NEW YORK — Aaron Judge held onto his batting helmet when he got back to the dugout after hitting a two-run homer off Justin Verlander in Game 2 of the American League Championship Series and used it to shield his face from the television cameras when he spoke to a few teammates about the pitch he hit.
“Somebody is always watching,” Judge said. “You have to be careful.”
That is the uncomfortable undercurrent of the playoffs this season, that teams are either cheating with their surveillance of the opposition or bending the definition of what’s proper.
Even the most innocuous conversations on the field or in the dugout are done with gloves or hands over mouths. Players and coaches now assume that the other team has high-definition cameras trained on their every move.
Contrary to how it’s often portrayed, stealing signs is legal. For more than century, observant players or coaches have had the ability to watch the third base coach give signs and decipher them.
If there’s a pitchout and a runner is easily thrown out trying to steal, it’s usually because somebody stole the sign.
Going back to his playing days, Red Sox manager Alex Cora has been a sign-stealing savant.
Others can study a pitcher for an inning or two and figure out if he’s throwing a fastball or breaking ball based where his hands come set in his delivery or how he moves his hand within his glove. Even the smallest movement can be telling.
It’s also within the rules for a runner at second base to watch the catcher flash signs to the pitcher and then signal to the batter what’s coming.
What’s illegal is using a camera or some other electronic device during the game to aid in cracking the code.
“Sure, there are boundaries, yeah,” Yankees manager Aaron Boone said Thursday before New York’s 8-3 loss to Houston in Game 4. “There are boundaries. There are things you’re not allowed to do and things that are perfectly within the context of the game.”
The Astros were found to have a team employee spying on the Red Sox dugout with a cell phone camera from an adjacent space reserved for photographers during Game 1 of the ALCS last season.
The Sox had security remove the man. The Astros claimed they were monitoring the Red Sox to make sure they weren’t cheating, not trying to steal signs, and Major League Baseball went along with it.
MLB has tried to keep up with technology by putting clubhouse televisions on a longer delay and having a representative monitor the video replay system to make sure it’s used only to challenge calls and not steal signs.
But, still, there are suspicions. Counting the postseason, the Astros are 64-22 (.744) at home and 48-36 (.571) on the road this season.
That has raised questions about whether some kind of illegal system is in use at Minute Maid Park.
The Yankees heard a whistle coming from the Houston dugout during Game 1 and believed it was to signal hitters. But MLB quickly cleared the Astros of wrongdoing.
Houston manager A.J. Hinch passionately defended his team on Thursday.
“It made me laugh because it’s ridiculous,” he said. “Had I known that it would take something like that to set off the Yankees or any other team, we would have practiced it in spring training.”
Hinch acknowledged the Astros are looking for tells from opposing pitchers.
“If you don’t want us to know the pitch is coming, don’t do something that demonstrates what pitch you’re going to pitch or what you’re going to throw,” he said. “But they’re doing the same thing.”
Hinch went on to condemn anonymous sources accusing the Astros of cheating.
“I suggest they put their name by it if they’re so passionate about it to comment about my team or my players,” he said.
“There’s nothing going on other than the competition on the field. The fact that I had to field the question before a really, really cool game at Yankee Stadium is unfortunate.”
Verlander, who is scheduled to start Game 5 Friday for Houston, plans to use multiple signs to keep the Yankees from stealing them.
“It sucks for our players, because those guys are so talented. And I don’t think anything should take away from what they’re able to accomplish,” Verlander said.
“But I think we know what’s going on there. Look at what we’re getting accused of. But I understand where the paranoia comes from. We have it. I have it.”
Verlander, who made his major league debut in 2005, believes technology isn’t necessarily changing the game for the better.
“It used to be kind of a gamesmanship thing, runner gets on second base and if he’s able to decipher your signs the time he’s on second base, that’s OK, good for you,” he said.
“But if you’re pre-studying them or having some person study them before you even get out there and all of a sudden you take the field and the team already knows what you’re using, I think that’s a little bit different.”
Peter Abraham can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.