Thursday, August 11, 2011
Get Your Own Damn Man In White: Sign Stealing, the Jays and So-Called 'Cheating' in Baseball
By Jonah Keri
You know what's great about the ESPN The Magazine exposé on the Toronto Blue Jays’ stealing signs? It can be debated in a million different ways.
Sign-stealing helped the Jays become one of the greatest power-hitting teams in recent baseball memory.
The article, written by Amy K. Nelson and Peter Keating, doesn't quite explicitly make that claim. But it does present us with a Point A and Point B, and lets the reader pretty easily arrive at Point C. Several unnamed relief pitchers players on an opposing team told Nelson said they saw a Man In White perched in the center-field bleachers last season; he'd be right in the batter's line of sight and just above the pitcher's head. The Man In White would stare 400-plus feet ahead, spot the catcher's sign, then make the appropriate signal: arms raised over his head for any off-speed or breaking pitch, no signal for fastballs. Seven Jays hit 20 or more home runs last season. Jose Bautista, a decent journeyman player who'd never before hit more than 16 homers in his career, exploded for 54 bombs that year. OK readers, Choose Your Own Adventure from there.
Does the statistical evidence back up the article's (tacit) claim?
The story cites the work of Colin Wyers, a well-respected baseball analyst who writes for Baseball Prospectus. Rogers Centre in 2010 ranked among the top 3 percent of home run ballparks since 1950, according to Wyers. The story goes on to add:
But only the Blue Jays, and not their opponents, got a home run boost in Toronto. When the Jays were on the road in 2010, they hit home runs in 4 percent of plate appearances in which they made contact, compared with an AL average of 3.6 percent. At Rogers, their home run on contact rate soared to 5.4 percent, which is a home-field advantage seven times the magnitude teams typically enjoy.
In every sport, home teams tend to fare better. The question is, does the jump in the Jays hitters' performances point to something that might be outside the realm of home-field advantage or chance?
Normally I'd be happy to apply our standard methodology at The Triangle, locking myself in my mom's basement with nothing but Pop Tarts and a slide rule and not coming out before reaching a moment of total enlightenment. Fortunately, baseball analyst Tom Tango has already looked at the math. His conclusion? Maybe the Jays got a little boost in 2010. But they got an even bigger boost in previous seasons.
According to Tango:
If anything, the outlier is 2008, before all this apparently started. The Toronto hitters had a 28 point advantage at Rogers. But opposing hitters were 50 points UNDER, for a 78 point difference, far ahead of all subsequent seasons. In 2007, it was 37 point advantage for Toronto hitters, while opposing hitters were 47 points under, for an even greater 84 point differential. In 2006, Toronto hitters had a 100 point advantage, while opposing hitters were 48 points UNDER, for a super duper differential of 148 points! You want to talk about something weird, then go back to 2006. In 2005, it was 70 point advantage for Toronto hitters, while opposing hitters were 4 point UNDER, for a 74 point differential.
Meanwhile, stories have started to surface about the early ‘90s Jays — the two-time World Series winners — stories that indicate they are also suspected of stealing signs. This happened even though virtually every member of those teams, at any level of the organization, is long gone. So, um should we start investigating Canada for military espionage, too, under the assumption that they're a bunch of poutine-munching spies who use chicanery to outfox their southern neighbors? Because 2010 is a drop in the bucket for Rogers Centre effects.
Which Mystery Team accused Jose Bautista and the Jays in the first place?
It looks like the Chicago White Sox. Credit for this discovery goes to Chris St. John, who runs the excellent blog, Steal of Home. Multiple media outlets confirmed Bautista received threats from a White Sox relief pitcher on suspicion of the Jays stealing signs. St. John pieces together the bits of information provided in the story, narrows down the field to a few logical candidates, then finds the Mystery Team all just hours after the ESPN Mag story was posted online. If this were 1975, it would take years to pull off this kind of sleuthery. Love you, Internet.
Forget the Jays for a second — does sign-stealing help performance, anyway?
The Big Red Machine of the 1970s were widely known to be sign-stealers. That operation wasn’t as covert as a Man In White, but they'd have a series of signs relayed whenever a runner was on second, tipping hitters as to whether a fastball or a breaking ball was coming. Several players later said they would ignore these tip-offs. There are a couple of likely reasons for their reluctance. First of all, having a vague sense of what's coming isn't nearly the same as knowing it's going to be a cutter, outside edge, knee-high. Having a little information, but only a little, can be dangerous. Additionally, some hitters are entirely instinctual. Nomar Garciaparra famously avoided watching video or reading scouting reports. In his prime, he was one of the greatest “See Ball, Hit Ball” hitters the game has ever known.
More broadly, if we're looking for evidence that sign-stealing helps hitters, you'd want to establish proper parameters for an experiment: one group gets access to signs, one does not. Then you strip out a whole bunch of variables: quality of pitcher, park effects, weather, defense, whether or not the player went on a Jagermeister binge the night before. Finally, you'd arrive at some kind of conclusion. Needless to say, this is an exercise in futility.
A lot of this is about Jose Bautista.
It's really hard to accept randomness. We're human. We want to know how and why everything occurs. When something spectacular occurs — say, a hitter with decent power turning into Barry Bonds Lite — we can't just accept that shit happens. How did it happen? There must be some explanation. And given we're not far removed from the Sosa/McGwire/Bonds era, we're tempted to assume that something fishy took place.
It's possible that Bautista benefited from sign-stealing. It's also possible that hitting coach Dwayne Murphy's edict that Jays hitters become more aggressive and swing like hell at any decent first-pitch fastball energized the team — and turned Bautista into a superstar. Or that years of experience made Bautista more selective. Or that all of this just sort of happened.
Jose Bautista is a tremendous player and an amazing story, and some great stuff has been written about him. I'm as inquisitive as the next guy. But I'm also ready to shrug my shoulders, accept that there are occasional extreme outliers in baseball, and move on.
Cheating is awesome.
Baseball history is littered with examples of incredibly creative attempts to bend the rules. There's the Dave Bresnahan Potato Incident, in which Bresnahan, a minor league catcher, fired a potato wildly past third base in an effort to convince a runner at third that he should try to score. The runner arrived at home to find that Bresnahan was holding the ball. Then there's the George Brett Pine Tar Incident, in which Brett hit a two-run homer in the ninth inning to put his Kansas City Royals ahead, only to have the play overturned after the umpire found Brett had used too much pine tar on his bat. The incident remains one of the best baseball moments of my lifetime, and I'd be happy to post a YouTube clip of the play except that doesn’t exist.(Correction: Look at this!)
So to hell with it, here's the Pine Tar Incident as reenacted by Rick Dempsey, Johnny Bench, and the San Diego Chicken, on the late, great show The Baseball Bunch:
There are many, many other fun examples of cheating through the years, so many that USSMariner.com blogger Derek Zumsteg wrote the terrific book,The Cheater's Guide to Baseball (full disclosure: Derek is a friend, and I contributed to this book). Cheating, in the right context, is fun. And the debate that's broken out about the Jays' possible malfeasance is nothing if not fun.
stealing signs is not actually illegal!
There have been vague edicts made in the past about teams not being allowed to use shady methods to procure information during the course of a game. But Major League Baseball doesn't explicitly outlaw stealing signs. Instead, this practice falls into the category of Baseball's Unwritten Rules. In the Unwritten Rules, it's a terrible offense to bunt when a pitcher has a perfect game going. But it's totally cool for a pitcher to throw at a batter for a perceived slight.
Baseball's Unwritten Rules are riddled with confusing practices and taboos that a bum like me who played one year of Little League (and sucked) apparently can't possibly understand. But they're still stupid. And Major League Baseball can’t punish violations of these arbitrary rules. So this whole story amounts to a team objecting to another team possibly doing something that is 100 percent legal.
Alex Anthopoulos still a ninja.
The Jays general manager convened a press conference earlier this week in the midst of this controversy. Check out Mike Cormack’s Twitter feed for the relevant quotes. The money quote: "This whole thing is stupid. It's unbelievable that we're even sitting here."
Maybe the Jays stole signs. Maybe they didn't. But you have to love that the guy who rooked the Angels into eating 81 million dollars' worth of Vernon Wells, swiped Colby Rasmus for a few relievers, nabbed Yunel Escobar for 60 cents on the dollar, then signed Escobar and Bautista to two of the most favorable contracts in the game now has teams worried about something else. Pretty sure this guy's never getting another invitation to GM Poker Night.
At the risk of appealing to authority or playing favorites, Nelson has a reputation as one of the most dogged baseball reporters in the business. Her story on the events leading up to Nick Adenhart's death is one of the best pieces of baseball journalism I've ever read. She and Keating no doubt worked hard on this piece.
But the story here isn't that Jose Bautista's hitting more home runs because a dude in the bleachers is helping him out. (He probably isn't.) The story is that every team wishes it could have that kind of advantage. And they're pissed when someone else gains an edge they don't have.
U mad, White Sox? Crank some Ace of Base, get your own Man In White, and let's blow this up into a full-on, sign-stealing arms race. Given the entire range of possible outcomes from this story, that would be, by far, the most fun.