What, exactly, is inside of those hats?
Red Sox pitchers keep stepping off the rubber to examine the inside of their hats before pitches, scrutinizing them as if looking for the next clue on a treasure map. So what’s inside of them? Scouting reports? Motivational messages? An arrow pointing to the plate? A replica of a Magritte painting?
No, no, no, and most assuredly (and unfortunately) no. The answer is far more mundane. In an era when catcher mound visits are finite, and when teams are changing their sign systems all the time to combat increasingly sophisticated sign-stealing, the Red Sox have, in essence, a sign-system cheat sheet inside of their hats.
With catchers Christian Vazquez and Sandy Leon frequently altering the meaning of the fingers they’re putting down — or the embedded code defined by the order of the signs — the Red Sox felt that it made sense to give pitchers a handy reminder of what they were looking for while attacking hitters.
“At first, I was like, ‘I’m not going to put it in my hat; I’m going to memorize it,’ ” said reliever Heath Hembree. “Then they switched it up and I didn’t even know they switched them up, so I think we got crossed up on a pitch and I said, ‘All right, I’ll put it in my hat.’
“It’s just trying to keep up with the sign system, having a bunch of different options, keep the pace of play quicker, and just kind of having it right there so we don’t get confused.
“When you have so many systems, have so many things memorized, keep having to switch it up and come up with something new, it’s just nice to have something in your hat to peek in there and kind of know right away.”
Just under a year ago, umpire Joe West confiscated a card being used by Phillies reliever Austin Davis that offered a thumbnail scouting report on hitters.
Major League Baseball, however, ruled that pitchers were allowed to carry that kind of material, that cards did not constitute foreign substances.
Still, the Red Sox have resisted providing their pitchers with scouting reports on the mound. They prefer to preserve the feel-based art of pitching, combining the scouting and preparation work with the feel of the pitcher and catcher for how a hurler’s stuff is playing on a given day and what an opposing team seems to be hunting.
“Honestly, I’m pretty locked in on what I want to do to guys,” said Rick Porcello. “Really, most nights for me now, at this point, if I’m not being successful, it’s because I’m not executing the pitches that I want to throw, not because I don’t know what to throw.
“You have so much information you want to use to your benefit, but it’s a game played by humans. Sometimes those scouting reports go out the window when you throw a pitch where you think you want to throw it and the guy is all over you. Now you’ve got to make an adjustment back. That’s the game.
“I’d much rather have it that way than predetermined. That’s not what the game is.”
In a way, the Red Sox pitchers said, the reminders of sign sequences in hats afford them more freedom to focus on what they’re doing to attack the hitter.
“It’s just easier to get on the same page as the catcher quickly instead of using 20 different signs,” said Eduardo Rodriguez. “It’s one sign, see it. It’s easy and quicker.”
Yet while the information inside the hat might simplify how the pitcher and catcher communicate, the innovation — the Red Sox started using the cheat sheet in hats in July — attests to the increasing complexity of the game.
There were 370 passed balls in 2018, up 22 percent over the total from 2008 and more than 30 percent from 2009. There are a number of reasons for that — increasingly nasty stuff and an increased emphasis on framing among them — but most often, there are concerns that changing signals has increased the frequency of a pitcher and catcher being out of alignment.
“The game has gotten more difficult,” observed NESN analyst and Hall of Fame pitcher Dennis Eckersley. “It’s difficult to have [sign-stealing] on your mind. You have enough to worry about.”
Yet concerns of in-game espionage have mushroomed in recent years. Increasing technological sophistication — the Hawk-Eye system that beams every camera feed into clubhouses for replay purposes, the increasing use by teams of slow-motion Edgertronic cameras, and biomechanical motion-capture systems such as KinaTrax — have introduced the architecture for newfangled forms of espionage.
“If you’re not paranoid about something,” said Hembree, “you can get got.”
That lesson was offered to Hembree in 2016, with the arrival of teammate Chris Young, who signed with the Sox after spending some of 2014 and all of 2015 with the Yankees.
“Once C.Y. got here from the Yankees, he spilled the beans,” said Hembree. “It was, ‘Oh, OK.’ Then [former Yankees catcher Brian] McCann went to the Astros and you were like, ‘Oh, OK.’
“It’s everywhere. It’s spreading everywhere. Marwin [Gonzalez] went to the Twins [from the Astros], McCann went to the Braves, so it’s spreading. You’ve got to be on top of it. But if you’re not trying, you ain’t winning.”
A lot of teams are trying — and hence the dragging pace of play when, for instance, the Yankees and Red Sox met up a couple seasons ago (the year the Red Sox were caught stealing signs via watches), a series that seemed to prompt a mound meeting between pitcher and catcher every time a runner was on base.
With mound visits having gone from unlimited to a cap of six prior to the 2018 season to a maximum of five in 2019, pitchers and catchers can’t re-establish their sign sequences verbally prior to every pitch. Thus, the use of hats to keep pace with the need for sophistication in signals.
“When you start altering rules in the game because of espionage, you start realizing this is pretty real,” said Porcello. “It’s everyone. It’s part of the game now.
“There’s so much technology, so much video, 30 different camera angles where a coach can watch a flex in the forearm. You’ve got first base coaches standing on the foul lines trying to stare at catchers’ signs.
“It’s real. But it’s part of the game.
“The last couple of years, you’re really starting to see teams really investing in relaying signs. Now it’s gone further than that. It’s investing in staff members to be good at analyzing pitchers. You see a [expletive] 1-inch space in your forearms and guys know you’re calling a breaking ball.
“That’s all part of the game now because they have different camera angles and guys who analyze them all day. The last couple of years, it’s become a huge part of [the game].”
And it’s not going anywhere. Baseball has a ways to go while wrestling with the implications of new forms of technologies being introduced into the sport. What to do?
Best hang on to your hats.
Alex Speier can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on twitter at @alexspeier.