Sign stealing

MLB Clears Astros Spy Of Wrongdoing, Because Whose Interests Is It Really In To Call Out That Kind Of Thing At This Time Of Year?

Astros camera

Some people think the Astros were illegally stealing signs from the stands during the playoffs. Okay, a lot of people think the Astros were illegally stealing signs from the stands during the playoffs.

According to Metro US and Yahoo’s Jeff Passan, a guy named Kyle McLaughlin, working for Houston, was perched in a dugout-adjacent photographer well without appropriate credentials and aiming a cell phone into Cleveland’s dugout during the ALDS. He was also caught doing it to the Red Sox during the current ALCS.

Houston said that it was a counterintelligence effort, an attempt by the Astros to ensure that opponents were not spying on them. Of primary concern were last year’s allegations that a Red Sox coach used an Apple Watch to steal opponents’ signs.

Passan’s report, however, details other allegations against the Astros that don’t much square with their defense. Among others, members of the Oakland A’s “noticed Astros players clapping in the dugout before pitches and believed they were relaying stolen signs,” with the Dodgers airing similar concerns during last year’s World Series. Other players noted various Astros banging a trash can in the dugout during games as a supposed method of communicating pinched signs.

As has been noted many times in this space, there are different layers to this kind of thing. If the signs are being stolen from the field of play without use of mechanical aid, that’s normal. If, for example, a baserunner at second has a clear view in to the catcher’s signs, and if the catcher has not mixed things up to the point that said baserunner can quickly and easily decipher them, and if those signs are then relayed to the hitter at the plate prior to the pitch being thrown—well, that’s mostly on the defensive team for not implementing better signs. Even if the runner is indicating only location—where the catcher places his target pre-pitch—that too can be countered by the catcher setting up too late in the sequence for the runner to do anything about it.

It’s all totally legal.

What’s not legal, either in the unwritten rulebook or the actual one, is the use of binoculars, TV cameras, radio devices and the like, including Apple Watches. Unless a pitcher was exhibiting an obvious tell, it’s extremely unlikely that the Astros would be clapping or banging garbage cans in their dugout based on something they saw directly. Much more feasible is that somebody with a video feed was passing them timely information.

In my Apple Watch post I offered some brief history on illicit sign stealing, including the 1950s “exploding scoreboard” at Comiskey Park, the military-grade gun sight that Bob Feller used to help the Indians to the 1948 pennant, and the Cubs’ traveling secretary, who used binoculars to nab opponents’ signs from the Wrigley Field scoreboard in the 1950s. Such affairs are hardly a relic of the past, however. From that post:

More recently, the Blue Jays were accused repeatedly, by numerous opponents, of similar activity at the Rogers Centre, to the point that ESPN commissioned an expansive expose on the practice.

The Phillies drew the ire of multiple teams—including the Yankees, in the World Series—for their alleged ballpark shenanigans. It didn’t help that, in 2010, their bullpen coach was caught on the field with binoculars.

In 2014, Chris Sale accused Victor Martinez and the Tigers of having somebody in center field.

The Padres have had (probably baseless) accusations thrown their way, as have the Marlins.

All of which is to say that this is nothing new. If you haven’t heard about repercussions from those other incidents, you likely won’t remember the fallout from this one either. Assuming that the Red Sox knock it off, you can expect it to quietly disappear.

Perhaps the Red Sox didn’t knock it off, and Houston’s excuse that they were just being vigilant is valid. Or perhaps many teams are involved in this kind of thing, and are only very rarely caught, and the Astros were just trying to get away with something. (That said, we’re in the playoffs now. TV cameras are everywhere and people are paying attention. Houston really has to be smarter.)

MLB responded to the affair by increasing its security detail at Tuesday’s Game 3, sending an additional nine staffers—three from baseball-ops and six from security—to monitor the game, including somebody in each team’s video-review room. Its takeaway: Houston did nothing wrong. The official statement:

Before the Postseason began, a number of Clubs called the Commissioner’s Office about sign stealing and the inappropriate use of video equipment. The concerns expressed related to a number of Clubs, not any one specific Club. In response to these calls, the Commissioner’s Office reinforced the existing rules with all playoff Clubs and undertook proactive measures, including instituting a new prohibition on the use of certain in-stadium cameras, increasing the presence of operations and security personnel from Major League Baseball at all Postseason games and instituting a program of monitoring Club video rooms.

With respect to both incidents regarding a Houston Astros employee, security identified an issue, addressed it and turned the matter over to the Department of Investigations. A thorough investigation concluded that an Astros employee was monitoring the field to ensure that the opposing Club was not violating any rules. All Clubs remaining in the playoffs have been notified to refrain from these types of efforts and to direct complaints about any in-stadium rules violations to MLB staff for investigation and resolution. We consider the matter closed.

Look away. Nothing to see here.

Of course, even as the Astros claimed vindication—”They’ve done their investigation and cleared us” crowed Houston GM Jeff Luhnow prior to Game 4—there’s a lot more to unpack here. Taking Luhnow’s claims of innocence at face value means that, at the very least, his opponents—specifically Cleveland in the ALDS and Boston currently—may well be doing the things that the Astros have themselves been recently accused of. At a minimum, Houston’s suspicions were strong to station a non-credentialed employee in a sensitive location to enact shady surveillance tactics in response.

Is that actually likely? MLB’s claims to support the theory suggest that it is. Or maybe it’s just that the league office wants to avoid a spygate controversy blowing up on the cusp of the World Series, potentially sullying the eventual champion, whoever that might be.

When a baserunner is caught trying to relay pinched signs to a hitter, it’s incumbent upon his team to knock things off, at least for a while. My own guess is that the knock-it-off message here is coming from an institutional level, not from one player to another but from the commissioner’s office to the Astros, telling them that this entire affair is bad for business and it’d be best for everyone if it was quickly forgotten.

Which it no doubt will be.

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Respect Teammates, Showing Players Up

Attention Astros: Do Not Show Each Other Up On Jose Altuve’s Watch

McCullers glares

What with baseball’s Code being all about respect, and what with the topic frequently having to do with showing players up (see, bat flips, pitcher gesticulations and even the occasional kiss), it’s easy to overlook that the players a guy shows up don’t have to be on the other team.

Take Saturday’s game in Cleveland, for example. Lance McCullers, pitching for the Astros, had allowed runners at the corners with nobody out in the second, when Melky Cabrera smacked a ground ball right through first baseman Yuli Gurriel, playing in, for an error. McCullers did not take it well, showing visible frustration as he spun from the play, while screaming what looks on replay like an expletive.

The right-hander didn’t think any more of it until after the inning, when, approaching the dugout, he stuck out his glove for an attaboy from Jose Altuve. Instead, Altuve swatted McCullers’ glove away, spiked his cap, and proceeded to give the 24-year-old an impromptu etiquette lesson, at volume.

As it happens, ballplayers have a low tolerance for this kind of thing. The guy with perhaps the most pronounced reputation for such behavior is Hall of Famer Gaylord Perry, whose competitive instincts and take-no-prisoners attitude helped him win 314 big league games over 22 seasons. Those same attributes also helped  alienate scores of teammates.

“He’d glare at you,” said Dave Nelson, Perry’s teammate with the Texas Rangers. “Glare at you. And that bothered me, because nobody glared at him if he gave up a home run or something like that. I always felt like I deserved the same respect because I’m out there busting my butt just like he is. It wasn’t like I made that error on purpose.”

Oscar Gamble, Perry’s teammate in Cleveland, San Diego and with the New York Yankees, recalled a game in which Perry was throwing a shutout in Milwaukee. “The batter drilled it all the way to the wall,” he recalled in an interview for The Baseball Codes. “It was a little bitty guy, one of the infielders—he wasn’t supposed to hit the ball that far. And I ran about a mile to get to the ball. It seemed like I ran forever. I almost got to it, but if I’d caught the ball I’d have gone straight into the brick wall out there, and I ended up pulling up. Gaylord was going, ‘Oh, no,’ because he wanted his shutout so bad. He threw his hands up in frustration.”

The difference between Gamble’s story and others told about Perry in this context is that Gamble understood where the pitcher was coming from.

“Gaylord just loved to win so much,” he said. “You know, a lot of guys like to win, but he was one of those guys who, if you slacked on a ball, he would let you know about it. He was hard-nosed. He wanted every ball caught when he was pitching. Nothing wrong with that. I had so much respect for him because he just hated to lose. If you don’t do right, if you miss a ball you should have caught, you expect the fans to boo you. And this fan—Gaylord—was a player. That’s the way I looked at it. Some of the guys didn’t look at it like that.”

***

In reviewing McCullers’ play, the broadcast crew referenced an incident that occurred between Derek Jeter and David Wells, but omitted many pertinent details. The play in question occurred in 1998, after Wells elicited a popup from Baltimore’s Danny Clyburn, which fell between Jeter and outfielders Ricky Ledee and Chad Curtis (the latter two players serving as defensive substitutes in a blowout). The Yankees already held a six-run lead, but that didn’t stop the pitcher from staring down the trio—all of whom had played the ball too tentatively—from aside the mound, hands on hips. Wells proceeded to give up three more singles, and was yanked from the game. It culminated a stretch in which he gave up 13 earned runs over 19.1 innings across three starts.

Frustration aside, it didn’t take the pitcher long to recognize the error of his ways. “It was totally unprofessional on my part, and I plan on apologizing to all of them for it,” Wells told reporters after the game, according to a New York Daily News report. “These guys have been making plays behind me all year and don’t deserve that.”

Because Wells handled it expediently, and because he was a veteran on a veteran team, the slip-up did no lasting damage. Wells went on to win 18 games, and the Yankees won the World Series.

(Then again, New York traded him to the Blue Jays during the off-season as part of a package for Roger Clemens.)

(That said, the Yankees signed him again three years later as a free agent.)

Wells and Perry are hardly alone in their actions. Bob Gibson tells a story about throwing a fastball to Jim Pendleton of the Houston Colt .45’s during a game in 1962—not because he wanted to throw a fastball, but because Cardinals catcher Carl Sawatski demanded it, first by ignoring Gibson’s shake-offs, and then through a direct confrontation on the mound. Sawatski was 34 years old and a 10-year veteran, and Gibson, a decade younger, deferred to the veteran’s wisdom. Pendleton crushed the pitch deep over the left field wall.

In the aftermath, Gibson stood on the mound, hands on hips, and pouted. Sawatski wasn’t about to let it slide. “Goddamn it, rook”—Gibson was actually in his fourth season and on the cusp of making his first All-Star team, but the catcher wasn’t about to give him that much credit—“don’t you ever show me up like that again!”

Gibson, who possessed one of the hardest edges major league baseball has ever known, immediately saw Sawatski’s point.

“He was absolutely right,” the pitcher theorized in his book, Stranger to the Game. “That was the last time I ever expressed any emotion on the field. From that day on, I never showed anybody up.”

Whether McCullers has it in him to make a similar adjustment has yet to be seen, but to judge by the pitcher’s comments after the Cleveland game, he’s well on his way.

“I was real immature and let my emotions get the best of me,” the pitcher—who is the same age now that Gibson was at the time of his incident—told the Houston Chronicle. “I showed my frustration and Altuve was letting me know that we’re beyond that. I’m not 21 anymore. I’ve been around for enough—this is my fourth season with this team—and I know how hard they work and I know how hard they try. I feel really bad about letting my emotions get the best of me and I spoke to them, I apologized and it won’t happen again. He was just letting me know that, if I’m going to pitch with emotion like I do, which is great—that’s part of what makes me good—channel it for the right things.”

Being that the pitcher’s father, Lance McCullers Sr., himself played in the big leagues for seven seasons, Junior has a wealth of experience from which to draw. It’d be surprising if this was an issue again.

 

 

 

 

Bat Flipping

Flipping Out, World Series Edition

Correa flips

It wouldn’t be a World Series presented by YouTube TV Yasiel Puig without talk of bat flipping and impertinence in the face of Baseball Propriety. In Game 2, however, it was not Puig flinging his bat around—despite having hit a timely, monster home run—but Astros shortstop Carlos Correa, who’s not known for such things.

Given the chance, in fact, Puig offered an anti-flip, gently laying down his lumber after his almost-game-saving homer leading off the 10th.

It was almost certainly in reaction to Correia, who a half-inning earlier had given Houston a 5-3 lead after going back-to-back with Jose Altuve.

Puig has long since won the battle to bring this type of showboating into the mainstream. Where he truly shined yesterday was in his postgame comments about Correa’s display.

“I loved it,” Puig told reporters. “It was a little bit higher than the bat flips I normally do. He was happy, and that’s the way you should play in the World Series. Not everybody gets to play in a place like this.”

Puig has long asserted this let’s-play-joyously message when it comes to his own on-field drama. Being consistent in the position as regards the opposition earns him additional credibility.

“Like a friend of mine once said, I don’t know why my bats are so slippery,” Correa said after the game in an MLB.com report, jokingly about both his flip and Puig.

People who still begrudge these guys their moments are living in a bygone era. Time to get with the program.

Intimidation, Retaliation, The Baseball Codes

Carlos Gomez Heard Somthing, Maybe, And Now He’s Mad at Collin McHugh

McHugh confused

Backstory plays an important part in most major league drama, and it’s possible that there’s some we don’t yet know about regarding Monday’s intra-Texas incident between the Astros and Rangers.

Then again, Carlos Gomez was at the center of things, so all bets are off.

Here’s what we do know: Gomez got angry at an inside pitch from Collin McHugh that didn’t come close to hitting him. He got angrier after the next pitch, a strike that he fouled off, staring down McHugh even while stumbling from the batter’s box on his swing. (Watch it here.)

Here’s what we also know: Back on Aug. 31, McHugh drilled Gomez with a first-pitch fastball. It was unintentional—Gomez was leading off the second inning of a 1-1 game—but the batter has apparently held on to it. Or maybe it was the Aug. 12 game, in which Gomez was hit by Francisco Liriano and Mike Fiers. Or maybe it was that benches-clearing incident between the teams on May 1, when Mike Napoli overreacted to a Lance McCullers message pitch that didn’t come close to hitting him.

Or maybe it’s just that the Astros were busy knocking Texas out of the wild-card race. Whatever the answer, Gomez has been hit by 19 pitches this season, putting him on pace to lead the league in any category for the first time in his 11-year career. McHugh didn’t drill him on Monday. He didn’t come close.

According to Gomez’s postgame comments, it was all a game of telephone, with McHugh telling some guy with the Astros that he was going to drill Gomez, and that guy either telling Gomez about it, or telling someone else who told Gomez about it, and … aren’t these adults we’re talking about?

Then again, Gomez is the guy who got into it with current Astro and then-Brave Brian McCann, and with Gerritt Cole. It’s also not the first time he pissed off a team for which he used to play. It clearly doesn’t take much to set him off.

It could even have started here:

Ultimately, it’s difficult to ascribe wide-reaching unwritten-rules themes to somebody who has repeatedly gone off his rocker over the years. Is Carlos Gomez a bit nutty? Probably. Does he have legitimate beef with Collin McHugh? Who knows?

The Rangers close their series with Houston tonight, and end their season on Sunday. Gomez’s contract with the Texas expires after this season, and for all we know he’ll re-sign with Houston.

Don’t count on it, though.

 

 

Bat Flipping, Retaliation

Newsflash: Bat Flips Are a Thing Now

Bat flip

A retaliatory story in nine bullet points:

  • Luis Valbuena flipped his bat after a home run.

Fiers high ball

  • Fiers got suspended five games for it.
  • Fiers should have better things to care about in the modern game than an exuberant home run hitter.
  • Such as his 5.22 ERA, which, let’s face it, is enough to make anybody ornery.
  • The umpires were hasty in issuing warnings following Fiers’ purpose pitch, which precluded the Angels from responding.
  • Not that the Angels had much to respond to, since Fiers clearly wasn’t trying to hurt Valbuena so much as put his own cranky pants on display.
  • Which calls his suspension into question, since drilling the hitter was never part of his intent.

Also: Valbuena keeps on flipping. Were it not for the preceding kerfuffle, it would not even be noteworthy. It’s 2017, the Era of Puig. Time to move on.

 

Retaliation

Tension in Texas: Tempers Flare When They Didn’t Have To. Again.

Napoli steps

Just last week we discussed the importance of understanding baseball’s unwritten rules, regardless of how one feels about them. Minnesota’s Miguel Sano had been thrown at, and missed, yet still made a stink of things and got tossed out of the game.

Yesterday, it happened again. With two outs and nobody on base in the sixth inning, Astros pitcher Lance McCullers Jr. threw a pitch behind Rangers first baseman Mike Napoli. Houston trailed 2-1 at the time, not a great moment for retaliation, but a purpose pitch that sails wide of its mark cedes only one ball in the count, not a free baserunner. And if the pitch had somehow connected, well, Napoli had already homered and singled against McCullers. Not having to face Texas’ No. 5 hitter wasn’t too big a price to pay.

McCullers’ motivation was clear: Rangers starter Andrew Cashner had drilled Jose Altuve in the first inning and Yuli Gurriel in the second. After the pitch sailed behind Napoli, the batter took several angry steps toward the mound, and benches quickly cleared. (Watch it here.)

This is where we get into the importance of knowing what’s actually going on.

In the modern game, it’s a stretch to think that two unintentionally hit batters, guys who took first base without incident and, in Altuve’s case, came around to score, merit response. But McCullers, the son of a former big league pitcher, may have learned to view such things a bit more dogmatically.

So personal was the decision behind his pitch that his catcher, Brian McCann, didn’t give a thought to stopping Napoli’s advance on the mound, which is every catcher’s prime responsibility in such situations. Instead, he turned around to retrieve the wild pitch from the backstop, because it never occurred to him that Napoli might be angry.

McCullers’ was the softest response possible for a teammate being hit, a no-impact nod signifying that the Astros were paying attention. It shouldn’t have elicited a raised eyebrow in the Rangers dugout. Instead, we got statements like these, via MLB.com:

  • “They threw at Napoli on purpose. … They threw behind Napoli’s head.” (Cashner)
  • “I think anytime somebody throws behind a hitter’s head it’s going to create some tension.” (Rangers manager Jeff Banister)

As it turned out, McCullers did not throw behind Napoli’s head. His pitch came in across the lower portion of Napoli’s uniform number, closer to his belt than his shoulders. It was so far behind him that Napoli did not have to move to avoid it.

The craziest statement came from Napoli himself: “I understand how things work. Two of their guys get hit, but all he has to do is put it in my hip and I run down to first base. No one likes 95 [mph] behind their back.”

It seems nuts, but he’s arguing that a guy should have hit him rather than missed him.

Folks get caught up in the heat of a moment, but situations like these continue to prove that the dissolution of baseball’s unwritten rules—the fact that each successive generation of ballplayers understands the Code less thoroughly than its predecessors—is playing out poorly. Because there will always be somebody like Lance McCullers Jr., who learned the game the old-fashioned way, willing to make old-fashioned statements. Instead of seeing them for what they are, many younger ballplayers—and sometimes even a 12-year vet like Napoli—will react poorly and inflame tensions where no inflammation is necessary.

Even if Napoli is innocent of his own intent—a step toward the mound with a word of warning for McCullers, followed by an uneventful trip to first base would not be unheard of—he’s surrounded by far younger players who lack the requisite understanding of what had just happened.

That’s what truly raised the temperature in Houston: Even as Napoli stood near the plate, a bevy of his younger teammates streamed from the dugout and, rather than following the veteran’s lead, escalated the proceedings. (Even some older teammates got in on the act, Shin-Soo Choo leading the charge.)

It could be that the Rangers—11-15 and in last place in the AL West, with five members of the starting lineup (including Napoli himself) hitting  below .205—are at a point where baseball is frustrating enough without guys like McCullers nudging the process along.

Then again, after the game Napoli addressed the rivalry between the teams from Texas. “That’s how it should be,” he said. “There’s too much, people that are friends, and talking before the game, buddy-buddy. I remember coming up, if we were playing that night, it was time to get down and play a tough game and do what you have to do to win. It’s what it should be.”

Maybe he gets it after all.

Bat Flipping, Showboating

Carlos Gomez: A Little Dab’ll Do Ya

Gomez dabs

Now that flipping a bat is no longer noteworthy, we might see new directions in personal expression being forced to the fore. And if ever there was a player to take self-salutation on a baseball diamond to unexplored levels, it’s Carlos Gomez. The guy was born for this stuff.

First, though, the bat flip. Those who do it, like Gomez, claim it’s within their celebratory rights as ballplayer, a virtual extension of their swing. There’s something to this. It’s what made Jose Bautista’s flip during last season’s playoffs so damn memorable.

There are limits, however, on what can reasonably be claimed as an extension of one’s swing. By the time a batter leaves the box, and certainly by the time he rounds first base, in-the-moment exuberance should be in the rear-view. Anything he does after that point can be viewed as a calculated act, and justifiably seen by the other team as beneath their dignity as opponents.

So what to make of the fact that Carlos Gomez dabbed as he crossed the plate following a spring training home run yesterday?

At this point, who knows?

Sure, Gomez flipped his bat, though not in particularly grand fashion by modern standards. To his credit, he hustled his way around the bases. And then … the dab. (Watch it here.)

True, it took only a moment, and Gomez was gone back to the dugout. It was so quick as to be easily missed (the broadcasters didn’t mention it as it happened), and the same Braves who had a thing or two to say to Gomez about similar topics back in 2013 didn’t seem to mind, at least to judge by their reactions on the field.

Ultimately, it comes down to the question of what constitutes a celebration, and whether the baseball equivalent of a touchdown dance is making its way into the mainstream. While watching Gomez, it was impossible for me to not think about Cam Newton—and however one feels about Newton probably goes a long way toward informing how one feels about Gomez doing something similar.

Or not. I am a fan of Newton and his celebrations. They are perfectly at home on a football field, where personal celebration is pervasive for anything from a QB sack to a short burst for a first down at midfield.

Baseball, though, is different. Part of the beauty of the sport’s unwritten rules is that they’ve served as a perimeter defense for the look-at-me attitude that has come to dominate other sports.

This is not to say that there is no place for such a thing in baseball, but when celebrations become contrived, they grow trite. And when they grow trite, they quickly become tired. Which is something, since Bryce Harper recently used that very wordtired—to support the opposite viewpoint, in describing a sport that does not favor such displays.

Still, it can be used here in equal measures to describe whatever it was Gomez did. His action originated less in the moment than as locker room-hatched scheme, the endgame for one of baseball’s biggest spotlight hogs to elbow his way into just a little more screen time.

Gomez is an exciting player, and merits some leeway when it comes to celebrating his feats. As a critic, I’m happy to grant him that much. When he ignores those feats, however, in favor of celebrating the mere existence of Carlos Gomez—the baseball equivalent to two thumbs pointed backward to the name on the rear of his jersey—he displays a degree of narcissism to which I have a tough time subscribing.

Update (3-29): Gomez managed to earn some bonus points, because when you’re pissing off Rob Dibble, there’s a decent chance that you’re doing something right.