Sign stealing

Did The Dodgers Take Advantage Of Stolen Signs In Game 2? It Sure Seems Like It

Manny signals

There are lots of reasons to dislike Manny Machado. Stealing signs isn’t one of them.

It’s not that he doesn’t steal signs. To the contrary, according to a piece by Bleacher Report’s Scott Miller, Machado is an active sign stealer, and the Red Sox know all about it.

Just don’t hate him for it, because that kind of action puts him firmly in baseball’s mainstream.

According to Miller, during the fourth inning of Wednesday’s Game 2 in Boston, Machado, on second base, went through a series of gyrations that signaled to the hitter, Kike Hernandez, what kind of pitch was about to be delivered. From that vantage, of course, Machado had a clear view into the signs catcher Christian Vazquez was giving to David Price, and relayed them appropriately to the plate. Hernandez hung in for nine straight pitches, giving his teammate plenty of opportunities.

From Bleacher Report:

As Price was coming set, Machado, leading off from second, would place his hands on his hips. Then, just before each pitch, Machado would begin a series of motions: touching his helmet with either his right or left hand, sometimes then touching or pulling the script on his jersey afterward and other times grabbing or touching the thigh/groin area of his pants.

Red Sox pitching coach Dana LeVangie caught on to it right away, and was primed to visit the mound to inform Price about it. The left-hander, however, ended up striking out Hernandez, and the coach opted against interfering with his momentum. With the score 1-1, it was a gamble.

The next batter, Yasiel Puig, made Boston pay. Machado signaled him from the start, just as he had with Hernandez, and Puig slapped Price’s first pitch into center field for a single to bring home Machado and give LA the lead.

“I saw Manny the entire time,” said LeVangie after the game. “I knew what he was doing.”

This kind of stuff happens constantly, and is rarely cause for alarm. Mostly it just means that the team being pilfered needs better signs.

The Dodgers alone have been on the receiving end of things that have blown up to the point that the media took notice at least twice over the last few seasons, and have at least once been accused.

The Baseball Codes offers an entire chapter on sign stealing, which opens with an incident from a game in 1997 in which the Expos beat the Giants 19-3. From that passage:

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.’ ”

Former Boston 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.”

It doesn’t even have to be that complicated. All a baserunner has to do to be effective is signal location—where the catcher’s setting up. If the pitcher hits his spot, the batter has a profound advantage. Not that the Red Sox were angered by Machado’s efforts, per se.

“Oh, it’s clean,” LaVangie said. “It’s baseball. If you’re not hiding your stuff with a runner on second base and you’re giving them a free view, that’s on you, the pitcher and the catcher. It’s up to the pitcher and catcher to manage that and to us to oversee it and make sure we’re going about it the right way.

“We see this all the time. Not just him, with everyone. We are very respectful of all this, and it’s a big part of who we are and what we try to manage. As far as our pitching staff, we want to make sure we control those guys at second base and [that] they’re not stealing our signs. We’re changing our signs constantly, every pitch. Typically, every one of our pitchers will change every pitch.”

This isn’t as difficult as it might seem. Teams usually use an indicator sign to notify the pitcher that whatever comes next is the one he should pay attention to. Changing signs can be as simple as changing the indicator. Still, it’s a layer of subterfuge that teams would rather not have to take.

We’re now at the point at which both teams have a decision to make. Dusty Baker summed up the Dodgers’ end when he was discussing the Giants-Expos incident from back in ’97. “Stealing signs is part of the game—that’s not the problem,” he said. The problem is, if you get caught, quit. That’s the deal. If you get caught you have to stop.”

In a few hours we’ll see if the Dodgers do stop. If they don’t, just as Baker insinuated, that’s the point at which real problems might arise.

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Pitch Tipping

Was Tipping Pitches To Blame For Severino’s Awful ALDS Start?

Severino

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. We’ve covered the topic in this space before, regarding Johan Santana, Ben Sheets and Matt Moore, among other instances. The Baseball Codes itself has an entire section on pitch tipping, including the following passage:

Hall of Fame spitballer Burleigh Grimes was done in by his cap. Although he 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 the brim of his hat—visible above the top of his glove—would rise when he opened his mouth to spit, and 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 their most astute. 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.”

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 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—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, and neither are the Red Sox. Trade secrets like this are valuable commodities, after all. One thing to be certain of, however, 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.

Retaliation, Slide properly

Fists Fly in Boston After Austin Powers Toward The Mound

Kelly punchesTyler Austin should have known better.

He should have known the pitch was coming as soon as he took out Red Sox shortstop Brock Holt with a questionable slide in the third inning, especially after Holt called him on it when it happened.

He should have known that leading with his foot raised several inches off the ground and well inside the bag, leaping late so that he all but landed on the fielder, would draw the opposition’s ire, even if he intended no malice.

He should have known that wearing one in that situation, even a 97-mph fastball—especially a 97-mph fastball—was his duty as the guy at the wrong end of the previous confrontation. It was on Austin to understand that his play looked bad, independent of whether he thought it actually was bad. Wear it with dignity, and everyone can go about their day.

That’s not what happened.

Boston reliever Joe Kelly held up his end of the bargain, planting a fastball into Austin’s ribcage, at which point the hitter spiked his bat and raced toward the mound. Kelly beckoned him almost gleefully, and proceeded to land multiple blows after Austin’s momentum took him to the ground. The rest of the fight— Austin punching Red Sox coach Carlos Febles by mistake while swinging at Kelly; Aaron Judge seeming to hold off half of Boston’s roster by himself—was no less fraught.

Still, there’s plenty of grey area for quibbling from both sides of the Yankees-Red Sox divide. Austin’s first at-bat following his slide came leading off the fifth, with Boston leading, 8-1. Starter Heath Hembree opted against squaring the hitter’s debt at that point, instead striking the hitter out on four pitches. It’s not incumbent upon Hembree to respond, of course, but were the Red Sox to address Austin’s slide on the field, that seemed like the obvious spot to do so.

By the time Kelly took matters into his own hands two innings later, New York had trimmed its deficit to 10-6. There’s also the fact that Kelly missed on his first attempt, Austin backing out of the way of an inside fastball two pitches prior to the one that ended up drilling him. Austin was correct in his postgame assessment when he said, “I thought it was over after that. They missed with the first one. In baseball, once it happens, it’s over after that.”

It’s important to understand, though, why Kelly did what he did. When an opponent takes liberties with a player’s on-field safety—as Austin did with Holt, independent of severity or intent—pitchers can be compelled to respond. Former Diamondbacks manager Bob Brenly elucidated the notion in The Baseball Codes, and though he was talking about it in reverse—using his baserunning to counter a HBP, not the other way around—the logic holds:

“I’ve gotten on first base when I’ve been hit by a pitch and told the first baseman, ‘If there’s a ground ball hit I’m going to fuck up one of your middle infielders, and [pointing to the mound] you can tell him that it was his fault.’ That’s a way you can get them to police themselves. A pitcher drills somebody just because he feels like it, and if one of the middle infielders gets flipped out there he’s going to tell the pitcher to knock it off. Ultimately, that’s all we want anyway—just play the game the right way.”

Tellingly, in Austin’s postgame comments, he seemed about to say, “I play the game the right way,” but caught himself. Instead the phrase he used was, “I play the game hard.”

No matter how one feels about his actions, there’s no denying that.

The Yankees and Red Sox conclude their series tonight.

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.

 

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.]