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.

 

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Bunt appropriately, Bunting for hits, Gamesmanship, Taking Advantage of Injury

CC Sabathia Still Has Issues With Boston’s Bunting

Nunez bunts

America is a place where people in prominence can claim ludicrous things and then, after others have pointed out said ludicrousness, double down on their bad ideas. Freedom.

On Thursday, it was CC Sabathia’s turn. Remember just last week when he made the specious, if not downright addled claim that because he was returning from a knee injury, the Red Sox had no right to bunt against him?

If anybody tried to explain to him what a flawed position he was taking, they did a poor job of it. Yesterday, Sabathia again faced the Red Sox, and again the Red Sox did some bunting—starting with the game’s second hitter, Eduardo Nunez, who laid one down in front of the plate, which Sabathia pounced upon … and then threw wildly for an error. “That’s my game,” said Nunez, who also bunted against the pitcher last week, in a Providence Journal article. “You can’t take away my game.”

The strategy proved effective beyond the reach of the bunt itself, when a rattled Sabathia walked the two guys following Nunez in the order, throwing only two strikes in the span of 10 pitches. The pitcher buckled down to escape the jam, then yelled toward the Red Sox dugout as he left the field, explaining in R-rated terms how he felt about their strategy. After the game he said, via a New York Daily News report, that the Red Sox were “scared,” and that “they just think I’m a bigger guy who can’t field my position.”

Well, yes. To which an appropriate response could entail multiple suggestions, primary among them: Figure out how to field your position, or learn to deal with the consequences. Sabathia’s knee is “not my problem,” said Nunez, adding, “If I have to bunt four times in a row, I’d do it. I don’t care if he’s mad or not.”

With last week’s round of complaints, the pitcher effectively offered an open invitation for opponents to get inside his head by bunting. When the Red Sox took him up on it, he responded by channeling a senior citizen chasing neighborhood kids off his lawn.

“I’m an old man,” groused the 37-year-old. “They should want to go out and kick my butt.”

Yes and no. The problem with kicking the butt of an effective pitcher is that alternative paths are sometimes the best route to success. Sabathia earned the victory on Thursday with six innings of one-run ball, and has now won all four of his starts against Boston this season. The Red Sox are obligated to find more effective methods against him.

During the Revolutionary War, the British complained that American forces wouldn’t fight them in formation—a tactic that almost certainly would have led to defeat. With this in mind, why would any team approach Sabathia in his own chosen manner, unless they concurred that it was the best approach?

The Red Sox are being paid to win baseball games, and satisfying the skewed morals of a crotchety pitcher has nothing to do with winning baseball games.

Freedom. Get off my lawn.

 

Retaliation

Corey Kluber Is No Fan Of Hard Swings, and Doesn’t Care How Hard He’s Hit in Order to Prove It

Kluber

Maybe when you’re as good as Corey Kluber, you think you can get away with questionable activities.

Maybe when you’re as good as Corey Kluber, you think that your prodigious skill will help you escape any jam—even those of your own devising.

Maybe when you’re as good as Corey Kluber, it doesn’t matter to you whether or when you put opposing players on the basepaths, because you’re Corey Kluber and you’re good enough to handle your business.

Right up until the moment that you’re not.

Heading into the eighth inning of last Wednesday’s game against Boston, Kluber was pitching a gem: four hits, one run, 11 strikeouts, one walk. That Cleveland was losing 1-0 had very little to do with his performance.

Kluber got Mitch Moreland to fly out for the first out of the eighth. He whiffed Christian Vazquez—making it an even dozen on the day for the right-hander—for the second out. After a walk to Brock Holt, Eduardo Nunez came up and, with a 2-0 count, took a mammoth swing, spinning himself into the dirt as he futilely chased a 90 mph cutter. Kluber didn’t like it. With his next pitch, he drilled Nunez.

 

Maybe the pitcher thought it was a safe move with two outs, but Nunez bats leadoff in a high-powered offense. The next batter, Mookie Betts, drilled a single off the glove of third baseman Giovanny Urshela, bringing home Holt and padding Boston’s lead. Out came manager Terry Francona, and that was it for Kluber. Before the game ended the Red Sox had tacked on four more runs against Cleveland’s bullpen in a 6-1 victory.

From the Boston Herald:

Asked on Thursday if there was any reaction in the dugout when Nunez got hit, Red Sox manager John Farrell said, “For (a guy with) pinpoint control, you know, I think that was fairly obvious, the message (that was sent).”

Is it against the unwritten rules of baseball to swing too hard?

“No, I don’t think so,” Farrell said.

It was a perfect example of the line between confidence and cockiness. Kluber perceived Nunez’s swing as some sort of slight—never mind that the vast majority of his colleagues would have brushed it off as being of little consequence—and felt invincible enough to act on it in the moment. Baseball has long had an unwritten rule regulating swings at 3-0 pitches (only the reddest of asses in big league history even considered 2-0), but that applies only in blowouts, which this game decidedly was not.

Perhaps it was a lesson that no pitcher, Kluber included, is as invincible as he might occasionally think. Or maybe it was just karma. Either way, it did not end well for the Indians.

[H/T WEEI.]

Bunt appropriately, Bunting for hits, Gamesmanship, Taking Advantage of Injury

CC Sabathia Has Thoughts on Boston’s Bunting Habits

Knee

CC Sabathia is angry that the Red Sox took advantage of him. The pitcher, returning from a knee injury, tossed a splendid game against Boston over the weekend, giving up four hits and two runs over six innings to earn the win. One of his takeaways, however, concerned the opposition’s sustained insistence on making him prove that he was healthy by laying down bunt after bunt, to test the left-hander’s agility.

Boston’s very first batter, Eduardo Nunez started things off, though his attempt rolled foul and Sabathia ended up striking him out. Outfielder Andrew Benintendi did similarly, and Sabathia fielded his bunt cleanly, after which he motioned in frustration with his glove toward the Red Sox dugout.

“To come out and that’s your strategy, that got me going a little bit,” Sabathia told the New York Post after the game. “Literally, two of the hottest hitters in baseball bunting. If that was their strategy, I [handled] it.”

The pitcher’s anger is misplaced. Any player nursing an injury is a proven liability, not to mention a target for the opposition. If Sabathia was not healthy enough to help his team, he should not have been on the mound. If he was able to help his team—and boy was he ever—then the upside of his pitching had to be sufficient to protect against those who might seek to take advantage of him in other ways.

It’s why Dusty Baker played in the 1981 World Series with a sprained wrist, despite it preventing him from doing anything of consequence with the bat. The threat of Baker in the lineup was itself valuable, and by not openly discussing his injury, sustained away from the field during the NLCS, he hoped that the Yankees would continue to treat him as the dangerous hitter he’d been all season long.

It doesn’t even take an injury to fit this bill. During the 1974 World Series, Alvin Dark called in Catfish Hunter for a relief role to close out Game 1. When Dark said that the hitter, Joe Ferguson, couldn’t handle curveballs, Hunter told him that Ferguson would see nothing but fastballs. The reason: “I ain’t got no curveball today.” At that moment it was up to Hunter—as it is up to any pitcher trying to perform without his full complement of pitches—to keep that knowledge from the opposition for as long as possible. Ferguson had no idea that he’d not see a single bender, and so had to prepare for the opportunity that he might.

Five fastballs later, he went down swinging for the game’s final out. This kind of thing happens all the time.

Sabathia is obviously concerned about his health, and has every right to be. But if he’s not up for fulfilling every facet of his job description, he must at least be willing to act as if he is.

 

Retaliation, Umpires Knowing the Code

When Bad Things Happen to Good Pitchers … At Least Pitchers With Good Intentions

Gausman

When it comes to baseball’s unwritten rules, it’s often imperative that umpires are apprised of any history that might play into potential confrontation between teams. Frequently this helps. Sometimes it doesn’t.

Wednesday fit into the “doesn’t” category.

As the Red Sox and Orioles took the field, everybody around baseball—fans, players, coaches and all levels of management—knew about what had gone down between them. Also, more importantly, what had the potential to go down.

Commissioner Rob Manfred was sufficiently concerned, arranging, along with MLB’s Chief Baseball Officer Joe Torre, a pregame conference call with Dan Duquette and Buck Showalter of the Orioles, and Dave Dombrowski and John Farrell of the Red Sox. In so doing, he put everybody on both sides on notice, and effectively provided plate umpire Sam Holbrook an extra-heavy mallet with which to hammer out the peace.

In an ideal world, the threat of action on the umpire’s part would have been enough. In retrospect, it might actually have sufficed, and yet we do not live in an ideal world. Because in the second inning, Baltimore’s Kevin Gausman hit Xander Bogaerts.

In a vacuum, the play would barely have registered. Gausman had faced only five batters. He’d been erratic, throwing only eight of his 20 pitches on the day for strikes. The fateful pitch was a 76 mph curveball—the last weapon of choice for somebody with vengeance on his mind. Given that Gausman was working under the hottest lights imaginable for such a thing, Bogaerts could not have been hit less intenationally.

It made no difference. The game had, somewhat surprisingly, begun without warnings, and Holbrook opted against issuing one to Gausman. Instead, he ejected him from the game, in the process becoming the poster child for brain-locking umpires who make shortsightedly stupid calls.

The Orioles were stunned. Gausman signaled furiously that it had been a breaking pitch that failed to break, and nothing more. Catcher Caleb Joseph spiked his mask and had to be physically separated from Holbrook. Adam Jones ventured all the way in from center field to protest, and was eventually tossed when he kept yapping following a fifth-inning at-bat.

So the Orioles had to go to their bullpen three outs into the game. Even though they were fortunate to squeeze seven innings out of Richard Bleier (making his first appearance of the season after being called up from Triple-A Norfolk) and Ubaldo Jimenez, they will be pitching shorthanded in the bullpen for days to come. Also, they lost, 4-2.

We’ve seen pitchers tossed for similarly little. We’ve seen instances in which clueless umpires didn’t do enough to staunch a potentially volatile situation. But as we learned Wednesday, it’s not just the information an umpire’s given, it’s how he uses it that matters.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Retaliation

Obsess Much? Time For Red Sox To Let Go Of Machado’s Slide

Sale-Machado

The theme of the last two weeks has been Pitchers Throwing Behind Hitters Who Don’t Seem to Understand That Pitchers Who Throw Behind Them Haven’t Actually Hit Them. 

The recent pitches in question have come in both above the shoulder (bad) and below (better). Either way, outrage abounded.

The upshot is that purpose pitches are precisely that: pitches that serve a purpose, delivering messages about unappreciated behavior on the part of the opponent. The takeaway in this corner, generally speaking, is that a pitch behind a guy, away from his head, which poses no danger to his physical well-being, should not inspire the kind of misguided rage that we saw last week.

Then came yesterday. Chris Sale threw behind Manny Machado. Manny Machado was unhappy.

Unlike some of the preceding examples of misplaced animosity, he had every right to be.

The Red Sox were angry when Machado spiked Dustin Pedroia on April 21. They responded on April 22, first when Eduardo Rodriguez threw three pitches at Machado’s knees, all of which failed to connect, then another one, from reliever Matt Barnes, behind his head.

It is reasonable to expect that the first dose of retaliation should have mitigated whatever karmic debt Machado incurred with his slide, and that Barnes cleaned up any leftover crumbs with his ill-conceived follow-up. If the Red Sox wanted to drill Machado, they had their shot—two of them—and they blew it. The expiration date on their justified rage had passed.

Boston did not see it that way.

Which leads to the question: What was Chris Sale’s goal? Did he want to drill Machado, but, like his teammates before him, miss? Did he simply want to send what has becoming an increasingly common message that the guys in his clubhouse haven’t forgotten about what the guy in the other clubhouse did? Was it somehow about Mookie Betts, who had been hit by a pitch a day earlier?

No matter the answer, to what freaking end?

Assuming that the pitch was related to the Pedroia play, Machado already knows that the Red Sox, or at least certain players among their ranks, don’t like him. He knows that what he did continues to sit poorly with Boston’s roster. The Red Sox have gone through great pains to inform him of this. Sale’s pitch lent no additional degree of understanding.

Perhaps it’s Machado’s ongoing insistence that his slide was entirely above board. Maybe it’s aggrieved reaction to being thrown at the first time. Regardless, the Red Sox refuse to let it go.

To Machado’s credit, he handled his rage beautifully, saving it for a profanity-laced postgame rant for the ages. On the field, he simply took his base and later hit a monster home run.

The Red Sox have gone from good-guy victims in this drama to out-of-control vengeance monsters in the span of a week. The theme of recent message pitches across the league—hitters need to understand them better in order to better process the messages therein—has flipped entirely. This time it’s pitchers who need to understand when and how to end what at this point seems like an endless string of retaliatory actions.

It’s not a good look, for the Red Sox or for baseball.

 

Retaliation

Boston Puts the ‘Harm’ in Charm City: Head-High Retaliation Draws O’s Ire

Machado headball

Baseball’s unwritten rules are pretty straightforward. When Manny Machado took out Dustin Pedroia with what many felt was a reckless slide on Friday, it seemed likely that the Red Sox would respond. A pitched ball into the ribcage or thigh, with Machado its probable target, would send a clear message to Baltimore and others around the league that taking liberties with Boston players comes at a price.

Then Matt Barnes threw at Machado’s head and sent the entire framework spinning on its axis.

Instead of closing the book on the incident, Barnes further inflamed some already raw feelings.

Instead of avenging Pedroia, Barnes forced his teammate into the uncomfortable position of having to shout across the field to Machado that the idea wasn’t his.

Instead of showing a unified clubhouse in which mutual accountability is paramount, where everyone has everyone else’s back, the Red Sox appear disjointed, unsure of what’s expected, who wants what, and how to execute when the time comes.

Orioles pitcher Zach Britton nailed it after the game when he told BaltimoreBaseballcom: “[Pedroia] is the leader of that clubhouse, and if he can’t control his own teammates, then there’s a bigger issue over there.”

The Red Sox actually tried to nail Machado earlier in the game, when in the sixth inning starter Eduardo Rodriguez threw three pitches toward Machado’s knees, all of which failed to connect. So two innings later, Barnes took things into his own hands. His head-high pitch just missed its mark, sailing across Machado’s shoulder blades, and ricocheted off his bat for a foul ball. (Watch it all here.)

The egregiousness of the pitch lent undue credence to those suggesting that the time for retaliation had already passed—never mind that in the two games between Machado’s slide and Rodriguez’s aborted response, neither team led by more than two runs, thus diminishing the Boston’s ability to freely cede baserunners to the opposition.

After the game, Pedroia went so far as to completely disavow his role. “That’s not how you do that, man,” he told reporters. “I’m sorry to [Machado] and his team. If you’re going to protect guys, you do it right away.” He then clarified: “It’s definitely a mishandled situation. There was zero intention of [Machado] trying to hurt me. He just made a bad slide. He did hurt me. It’s baseball, man. I’m not mad at him. I love Manny Machado.”

Boston manager John Farrell called it a dangerous pitch, but was it ordered? Possibly. Because Pedroia steered as clear as possible from the result doesn’t mean he wouldn’t have appreciated—or didn’t ask for—a better-placed retaliatory strike. Still, when he shouted across the field to Machado, Pedroia could clearly be seen saying, “It’s not me, it’s them.”

Who them are is of some interest, be it Farrell, a coach or a veteran pitcher offering guidance to Rodriguez and Barnes. Farrell’s statement in an MLB.com report—“Make no mistake, the ball got away from him. My comments are what they are”—leave open the possibility that he approved the message, if not the delivery.

It all serves as background in the face of a rapidly swinging pendulum. On Friday, it was Manny Machado playing the bad-guy role. To judge by his comments on Sunday—“I thought I did a good slide [on Friday]. Everyone knows. Everyone saw the replay on that side. That’s on them”—he has little interest in correcting the record.

Yet with one pitch, Barnes flipped the script for both clubhouses. It’s the Red Sox now wearing the black hats, and the Orioles with leeway to exact some retaliation of their own. (Machado got a measure of revenge after Barnes was kicked out of the game, tagging an RBI double off of the first offering from replacement pitcher Joe Kelly.)

What remains to be seen is how the Orioles respond. If they handle their business correctly, maybe everybody can put this affair behind them. If they do things like Matt Barnes and the Red Sox, however, we can count on things being dragged out even further.

The teams start a four-game series in Boston on May 1.

***

In  a related note, Zach Britton was unusually forthright in his description of how things work in this regard. As related to Rodriguez (in his third year in the league) and Barnes (in his fourth), Britton said this:

“As a player that doesn’t have the most service time in this room, when a guy like Adam Jones tells me to do something or not to do something, I’m going to do [what he says]. Same with Chris Davis or Darren O’Day, the guys in my bullpen. If they tell me, ‘Don’t do this or that,’ I’m going to listen to them because they’ve been around the game and they’ve seen things I haven’t seen. And you respect their leadership.”

As an institution, baseball has been drifting away from unwritten rules like these largely because the leadership Britton referenced features fewer old-school opinions with every year that passes. That doesn’t mean those opinions don’t still exist, however, more strongly in some clubhouses than others. It’s highly unlikely that anybody on the Red Sox suggested that Barnes go head-hunting, but given Pedroia’s response it’s a near-certainty that somebody suggested that a response to Machado was necessary.