PITTSBURGH — For as long a there have been coded messages designed to secretly pass information before prying eyes, there has been someone trying to break the encryption, from the Babington Plot to the Zimmerman Letter. For as long as there have been signals in baseball, there has been an opponent trying to identify a pattern and steal the signs. And with every game televised, with cameras everywhere, teams have never before been more paranoid about protecting their messages.
Complicating matters is the commissioner’s concern about pace of play, which has manifested itself this season in the form of a limit on mound visits. Now a pitching coach’s capacity to deliver a message directly is even more constrained. Pitching clocks might be on the horizon. The need for signals is even greater.
In the face of all this, at least one club appears has responded with their own innovation.
Last Sunday, the Washington Nationals broadcast noticed an unusual card sheathed in clear plastic on a wristband that was adorning the left arm of Rockies catcher Chris Iannetta. The MASN cameras zoomed in for a close-up in an attempt to satisfy the curiosity of color man F.P. Santangelo and to discern the contents of the card.
This author went into investigative mode, paused the television, pulled up the game on my laptop via MLB.TV, and took a screenshot of the image.
Attempts to unlock the code via crowdsourcing on social media were unsuccessful.
Is the cipher unbreakable? The Rockies think so.
The wrist card wasn’t just something the Rockies implemented Sunday. Iannetta has worn the card since the Rockies’ season began in Arizona.
And it’s not something employed just by Iannetta: Tony Wolters uses a cheat sheet similar to what we see on the wrists of quarterbacks.
The Rockies were in Pittsburgh this week, so I traveled down the turnpike from Cleveland to investigate.
While other teams might have already done something similar, this wristband — or, at least the scope of it — seemed to be unusual in nature. And with the amount of information available in today’s game, when it’s possible to know every batter’s performance against every pitch type in every count, I have wondered if teams would try and get more information to catchers and players on the field.
For example: Mariners’ outfielders are carrying cards in their back pockets to help with positioning this season. In college baseball, the coaches — lacking the trust in their young battery — often call the vast majority of pitches, which can slow things down.
So what’s on the card?
Iannetta said the information is mostly related to controlling the running game, and he explained some of the mechanics of the process.
“It’s just a random three-digit number that corresponds to a sign and then we have 10 different cards with random numbers,” Iannetta said. “As soon as they [the MASN broadcast] zoomed in… we heard about it and switched cards immediately. We switched to a different card with a whole new set of numbers. There’s no way to memorize it. There’s a random-number generator spitting out a corresponding number [for the cards], and the coaches have the same cards.”
In explaining the process, Iannetta said he’ll look toward the dugout see a coach use his fingers to send in the three-digit code and then look on his card for the corresponding call. It could be a throw over to first or nothing, no action. Iannetta said three-digit codes are never repeated in-game for the same call.
“If I get ‘1-4-3,’ and it’s a throw over to first base, we’ll never use ‘1-4-3’ again to throw over,” Iannetta said. “There will never be repetition… It’s pretty impossible to steal signs if you use the system we are using.”
The cards and coding system are the ideas of Rockies bench coach and former major-league catcher Mike Redmond.
Redmond had wanted to implement a better signaling system for years. He was inspired by watching college games, noting how often teams were able to switch their signs and calls when using a similar system. He also wanted to make life easier for catchers, a simpler method so they could focus more on calling a game. He began to implement the system at the beginning of last season when the Rockies had a younger, less experienced starting catcher in Wolters, who had begun his professional career as an infielder.
“I’ve been thinking for years about putting in a system that stops guys from stealing signs and keeps up with the flow of the game,” Redmond said. “With the video and cameras on you all the time, if you don’t get creative and really mix up your signs it could cost you a game. What I wanted to do was eliminate that and make sure we had an easy system that worked well and flowed, and one that nobody could pick up.
“Essentially we took what we do and put it on a card.”
What does “EAT” signify on the card? Redmond laughed and said he could not give away all of his secrets.
Redmond and the analytics team create new cards before every game, tailored to specific opponents, and encrypted with three-digit code from a random-number generator.
“It’s really impossible to steal signs,” Redmond said.
“They realize how easy it is,” Redmond said. “They don’t have to worry about the signs and calling plays.”
The cards are double-sided and flip open. While the Rockies say they are largely used for calls in the run game, there is scouting information on opposing batters. That’s important, he says, when considering the limitation on the number of mound visits.
“As we talk more and more about pace of play, our cards have the ability to have reminders of scouting reports, and how to pitch guys, as a quick guide, so the pitching coach doesn’t have to stop the game and say, ‘Hey, this is how we’re going to pitch this guy,’” Redmond said. “It’s all right there.”
Could the club take it a step further and make it a pitch-call list and begin to call pitches more often from the dugout? After all, to store and recall all the scouting information on an opposing lineup simply through memory is challenging for just about every catcher.
“I still believe the catcher’s job is to call the game,” Redmond said. “To work with the pitcher and have a game plan and call the game and learn that aspect of it.”
For instance, Iannetta notes that the catcher’s vantage point allows for a unique view that is different from the one along the dugout railing. Catchers can better get a sense of how batters take pitches, the conviction of swings, and the quality of the pitcher’s stuff.
“The ultimate thing is, ‘What can they execute?’” Iannetta said. “Ninety-nine times out of 100, I’d rather them throw a pitch they are confident in, that they know they can execute in that moment, than the quote-unquote ‘right pitch.’ You go with what they can execute. If you throw a breaking ball down and away on the black, it’s not going to get hit very often. It’s a pitch-to-pitch thing. If they lose command for two pitches, you have to recognize that and help them get it back. If their best pitch is a slider, and they don’t have a feel or it early in the game, you have to find another way to get outs while throwing [the slider] enough times to get the feel back… That’s just part of the game.”
For Iannetta, there’s a blend of science and art when calling a game.
Moreover, Iannetta said there would also be a pace problem if getting pitch calls relayed from the dugout to Iannetta to the pitcher and then back again if there’s a shake-off.
“If I have to look at a card and give a three-digit signal to a pitcher and he doesn’t want it, looks at his card and wants curveball and gives me that number… it would slow down the game,” Iannetta said.
Rockies manager Bud Black agrees with the Iannetta viewpoint. Asked about potentially expanding the card to call all the pitches, Black began with the qualifier that he appreciates the value in the wealth of data valuable to him. But he motioned toward the blank, white cinder-block wall in the visiting manager’s office at PNC Park and said, for him, each game is a blank canvas. On any given night, the pitcher is going to have a different feel, a different comfort level, with certain pitches that will be unique to that contest.
“We know all those percentages. Travis Sawchik, on 2-2 counts, you hit .050 on the curveball,” Black said. “[Pirates shortstop] Jordy Mercer on 1-0 counts doesn’t hit the changeup. We know all that. But where you run into issues is every pitcher is unique. Every pitcher doesn’t have a great 1-0 change or 2-2 curveball. You have to rely on what the pitcher does, his strengths, and really what is going on that day.
“Each game is unique. As much as you want to draw big conclusions from big data — and, yes, there is something to that — but at a particular moment in that game, big data might not be there.”
Black said he does call some pitches from the dugout, typically in high-leverage situations.
“As far as calling pitches from the bench, do we call some? Yes.” Black said. “Do we call all 150 pitches? No.”
The Rockies believe they may have an unbreakable signaling system, but they seem to respect that even the perfect encrypted message has its limits.