The recent Boston Red Sox-New York Yankees series at Fenway Park inspired me to look back in time and read about sign stealing and other baseball tricks.
It wasn’t more than a couple of years ago that the Red Sox were found guilty of electronically stealing signs from the Yankees. So what have the Yanks done to prevent sign stealing from happening again?
Frank Crosetti was a slick-fielding infielder who played shortstop and third base for the Yanks between 1932 and 1948. He spent another 20 years, between 1949 and 1968, primarily as the third base coach for the Bronx Bombers. Remarkably, he was on the field for 23 fall classics, of which New York won an astounding 17.
During his baseball playing career “The Crow” mastered the Hidden-Ball Trick, which he picked up while with the San Francisco Seals of the Pacific Coast League in the late 1920s — some think from teammate-turned-umpire Babe Pinelli.
The shape of the old glove, with the large hole above the wrist strap, allowed The Crow to fake returning the ball to the pitcher, clandestinely slip his left hand through the hole, and quickly pull the ball inside. The pitcher, as part of the deception, would play with the rosin bag without returning to the rubber. The Crow would then politely ask the base runner if he could clean the dirt off the base, tagging the startled base runner out as soon as he stepped off the bag.
Joe Cronin played shortstop for the Boston Red Sox in the late 1930s and early 1940s. During a heated Sox game, Crosetti pulled the Hidden-Ball Trick on Joe Cronin. The irony, if true, is that it was actually Cronin who taught the trick to The Crow and not Pinelli. Cronin was later inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame and went on to become President of the American League for 14 years.
Flash forward to September 2017. The Yanks filed a complaint with the league office that the Red Sox were engaging in sign-stealing practices at Fenway Park. Video evidence accompanied the complaint.
During the game, the Red Sox carefully analyzed video replay from the center-field cameras to review the series of signs the Yanks’ catcher used when there was a runner on second base. They also recorded what type of pitches were being thrown. By matching up the signals of the catcher with the type of pitches, the Sox determined how to decode the signs.
According to league investigators, those in the video room sent the decoded results via an Apple Watch to a member of the training staff in the dugout (Jon Jochim, assistant trainer). He then relayed that information to a player in the dugout, and he, in turn, flashed the decoded data to the runner on second base.
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The runner on second was then privy to which sign was the real one (and which were decoys), and he relayed the information to the batter what pitch was about to be thrown. At that point, the batter knew exactly what the pitch was and its location. Knowledge of this information was a massive advantage for the batter.
After carefully reviewing the evidence, MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred fined the Red Sox an undisclosed amount which, in turn, was donated by his office to hurricane relief efforts in Florida. A loss of draft picks did not occur despite the expectation that would happen. However, the Commissioner did say a loss of draft picks could occur in similar situations in the future.
At the same time, the Red Sox brought forward allegations that the Yanks had made improper use of the YES Network in an attempt to learn the Red Sox signs. After investigating the accusations made by the Sox, Manfred found insufficient evidence to support Boston’s claim that the Bombers had made inappropriate use of the YES Network to obtain a competitive advantage.
However, during the investigation, the league office discovered that before 2017, the Yanks had violated a rule governing the use of the dugout telephone. No club complained, and the team soon halted the practice. Still, the Yanks were fined a small undisclosed amount which also was donated to hurricane relief efforts in Florida.
Today and the future
The Yankees (and other clubs) have become increasingly concerned about sign stealing by runners on base, primarily second base (which is legal). The team has adopted a creative new system of communicating signs from catcher to pitcher.
Have you noticed Yankees pitchers looking inside their caps (or their pants pockets) and Gary Sanchez (or Austin Romine) looking at a wristband, mostly when opposing ballplayers are on second base?
The laminated cards (larger than a matchbox and smaller than a playing card) contain sign sequencing information that allows the Bombers to change the catcher’s signs from one batter to the next. This innovative tactic makes it virtually impossible for opposing runners to steal signs since the sequencing changes from one batter to the next (or even within a single at-bat).
Another advantage is that the catcher does not have to go to the mound and be charged another mound visit (which are now limited to five per game) to discuss a reconfiguration of the signs as before. Generally, a unique signal is given by the pitcher or the catcher if either wishes to change the sequence and coding of the signs.
J.A. Happ has been especially concerned with opposing base runners stealing signs from his catcher. According to SNY, Happ has heard that some teams have hired professionals just to steal signs. However, he likes the new system because it allows him to forget about sign stealing. In the past, Happ’s deep concern about sign stealing disrupted his rhythm and his concentration on executing the next pitch.
You probably have noticed outfielders and infielders also looking at laminated cards either in their hats or in their pockets. This information is used to instruct them exactly where to position themselves on the field based on the analytics of hitters.
Advanced electronic technology and more savvy base runners have forced Yankees pitchers and catchers to adopt the new sign sequencing system. This has made it extremely difficult for opposing base runners (or anyone else) to engage in sign-stealing.
What will the Yankees do 100 years from now when there will be sophisticated contact lens or smart glasses with telescoping technology to detect precisely how the ball is being gripped when it leaves the pitcher’s hand and the speed the ball is spinning and traveling?
The same technology might also allow a batter to see the signs being flashed behind him by the catcher without having to turn his head and look. How will the Yanks, in particular, and other clubs, in general, respond to electronically advanced technologies such as these in the future?