What with all the brouhaha surrounding the Astros’ banging of a trash can to alert hitters to upcoming pitches, I’m continually reminded about stories I researched for The Baseball Codes. One of them provides a cautionary warning even for teams who recognize when their signs are being illicitly pinched. That’s because no matter how precautious a team might be, they can only take as many preventative measures as their pitcher will allow.
Somehow, Giants ace Sam Jones—who finished second in the Cy Young voting in 1959—got lit up every time he pitched in Chicago that year. Against the rest of the league that season, Jones was 21-12 with a 2.54 ERA, and struck out a batter every 1.25 innings. At Wrigley Field he was 0-3 with an 8.53 ERA and struck out a batter every six innings. It wasn’t long before San Francisco players identified what was behind the discrepancy.
“We just got wise and looked up, and sure enough, in the scoreboard there was a big empty square,” said Giants pitcher Mike McCormick. “Same scoreboard they have today, where they hand-place the numbers. There was somebody sitting up there in an empty square—one foot in the window was a fastball, two feet was a curveball, no feet was a changeup. You let a major-league hitter know what’s coming and he might not hit it all the time, but it certainly makes him a better hitter.”
That somebody was Cubs traveling secretary Don Biebel, who earlier that season had been installed as the man in the center-field scoreboard. Armed with binoculars, he signaled hitters by sticking his shoe into an open frame used to post scores. Contrary to McCormick’s recollection, it was the placement of his foot, not the number of feet, that bore a message. To the left of the square meant fastball, to the right a curve. Just an inch or two of sole was all it took.
This system particularly affected Jones, who had trouble handling anything but the simplest signs. This kept Giants manager Bill Rigney from making the signals more complex in an effort to stymie would-be thieves. So he had to deal with it another way.
At age 42, Giants outfielder Hank Sauer was the oldest player in the National League and had spent almost seven of his 15 years in the big leagues as a member of the Cubs. He knew the sort of things that went on at Wrigley Field, and, at 6-foot-4 and 200 lbs., was one of the last guys a traveling secretary hidden in the scoreboard wanted to cross. As the Cubs continued to batter Jones, Rigney sent his slugger to the scoreboard to get some answers.
“Between innings, I saw (first base coach Wes) Westrum and Hank Sauer and Bill Rigney get over in the corner of the dugout, and they were chatting,” said Biebel. “Sauer went out of the dugout and up the ramp, and I told the groundskeeper, who was in the scoreboard with me, ‘You better lock that thing up—I think we’re going to have some company.’ About 10 or 15 minutes later, well, here comes Sauer along the back fence of the bleachers. He walks all the way out there and he starts pounding on our little door, shouting, ‘Let me in!’ He pounded for awhile, but when he finally knew he wasn’t going to get in, he turned around and left.”
Part of the reason that the Cubs were able to get away with something so blatant, reasoned Biebel in an MLB.com report, was that “Everybody knew we were getting the signs and we still finished in fifth place.”
The Astros are another story. Two World Series in three seasons will do that for a club. Every day brings new revelations about just how far they’ve been willing to go. Now we just wait for reaction from the league office.
Ken Rosenthal and Evan Drellich of the Athletic have posted an enormous piece detailing illegal sign stealing within the Astros organization. According to their sources, the club placed a camera somewhere beyond the center field fence in Minute Maid Park to deliver a video feed of the opposing catcher to a monitor in the tunnel alongside the home dugout. When the signal for a breaking ball or offspeed pitch was given, spotters would bang on a trash can loudly enough for the hitter to hear it.
We’ve covered the concept of sign stealing extensively in this space over the years, from players nabbing a catcher’s signals while leading off from second base (totally legal), to those like the Astros who (allegedly) utilize devices in their pursuit. (Totally not legal.) To me, the most interesting part of this story is a primary source for Rosenthal and Drellich: A’s pitcher Mike Fiers, who played for the Astros from 2015 to 2017.
“I just want the game to be cleaned up a little bit because
there are guys who are losing their jobs because they’re going in there not
knowing,” he explained in the article. “Young guys getting hit around in the
first couple of innings starting a game, and then they get sent down. It’s
(B.S.) on that end. It’s ruining jobs for younger guys. The guys who know are
more prepared, but most people don’t.”
Fiers said that he informed his teams subsequent to the Astros—the Tigers and A’s—what to look for when traveling to southeast Texas. Perhaps thanks in part to Fiers’ warnings, the A’s went 4-5 at Minute Maid Park in 2019—not bad against the putative best team in baseball, and a better mark than they had while playing the Astros in Oakland.
This all brings up a number of issues, primary among them being why, if Houston has been doing this so obviously for so many years, more opponents have not called them out. The easy answer is that the Astros are hardly alone in this type of pursuit, and if another club has its own skeletons to protect, the prospect of quid pro quo (the term of the moment, it seems) provides sufficient discouragement. It’s why teams so rarely cry about pine tar use from the opposing pitcher: They don’t want to invite examinations of their own staff.
In the early going, the A’s organization has backed Fiers … to a point. GM David Forst, contacted by the San Francisco Chronicle, said that he was aware of “concerns among our staff and players,” and that “our players have voiced concerns about what other teams are doing.” Even then, though, he hedged his bet.
“It’s not about it being Houston or a team in our division,” Forst said. “You want the playing field to be level. I have to trust the people in MLB will get involved and address it.”
A player like Fiers speaking publicly about underhanded dealings by a former team carries real risk. The pitcher is 34 years old and going into the second year of a two-year contract. He’s a nine-year vet coming off his best season, and has shown a willingness to sport the least conventional facial hair in big league history. If he puts up another solid campaign in 2020, it’s safe to assume that his services will be highly valued in the free-agent marketplace. Maybe.
It’s not difficult to picture a team that bears its own secrets—whether it’s pitchers loading up baseballs or something along the lines of the Red Sox Apple Watch scandal from 2017—wanting to avoid potential headaches from a do-gooder gumming up the works with something so silly as morality. Suddenly, Fiers’ ongoing ability to pitch a baseball is not the only consideration for teams that consider signing him.
Baseball has seen this happen before. In The Baseball Codes, there’s an entire chapter on sign stealing via things like spyglasses and cameras. It opens with a story about a pitcher named Al Worthington, whose Giants team was doing that very thing in the 1950s. Worthington disapproved, and took corrective steps by threatening to publicly out manager Bill Rigney if he didn’t correct course. Cornered, Rigney acceded, and it might have cost his team a spot in the playoffs. I spoke with Worthington some 50 years after the fact, and his stance hadn’t softened a bit. “Once [Rigney] quit stealing signs, I felt good about that, ” he told me. “I didn’t think he should be doing that anyway. That’s not honest.”
The resulting story is a great lesson about what can happen to players who place a higher premium on morality than on victories, guys who want only to win the right way. Below is the entire excerpt. It’s long, but it tells a great and very relevant tale.
Allan Worthington was a quality pitcher, a right-hander who came up with the New York Giants in 1953 and moved with them to San Francisco five years later. By 1959, he was not only one of their most trusted bullpen members, but one of the most reliable relievers in the major leagues.
Then, over the course of a single season, everything changed. He was traded twice within a span of six months, playing for three teams in 1960 alone, and shortly thereafter quit the game altogether, at age thirty-one. Worthington was neither a bad character nor a headcase. He was throwing as well as he ever had. In fact, he had only one problem, which was enough to sour him in the eyes of more than one ballclub: Al Worthington wasn’t a cheat.
At the tail end of the 1959 season, San Francisco was battling the Dodgers and Braves for the National League pennant, holding first place into the season’s final week. In an effort to gain an edge on its competition, the club asked former coach and proven sign stealer Herman Franks, who had left the Giants the previous year, to return and set up an espionage system. His resulting handiwork had various members of the organization, armed with binoculars, placed in the far reaches of San Francisco’s Seals Stadium to pick up signs and relay them to the dugout. When Worthington first heard about the operation, he was appalled.
The pitcher had seen a similar system over the first four years of his career, when the Giants played in New York’s Polo Grounds before moving west. Although it bothered him, he was never certain enough about his standing on the team to speak his mind. In 1958, however, Worthington found religion at a Billy Graham rally at San Francisco’s Cow Palace, and from that point forward refused to tolerate inequities on the field.
When he found out about Franks’s scheme in ’59, Worthington pulled Giants manager Bill Rigney aside and demanded that the practice cease, threatening to abandon the team if it didn’t. Rigney was stuck: Worthington was a valuable member of the bullpen, and losing him would be a blow. The binoculars were shelved, and the Giants immediately lost three straight to the Dodgers (and seven of their last eight), to finish four games back in the National League.
At that point, of course, Worthington’s fate hardly hinged on the team’s success; when the season ended, the Giants couldn’t get rid of him fast enough, trading him to the Red Sox for spare parts prior to the 1960 campaign. Boston in turn shipped him to the White Sox that September. Chicago, only three games behind the Orioles, was looking to bolster its bullpen, but nobody in the organization bothered to ask the Giants about their new acquisition. This would have been beneficial, considering that the White Sox used a sign-stealing system even more complex than the one in San Francisco. When the team played at home, Chicago’s pitching instructor and former Tigers standout, Dizzy Trout, watched the opposing catcher from inside the recently installed Comiskey Park “exploding” scoreboard—a pyrotechnic exhibition unlike any seen in baseball up to that time. Trout then triggered a light hidden amid many others in the center-field display that signaled hitters to the type of pitch about to be thrown—blinking meant breaking ball, solid meant fastball. It could be seen from both the plate and the White Sox dugout along the third-base line, but not from the visitors’ dugout near first. The scheme was incredibly effective, helping the Sox build a 51-26 record (.662) at home that year, even as they struggled to a 36-41 mark (.468) on the road.
The benefit hardly outweighed the detriment in Worthington’s eyes. It was illicit behavior, and by the time he arrived in Chicago, the pitcher was already practiced in his response. Shortly after learning of the system, the right-hander informed manager Al Lopez in a hotel lobby in Kansas City that he wanted nothing to do with it, that he “didn’t want to play for a team that cheats.”
“As a player it was none of his business what we were doing,” said Lopez. “But I did say, ‘Show me in the rule books where it’s wrong.’ I told him I respected his religious beliefs. I said I hoped he would respect mine, and that my religious beliefs would not permit me to do anything I thought wrong.”
“Al Lopez said that it wasn’t cheating . . . ,” said Worthington. “I thought later, Well, if it’s okay to do it, why don’t they tell everyone?”
Lopez sent Worthington to speak with general manager Hank Greenberg, which only made things worse. Greenberg, after all, freely admitted to his own preferences for receiving pilfered signs during his Hall of Fame playing days with Detroit. “Baseball is a game where you try to get away with anything you can,” he said. “You cut corners when you run the bases. If you trap a ball in the outfield, you swear you caught it. Everybody tries to cheat a little.”
After less than a week with the White Sox, Worthington was fed up enough to quit, going home to Alabama and enrolling at Samford University. The team’s official explanation was that he left over a salary dispute. This was the first time the White Sox had been challenged about a system that had been in use for years. It had originally been implemented by Frank Lane, the team’s general manager four years before Greenberg came along, as a response to the abundant stories about other clubs’ use of similar schemes. According to Sam Esposito, a utility infielder with the Sox, it started when Lane brought his complaints to two of the team’s third basemen—future Hall of Famer George Kell and his backup, Bob Kennedy. Esposito said that the pair devised a system far more devious— not to mention effective—than the then-standard practice of having a coach peer at the opposing catcher through binoculars from the bullpen, and manually signal the hitter by placing (or removing) a towel atop the fence.
That type of system was easily identified. The way Esposito tells it, Kell and Kennedy’s plan to use the scoreboard light couldn’t have been more effective. “It was hump city . . . ,” he said. “You’d be sitting in the bullpen or dugout, the pitcher would be winding up, in his motion, and our hitter would still be looking up at center field, waiting for the light to come on. Sherm Lollar loved the light, Walt Dropo loved it. Nellie Fox wouldn’t use it. Nellie was a slap hitter, and he was afraid if he knew it was a fastball that he’d muscle up on the pitch and end up hitting a long fly ball, one of those warning-track outs.”
“I doubt if there is one club that hasn’t tried it at one time or another in recent years,” wrote White Sox owner Bill Veeck in his autobiography, Veeck—As in Wreck. “There is absolutely nothing in the rules against it.”
Though most ballplayers admit that the stealing of signs is pervasive within the game and accept it as an unavoidable facet of a complex sport, even those who embrace the practice have a difficult time defending those who go beyond the field of play to do it. Any sign deciphered via a mechanical device (usually binoculars or hidden video feeds) is roundly denounced. Don Lee, a reliever with the Los Angeles Angels in the early 1960s, could stand up in some well-placed bullpens and, with his naked eye, read the catcher’s signs from beyond the outfield wall. When he relayed those signs to hitters by placing his hand (or not placing his hand) atop the fence, it was generally considered acceptable because he was picking them up unaided. (“Sounds impossible, but he was able to do it,” said his teammate, catcher Buck Rodgers. “I was there. I was a beneficiary.”) Stick a telescope in Lee’s hands, however, and he’d have a roster full of enemies in the opposing dugout the instant he was caught. “Bootling information to the batter through a hidden observer equipped with field glasses is a dastardly deed,” wrote Red Smith in 1950. “But the coach who can stand on the third-base line and, using only his own eyes and intelligence, tap the enemy’s line of communication, is justly admired for his acuteness.”
Even Al Worthington was willing to admit as much. “Sign stealing is as old as baseball,” he said. “You watch a coach from the dugout and you try to figure out the signs he’s giving to the batter, but it’s the coach’s job to hide them from you. . . . There’s nothing wrong with that. But to spy with binoculars . . . that’s cheating.”
The White Sox, unable to trade Worthington after word got out about his moral stance, banished him to the minors for the next two years. The pitcher was claimed by Cincinnati in the Rule 5 draft prior to the 1963 season, and after being sold to Minnesota in 1964 spent six productive seasons with the Twins, leading the American League in saves in 1968, at age 39.
Here’s hoping that Fiers’ journey, whatever it might be, is smoother than that.
Game 5 of the World Series gave us a particularly interesting moment during the course of an otherwise dull blowout: After a host of questionable ball-strike calls, plate ump Lance Barksdale outdid himself during the sixth inning.
Nats right-hander Tanner Rainey threw a 2-2 fastball to Michael Brantley that should have been called strike three, after which catcher Yan Gomes popped up from his crouch to toss the ball around the infield. Apparently he did so a bit too quickly, preempting Barksdale’s official decision. To teach Gomes a lesson, Barksdale called the pitch a ball and kept the at-bat alive.
“You were taking off on me,” Barksdale said when Gomes asked
The catcher was incredulous, replying, “Oh, it’s my fault?”
A few things happened here. One, Gomes turned around to converse with the plate ump. In a world of sensitive egos and well-established rules of comportment, this is an absolute no-no. Catchers question umpires’ calls all the time, but they inevitably do so from the squat, while facing the pitcher. “You never show them up—that’s the worst thing you can do,” former Tigers catcher Jim Price said in an interview for The Baseball Codes. “Don’t ever turn around to talk to them.”
Occasionally, the umpire will walk around and dust off the plate in order to face the catcher and offer an eye-to-eye retort. It can be vocal and it can be personal, but it’s also private, done behind a mask. Nobody watching from the stands or on TV realizes anything is happening. This is time-tested baseball tradition.
“The best advice that I can give
is to have a little dialogue with the home plate umpire throughout the game,” longtime
catcher Michael Barrett told ESPN in 2007. “Break the tension a little bit. Realize
that the home plate umpire is the authority and make sure to communicate with
him during the game and as the game goes on. It’s important to understand that
the umpire is human, he’s going to make mistakes like everyone else, and we are
going to have a better relationship if we are talking.”
Who knows what Gomes might have already said to Barksdale over the course of the game, though in light of the umpire’s consistently shaky calls, some sort of dialog between them wouldn’t be surprising.
Former Yankees reliever George Frazier once found himself in a similar situation as pertains to prematurely reacting to what he believed to be strike three. As Frazier told it during an interview for The Baseball Codes, it was the ninth inning in Baltimore, and Len Sakata was at the plate with two strikes and two outs.
“I painted a slider and took a hop toward the dugout,” he said. “I’m looking in [at plate umpire Durwood Merrill], and he’s looking at me. Then he comes out toward the mound. I’m from Oklahoma, and he was a big OU football recruiter—he recruited Billy Sims from Texas. He said, ‘What are you doin’, Okie?’ I said, ‘Man, come on! That ball was right there.’ He says ‘OK, put it there again and we’ll ring him up.’ ”
Frazier agreed … but didn’t execute.
“I threw a pitch that literally bounced a foot out in front of the plate,” he said. “Durwood had already started his wind to ring him up, and he’s walking off. The umpires had to go down our dugout steps, where I’m walking off too, and he’s growling, ‘Don’t ever do that to me again.’ Sakata was right behind him, yelling, ‘You’ve gotta be kidding me!’ ”
“Durwood said to me, ‘What are you doing?’ I said, ‘You shoulda rung him up on the other one!’ ”
(For what it’s worth, Frazier never faced Sakata in the described circumstance. As is the way with ballplayers telling decades-old stories, details are known to inadvertently blur.)
The difference between Frazer and Rainey was that Lance Barksdale was working the freaking World Series. Petty displays of ego shouldn’t be part of an umpire’s tool kit in the first place, but in the postseason they need to be put away entirely. Luckily, the call on Brantley had no bearing on the game’s outcome, but strikes are strikes and balls are balls and, sure, calls might get blown, but for a guy to try to teach a lesson to a veteran catcher on the sport’s biggest stage is downright shameful.
The Yankees, it was reported yesterday, took exception to some whistling emanating from the Houston dugout during Game 1 of the ALCS. It was, they felt, an ongoing signal to hitters about either the type or location of the upcoming pitch. According to SNY, a Yankees coach—who didn’t come forward directly, but was outed to the network by three sources—called out the Astros about the practice during the game, leading to some back-and-forth yelling across the field.
“The whole dugout was pissed,” SNY’s Andy Martino quoted one of the sources as saying. “Everyone was chirping.”
On one hand, sign stealing is a long-accepted practice around the league, with the clear-cut caveat that it not be technologically aided. A runner relaying signs to the hitter from second base might be viewed by opponents as annoying, but his presence means mostly that the victimized team needs better signs.
Take the practice beyond the fences, however, and real issues arise. Never mind that spying on an opponent’s signals via a ballpark video camera is against the actual rules—it’s also seen as below-board chicanery by people who would otherwise harbor a soft spot for thievery of a more legitimate (ie: non-technically aided) persuasion.
Which is where things grow hazy about New York’s accusations. If the Astros were whistling from the dugout, it almost certainly means that they were getting their information from someplace else within Minute Maid Park. Unless New York catcher Gary Sanchez was dropping his fingers so far below his squat that his signs could be read from the sideline, folks in the Houston dugout would have no legitimate way to figure out what to signal and when.
Then, a team employee named Kyle McLaughlin was stationed in a dugout-adjacent photographer well (without appropriate credentials, it should be noted) and caught aiming a cell phone into the dugouts of both Cleveland (Houston’s opponent in the ALDS) and Boston (during the ALCS). The Astros claimed that McLaughlin was placed there to insure that their opponents were not spying on them, using then-recent allegations of Apple Watch sign-stealing impropriety lodged against the Red Sox. (Why McLaughlin was snooping on Cleveland remains unclear.)
Last year, it wasn’t whistles that the Astros used to signal their hitters, but claps or audible whacks of a trash can. That info that came from the A’s and Dodgers, both of whom aired similar suspicions about Houston’s shenanigans, the latter during the World Series.
This is hardly the first time that a team has whistled signals to hitters. In The Baseball Codes, I recount an instance in which the Yankees, in a turn, did some whistling of their own. It happened during the late-1950s and early 1960s, and began with pitcher Bob Turley, an extremely proficient practitioner when it came to stealing signs. Turley was so good, in fact, that he was occasionally utilized as a first-base coach for that very purpose. From the book:
Turley’s relay system was simple—he’d whistle whenever a pitch was different from the last one. Hitters would start every at-bat looking for a curveball, and if a fastball was coming, so was Turley’s whistle. He’d then stay silent until something else was called. The pitcher was so good that when he went on the disabled list in 1961, manager Ralph Houk wouldn’t let him go home, instead keeping him with the team to decipher pitches. (Roger Maris, in fact, hit his sixty-ﬁrst home run of 1961 on a pitch he knew was coming because third-base coach Frank Crosetti, doing his best Turley imitation after watching the pitcher for years, whistled in advance of a fastball.)
Eventually, people began to catch on. Among them was Detroit Tigers ace Jim Bunning, who grew increasingly angry as Turley whistled and the Yankees teed off during one of his starts. Finally, with Mickey Mantle at bat, Bunning turned to Turley in the ﬁrst-base coach’s box and told him that another whistle would result in a potentially painful consequence for the hitter. Sure enough, Turley whistled on Bunning’s ﬁrst pitch, a fastball at which Mantle declined to swing. With his second offering, Bunning knocked Mantle down. The on-deck hitter, Yogi Berra, could only watch in horror. When it was his turn to bat, Berra turned toward the mound, cupped his hands around his mouth, and shouted, “Jim, he’s whistling, but I ain’t listening.”
Positioning a sign thief in a coaching box is the primary non-technology-aided method the Astros might be able to employ if they are indeed stealing signs. It seems like a longshot, but, needless to say, nobody in that clubhouse is talking about it.
I collected more recent examples of illicit, beyond-the-field-of-play sign-stealing accusations from around the league for my post on the Red Sox smartwatch controversy:
Last year, MLB responded to the allegations from and about the Astros by sending an additional nine staffers—three from baseball ops and six from security—to monitor the next game, including placing somebody in each team’s video-review room. Ultimately they declared that Houston did nothing wrong.
This year, we’re getting more of the same. Suspicions about Houston’s use of surveillance technology in its home ballpark has continued unabated. “They are NASA,” said a major league coach in the SNY report. “If a pitcher is tipping and the players can see from the dugout, no biggie. If they get it from somewhere else, that’s dicey.”
Ultimately, all this subterfuge didn’t help the Astros. New York starter Masahiro Tanaka pitched six shutout innings, and the Yankees pounded Zack Greinke and four relievers in a 7-0 victory.
In Game 2, we saw New York starter James Paxton and
catcher Gary Sanchez changing signs throughout the game, even with
nobody on base, which is as clear a sign as one can get that a team is
harboring some nasty suspicions.
This affair is just getting started. If the series makes it back to Houston and the Yankees suspect that the practice is still going on, expect some bloody hell to be raised.
In the meantime, the Nationals have a good long while to figure out how to handle the situation should the Astros advance. The spy game, it seems, is alive and well in baseball.
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.
There is also the less-discussed possibility that on at least one pitch, Glasnow opted to grip his curveball right out in the open, for everybody to see.
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.
In this space over recent years we’ve discussed pitch-tipping issues with Tim Lincecum, Ben Sheets, Johan Santana and Tampa Bay’s own Matt Moore. More pertinently to today’s discussion, in last season’s ALCS, Luis Severino was thought to have been tipping his pitches to the tune of a 16-1 Red Sox victory in Game 3. Similarly to what we saw with the Astros last night, Boston players spoke to each other in certain terms about pitches that had yet to be delivered.
In the post about Severino, I excerpted a passage in The Baseball Codes that offered some history about the phenomenon:
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.”
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.
Jake Marisnick still feels terrible. That’s the prime takeaway from Tuesday’s Astros-Angels game, which featured the culmination of a string of events in which Marisnick played the heavy. This is why, even after a retaliatory pitch to his head for which few in baseball would have begrudged him some outrage, the guy quietly took his base and then implored his teammates to pipe down.
These are the actions of a guy who wants this entire chapter to end as quickly as possible.
It began last week, when Marisnick violently collided with Angels catcher Jonathan Lucroy after altering his route to the plate. The play left Lucroy unconscious, with a concussion and a broken nose that ultimately required surgery and an extended stay on the IL. Replays looked terrible, and Marisnick spent the ensuing days apologetically trying to explain how it had been his intention to avoid Lucroy, not blow him up. There was no mistaking his emotional distress in having caused such damage. He was suspended by MLB, but is still playing while the decision is appealed.
None of this mitigated the certainty that the Angels would retaliate. It was their guy on the ground. It had been, in their eyes, a dirty play … or at least one worthy of response. And Tuesday was the first time Marisnick had faced them since it all went down.
Had the Angels gone about it properly, it’s unlikely that anybody would have paid it further mind. Instead, reliever Noe Ramirez sent a fastball toward Marisnick’s earhole.
The time of reckoning was obvious even before Ramirez let loose. Marisnick’s first two at-bats came in the second and fourth innings, and even though the Angels had put up an unanswered six-spot in the first, there was still too much risk in targeting him so early. Look no further than a day earlier, when Philadelphia’s Yacksel Rios was tossed from a game for hitting Justin Turner with as unintentional a HBP as can be imagined: an offspeed pitch that broke just a little too sharply. Angels manager Brad Ausmus was unwilling to risk a similar outcome for his own starting pitcher, Andrew Heaney, so early in the game, so Marisnick was pitched to, not at. (It’s rare in the modern game for a manager to explicitly order retaliation, but they’re not shy when it comes to telling their pitchers to situationally avoid targeting a guy.)
Heaney, however, departed in the fifth, in favor of Ramirez.
With Marisnick leading off the sixth, the Angels—holding a 6-2 lead—could more
easily absorb the loss of a middle-innings reliever. The right-hander sent his first
pitch to Marisnick, a curveball, wide of the strike zone, clear subterfuge for
the up-and-in to follow. Trouble was, plate ump Stu Scheurwater called it a
strike. So Ramirez followed it with another bender, this one even further
At that point, had Ramirez opted to put a fastball into Marisnick’s backside, or even his ribcage, it’s doubtful that anyone in the Astros dugout would have reacted. But that’s not what he did. His next pitch, a 90-mph four-seamer, screamed toward Marisnick’s head, deflecting off his shoulder after a jump and a shrug.
By all rights, Marisnick should have been irate. A mound
charge, while hardly encouraged, would at least have been understandable. If
ever a pitcher should have been ejected without warning, this was the time.
None of that happened.
Instead, Marisnick calmly took his base, refusing to so much
as glare at the pitcher. That should have been the end of it. As Ron Washington
told me many years ago, describing an incident in which Frank Thomas was
drilled intentionally: “We have to wait for the reaction of the guy who it
happened to. If Frank had charged him, there would have been a ﬁght. If Frank
had raised some hell going down to ﬁrst base, we’d have raised some hell. But
Frank took it calmly and went on down there, the umpire checked everything, and
we played baseball.”
That’s not what happened on Tuesday. Marisnick’s calm did nothing to dissuade his teammates’ anger, with the Astros—notably Lance McCullers Jr.—chirping so vehemently from their dugout that Angels first baseman Albert Pujols eventually got fed up and walked over to better engage, even as Marisnick himself urged his teammates to pipe down. The video is remarkable.
Afterward, the Astros were understandably upset—not by the retaliation, but by how it was executed.
“If they felt the need to defend their guy, that’s fine,” McCullers said in a Houston Chronicle report, “but I think the way that it was done was horseshit.”
Astros manager A.J. Hinch alluded to a possible continuation of the beef should MLB fail to punish Ramirez. “It’s a confusing time,” he said after the game. “Either the players govern the players on the field like it’s always been, or we legislate it to where none of this crap happens. They got a free shot at him with no warning, no ejection. We’ll see if there’s discipline. And without discipline, there’s going to be no issue doing it the next time. So, if retaliations are in, cool. We’re well aware.”
That’s not how Marisnick feels. The incident served to distract from the fact that earlier in day, the outfielder was presented with the Astros’ Heart and Hustle Award. By all accounts, he’s a good guy with a good heart who made a questionable baseball decision that ended horrifically. And he’s still upset by it.
“There’s no need for that,” Marisnick said after the game, referencing the situation with Pujols. Then he turned the discussion to actual baseball matters, which is clearly where he’d like it to stay.
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:
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.