. His Dodgers teammate, Ron Fairly, described the situation like this: “Keep in mind, Stan Williams could throw the ball as hard as Sandy Koufax. Well, Stan would find himself in a particular game with a 3-0 count, we’re up by five runs, the pitcher’s coming up next. Whack—right in the ribs.”

Fairly said that he once saw Williams tack up a photo of Hank Aaron in the back of his locker and set to firing baseballs at it. When asked what he was doing, Williams’ answer was concise: “Practicing.”

Even after his playing career, the pitcher made little effort to alter his reputation, plying his unique brand of intimidation as pitching coach for the Red Sox, Yankees, White Sox and Reds over a dozen seasons. He never felt much need to adjust people’s preconceptions about him.

Williams recalled a time while coaching with New York in 1979, when he was approached before batting practice by Yankees catcher Cliff Johnson—himself 6-foot-4 and 225 lbs., and known as an intimidator in his own right. By way of conversation, Johnson mentioned that, had their career paths intersected, a knockdown from Williams would have resulted in a less-than-friendly visit to the pitcher’s mound.

“Let me tell you two things,” Williams said. “Number one, you wouldn’t have made it to the mound because I’d have met you halfway. And number two, number one isn’t going to change number two.”

This stopped Johnson cold, mainly because he had no idea what Williams was talking about. He asked what “number two” was.

“It didn’t matter whether you kicked my ass or I kicked yours,” Williams said. “The next time you came up, I’d have hit you right in the neck.”

The sentiment was partly bravado—although Williams hit 71 batters over the course of his career, he never once led his league in the category—but there was more to it than that. Williams threw batting practice that day, and when Johnson stepped into the cage, he found himself facing a succession of inside fastballs that eventually backed him up into the screen. It was good-natured intimidation between members of the same team, but it was intimidation nonetheless.

Williams’ most lasting legacy, however, might be the List.

The List was compiled in a small notebook that Williams carried with him everywhere, on and off the field. Inside was written the name of anyone who had ever offended Williams’ baseball sensibilities, through action or ability. Guys who hit him hard were noted next to those who showed him up. Accompanying the names were stars, added for ensuing transgressions. Should a player collect three stars, Williams explained, he effectively became a dental patient—due for a drilling.

There are countless List-inspired stories. The most interesting of them concerns the last man on it. His name was Barry Latman, and his name was inscribed into the book early in 1961.

At that point, Williams was 24 years old and a three-year vet, and was pitching for Los Angeles against Cleveland in a spring exhibition game in Las Vegas. Williams started, but because it was spring training, and because it was Las Vegas, and because he had stayed up until dawn, and because the first pitch was scheduled before noon, he wasn’t exactly in mid-season form. This is where his reputation proved to be counter-productive.

Williams ended up bouncing a pitch off the helmet of Cleveland’s Bubba Phillips, which might have pleased the pitcher greatly had that been his goal. As it was, not only was it a mistake, but Williams was throwing so softly, he said, that “I wouldn’t have hurt him if I’d hit him in the neck.”

Nonetheless, teammates are expected to protect each other, and the next time Williams stepped to the plate he was drilled in the ribs by Cleveland pitcher Barry Latman.

“Stan never moved,” said Fairly. “He didn’t even try to get out of the way of it. Didn’t flinch. The ball hit him and he stood there for three or four seconds.” Before Williams started toward first, he glared toward the mound and offered a concise warning: “Hey Barry, now it’s my turn.”

Dodgers manager Walter Alston, wanting to avoid needless escalation in a meaningless game, promptly pulled Williams. “Stan was going to hit every batter that came up there,” recalled Fairly. “You don’t fool around with a guy like that.”

Denied immediate revenge, Williams added Latman’s name to the List. The problem was, the only time they faced each other over the coming years—in 1963, when Williams was pitching for the Yankees—the score was too close to exact revenge.

Things changed in 1965. Battling injuries, Williams found himself with the Triple-A Seattle Angels, where he shared a clubhouse with another veteran struggling to make it back to the big leagues: Barry Latman. When Williams realized who he’d be teaming with, he laughed out loud. The two talked, sharing war stories as the old men in a clubhouse full of kids, and quickly developed a tight bond.

One day, Williams was assigned to pitch batting practice, and didn’t offer a moment of hesitation when his old foe stepped in against him. The surprised Latman quickly found himself in the way of a fastball.

“That’s for Vegas!” Williams yelled toward the plate. “If you don’t like it, come on out.”

Latman stayed put. Mission finally accomplished, Williams retired the List on the spot.

The Baseball Codes

The Complete Guide To Tipping Pitches In Baseball

Although sign stealing has dominated headlines over recent years, just as prevalent for hitters—and far less discussed—is the concept of pitch tipping. What does it mean when a pitcher is tipping pitches? Simply put, it’s when a pitcher unknowingly telegraphs information about the type of pitch he’s about to deliver.

Nothing can send a pitcher fleeing toward the video room quicker than the specter of tipping pitches, and nothing raises that specter faster than making quality pitches, and watching those pitches get hammered all over the yard.

Pitch tipping is distinct from sign stealing in that no espionage is necessary, no teammates or coaches required to decode a catcher’s signals and subsequently relay them to the hitter.

The pitcher handles that part all by himself.

Tipping pitches is entirely a function of a pitcher getting careless, and doing something in his delivery for one type of pitch that he does not do for others. It could involve flaring a glove when gripping a changeup (this is common, as the hand must wrap around the ball in ways it does not do for a fastball or curveball, which can necessitate extra space in the pocket), or coming set with elbows wide for one type of pitch but against the body for another type of pitch.

If there is a tell to be found on a big league mound, hitters will find it—and news spreads quickly across the league. Until the pitcher adjusts, things will not be comfortable for him.

This happens more frequently than one might assume. The Baseball Codes blog has documented numerous instances of pitch tipping across Major League Baseball over recent years. In this Guide, we’ll answer some common questions and then go through seven specific examples in which tipped pitches played a major role in the outcome of an MLB game.

Tipping Pitches: Frequently Asked Questions

Below you’ll find some of the most common questions about pitch tipping.

What are the most common ways pitchers tip pitches?

Any behavior that distinguishes one type of pitch from another qualifies. It can be as simple as positioning one’s hands at the belt when coming set for one type of pitch, and at the chest for another. Numerous examples are discussed below.

Does picking up tipped pitches break any written or unwritten rules?

No. Successful ballplayers are observant of their surroundings, and this is an outreach of that. They are neither stealing nor relaying signs, or even looking anyplace that they should not. If a hitter (or, more likely, a team full of hitters) is found to be taking advantage of a pitcher’s tell, the pitcher’s only proper response is to correct whatever it is he’s doing.

Who typically discovers that a pitcher is tipping his pitches?

Until hitters start taking advantage of them, tells usually go unnoticed. Once a pitcher starts taking a hit to his ERA despite making quality pitches, however, he begins looking for explanations. Frequently, video review will pinpoint the problem.

When a team picks up a pitcher’s “tell,” do hitters want to be told what’s coming?

This is the same dilemma faced by hitters on teams proficient in sign stealing. While knowing what type of pitch is coming is a boon to many hitters, this is not universally true. Some hitters feel more comfortable reacting to pitches rather than anticipating them, and feel that advance knowledge hinders that process.

In the case of Nellie Fox, the slap-hitting Hall of Fame second baseman for the White Sox in the 1950s and early ’60s, he steadfastly did not want to know what was coming, despite the elaborate sign-stealing system in his team’s home ballpark. Fox, all of 5-foot-10 and 160 pounds, feared that being signaled would inspire him to muscle up … and lead to a spate of warning-track flyballs.

Pitch-Tipping Over Time, From the Annals of The Baseball Codes

Below you’ll find some of my work over the years – examples of MLB hurlers tipping their pitches even at the highest level of baseball. If you’re new here and interested in the unwritten rules of baseball, be sure to check out my first book, The Baseball Codes, with tons of stories about pitch tipping, sign stealing, bean balls and more.

The unwritten rules of America’s pastime continue to evolve, so stay tuned for more articles from me whenever new violations occur.

Houston Astros Discover Tyler Glasnow’s Tell (and Tee Off)
Oct. 11, 2019

The Astros are moving on to the ALCS, and a lot of people are pinning at least some of their success Thursday on the way Rays starter Tyler Glasnow held his glove upon coming set. Above the letters, Houston hitters seemed to figure out, meant that a fastball was on the way; somewhat lower indicated curveball. This might be how a pitcher who topped 98 mph against every hitter he faced, and supplemented his heater with one of the sport’s better curveballs, nonetheless managed to serve up four first-inning runs.

The 15-mph differential between Glasnow’s fastball and his breaking pitches should have been more than enough to throw off the timing of Houston’s hitters. For most of that first inning, he didn’t come close.

Sure enough, various Astros were seen prepping each other for what was to come, with Alex Bregman going so far as to inform Carlos Correa that “if it’s down, it’s a curveball; if it’s up, it’s a fastball.”

Judge for yourself, courtesy of @Jomboy_:

In the postgame studio, Alex Rodriguez, breaking down film, posited that he was “99 percent” sure the pitcher displayed a tell.

Whatever advantage the Astros got from Glasnow’s miscues, their tactics were not only legal, but are a goal in every clubhouse across the land. Houston has recent history with this sort of strategy, winning the 2017 World Series after Carlos Beltran noticed that when Dodgers starter Yu Darvish re-gripped the ball while bringing it to his glove, he gave away whether he was about to throw a fastball or a breaking pitch. Darvish faced the Astros twice in the Series, throwing a total of 48 sliders and cutters, against which Houston batted .556. He didn’t make it out of the second inning either time, giving up five runs over 1.2 innings in the deciding Game 7. [Since this was first published, we have learned that some other stuff happened that was detrimental to Darvish’s performance in the 2017 World Series.]

The Baseball Codes explored the history about the phenomenon. One particularly potent passage, which was edited out of the final copy, lends further detail to the phenomenon:

Although Hall of Fame spitball pitcher Burleigh Grimes shielded the ball with his glove to keep hitters from knowing whether or not he was preparing for a spitter, members of the Phillies realized that his hat brim—visible above the top of his glove—would rise when he opened his mouth to spit, then laid off the ensuing pitches. It worked beautifully, at least until the pitcher wised up and got a bigger cap.

Picking up tells can be a veritable art form, with master practitioners noticing things about a player that escape even the most astute observer. Bob Turley, for example, in addition to being a great sign thief, could also pick up tells better than almost anybody in the game.

“When (Connie Johnson) starts his windup, he’ll move his foot to the other end of the rubber if he’s going to throw his screwball,” he once told Mickey Mantle, as reported in Baseball Digest. “Billy Pierce always wore a long, heavy sweatshirt, no matter how hot it was. When he went into his glove to grip a fastball, you would see the back of his wrist. When he was going to throw a curve, he would get deeper in there and you would not see his wrist. Early Wynn, when he pitched from the stretch, where were his hands before he threw? If he was going to throw a knuckleball, they were at his belt. For a fastball, he’d come up under his chin. Slider, around his nose. Curve, up at his forehead. Jim Bunning altered his windup a little depending on what he was going to throw.”

As for Glasnow, he himself admitted that “it was pretty obvious, as far as the tips go.” That was more than the Astros would say, possibly out of professional courtesy, and possibly out of the understanding that the less they give away, the more likely that they’ll be able to continue taking advantage again next season.

Glasnow seemed to correct course, maybe as soon as mid-inning. He struck out Correa and Josh Reddick to end the first, then set down the next five straight hitters before being removed in the third.

By then, of course, it was far too late. The Astros won, 6-1, to secure their spot against the Yankees in the ALCS. They get to figure out if Severino is still tipping, while Glasnow has the winter to work this particular kink out of his delivery.

***

Luis Severino Struggles in ALDS; Yankees Wonder If Pitch Tipping Was To Blame
Oct. 12, 2018

They’re saying now that Luis Severino’s dismal start against the Red Sox in Game 3 of the ALCS—you know, the one that Boston ended up winning, 16-1—may have been compromised by tipped pitches.

According to Fancred’s John Heyman, various Yankees heard “chatter” about it from folks around the Red Sox. (Important to note that Heyman used the word “people,” not “players.”) The possibility was noted on the Red Sox broadcast by Lou Merloni, and Jackie Bradley Jr. was caught on camera, in the dugout, calling for a fastball moments before Severino delivered one.

The idea is that Severino did something in his pre-pitch setup, or even during the course of his delivery, that gave Red Sox hitters advance notice of what he was about to throw. If this is true, it gave the Red Sox a huge advantage, allowing them to lay off as Severino’s devastating slider sailed outside the strike zone.

On one hand, this is supported by fact: According to CBS Sports, Boston hitters offered at only six of the pitcher’s 15 sliders on the day, a 40-percent rate that’s lower than the 47.2-percent rate he posted during the regular season. On the other hand, if one Red Sox hitter had swung just once more at any one of those pitches, the offer rate against him would have been effectively the same as it had all season.

Still, Severino virtually abandoned the pitch toward the end of his outing, throwing only two sliders across the final nine hitters he faced. That left him with only a fastball and a changeup, and as we’ve long since learned, fastball pitchers—no matter how potent the fastball—have a difficult time surviving in the big leagues without a potent breaking pitch to accompany it.

Whether the right-hander was actually tipping is up for debate. Severino’s splendid first half of the season—a 2.10 ERA with 132 strikeouts against only 26 walks, and six homers allowed with a 15-2 record over 17 starts in the season’s first three months—contrasts starkly with his final three months: 5.20 ERA, 88 whiffs and 20 walks, 13 homers over 15 starts, a 9-6 record.

But here’s the thing: Hitters were waving at his slider at almost exactly the same rate all season. By this metric, anyway, Severino’s late-season failures had nothing to do with him fooling them less. The fact that he lost nearly a mile-per-hour off his fastball between his June peak and October might have more to do with it, or that his slider’s movement across the strike zone steadily decreased as the season wore on.

The Yankees, of course, aren’t talking. Neither are the Red Sox. Trade secrets like this are valuable commodities, after all. One thing to be certain of is that if Severino was tipping, the Yankees will be all over it this off-season, and come spring training the righty will have something to work on in addition to his regular regimen.

***

Hard-Lesson on Tipping Pitches From the Cactus League: Tip Your Waitstaff, Not Your Pitches
March 24, 2016

John Danks wasn’t much good for the White Sox last year … or in 2014 … or in 2013, for that matter. His new catcher thinks he knows why.

Early in spring training, Dioner Navarro told the lefthander that he’d been holding his glove in different positions during his delivery, depending upon whether he was throwing a fastball or a breaking ball, according to a report from CBS Chicago. Hitters noticed. “We fixed it,” Danks said, “and it has not been an issue since.”

Prior to this season, when Navarro was a member of the Rays, Cubs and Blue Jays, he was 11-for-26 against Danks, including three home runs. Seems like he’s noticed something in the southpaw’s delivery for a while.

Pitch-tipping, of course, is a fairly common occurrence. Should a player notice a hitch in a pitcher’s delivery, word quickly spreads around the league. Navarro was hardly the only hitter to benefit from Danks’ mistakes.

Should Danks continues to improve, it’ll be nothing but good for the White Sox and his career. He’ll always have to ask himself, however, why nobody said anything to him sooner.

***

Big Tipper: Rays Worry About Matt Moore Tipping Pitches & Giving Away Too Much Information
April 20, 2012

In Tampa, hopes are high for pitcher Matt Moore. The 22-year-old is one of the top prospects in all of baseball, and a rotation anchor—they hope—for years to come.

Which is why, when things started to go wrong for him early this season—especially after Sunday’s 6-4 loss to Boston, in which Moore gave up six runs and eight hits in 6.1 innings—alarm bells started to ring. Even as that game unfolded, team brass tried to figure out what was happening.

Their first thought: Tipping. As in, Moore was telegraphing the type of pitch he was about to throw, just before he threw it. From the Tampa Bay Times:

In acknowledging how “locked-in” [the Red Sox] were, Rays manager Joe Maddon mentioned, open-endedly, that “it’s like they know what’s coming almost.” He noted how “they’re on everything right now,” no matter what type of pitch it was, and how they were “spitting on”—taking—certain borderline pitches.

What raised the specific pitch-tipping concerns about Moore were the aggressive swings the Red Sox were taking, particularly unexpected given their limited previous exposure to him. By the fifth inning, pitching coach Jim Hickey was meeting with Moore and catcher Chris Gimenez to try to figure things out. Gimenez said they thought that Moore might be “tapping his glove on his fastball.”

To guard against the possibility that it was something else, like Boston hitters peeking at signs, Gimenez began setting up as late as possible, just before Moore was ready to pitch.

Boston’s concerns were assuaged after reviewing video of the game, which showed that the hammered pitches were all out over the plate—hittable because they were bad, not tipped. Moore seemed all too relieved to eliminate tipping as a cause of his woes.

“Maybe [I tipped some pitches] years ago when I was in rookie ball or something like that,” he said in the Times. “But not as far as I can remember.”

The thing is, such frailties can manifest even in veteran pitchers with no such history. In the last couple of seasons alone, we’ve seen similar issues with Tim Lincecum (who quickly corrected things), Johan Santana and Ben Sheets

From The Baseball Codes:

Tells can be as simple as a pitcher keeping his glove snapped tight when throwing a fastball but flaring it out for a breaking ball, or coming set with his glove at his belt for one type of pitch but at his chest for another. Matt Morris, for example, was lit up by the Braves during his rookie season in St. Louis after they noticed that the exposed index finger on his glove hand pointed upward whenever he threw a fastball, but lay flat for curves. Once he pinpointed the trouble, Morris quickly fixed it by attaching a flap to his glove that covered the finger.

Examples like this litter the game’s history. When Babe Ruth first came to the American League as a pitcher with the Red Sox, he curled his tongue in the corner of his mouth whenever he threw a curveball—a habit he was forced to break once enough hitters became aware of it. Kansas City’s Mark Gubicza was cured of his tendency to stick out his tongue when throwing a breaking ball under similar circumstances. Ty Cobb reg­ularly stole bases against Cy Young, abetted, said the outfielder, by the fact that Young’s arms drifted away from his body when he came set before throwing to first; when he was preparing to pitch, he pulled his arms in.

Pitcher Todd Jones dished similar dirt on several competitors in an article he wrote for Sporting News in 2004: “When Andy Benes pitched, he always would grind his teeth when throwing a slider. In Hideo Nomo’s first stint inL.A., he’d grip his split-finger fastball differently than his fastball. Randy Johnson would angle his glove differently on his slider than on his fastball. I’ve been guilty of looking at the third-base coach as I come set when gripping my curveball. When hitters see this, word gets around the league. In fact, my old teammate Larry Walker was the one who told me what I was doing. He said he could call my pitches from the outfield.”

We’ll see tonight if all this deliberation has made a difference, when Moore makes his first start since Boston, against the Twins.

***

Are Johan Santana’s Struggles Due to Tipped Pitches? It’s a Moot Point, Now
July 8, 2010

It seems so obvious for pitchers: Don’t telegraph what type of pitch you’re about to throw, or hitters will jump all over it. (Matt Morris, for example, once had the habit of pointing the exposed index finger on his glove hand straight up when delivering fastballs, which allowed the opposition to pounce . . . until he affixed a flap to cover the finger.)

This week, another tale of a tell has surfaced, this time with Johan Santana. According to Bob Klapich in the Bergen Record, the Mets’ ace was unknowingly tipping his devastating changeup, which cost him dearly against the Twins, who elicited 41 first-inning pitches while swinging and missing at exactly one pitch. They scored five runs in six innings against him.

Writes Klapich: “Turns out the giveaway was the action of Santana’s glove as he began his windup: the fingers would flare as Santana dug into the leather to grip the change, which required him to make an A-OK configuration with his hand. The glove, however, remained still as Santana prepared to throw the fastball.”

Once they caught on, the Mets instructed Santana to lower his glove to belt level, which better hid his pre-pitch mechanics.

The results: In Santana’s most recent start he threw a complete-game, three-hit shutout against the powerful Reds, and has given up only one run given up over his last 16 innings.

Pitchers don’t generally like to talk about (or admit to) any tells they might suffer, but even though Santana’s silence, it’s incredible how much difference one small adjustment can make.

***

Pitch Tipping, Real or Imagined, No Longer Plaguing Sheets
June 9, 2010

In the current issue of ESPN the Magazine, Buster Olney has a terrific column about tipping pitches—the mannerisms a pitcher unknowingly exhibits that show the hitter exactly what type of pitch is about to be delivered.

For example, explains Olney, a splayed glove on a right-handed pitcher can be a giveaway for a changeup, because a pitcher usually has to dig his hand into the glove to get a proper grip on the ball. Similarly, some pitchers come set with their glove farther away from their bodies when preparing to throw a curve, to better articulate the proper wrist angle.

The problem with Olney’s article is that it’s centered on A’s pitcher Ben Sheets, who at the end of a strong April encountered consecutive rocky starts—eight earned runs in four innings against Tampa Bay on April 27, and nine earned runs in three-and-a-third against Toronto on May 2.

Speculation at the time said that Sheets was tipping his pitches, something Olney corroborates both circumstantially—Blue Jays manager Cito Gaston is a master at pitch-tip recognition—and actually—unnamed members of the “Oakland staff” determined via video that Sheets was tipping his curve by holding it differently than his fastball.

All of which sounds great, and might be true. Only Olney didn’t talk to Sheets (or if he did, he didn’t reference the conversation in his story).

When the rumors surfaced a few weeks ago, I asked Sheets if there was anything to them. He insisted that his pitching problems had far more to do with faulty mechanics than with any sort of tipping problem.

“I wish I could blame it on something that easy, but I don’t believe that was the reason I got hammered in two starts, by any means,” he said. “What I corrected wasn’t that. That was the big theory, but I made some mechanical adjustments that I think helped me get more outs than worrying whether I was tipping or not.” (He declined to provide specifics for his issues, or the adjustments he made.)

This could be a smokescreen, except for the fact that there’s not much need for one. By the time I spoke to Sheets, the problem—be it mechanical or tipping—had already been corrected, and the right-hander didn’t have much (if anything) to lose by copping to tipping, were that the case. (He faced Tampa Bay again on May 8, and held them to four hits over six-and-a-third innings.)

“Trust me, there was a lot more than tipping going on with my stuff,” he said. “It was just not good pitching. I wasn’t throwing the ball well. It had nothing to do with the hitter—it had to do with making a good pitch.”

Interestingly, Sheets did admit to having suffered from tipping problems in the past, although he wouldn’t specifically identify his tells, or when they happened.

Either way, he’s recovered at least part of his mojo. Since his disastrous outing on May 2, he’s thrown at least six innings in each of his seven starts, with a 3.56 ERA. During that time he’s lowered his overall ERA from 7.12 to 4.96.

Pitchers across the league suffer from any variety of tells, but this facet of the game is infrequently brought to the public’s attention. Sheets’ problem appears to have been fixed; all that’s left is to enjoy the discussion.

***

Will Tipping Pitches Continue to be a Problem for Pitchers in the MLB?

Until baseball transitions to robotic pitchers, pitch tipping will continue to exist. In one sense, it might be more of a problem than ever; as intensive video review becomes the norm, details about pitchers habits and mannerisms will drift ever closer to common knowledge. Then again, as baseball shifts toward rosters filled with fireballing relievers, tipping pitches might becomes less relevant. After all, it doesn’t take a detective to know when a fastball is coming, if that’s pretty much all a guy throws.

If you want to learn more about baseball’s unwritten rules, check out my book, The Baseball Codes. It’s available on audiobook, Kindle and paperback from your favorite bookseller. Grab a copy, and check out my other baseball titles, by clicking below. Thanks for reading!

– Jason

jason turbow books

The Baseball Codes

RIP Hank Aaron

“The best thing I could have done is play with Hank Aaron, and be with Hank every day.”
—Dusty Baker

The first person I thought of when I heard that Hank Aaron died was Dusty Baker. I never met Aaron, but I’ve spent significant time around Dusty, and it was obvious from the beginning how much reverence Baker holds for the man.

Here’s the thing about that. Dusty is among the most charismatic figures I’ve ever interviewed, a man who commands the attention of a room simply by being in it. He would drop life lessons as a matter of course during his pregame press conferences while managing the Giants. I found myself in a constant state of wonder around him.

So to see a man like that in such obvious awe of somebody else—even a peer, which is what Aaron was to Baker, in addition to being a mentor—speaks volumes about the nature of Hank Aaron’s character. The sheer number of times that Dusty refers to lessons that Aaron taught him can be overwhelming.

Going through interviews I did with Baker for They Bled Blue and The Baseball Codes, a pattern quickly emerges:

  • “Hank Aaron always used to tell me to go out in the elements get used to them …”
  • “Hank told us no matter what you do, stay together …”
  • “Hank told me don’t bunt on Drysdale, don’t showboat, don’t dig in against him …” 
  • “Hank taught us not to clown or showboat …”
  • “Hank told me and Ralph Garr to work out during the strike …”
  • “Hank taught us to walk behind the umpire on your way to the plate …”
  • “Hank used to tell me Don Newcombe didn’t like you hitting the ball up the middle on him …” 
  • “Hank would to tell us all the time to keep the umpire in the equation.  If he was a shorter umpire, he was gonna be a low-ball umpire.  A taller guy would be a high-strike umpire …”
  • “I came from the Hank Aaron school, where you just run around the bases …”

See a pattern?

I’ve long harbored a deep admiration of Aaron, aided Baker’s unyielding appreciation. Baseball lost one of its brightest lights, now or ever, today.

I’ll close with something Dusty told me one spring training many years ago:

“I say ‘Hank Aaron taught me this,’ or ‘Hank Aaron taught me that,’ because it’s not right for me to say I thought something up when I didn’t.  People are always saying, ‘Dusty, what do you know on your own? You’re always using other people’s names.’  Well, I can’t act like the genius expert who invented all this stuff.  There’s not a whole lot of new knowledge—there’s just a lot of old stuff that people are trying to make new.”

Aaron had the good stuff, and Dusty knew it. He’s spent a lot of years making sure that we know it, too.

Rest in peace, Hammer.

The Baseball Codes

RIP Don Sutton

Don Sutton, who passed away yesterday at age 75, has a unique place in each of my three books. In Dynastic, Bombastic, Fantastic, he faced the A’s as a member of the Dodgers. In They Bled Blue, he faced the Dodgers as a member of the Astros. And in The Baseball Codes, he appeared as a ball scuffer par excellence.

Sutton spent 16 of his 23 big league seasons with the Dodgers—his first 15 and his last one—and his time in LA came not only to define him as a pitcher, but to materially influence the players he left upon his departure, who would win the World Series the following season.

LA is where Sutton enjoyed the six-year stretch from 1972 to 1977 that opened the doors to the Hall of Fame to him. During those seasons, the right-hander made his only four All-Star teams and posted five top-5 Cy Young finishes (one third, one fourth and three fifths).

“If I had to pitch one guy in a game seven, it would be Don Sutton,” Tommy Lasorda wrote in his autobiography, I Live for This. “I loved him. But sometimes I was one of the only ones.”

Sure enough, Sutton was not known for cozy relationships with his teammates, a detail noteworthy in his 1978 clubhouse fistfight with Steve Garvey. He frequently extend a similar mindframe to his manager. Sutton was the rare star on those late-1970s Dodgers to not have played for Lasorda in the minor leagues, a detail that helps explain why the two were frequently at odds. After 11 years playing for the staid Walter Alston in Los Angeles, Sutton bristled when Lasorda was installed.

“With Walt, there wasn’t a whole lot of rah-rah,” the pitcher explained to the Los Angeles Times in 1981. “I wasn’t mentally equipped to make the adjustment.” (Sutton once told a reporter who was furiously scribbling to keep up with one of Lasorda’s Great Dodger in the Sky monologues: “You know what you can do with those notes you’re making? Shred ’em and put ’em around your shrubbery at home and watch it grow.”)

From They Bled Blue:

When the Astros snatched Sutton up [in December 1980] with a four-year, $3.1 million offer, it was impossible for Lasorda not to take it personally. The right-hander had been an Alston man, publicly lobbying for coach Jeff Torborg to replace the storied manager in 1976, even when Lasorda was all but a lock for the position. “I just don’t believe that I could play for a manager who’s a headline grabber, who isn’t honest,” Sutton said at the time, later refusing to become “one of [Lasorda’s] bobos.” Things grew so heated that Lasorda challenged Sutton to settle their differences with fists. The pitcher declined. Their differences remained.

Sure enough, Sutton never garnered a single Cy Young vote in four years under Lasorda during his prime, though the two reached enough of a détente for Sutton to return to LA for his final season, in 1988.

More than that—during that—was a fascinating aspect of Sutton’s success: an ability to scuff baseballs that lent his pitches the type of movement that few of his peers possessed. He was said to adhere a piece of sandpaper on a finger of his glove hand, which he would use to mar the ball to wondrous effect.

No less than Nolan Ryan confirmed as much after hitting a home run off of Sutton during the first week of the 1980 season. It was the first of Ryan’s career, and he managed to get the ball returned to him … at which point, he said later, “that thing was all scuffed up.”

When Sutton joined the Astros, a chorus of opinions held that Lasorda, who knew all of his secrets, would have him all but undressed on the mound. Sutton’s pitch-perfect response was to question the source. What else would Lasorda say he wondered in the Los Angeles Times: “Those other years I lied?” (Lasorda never did have him checked.)

From They Bled Blue:

During the 1981 season, Sutton agreed to secretly film an instructional video for NBC-TV about how to cheat in baseball, wearing a ski mask to protect his identity, with the film reversed to make him look like a southpaw. (He ended up scrapping the project when a newspaper reporter and photographer showed up at the shoot.) “I keep telling you guys, I don’t use sandpaper,” he informed reporters before the season opener in Los Angeles. “Sandpaper gets wet and crumbles. [I use a] sanding wheel. I already checked to see if there was an outlet there on the mound, but they removed it.” Once, when an umpire searched Sutton for abrasive surfaces, he instead found a note reading, “It’s not here, but you’re getting warm.”

I recounted my favorite story about Sutton’s scuffing in The Baseball Codes. It involves a game from 1987, in which Sutton, by that point pitching for the Angels, was carving up the Yankees:

George Steinbrenner was watching the game on television, and was shocked when the camera zoomed in to show close-ups of what appeared to be a small patch, or even a bandage, on the palm of Sutton’s left hand. The WPIX broadcasters brought it up whenever the pitcher appeared to grind the ball into his palm between pitches. It was, they said, probably why Sutton’s pitches possessed such extraordinary movement that day. He was in all likelihood scuffing the baseball.

Outraged, Steinbrenner called the visitors’ dugout at Anaheim Sta­dium and lit into Yankees manager Lou Piniella. Was he aware, asked the owner, that Sutton was cheating? “Our television announcers are aware of it,” yelled Steinbrenner. “I’m sure the Angels are aware of it. You’re prob­ably the only guy there who doesn’t know it. Now, I want you to go out there and make the umpires check Don Sutton!”

“George,” Piniella responded, “do you know who taught him how to cheat?”

Steinbrenner confessed that, in fact, he did not.

“The guy who taught Don Sutton everything he knows about cheating is the guy pitch­ing for us tonight,” Piniella said. “Do you want me to go out there and get Tommy John thrown out, too?”

Don Sutton pitched 23 seasons and won 324 games while striking out 3,574 batters, seventh all-time. He was elected to the Hall of Fame in 1998. He passed away less than two weeks after his former manager, Lasorda, in much less expected fashion, another Hall of Famer felled in a string that has seen too many pass too soon.

The Baseball Codes

The Little-Known Story Of Hank Greenberg’s 250th Home Run

A few years back I wrote a feature about Hank Greenberg’s war service for a website called The National Pastime Museum. The site no longer exists, but today is a good day to dust the story off. On Memorial Day, this is for those who have served our country so well.

The feting of Hank Greenberg at Tiger Stadium on May 6, 1941, had little to do with his winning the previous season’s American League Most Valuable Player Award, or that he’d led Detroit to the 1940 American League pennant. The man was a bona-fide superstar, all but ticketed for Cooperstown after only six full big league seasons, but this was not about that, either—not directly, anyway.

The U.S. military had only recently begun its conscription process prior to entering World War II. Based largely on his being unmarried, Greenberg was among the first prominent athletes to qualify. It was known when the season began that he likely wouldn’t make it until June as a civilian; even as the Tigers played Cleveland in their second game of the season, Michigan’s local Draft Board 23 announced a Class-1A rating for Greenberg on the basis of a medical examination earlier  in the day. “I’ll ask no deferment,” the slugger told the New York Times after the game, “and will be ready when called.”

Sure enough, Greenberg’s number 621 was called shortly thereafter. Thus did he find himself on May 6, playing in his final game of the season before reporting, amid significant fanfare. Before the game, the Tigers presented him with a gold watch featuring the inscribed names of his teammates. The Briggs Stadium grounds crew gave him a pen and pencil set.

For all anybody knew, it would be the final game of Greenberg’s career. At age 30, he clearly understood the finite nature of athletic endeavors. He was also sitting on 247 career home runs, a number that a month earlier he seemed all but certain to have surpassed by then.

Early-season struggles, however, intruded. Greenberg went 0-for-3 in the season opener on April 16, and did it again in the following game. After 10 games he was batting .188. By the end of April he’d accumulated only 10 hits, only two for extra bases—neither of them a home run.

May, however, began differently. In the four-game stretch leading up to May 6, Greenberg raised his batting average 34 points, going 5-for-13 with three doubles. Home runs, however, remained elusive. It appeared that he would decamp for his indefinite war leave short of 250.

Perhaps if he had been at 249, it would have bothered him more. Even at 248 the number might have been within reach, but for all of Greenberg’s fabled power—he’d paced the American League in home runs three times, and set a record for right-handed batters with 58 during the 1938 season—he had never once connected for three in a game. Thus did he content himself on the evening of May 5—at a private party thrown by the Tigers at the Franklin Hills Country Club, which included members of the visiting Yankees—with the idea that careers do not hinge on the accumulation of round numbers.

Then, in his first at-bat of his last game, Greenberg led off the second inning by pounding a Tiny Bonham fastball into the left field stands. Now he was only two away.

An inning later, he did it again, this time with a man aboard. It was the 28th time he had gone deep twice in the same game. Now he was one away.

As Greenberg stood in the outfield the following inning, he couldn’t help but consider his circumstance. It was only the fourth inning. He imagined the drama of his first three-homer game propelling him to 250 as he went off to war. “All of a sudden,” he said later, as reported in The Second Fireside Book of Baseball, “I was intensely interested in hammering one into the stands.”

Greenberg had always been an unintentional home-run hitter, seeking only hard contact and accepting whatever followed. Now, however, he had a goal and very little time to reach it. His next at-bat, in the fifth inning, came against reliever Atley Donald. The Tigers were ahead, 5-1, and Greenberg aimed for the fences.

He fell short, lofting a fly ball to Charlie Keller in medium-deep left field.

His next time up, in the seventh, he popped up to catcher Bill Dickey. Things weren’t going as planned.

When Greenberg stepped to the plate with two outs in the eighth and the Tigers ahead, 6-4, he knew that it was almost certainly his final shot at the milestone. The bases were loaded, and Donald was still on the mound, in his fifth inning of work, pitching on fumes. The first three pitches to Greenberg sailed wide of the zone.

A walk was the outcome that nobody wanted. Taking the bat out of his hands with number 250 so close at hand, even unintentionally, would have been a profound letdown. “Even Bill Dickey was rooting for me,” Greenberg said later. “He kept pleading with his pitcher to whip in a fast one, letter high.”

Finally, Donald did, providing the meatball for which everybody was hoping. It was letter high, exactly where Greenberg wanted it. If ever there was a nod to history at the expense of personal statistics, this was it. Greenberg’s rocked back in his stance and uncorked his mightiest swing.

And missed.

At that point, Donald seemed entirely willing to accommodate the would-be war hero. His next pitch floated in as fat as the first. Again, Greenberg attacked. Again, he missed.

Now the count was full. Greenberg represented what was probably his team’s final out of the game. Unless he fouled it off, one more pitch was all he would get. Over the previous three seasons, only Red Ruffing had allowed more home runs than Donald among Yankees pitchers, and Ruffing was the defending league leader in the category. Greenberg knew exactly what he was going to get.

When Donald lolled another meatball toward the plate, served up to the slugger as if on a tee, Greenberg put everything he had into his swing, intent on giving himself and his fans the most sensational sendoff possible.

The ending, however, was familiar. There was no joy in Mudville—mighty Greenberg had struck out. Number 250 would have to wait.

***

The next day at the United States Army induction center, Greenberg gave out upwards of 1,000 autographs and posed for newsreel cameras while a 13-piece WPA orchestra blared what an officer called “morale building” music. At 1:30 p.m. he boarded a train for Fort Custer, Mich., headquarters of the 5th Infantry Division. Thus began his transition from baseball’s highest-paid player to lowly private, trading his $55,000 annual salary for $5.25 per week.

Greenberg spent 13 weeks in basic training before being assigned to Camp Livingston, La., where he joined the 32nd Division. Before long he was promoted to private first class, then to corporal in charge of a five-man anti-tank gun crew, then to sergeant of the machine-gun company of the 11th Infantry. All the while, he had baseball on the brain.

“As soon as I get out of the Army I’ll play ball again,” he told The New York Times. “It’s the only thing I can do.”

In November, the War Department issued a discharge order for selectees age 28 and older. Greenberg qualified. He’d be back with the Tigers before training camp opened.

He left the Army on Dec. 5, after 180 days of service. Heading home to New York, Greenberg told the Associated Press that he had little to do little but “wait for spring.”

Two days later Japan attacked Pearl Harbor.

For Greenberg the decision was easy. He re-enlisted immediately. Under the new circumstances, he said, “baseball is out the window.”

Thus began a three-year journey that saw the outfielder emerge from officer candidate school as a second lieutenant, get promoted to director of physical training of the Army Air Forces Flying Training Command at Ft. Worth, Tex., and ultimately end up as administrative commanding officer for the first B-29 overseas base of the 20th Air Force, in China, in charge of the cutting-edge Superfortress bomber. When the plane crashed on the runway during a testing run, Greenberg was among those who raced toward the wreckage, and was blown backward from 100 yards away when half of the ship’s bomb load exploded. Undeterred, Greenberg’s company pressed on to rescue five crewmen who’d disembarked just before the explosion and were huddled in a nearby ditch. As Greenberg circled the plane looking for others, the other half of the bomber’s payload went off, followed by exploding ammunition. As pieces of the aircraft landed all around him, Greenberg was pinned to the ground. Once things settled, he found the six remaining members of the crew in a nearby rice patty. Somehow, nobody was seriously injured.

These were not the adventures of a pampered ballplayer but of a bona-fide military man, doing everything possible to help the cause.

***

On June 14, 1945, two months before Japan officially surrendered, Greenberg received an honorable discharge. A week later, he was working out with the Tigers. On July 1, he trotted out to left field in Briggs Stadium for a game against the Philadelphia Athletics.

The number 249 had been hanging from the slugger’s neck for more than four years, across continents and job descriptions and military ranks. As the war drew on and his return to baseball seemed less likely, it had threatened to become a permanent fixture on his record.

But there he was, at age 34, again trying to reach the mark—four years and a lifetime away from where he had been the last time he attempted the feat. Now, he did not swing for the fences. This time everything was different. He wanted only to feel the dirt beneath his cleats and the bat in his hand, to feel like he hadn’t felt in forever—like a ballplayer again. Greenberg’s approach was easy, his expectations minimal.

In his fourth at-bat, he planted a fastball from lefthander Charlie Gassaway 375 feet into the left-field bleachers. Greenberg had his number, solid proof, finally, that he was home.

Sign stealing, The Baseball Codes

Why Does This Scandal, Among All Scandals, Have Legs? Let’s Start At The Top

Spring training has brought with it a PR shitstorm for baseball the likes of which was all but unimaginable only a few months ago. Despite Astros owner Jim Crane once feeling that the scandal surrounding his team would “blow over” by the time players reported, the opposite has been true. The opening of training camps has meant widespread engagement with reporters for the first time since Mike Fiers sparked this particular tinder last November. As it happens, the players aren’t too happy with how things have gone down. And as long as players continue to talk, controversy continues to reign.

It’s been a nightmare for the sport, and particularly for commissioner Rob Manfred, who would like nothing more than for this particular news cycle to dry itself out. That’s not going to happen any time soon, maybe for the rest of the season and maybe beyond that. There are a number of reasons for this, and Manfred himself is at the center of it all.

Let’s start with the fact that rumors and accusations concerning the Astros have been swirling for years. As I wrote in this space in 2018, first reported by Jeff Passan: “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.”

Let that sink in. The trash-can banging has been on MLB’s radar at least since 2018 and probably since it began, not to mention other accusations concerning an Astros employee literally filming opposing team’s dugouts, and the Yankees crying foul about Astros players whistling from the dugout to signal their teammates at the plate. Rather than react, Manfred cleared the Astros of wrongdoing. His statement at the time:

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 [filming the dugouts of the Red Sox and Indians], 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.

“We consider the matter closed.” It may as well be the epitaph on Manfred’s tombstone.

In the mind of the commish, the less attention he granted Houston’s misdeeds, the less play they’d eventually receive in the press, and the sooner it would all go away. He’d done something similar when the Red Sox were accused of using an Apple Watch in the dugout for nefarious purposes, and it had more or less worked out. Hell, it had been a proven strategy for Manfred and his predecessors alike. I pointed this out back in 2017, during the Red Sox investigation:

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.

In fact, those other incidents did disappear, more or less. What was different about this scandal?

For one thing, the Astros did not knock it off. For another Manfred did not respond with requisite gravity. Let’s examine those things one at a time.

Houston was accused of video snooping, and signaling stolen signs with claps, whistles and trash-can banging—not once, but year after year—and Manfred still considered the matter closed. This despite the Astros having either won the World Series or coming very close to doing so for three seasons straight. Which, for many players who have spoken out, is a large part of it.

Should the Dodgers retroactively be crowned the champions of 2017? Should Altuve’s AL MVP Award from that same season be vacated and given to runner-up Aaron Judge? Regardless of your opinion, the fact that these questions are being asked at all, in serious circles, indicates the depth of discontent surrounding this scandal. Manfred’s response—do nothing and hope, followed by comparatively superficial suspensions of GM Jeff Luhnow and manager AJ Hinch; a docking of two years’ worth of Houston draft picks and a monetary fine—was so wildly insufficient that people can not help but discuss what kind of penalty might actually be deserved. Those discussions help keep this scandal alive.

***

Another key to the longevity of the Astros’ drama are the Astros themselves. It begins with sheer arrogance, and it ends largely the same way.

Despite accusations—widespread, continuous accusations, lasting years—Houston appears to have done little to correct its ways. So pervasive is the impression that the Astros have left, that even after the trash-can banging stopped, popular opinion pivoted to the team having simply shifted to more discreet tactics rather than decide to actually play by the rules. Did Jose Altuve really prevent teammates from shredding his jersey because he was wearing a buzzer taped to his chest? In no other context could a player’s allegedly malformed tattoo garner so much attention.

It’s the same arrogance shown when the team gathered for spring training and offered perfunctory apologies, more because they had to, it appeared, than because they believed anything they were saying. Since-ousted GM Jeff Luhnow set the tone last November, shortly after the scandal broke, when he called the existence of the controversy “disappointing.”

I did an interview with a French news agency a couple of days ago (which illustrates exactly how big this scandal has grown) that got me thinking deeply about this topic. Baseball has relatively little context in France, and the reporter’s questions seemed to be aimed at understanding Americans at large as much as what is currently happening within the sporting landscape.

The conclusion I drew is that the United States is by and large a forgiving place. Within most contexts, should somebody mess up in a major way, all it takes for public absolution is a genuine act of contrition and a verifiable change in behavior.

Within this context, Astros players coming clean about what they’ve done and expressing actual remorse, not some half-baked facsimile of it, would have gone a long way toward helping their cause. Instead, fed little but indignation and excuses, and eying what many feel was insufficient punishment, we’re left feeling that Houston brazenly cheated, mostly got away with it, and will brazenly cheat again at the next possible opportunity. Bringing in Dusty Baker to run herd on the clubhouse was a step in the right direction, but giving him only a one-year pact (even while new GM James Click received a three-year deal) smacks of simply trying to ride out the storm.

Even for those who want to forgive them, the Astros are offering precious little with which to work.

***

We must also look at Manfred himself. His desire to minimize Houston’s actions has been pervasive, and not only with his shortsighted clearing of the Astros against espionage charges back in 2018. Over recent weeks we also have his frequently ridiculous comments on the matter.

First, he issued a report that focused primarily on Luhnow and Hinch while omitting the players entirely (Carlos Beltran aside). Manfred said that blanket immunity was necessary for eliciting honest feedback, but in the end he is left looking like he let the cheaters off the hook.

Then he said that “You’re never 100-percent sure in any of these things” when it comes to the testimony he received from Astros players in exchange for said immunity. As concerns the viewing public, 100-percent certainty is a prerequisite for belief that games are played fairly.

In an ESPN interview Manfred denigrated the World Series trophy as “just a piece of metal” and suggested that the simple shame of the matter was punishment enough for the team: “I think if you watch the players, watch their faces when they have to deal with this issue publicly, they have paid a price.” 

So bungled was his response that outraged players have been piling on, to the point that Manfred had to backtrack with an apology about his trophy crack. Which brings us to the final factor in the sustained outrage this scandal continues to generate: Players themselves.

Baseball is known for its insular culture. I discussed this at length in The Baseball Codes. Now, however, we have player after player piling on, to the point that oddsmakers are taking bets about how often Astros players will be drilled this season, and Mike Fiers feeling the need to publicly state that he’s able to take care of himself when facing potentially angry opponents.

The Yankees are discussing Judge deserving the MVP. The Dodgers are discussing their own claim to a title that they never won. We’ve heard players come out in defense of Fiers’ decision to blow the whistle, and also against it. Players in virtually every camp are expressing emotions ranging from displeasure to downright disgust over the scandal and its aftermath.

Opinions vary, but I’ll turn to Trevor Bauer, an original thinker who’s unafraid to speak his mind, to distill some of this. “Personally I think that what’s going on in baseball now is up there with the Black Sox scandal, and that it will be talked about forever—more so than steroids,” he wrote in the Players’ Tribune. “Like the steroid era, you can say what you want about it, but steroids weren’t really illegal at the time. The sign-stealing that was going on in Houston, though, was blatantly illegal. And with the rules that were implemented last year and the year before—that, by the way, were then still broken—it was very clear.”

The tide does not appear to be abating, and the moment that an Astros player is drilled under even remotely suspicious circumstances, it will be ignited anew.

Like Bauer said, this has the potential to be the steroid era and the Black Sox scandal all wrapped up into one. It’s going to take a deft touch, some earnest reactions and a visionary approach not only to punishments but to preventative measures for this to die down.

Early returns are not promising. Let’s play some baseball.

The Baseball Codes

Now That The Astros Are in the Capable Hands of Dusty Baker, Let’s Talk About Sign Stealing Again

With Dusty Baker hired to right the ship of the Houston Astros—the direct result of a sign-stealing scandal with the previous administration—I can’t help but think about the conversations I’ve had with him about that very topic, both for The Baseball Codes and in the years since.

To be clear, we’ve spoken exclusively about the “acceptable” variety—sign stealing from the basepaths, unaided by video feeds or other mechanical devices. So good was that portion of the interview we did for the book that I opted to begin the chapter called “Sign Stealing” with an anecdote from Baker’s days managing the Giants, which serves to encapsulate his opinions on the subject. It’s excerpted below. First, though, some kudos for Houston.

As an organization trying to move beyond a culture that is widely acknowledged to be damaged well beyond the public scandals of sign stealing and the botched cover-up of an executive’s tirade toward female reporters during the postseason, the Astros couldn’t have picked a better guy. Baker has earned die-hard loyalty from players across every team he’s managed, and commands respect from all corners of the baseball landscape. The guy is an institution based largely on his positive outlook, moral clarity and downright rational approach. I’m not exaggerating when I say that I haven’t encountered a more charismatic figure in my 25 years covering the sport.

Turns out there’s more than one way to win. Great move, Astros.

From The Baseball Codes:

It started with a thirteen-run sixth. Actually, it started with a five-run fifth, but nobody realized it until the score started ballooning an inning later. It was 1997, a sunshiny Wednesday afternoon in San Francisco. By the end of the game, it was 19–3 Expos, and the Giants—the team at the wrong end of that score—were angry, grumbling that the roster of their opponents was populated by thieves.

San Francisco’s thinking stemmed from the belief that it likely takes more than skill or luck to send seventeen men to the plate against three pitchers in a single inning. There was no disputing the numbers: Mon­treal had six players with three or more hits on the day, and in the sixth inning alone five Expos picked up two hits apiece, including a pair of Mike Lansing homers. Montreal opened its epic frame with eight consec­utive hits, two shy of the big-league record, and it was a half-hour before the third out was recorded.

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.’ ”

What Baker was referring to was the suspicion that Santangelo and other members of the Expos had decoded the signs put down by Giants catcher Marcus Jensen for the parade of San Francisco pitchers. From second base a runner has an unimpeded sightline to the catcher’s hands. Should the runner be quick to decipher what he sees, he can—with a series of indicators that may or may not come across as “looking one way and crossing over, hands on, hands off ”—notify the hitter about what to expect. Skilled relayers can offer up specifics like fastball or curveball, but it doesn’t take much, not even the ability to decode signs, to indicate whether the catcher is setting up inside or outside.

If the runner is correct, the batter’s advantage can be profound. Brook­lyn Dodgers manager Charlie Dressen, who was as proud of his ability to steal signs from the opposing dugout as he was of his ability to manage a ball club, said that the information he fed his players resulted in nine extra victories a year.

Baker sent a word of warning to the Expos through San Francisco third-base coach Sonny Jackson, who was positioned near the visitors’ dugout. Jackson tracked down Santangelo as the game ended and informed him that he and his teammates would be well served to avoid such tactics in the future. More precisely, he said that “somebody’s going to get killed” if Montreal kept it up. The player’s response was similarly lacking in timidity. “I just told him I don’t fucking tip off fucking pitches and neither does this team,” Santangelo told reporters after the game. “Maybe they were pissed because they were getting their asses kicked.”

The Giants’ asses had been kicked two nights in a row, in fact, given that the Expos had cruised to a 10–3 victory in the previous game. It was while watching videotape of the first beating that Baker grew convinced some­thing was amiss, and so was especially vigilant the following day. When Henry Rodriguez hit a fifth-inning grand slam on a low-and-away 1-2 pitch, alarm bells went off in Baker’s head. Former Red Sox 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.” The Expos trailed 3–1 at the time, then scored eighteen straight before the Giants could record four more outs.

Baker knew all about sign stealing from his playing days, had even practiced it some, and the Expos weren’t the first club he’d called out as a manager. During a 1993 game in Atlanta, he accused Jimy Williams of untoward behavior after watching the Braves’ third-base coach pacing up and down the line and peering persistently into the San Francisco dugout.

For days after the drubbing by Montreal, accusations, denials, veiled threats, and not-so-veiled threats flew back and forth between the Giants and the Expos. Among the bluster, the two primary adversaries in the bat­tle laid out some of the basics for this particular unwritten rule.

Santangelo, in the midst of a denial: “Hey, if you’re dumb enough to let me see your signs, why shouldn’t I take advantage of it?”

Baker: “Stealing signs is part of the game—that’s not the problem. The problem is, if you get caught, quit. That’s the deal. If you get caught you have to stop.”

Signs have been stolen in major-league baseball for as long as there have been signs to steal, and players and managers generally accept that opponents will try to gain every possible advantage. It’s why signals from the catcher to the pitcher, from the dugout to the field, and from the third-base coach to the hitter can be so complex. And as Santangelo said, if the team from which they’re being stolen isn’t doing enough to protect them, whose fault is that?

No-Hitter Etiquette, The Baseball Codes

Softball Coach Cares Little For The Code

softball
Ms. Phoenix

Maybe it’s a softball thing.

Check that, given the abundance of baseball players who have done similar things, it’s more universal than that.

In Jefferson City, MO, a softball coach threw decorum out the window, and freely discussed the no-hitter his pitcher was throwing with the pitcher herself, while she was throwing it. Luckily, the pitcher in question, Lauren Howell, doesn’t appear to be much for superstition, shutting down the opposing Battle Spartans—the Battle Spartans!—the rest of the way in a 6-0 victory.

Maybe the softball gods are no more concerned about this kind of thing than the baseball gods.