Sign-steal­ing? Na­tion­als had a plan, just in case

Baltimore Sun - - BASEBALL - By Barry Svr­luga

WASH­ING­TON — Pre­pare your­selves, pitch­ing staffs of the fu­ture, not just for the Hous­ton Astros, but for ev­ery­one. It’s pos­si­ble, maybe even prob­a­ble, that the Astros used tech­nol­ogy to steal signs il­le­gally en route to the 2017 World Se­ries ti­tle. Given the re­sult there, they didn’t likely stop in the two years be­tween then and the 2019 post­sea­son, when they again won the pen­nant, when they faced the Wash­ing­ton Na­tion­als for the cham­pi­onship.

The Na­tion­als, though, were ready. If they were go­ing to win their first World Se­ries, they were go­ing to do it with pitch­ing. And their pitch­ers had to be pre­pared — for ev­ery­thing.

“It’s the worst feel­ing in the world step­ping on that mound and hav­ing an idea that that hit­ter knows what’s com­ing,” said Paul Men­hart, the Na­tion­als pitch­ing coach.

“It’s one of the most un­nerv­ing feel­ings.

You feel help­less. You just get ticked off to the point where you lose to­tal fo­cus and con­fi­dence.

“So we had to make sure our pitch­ers didn’t think about it. We had to elim­i­nate the pos­si­bil­ity.”

This is news now, in the mid­dle of Novem­ber, be­cause Tues­day The Ath­letic pub­lished an ex­plo­sive re­port that al­leged, in ter­rific de­tail, how the Astros used a cam­era in cen­ter field to read what pitch a catcher was call­ing for, showed that feed on a screen in the tun­nel be­tween the dugout and club­house, and then clanged on a trash can to send an au­di­ble sig­nal to the hit­ter. Clang, and an off-speed pitch was on the way. Si­lence, and here came the fast­ball.

“I’m not here to talk about il­le­gal stuff with tech­nol­ogy,” Men­hart said by phone Wed­nes­day. “If they were do­ing such things, they’re go­ing to have to an­swer to a higher power than win­ning a base­ball game.”

“When we start get­ting into tech­nol­ogy, and only one team has ac­cess to it,” Na­tion­als re­liever Sean Doolit­tle said, “that’s scary.”

Given the gen­eral para­noia about sign­steal­ing — le­gal and not — that grips the game now, the Na­tion­als be­gan to mix their signs more elab­o­rately as they faced the Mil­wau­kee Brewers in the wild-card game, the Los An­ge­les Dodgers in the di­vi­sion se­ries and the St. Louis Car­di­nals in the NLCS.

“It was mainly be­cause we thought we had heard some whistling,” Men­hart said. “Did we re­ally hear it? Whether you do or you don’t, just to put those thoughts in our minds is dan­ger­ous. So we just said, ‘Let’s nip this now.’ ”

Be­fore get­ting into how, ex­actly, the Nats thwarted any at­tempts, it’s help­ful to know from whence they came. Men­hart pitched for three sea­sons with three teams in the mid-to-late 1990s. Back then, if a run­ner reached sec­ond base — a po­si­tion from which he could clearly see the catcher’s signs — it was the bat­tery’s re­spon­si­bil­ity to mix things up. The catcher would put down a se­ries of fingers, but the pitcher would know which one was the ac­tual pitch for which he was call­ing.

“In my day, it was, ‘Sec­ond sign, shake it off, do it again, pitch,’” Men­hart said.

Steal­ing signs, with a run­ner on sec­ond, is con­sid­ered fair game. The bur­den is on the de­fen­sive team to make sure it’s prop­erly cod­ing its in­ten­tions.

The prob­lem: With a cam­era in cen­ter field, a team doesn’t need a run­ner on sec­ond base. Play­ers, coaches or other staff mem­bers could watch the video feed and fig­ure out signs on their own.

“If that’s true — and they’re just al­le­ga­tions for now — why are we to think they only did it in 2017?” Doolit­tle said Wed­nes­day by phone. “If they did it and they won the World Se­ries, what’s to stop them from con­tin­u­ing to do it?”

There is some cir­cum­stan­tial ev­i­dence that some­thing was up with the Astros. In 2016, their hit­ters struck out 23.4% of the time, the fourth-high­est rate in the game. In 2017, the year The Ath­letic re­port said the cam­era was installed, that rate dropped to 17.3%, the low­est in base­ball. At home in 2017, the Astros struck out 16.7% of the time, as op­posed to 17.9% on the road.

Put what­ever stock in those num­bers you want, or go dig­ging fur­ther. Men­hart said the Na­tion­als’ video staff worked with the coaches and front of­fice, and even­tu­ally with the play­ers, to com­bat sub­terfuge re­gard­less of its ori­gins. When the Nats had their first work­out af­ter sweep­ing the Car­di­nals, the coach­ing staff re­vealed to the pitch­ers their coun­ter­in­tel­li­gence plan to fend off the Astros.

“We were 100% on board with it,” Doolit­tle said.

There were some lay­ers to the Nats’ plan for Hous­ton. First, each pitcher had to have his own set of signs, and catch­ers Yan Gomes and Kurt Suzuki had to be fa­mil­iar with each one. So the staff printed out cards with the codes and had them lam­i­nated. The catch­ers could have them in their wrist­bands, a la an NFL quar­ter­back with play calls strapped to his fore­arm, and the pitch­ers would have them in their caps. Each pitcher had five sets of signs, and they could change them from game to game — or even bat­ter to bat­ter, if nec­es­sary. Us­ing the set la­beled No. 2, but wor­ried the Astros were catch­ing on? The pitcher could sig­nal to the catcher to move to set No. 3.

The Na­tion­als also de­cided that they would use mul­ti­ple signs re­gard­less of whether there was a run­ner on sec­ond base or not. No one on? Run­ner on first? Let’s make sure the catcher runs through a se­ries of signs any­way, just in case.

“It was our best way to coun­ter­act any­thing that might have been go­ing on,” Men­hart said.

“We just had our guard up,” Doolit­tle said.

Next came the way the Nats em­ployed their signs, which was non­tra­di­tional. Rather than just use, say, the sec­ond sign the catcher put down, the Nats might “chase the two.” That meant the pitcher would watch for the catcher to put two fingers down, and then throw the pitch that cor­re­sponded to the fol­low­ing sign. Or they could play “outs plus one.”

So if there was one out, the pitch would be the sec­ond sign the catcher put down. If there were no outs, it would be the first sign. “Strikes plus one” worked the same way.

That’s a lot of thought, right? But it’s a small cost in preparatio­n if it frees the mind of the pitcher in com­pe­ti­tion.

“This is the way the game’s go­ing to go now,” Men­hart said. “You’re go­ing to have to have this. Sign-steal­ing has be­come quite an art.”

Or, in the Astros’ case, a sci­ence. Those are my words, not Men­hart’s. Ma­jor

League Base­balll has a prob­lem on its hands, per­haps one in­volv­ing not only Hous­ton’s tech­nol­ogy but its morals. The re­lief: We’re not sit­ting here talk­ing about the 2019 World Se­ries cham­pion Hous­ton Astros po­ten­tially cheat­ing, be­cause the Na­tion­als met them in that se­ries, and were pre­pared — re­gard­less of the Astros’ tal­ent, and re­gard­less of their meth­ods.

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