Anthony McCarron, SNY.tv | Twitter |
You've done the hard work of pegging a pitcher's tell - does he tilt his glove a certain way when throwing his curveball? Or, through keen observation, discovered that a catcher is sloppy setting up behind the plate and you can see what pitch he's calling for next.
Baseball's unwritten rules say it's OK to exploit this intel. After all, as Rich Donnelly, the longtime MLB third-base coach put it, "If they're stealing your signs, then your signs aren't good enough."
But turning to electronics or cameras in the quest for an in-the-moment edge? Or being so overt when delivering the information by, say, whistling so loud the other dugout notices?
That's where the romance of sign-stealing ends and hard feelings begin.
"In talking to a lot of players, they feel if you naturally pick it up, that's fair game and I agree," said Harold Reynolds, who played 12 MLB seasons and is now an analyst for the MLB Network. "Technology is the game-changer."
Accusations of crossing the line boiled up during the AL Championship Series when SNY's Andy Martino reported that the Yankees were angry about whistling coming from the Astros dugout in Game 1. The whistling, the Yanks believed, was Houston's delivery system for stolen signs. That, the Yankees thought, was too much.
MLB looked into it and cleared the Astros, according to a source with knowledge of the investigation. Whether it's deserved or not, some in baseball are suspicious of the Astros, who have a reputation for being expert at sign-stealing.
In truth, some kind of gamesmanship is part of everyday MLB life. Teams constantly try to decipher their opponents' strategy and attempt to counteract espionage efforts with coded signals.
Some of the information is there for the taking, if you know how to look for it. Sometimes, a shortstop will inadvertently give away a pitch type while trying to relay it to the third baseman, says an executive in an MLB front office.
"Maybe he moves too early or puts his glove up a certain way and it's a breaking ball coming," the executive said. "Maybe the catcher sets up differently for a breaking ball or a fastball. Maybe they move their right foot on a certain pitch, different things with the catcher's feet. There's all kinds of ways to tip."
First-base coaches and third-base coaches try to see if they can pick up a catcher's signals. A runner at second base does, too. Everyone's watching the pitcher to see if he waggles his glove a particular way before throwing his knuckle-curve, something the Yankees have had to work on with James Paxton.
That's all fine. So is some technology. "If it's two days before a starter pitches and you're looking at video to prep and to see if he's tipping, that's OK," says a former MLB pitcher.
"But if you have some type of mechanism that's either underneath your staircase or in your tunnel and someone is relaying signs and you start whistling or banging on a trash can and that means a breaking ball is coming, that's where it's completely crossing the line.
"Now you're not doing it naturally with the information you have. You're doing it in time as a guy is hitting, which gives the hitter the advantage. In my opinion, that's unsportsmanlike. You're taking away the competition. The pitcher might as well just stand out there and tell you what he's throwing."
It is against MLB rules to use electronics to identify and communicate a catcher's signs. Teams also cannot communicate their opponent's signs to a hitter, runner or coach on the field. Teams and personnel can face discipline if caught breaking these rules.
That's why clubs get creative. Sometimes, teams will try to pass on information based on what they see in the dugout, the pitcher said. Encouragement to a teammate isn't always just encouragement.
"A nickname - if you know a guy's voice and he's calling your nickname, that can mean a fastball is coming, if they have the pitches," the hurler said. "No nickname, it's a breaking ball."
Two other intel delivery methods: "The on-deck hitter hits the weighted donut in the on-deck circle after getting info from the dugout or runway," the executive said. "The hitter can hear it and the noise indicates the pitch type.
"There's guys doing signs from the bullpen, too" the executive added. "Towel over the fence, towel over the shoulder, whatever, to indicate what the pitch is."
With all this skulduggery afoot, security is paramount for players and team personnel. Pitchers and catchers change signals on the fly; you've seen Yankee pitchers peering into their caps and Gary Sanchez looking at a card on his forearm so they can plot signal sequences without actually flashing signs.
"If there's no one on base and a team is using multiple sign sequences, they're suspecting something, some kind of camera," the executive said.
Donnelly used to practice his signals in the mirror every winter. He was filmed once coaching third base when he worked for Jim Leyland's great Pirates teams of the early 1990s. He discovered his own giveaway.
"Sometimes when I put a sign on, I looked down at the ground," Donnelly said. "When I didn't put one on, I looked at the player. So then I started doing it both ways."
The old-timey way of policing any breach of etiquette? Stick a pitch in a hitter's ribs, though that hard-nosed approach is less prevalent now.
But even the threat of sign-stealing can be enough to give a team an advantage.
"The Brewers, with (Paul) Molitor and (Robin) Yount, they were known for giving signs from second (base)," Reynolds said. "I would get up near them, trying to distract them. Half the time, they weren't doing anything, but I'm out of position now, so they've won the battle."
But, to paraphrase Catch-22 (and Nirvana), just because you're paranoid, doesn't mean they're not trying to steal your signs.
"We're in the technology generation of players," Reynolds said. "I think they're way more paranoid. They know what video can bring. So when they hear, there's a 22-camera shoot tonight, they get hives on their skin."
Added the pitcher: "Innovative teams trying to get an advantage, there's nothing wrong with that. The only thing is technology, the on-time, giving away signals from a third source.
"That's where it gets dicey."