'You Can't Trust Nobody': Inside MLB's War on High-Tech Sign Stealing

Scott Miller@@ScottMillerBblNational MLB ColumnistOctober 2, 2019

Los Angeles Dodgers relief pitcher Kenley Jansen checks the runner at first base in the ninth inning of a baseball game against the Colorado Rockies Wednesday, July 31, 2019, in Denver. The Dodgers won 5-1. (AP Photo/David Zalubowski)

Weary from battling digital thieves the past two Octobers and the regular-season games in between, Kenley Jansen carries within him a creative idea that he is sure would stop sign stealing in its tracks.

Given modern technology, the Los Angeles Dodgers closer wonders, why not just blur out the catcher's hand on television when he signals a pitch?

"That would eliminate all of it," Jansen says. "You still have [opponents] in the clubhouse watching, but if you make it blurry, I think it's going to be so much harder for guys who get to second base to relay signs."

After all, Jansen says, it isn't during games when rivals use technology to crack codes.

"It's about tapes and tapes and tapes that hitters see when they view their swings and figure out stuff like that," Jansen says. "If MLB can input that..."

Viewers, Jansen argues, aren't going to understand the signs anyway. So, little entertainment value will be lost.

"It's such a small part," Jansen says of removing catchers' signs from viewers' sight.

Except, in the vast and shadowy world of modern MLB intelligence, nothing is small, and nothing is simple.

Sign stealing and sign relaying always has been a part of the game, but digital theft gained entry as an unintended consequence of instant replay expansion in 2014, several MLB sources agree, and has spread as rapidly as a computer virus ever since.

"It's real. It impacts games," Dodgers manager Dave Roberts says. "You have to do everything you can to combat it, and teams are doing that more in the regular season to prepare for the postseason. You've got to change signs. Guys have cards now."

Adds recently deposed Chicago Cubs manager Joe Maddon: "It slows the game down, but, at the cost of losing a game, you're going to do whatever you can. You just don't know. You always suspect. Some of that is built-in paranoia in our game, too."

MLB this year instituted several layers of firewalls that both league and club officials say have cleaned things up immensely in 2019 following two straight Octobers in which off-field digital thievery exploded into public view and threatened to upstage the games themselves.

The plundering peaked during the 2017 World Series between the Dodgers and Houston Astros, club and league sources believe, a Fall Classic that has become known as the wild, Wild West of technological espionage. The intel led to a World Series-record 25 home runs between the two teams.

Then it blew up again during last autumn's Houston-Boston American League Championship Series when the Red Sox, who said they had been tipped off by the Cleveland Indians, caught an Astros employee lurking in the photo well next to their dugout with a cellphone. The Red Sox believe the Astros were snooping to unlawfully gain intelligence. Outraged, the Astros countered by saying that their close-range dugout photography simply was their defending against potentially cheating rivals, ensuring that the Red Sox—and others—weren't using dugout video monitors to steal signs from Houston.

Jeff Passan @JeffPassan

Sources: The Indians warned the Red Sox about a man named Kyle McLaughlin taking pictures of their dugout for the Houston Astros. MLB also looked into an August incident in which Oakland alleged an Astros sign-stealing scheme. News at Yahoo Sports: https://t.co/P1t6sqhoQc https://t.co/MHEP2yimWC

Days later, the Red Sox watched the Dodgers' Manny Machado waving like an air traffic controller from second base during the fourth inning of Game 2 of the World Series and accused him of relaying signs.

"The paranoia is off the charts," Astros ace Justin Verlander says. "You saw that last year with us. People thought we were doing something. We were trying to make sure the Indians weren't doing anything. That was just us being paranoid."

Predictably, nobody in the game is willing to publicly finger those who were cheating or those whom they believe might be cheating. But given assurances of anonymity, several league sources indicate the Astros, Dodgers, Red Sox, New York Yankees and Arizona Diamondbacks have been especially adept with technological surveillance. One source mentions the Cubs and Washington Nationals dabble a bit "but not as much as others." Another source says the Indians, while still another notes the Toronto Blue Jays and Texas Rangers once were suspected as well.

"Every team," Jansen says. "You can't trust nobody. You don't know."

"I think it's unfair to say we've been the face of any of this, the Astros," Houston manager AJ Hinch says. "It was very public for us. We admitted our mistakes of trying to make sure that other teams were not breaking the rules, and in turn we were the ones that had the unfortunate incident in Cleveland and then in Boston. Everyone learned from their mistakes.

"It's a topic around the league. I think it's unfair to think that we are the only team that has been curious about everybody else's actions. Fortunately, MLB took a very serious stance on it, and I think it's been largely cleaned up over the year."

After the game's general managers made a formal request following their meetings in November, the league enacted a series of rules:

  • During games, clubhouse televisions are required to show the feed on a delay of a minimum of eight seconds. Real-time telecasts are prohibited so that players cannot read a rival catcher's sign and relay it to the dugout so that it can then be relayed to the field.
  • A league official is present in the video room of each clubhouse during every game during both the regular and postseasons. As each club's designated representative watches live feeds to aid their manager in determining whether to appeal an umpire's call, the league official patrols to ensure players are not in the video area, the only area in which a live feed is allowed.
  • Each club is required to fully disclose the location of every camera it has installed in its ballpark and what the purpose of that camera is. MLB then performs "audits" of all installed technology in ballparks to confirm clubs are complying with regulations. Some of these walkarounds are scheduled; others are unannounced.

"It's been a great thing," Colorado Rockies manager Bud Black says. "[Digital thievery] was prevalent, and now it's not."

One change yet to be instituted is Jansen's suggestion to blur out the catcher's hand on live broadcasts—but not for lack of discussion in the commissioner's office.

"It would help, but it wouldn't be a total fix," says Morgan Sword, MLB's senior vice president for economics and operations. "Because one, whatever camera is facing the catcher is still capturing it. In theory, the clean feed could be going somewhere [else] in the ballpark. And two, there are nonbroadcast cameras that also have a view of the catcher that clubs could be using."

Like so many debates over the purity of competition, ethical vs. unethical methodology at times can be open for discussion. But most in the game distinguish between old-school sign stealing—deciphering a rival catcher's or coach's signs with the naked eye during a game, which universally is viewed as fair gameand using technology do it, which is viewed as a breach of the game's unwritten rules (or legitimate competition).

The long history of teams' studying catchers' signs has pitchers and clubs scrambling to find ways to disguise the calls.
The long history of teams' studying catchers' signs has pitchers and clubs scrambling to find ways to disguise the calls.Mark J. Terrill/Associated Press

In 2016, MLB and Apple reached a deal through which, in-game, clubs can use iPad Pros that are specially programmed with an MLB Dugout app that contains centralized advance scouting, analytics and videos. But of course, certain clubs pushed further.

The Red Sox in 2017 were caught by the Yankees illegally using Apple Watches in an elaborate scheme to aid in relaying signs. Sign relaying can be successful if it is done rapidly, say, to a runner on second base, who in turn can signal to the hitter what pitch he can expect next. Or, a sign could even be relayed to a person in the dugout who can signal the hitter via a shrill whistle or by shouting the hitter's first name ("Hey, Charlie, let's go!") that a fastball is coming.

In response, the Sox filed a complaint with MLB that the Yankees were using one of their YES Network cameras to steal signs. The Yankees quickly denied the charge.

Whatever the split between true theft and pure paranoia, one statistic suggests the level to which clubs involved in recent postseasons believe their rivals are cheating and work to counter it: Wild pitches and passed balls have spiked alarmingly in each of the past two Octobers, perhaps the result of pitchers and catchers constantly changing their signs and sequences and thus increasing the chances of cross-ups.

Participating clubs set a postseason record by combining for a stunning 49 wild pitches and passed balls during those frontier days of 2017. The 2018 postseason threatened that record before falling short with 42.

Contrast that with just 24 wild pitches and passed balls in 2016 and a mere 14 in 2015.

Asked whether he saw things during the '17 World Series that made him suspicious, Dodgers manager Roberts pauses for several seconds before finally allowing, "I think the Astros did everything they possibly could to give themselves the best chance for success."

So, in that regard, did they do a little better job than did the Dodgers and other clubs?

"You know, it's all speculation," Roberts says. "There's no sour grapes. It's something we've heard a lot about from various teams. Honestly, it's kind of...we had our chances, you know?"

Asked whether he had any suspicions himself during the '17 World Series, Hinch says: "Just by mere catcher-to-pitcher visits and dugout visits, it became a topic, looking back on it. During the time the 2017 World Series happened, I didn't feel there was anything extraordinary going on until you tally up the number of visits that were made.

"Now, that's been going on a number of years, too, where catchers would go out. You look at the Cubs-Indians World Series [in 2016]. Roberto Perez, David Ross, Willson Contreras, all those guys were out a million times. When the stakes are the highest, you are the most careful with the communication between the catcher and the pitcher."

As in civilian life, baseball exists in an age in which it must be assumed that video surveillance is everywhere.

"It sucks that it's now come down to that, that you have availability to steal signs through computers and technology," Cubs starter Jon Lester says. "It used to be—I remember the guys who would write things down in a book, guys who were good at [picking off signs from second base]. If somebody could do that, you tipped your hat: My signs aren't that good, and I need to make them better.

"But now, you've got cameras that are focused directly on the catcher's crotch, and you've got guys trying to figure out sequences from that. It makes it difficult, and the product of it is the passed balls and wild pitches."

Manager AJ Hinch and the Astros have been suspected by a number of teams of trying to steal opponents' signs in unscrupulous ways.
Manager AJ Hinch and the Astros have been suspected by a number of teams of trying to steal opponents' signs in unscrupulous ways.John Minchillo/Associated Press

Recent rules changes limiting mound visits have forced clubs to be smarter regarding their signs. To that end, earlier this year the Red Sox read a story about something the Yankees were doing. It piqued their interest enough that they started incorporating it sometime in June: club-issued cards catchers and pitchers carry with different sets of signs.

Say Rick Porcello is throwing to Christian Vazquez, and the fastball-sinker-curveball signs are on Level 1, but now Brett Gardner reaches second and the Sox are concerned he may read a sign and relay it to Aaron Judge. Instead of trotting to the mound, Vazquez can simply holler for Porcello to move to Level 2 on the cards, or Level 3, and use that sign set.

Many clubs, including the Dodgers, Rockies and Atlanta Braves, this summer moved to a similar system (some clubs use numbers; others use colors). And if you have any question regarding how easy it can be for a pitcher to cross up a catcher, just talk with Rockies catcher Tony Wolters.

Though the Rockies' season is finished, they were a playoff team in 2017 and 2018 and quickly realizedor, at least, suspectedhow many clubs were stealing signs.

"The preparation for us was learning how to switch the signs in the middle of an at-bat, the middle of an inning and doing it a lot," Wolters says. "I would say, like this year, we've had at least 10 or 15 different sign sets each inning. Then we would switch our cards each inning.

"You go through a whole game, you go through 50 or 60 different sign sets."

That math adds up to more than 100 different signs in a given game. And, Wolters says, the Rockies are constantly throwing them away and making new ones. Despite the volume of signs, the card system allows Wolters and his pitchers to reference them easier than batterymates did in years past, when both pitcher and catcher would have to remember the signs without any cheat sheets.

"Every team is aware," Red Sox manager Alex Cora says. "They watch the playoffs. People talk about it: Why wait to win 11 games in October when you can win 95 from April to the end of September, you know? You get a ticket to the playoffs. Teams are very aware of what's going on."

Often, they are acutely aware in the moment.

"When I'm at shortstop and there's a runner on second base and [he's] looking at the catcher, I'm not going to go over and say, 'Hey, don't steal signs,'" Astros shortstop Carlos Correa says. "I'm going to go tell my pitcher, 'Hey, switch up the signs' or 'Get better signs.' It's part of the game. Every team does it."

Former Yankees manager Joe Girardi is among those who advocate incorporating NFL-style earpiece-and-microphone systems that could be used for communication between third base coaches and hitters and catchers and pitchers.

"They do that in college," Cora says. "At some time, we will. That might happen."

Cora pauses, grins and continues: "But then somebody's going to crack that code and probably hitters will be listening [in on pitcher-catcher discussions]. It's kind of like drug-testing. Chemists say [the cheats] are always one step ahead. It's kind of the same thing here."

Long ago, the late manager Preston Gomez, an expert sign stealer himself, told Maddon the key to pilfering information from a third base coach is to watch where he first touches when flashing signs. So Maddon, who became adept at lifting information, regularly drew stick figures on cards during his travels around the league, one for each rival third base coach, and would place a dot on the part of the body where the coach first touched to aid his sleuthing.

Rockies catcher Tony Wolters says he will use as many as 100 different signs in a game to keep an opponent from surreptitiously finding out what pitches he is calling.
Rockies catcher Tony Wolters says he will use as many as 100 different signs in a game to keep an opponent from surreptitiously finding out what pitches he is calling.Matthew Stockman/Getty Images

Even Verlander debuted so long ago (2005) that, as he quips, "They didn't even have HD video, so it probably didn't matter if you could see the signs from the catcher or not; you couldn't differentiate between a one and a two."

That's quite different from today, and, as Lester says, crotch cams.

"You can tell by the swings guys are taking," Roberts says. "If Pedro Baez is throwing his slider 97 up and in [and the hitter takes], and then they're on it when he throws it down and away, you know something's not right. That's something that's happened before."

Will the new rules make a difference?

Players and managers alike give MLB high marks for the steps taken this year to combat digital thievery, with most saying they think it is receding following its 2017 peak.

The paranoia, however, likely will remain intact for the immediate future. In a game against the Cubs in June, Jansen intentionally balked Jason Heyward from second to third base simply to move him to a spot where he couldn't see the catcher's signs in the ninth inning of a game Los Angeles led 5-3 (and held on to win).

"Me and [bench coach] Bob Geren were talking about it for so long," Jansen says. "I started laughing because I knew I was going to do it."

Among the benefits of the new rules is the hope, among some teams, that maybe now people will stop accusing them of cheating.

"Look at the talent in this clubhouse, and you tell me," Correa says in defending the Astros. "We're great hitters all the way around. We work hard every day, and the fact that people try to take that credit away from us is disrespect to our abilities.

"This year is 2019, and you've got five, six guys with a .900 OPS on the team. We've got MLB officials in the video room and everywhere, and we have the best numbers of our career as a team. So what are you going to say?"

Point is, with MLB's firewalls squarely in place, digital crime won't pay this October, for anybody. Right?

"All things being equal, I like our chances," Verlander says.

All things being, ahem, equal? When presented with his curious turn of phrase, Verlander smiles, knowingly.


Scott Miller covers Major League Baseball as a national columnist for Bleacher Report. Follow Scott on Twitter and talk baseball.