An Embarrassing Week of Player Complaints

Baseball is getting chippy.

On Tuesday, the New York Times reported that the Red Sox were being investigated by Major League Baseball for violating the league’s rule against using electronics in the dugout. Specifically, the Yankees filed a complaint alleging the Red Sox used an Apple Watch to receive information from their replay staff, who had used the video reviews to decode the Yankees signs. According to the report, the Red Sox did not deny the allegation, instead going with the playground favorite “they do it too” defense, filing a counter complaint stating the Yankees using a YES Network camera to steal signs.

Then yesterday, Athletics third baseman Matt Chapman got ejected after arguing with Angels catcher Juan Graterol over, you guessed it, sign stealing.

Chapman said he was trying to stick up for teammates Graterol had accused of stealing signs. “I think this stemmed back to a couple of days ago. They thought we were relaying signs from second base and they also thought a couple of hitters were peeking at catchers’ signs,” Chapman said.

“When we were digging into the box today, the catcher kept staring at the hitters as they were digging into the box. That’s not a very comfortable feeling having the catcher staring at you. It’s a little disrespectful. So when I got into the box, I just let them know we were not stealing signs and there was no need to be staring at us. He obviously didn’t take too kindly to that.”

“I don’t know if it’s their pre-pitch routine, but they have a habit of glancing back,” Angels manager Mike Scioscia said. “On a day game or a night game when you can see shadows and a catcher’s head, it’s easy to look back and pick up some locations. So, Juan was just saying, ‘Hey, man, don’t look back.’”

“We have video on what they do,” Angels starter Tyler Skaggs said. “If they need to look at signs to hit, it is what it is.”

Canha said that Graterol told him, “Stop looking at my signs,” and he had done the same thing to Chad Pinder. “Chad’s not the type of guy who would do that. I’ve never done that in my career,” Canha said. “I thought it was just a Scioscia-Angels-Graterol tactic to make young players get uncomfortable, just get in my head. I was just like, ‘OK, play your little games and I’m just going to focus on the task at hand.’”

These incidents came less than a week since a pair of pitcher/batter confrontations. Last week, CC Sabathia got mad at Eduardo Nunez for laying down a bunt against him, because Sabathia’s knee hurts and he doesn’t think opponents should make him field his position when he’s not 100%. And then Trevor Bauer and Avisail Garcia had a testy at-bat on Monday, after Garcia apparently decided he was unhappy with the amount of breaking balls Bauer was throwing him, and yelled at the mound to try to get Bauer to throw him fastballs instead.

Certainly, the Red Sox case is a bit different than the other three, in that they actually broke a rule and committed a legitimate violation of league rules. While sign stealing isn’t a violation, using technology to communicate in the dugout absolutely is; it’s why the iPads provided to teams for their dugout use have their wireless connections disabled.

So MLB will almost certainly have to discipline the team so as to not give tacit approval to other organizations to start using technology to communicate with off-field officials, which could significantly change the game. If pitchers believe that their signs could easily be captured by someone watching on video and then relayed in real time to the dugout, the counter might be something like a mound visit between every pitch, which would be an untenable result for the league. So that needs to be prevented, and thus the punishment for breaking the electronic communications rule needs to be more painful than the reward for breaking the rule is beneficial.

But the rest of this? This all just comes across as high profile whining.

The entire point of having coded signs is that you know that you’re communicating information to your teammates that your opponents would find valuable; of course those opponents are then going to attempt to break that code. Even calling it “sign stealing” is overly dramatic; it’s really more like “puzzle solving”, which sounds significantly less nefarious. You can’t legitimately get mad when you communicate prized information about your plan to defeat your opponent in front of your opponent and then they respond by trying to figure out what you’re saying.

The same goes for a catcher and setup location. If you’re going to move into a position to better receive a ball in a way that will encourage the umpire to call a strike, the trade-off is that everyone can see what you’re doing before the pitch is released. There’s no reasonable expectation of privacy here. If shifting your body behind the plate provides useful information to your opponent, that’s the cost of doing so; getting upset that the opponent gleaned information you chose to provide is ridiculous.

But not quite as ridiculous as Sabathia claiming that it’s now somehow unethical to make him field his position. If Sabathia isn’t athletic enough to get off the mound and make a play on a bunt, that’s a flaw in his abilities, the same as if he lost five mph on his fastball or couldn’t throw his curveball for strikes. Part of his job description is being able to make plays on balls bunted in his general direction. If he can’t do that, the Yankees need to adjust their defensive alignment in order to compensate for their pitcher’s deficiencies, and then he has to suffer the consequences of having a mis-aligned defense because he’s not physically capable of performing every part of his job. It’s not any different from a team having to shade their center fielder towards left field because they chose to run a DH out there.

And then there’s Garcia, who apparently was unhappy that Bauer decided to throw him bendy pitches. Because apparently hitters should get to choose what kind of pitches they are thrown? This doesn’t even deserve its own paragraph, given how ridiculous it is on its face.

I get that baseball players have their own set of rules, and as outsiders, we’re not necessarily privy to some of the norms that have been established through the years. But these complaints have crossed over from cultural and behavioral differences to complaining about opponents trying to do things that help them win the game on the field. Of course they’re going to try to gain an advantage. That’s the whole point of the sport. It’s a competition. They’re trying to beat you.

The Red Sox crossed a line by using electronics in the dugout to get outside information that couldn’t be gleaned another way. That deserves punishment so it doesn’t become the new normal. But the actual act of “sign stealing”? Or looking back when the catcher moves? Or bunting against a pitcher who isn’t a good fielder? Or throwing a freaking curveball to a hitter who wants a fastball?

That’s baseball. Stop complaining about your opponent making it harder for you to win the game. That’s their job. Do yours better than they do theirs, and you won’t have to look like a fool by whining to the media after the game is over.





Dave is the Managing Editor of FanGraphs.

73 Comments
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dtpollittmember
4 years ago

Slightly different tangent, but I’m amazed Gary Sanchez received only a three game suspension for cold-cocking two Red Sox. Players engage in activities like throwing balls at 90+ MPH and punching one another–actions that are significant crimes in the public sphere–and receive a slap on the wrist.

Free Clay Zavada
4 years ago
Reply to  dtpollitt

Assuming you mean Tigers here, right?

dtpollittmember
4 years ago

Sorry, you’re right, thanks.

Psychic... Powerless...
4 years ago
Reply to  dtpollitt

Some of these, such as Papelbon choking Harper, should probably be treated as crimes.

TKDCmember
4 years ago

I’d rather my tax dollars not go towards putting Papelbon through the judicial system for getting in a dugout scuffle with his teammate. Treating something like that as a crime will not make the world a better, safer place.

Andrew Spera
4 years ago

would love to see what would happen if you took on harper in a fight

MB923
4 years ago
Reply to  dtpollitt

Yankee fan here and I agree. Sanchez should have gotten at least 5.

113CandleMagic
4 years ago
Reply to  dtpollitt

I hate that you can intentionally bean a guy but say that you didn’t do it on purpose, while getting off relatively scot-free, yet when Alex Wilson was actually honest and admitted to beaning a guy, he got suspended for four games. It’s sad that you get punished for honesty and rewarded for lying.

Joey Butts
4 years ago
Reply to  dtpollitt

Why single out Gary Sanchez? Pretty much everyone got off easy.

dirtbag
4 years ago
Reply to  Joey Butts

Because he’s the only one who cheapshotted anyone, and he did it twice?

Joey Butts
4 years ago
Reply to  dirtbag

Miguel Cabrera started a brawl almost single-handed and also got off easy. You can see why I might still be unclear.

Azizalmember
4 years ago
Reply to  Joey Butts

Cabrera did not start a “brawl”. He started a fight with one person, which certainly deserves suspension. He should get what anyone else gets for throwing the first punch.

Regardless, even though we all “know it’s going to happen” as in we know the benches will clear, and Cabrera knows that too, it’s ultimately each person’s individual choice to join the fight. MLB should be more like the NBA in this regard, and punish all players who leave the bench to fight (iirc, that’s what the NBA does).