It was during the fall of 2006 that I was introduced to sign stealing. I was in high school, playing for my travel ball team, the New York Nine, in a tournament in Brooklyn. My coach was a wizard at being able to pick up what a pitcher would throw.
On this particular day (I believe it was a Saturday afternoon), he came up to me and said, “Hey, you know these guys are giving away their signs, right?”
I wasn’t all that enamored with the idea because I had never done it before. I didn’t know how effective it could possibly be.
In this case, the pitch tipping had nothing to do with the pitcher; instead, it involved the catcher. If he set up low, squatting in a pronounced crouch, you could expect an offspeed/breaking pitch. If the catcher set up normally, you could expect a fastball.
So my coach came up with a formula when you got to the plate. If he said, for instance, “Let’s go, Julian,” that meant a fastball was on its way. If he said, “All right kid, this is all you,” that meant breaking ball or offspeed.
I walked in that plate appearance. I remember taking a pitch in the dirt and seeing the pitch longer just because I knew that it was coming. But truth be told, I didn’t like it.
In the recent scandal that has rocked the Houston Astros and implicated Red Sox manager Alex Cora, much has been made about sign stealing. The lengths to which Cora, A.J. Hinch, and the Astros went to steal signs with the use of electronics has no place in baseball. It’s not the game within the game. It’s blatant cheating.
The organization and the individuals involved have lost the trust of their peers across the league in addition to some reporters that cover them. Rightfully so. In some cases, that trust might not ever be renewed.
But if there is one thing that I do, in fact, find truthful from the Astros’ perspective, it came on Page 4 of commissioner Rob Manfred’s report.
“At some point during the 2018 season,” the commissioner explained, “the Astros stopped using the replay review room to decode signs because the players no longer believed it was effective.”
I related to that the most. Being in the batter’s box requires intense focus, and from my vantage point, it was hard for me to listen for my coach’s voice while also trying to hit. For me, it was a distraction, though thinking back, I might have had better results — who knows?
Yet parts of it sent my mind into a frenzy. Sure, I have this advantage now, I would tell myself, but what about when it’s not at my disposal? Will I regress as a hitter because I became so dependent on the voice of my coach instead of focusing on my actual approach at the plate? What if my coach was wrong and I got a fastball instead of a changeup?
Hitting is hard, and any slight advantage you can get, you use it. Sign stealing wasn’t for me, but many of my teammates from high school all the way through professional independent ball loved getting an alert on what was coming.
In our case, there were eyes in the dugout fixated on the catcher, pitcher, and coach relaying the signs (oftentimes in college, coaches are the ones that call the game). At one point, I recall, one of my teams — can’t remember which level — picked up on a pitcher throwing a certain pitch just by the way he held his head. If it was a fastball, his head was straight. If it was an offspeed or curve, he cocked his head to the side.
Another method occurred with the catcher. He would go through a series of signs, but one of my coaches noticed that that was just for show. Instead, the sign came well before then, right as he threw the ball back to his pitcher from the previous pitch. If it was an offspeed or breaking pitch, he would tap his chest. If it was a fastball, he didn’t do anything.
When I was on second base, I would try my best to decode signs for players in the box by swiping at my helmet in some fashion. You had to be cool about it. If caught, you run the risk of getting your guy drilled in the batter’s box.
Still, those little edges gave you an advantage. Now, imagine major leaguers — not washed-up professional independent ball players — putting that to work. You probably get the Houston Astros who pounded Yu Darvish and Clayton Kershaw in the 2017 World Series.
Sign stealing will always be a part of the game. Perhaps if I had had some top-tier technology and a trash can, I would still be playing and not writing.
OK, probably not.