A Brief Survey of Postseason Paranoia

The story on the field is that we’ve got a couple of excellent league championship series. The story off the field has been different from that. Yesterday’s headline, from Danny Picard:

Metro Exclusive: Astros may have been cheating in Game 1 against Red Sox

This isn’t about a sunscreen or pine-tar thing. Teams don’t care about that, because their own players partake. This is about a sign-stealing thing. The Indians tipped off the Red Sox about an Astros employee with a camera by the dugout. It seems super suspicious. The Astros, for their part, have insisted the guy was there to make sure the opponent wasn’t cheating. It’s a weird and complicated story. There are other elements, as well, but I’m not going to get into them. Major League Baseball considers the matter closed. The league says it’s taken steps in the playoffs to try to make sure teams aren’t cheating via technology. You can believe they’re doing enough, or you can not believe it. I can’t pretend to have all the necessary information.

What does seem clear beyond a reasonable doubt is that teams are increasingly paranoid about the other teams relaying their signs. It’s a trend that led to increased mound meetings, and that was a trend that led to a new rule designating a mound-meeting limit. The Red Sox’s whole Apple Watch scandal was proof that sign-stealing techniques had evolved. Sign-stealing on the field has always been part of the game, but sign-stealing via cameras and tech is a pretty big no-no. And now teams are worried they might be vulnerable. Consider, for example, Tuesday’s Red Sox/Astros game. It stands to reason these teams have been reassured that the league is watching everything closely. But here’s how Dallas Keuchel was given his signs:

That’s with no one on base. And here’s how Nathan Eovaldi was given his signs:

Again, no one on base. Certainly, no one on second base. Historically, catchers have changed up the pitch signals with runners on second, because those runners, of course, have a clear view in. If those runners crack the code, then at least in theory, they can pass information on to the hitter. When there’s a runner on second, you almost invariably see more complicated signs. But when there’s not? When there’s not, this has been more normal:

Basic sign. One finger. Fastball away. You know the basic signs; one for a fastball, two for a curveball, three for a slider, four for a changeup. Or something similar to that, depending on the pitcher and catcher. Cross-ups can be dangerous, so batteries are incentivized to keep it simple when they can. When batteries don’t keep it simple, therefore, it could very well mean something. I decided to survey the playoffs — including the two National League tiebreakers — to see who’s kept it simple, and who hasn’t. It’s my proxy for gauging postseason paranoia, and I only looked at signs in situations with the bases empty. With the bases empty, ordinarily, you expect the basic signs. Know that I captured video evidence of everything, but that would be far too many clips to embed. You’ll just have to take my word for it.

The following table tells you what you need to know. The table itself is sortable. You see everything broken down by road team and home team, and I’ve marked whether or not each team used more complicated signals, even with no one on base. I didn’t watch every single pitch. That would be insane. In each case, I watched a few pitches, assuming that would tell me enough. Which teams have been especially paranoid about sign-stealing? Look for the teams next to the yellow highlights.

Postseason Sign Paranoia
Road Team Complex Signs? Home Team Complex Signs?
Dodgers No Braves No
Dodgers No Brewers No
Brewers No Cubs No
Braves No Dodgers No
Yankees No Red Sox No
Brewers No Rockies Yes
Athletics No Yankees No
Red Sox No Yankees No
Indians Yes Astros Yes
Red Sox Yes Astros Yes
Rockies Yes Brewers No
Rockies Yes Cubs No
Brewers Yes Dodgers No
Rockies Yes Dodgers No
Astros Yes Indians Yes
Astros Yes Red Sox Yes

Understand that, on its own, this isn’t definitive proof of anything. Maybe some teams just like to stick exclusively with the more complicated signals because that way everyone gets used to them, or something. But I’d say this is suggestive. The Astros have gone with more complicated signs against the Red Sox, and the Red Sox have gone with more complicated signs against the Astros. It looked like Chris Sale, interestingly enough, was getting the basic signs in Game 1, but then he was removed. That was around when Fenway Park security identified the Astros employee near the dugout. Could be a coincidence. The Red Sox did not use the more complicated signals against the Yankees. This has been Astros-specific, on their part. (UPDATE/EDIT: Upon further review, the Red Sox actually did use more complicated signals against the Yankees, some of the time. I don’t know why it wouldn’t be all the time, but, here we are.)

Given that the Red Sox were tipped off by the Indians about that guy acting suspicious, it’s probably not surprising to see that the Indians mixed it up against the Astros, just as the Astros mixed it up against the Indians. You could argue the Astros have just been playing it safe. Or you could argue the Astros have been projecting, seeing their own cheating in others. I don’t know which is more true, but the worry has been there on both sides. There’s some evidence the Brewers have mixed up their signals since the series switched to Los Angeles. And you’ll notice that the Rockies stand out. The Rockies apparently don’t trust anyone — not the Brewers, not the Dodgers, and not the Cubs. Here’s a sign with the bases empty in LA:

I know that it’s fuzzy, and I know that it’s not as conspicuous as the Astros’ signs against the Red Sox, but I saw it over and over. So unless the Rockies have their own unique signs, and this is what passes for basic over there, they were proceeding with caution. And maybe just as interesting: The Dodgers don’t have a sign-stealing worry in the world. Maybe that’ll change as the series advances, and/or maybe that’ll change if they make it to the World Series again, but the Dodgers are evidence that the sign-stealing paranoia hasn’t completely taken the game over. It’s taken over the ALCS, even after the league’s assurances, but it hasn’t yet spread to every corner.

I don’t know what, specifically, certain teams are afraid of. I don’t know the mechanisms by which they think their signs might be conveyed to the hitters within a second or two. It would have to go so fast it’s almost unbelievable, but obviously, certain teams believe it. Maybe they believe it because they’ve done it themselves. I don’t know. But it’s not hard to see an occasional consequence — the pitcher will just stand there looking in, and the catcher will go over the signs again, and then the hitter will call for timeout, because he’s been waiting too long. Not to mention the frequency of cross-ups, which invariably increase as the signs get more complicated. The teams are just trying to be as safe as they can, but it has an effect on what we’re all seeing, and how long it’s taking us to see it.

It’s remarkable that we’re even still in this place in 2018. Realistically, I don’t know if this paranoia can ever be addressed by conventional means. I don’t know how you make the Red Sox and Astros trust one another. That is, unless you abandon hand signals altogether. Which brings us to the technological solution to a technological problem. This is nothing original, on my part — countless people have suggested that catchers and pitchers be outfitted like quarterbacks. An electronic pitch signal couldn’t be observed by a center-field camera. I suppose in theory a catcher could be hacked, but the game doesn’t need to have hand signals anymore. If catchers said code words or pressed buttons on their wrists, the paranoia would — well, teams would still be paranoid of one another, but in this one way, it presumably wouldn’t manifest. Pitchers and catchers would be on the same page without anything being potentially given away, and this would come with the side benefit of the game moving along a little faster.

That technology is coming at some point. I have to think it’s inevitable, and it might be only two or three years. Until then, paranoia reigns. When you know exactly how badly your own side wants to win, you know that the other side could be up to no good.

Jeff made Lookout Landing a thing, but he does not still write there about the Mariners. He does write here, sometimes about the Mariners, but usually not.

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The GMs need to come together, agree to what technology they can use, where, and when. Then agree that anything—ANYTHING—that violates those agreed upon terms results in serious fines/suspensions.

This opens up the door for them to be honest about what has been going on, and allow them to know what the ground rules are, so they don’t act so paranoid and waste the league’s time with complaints about impropriety.


d rules are, so they don’t act so paranoid and waste the league’s time with complaints about impro