Baseball

From Telescopes to Smartwatches: The Evolution of Sign Stealing in Baseball

The Red Sox were accused of using an Apple Watch to steal signs from the Yankees. Former MLB player Fernando Perez breaks down how sign stealing actually works—and how it is always changing.

by Fernando Perez
Sep 12 2017, 2:55pm

Illustration by Adam Villacin

The most common way to relay stolen signs from second base is for the baserunner to do something subtle to denote the pitch he thinks is coming. It begins with cracking the opposing catcher's code: a process that, in the modern game, now takes place in the video room, with the careful examination of a live game feed by a helpful team employee. Once the code is cracked, the task falls on the baserunner who makes his way to second.

If you're a guy who likes to hold your batting gloves, when you take your lead you might slightly wiggle one or the other to denote a fastball is coming. A more obvious, minor-league-grade signal is to cover the logo on your helmet.

The Boston Red Sox seem to have gone a less common route. We don't know much about Jon Jochim, who was promoted last year to his post as assistant trainer with the Red Sox. We don't know how he earned his promotion. Maybe it's the boring answer. Maybe he's just a great trainer with an unfortunate taste for smart watches.

Or maybe he's one of those guys who find themselves easily peer pressured into acting out of character because of an understandable desire to endear himself to his colleagues. There's often a trait or skill that increases the value of men who round out baseball staffs. It's best a first base coach, for instance, brings some other skills to the table—he should throw great batting practice, be a faithful golf partner, or be really funny.

What was it for Jochim? Was it his Spanish language skills (listed on his Linkedin) or a knack for intuitive deep tissue work? Was it an encyclopedic repertoire of movie quotes, or a willingness to go above and beyond the call of duty?

It's a mystery. But we do know that earlier this month, he broke the MLB rule of having a device capable of telecommunications in the dugout. We also know that the Yankees allegedly have video of Jochim looking at his Apple Watch and communicating with players on the bench, who then communicated with players in the game. We also know that the Red Sox then counter-accused the Yankees of stealing signs via YES Network television cameras.

Dustin Pedroia says sign stealing is part of the game. Here he is hitting a home run. Photo: Bob DeChiara-USA TODAY Sports

Stealing Signs in the Digital Watch Era

Baseball sign stealing programs run compartmentalized, like intelligence agencies, wherein each agent may not necessarily know what the agent in the next office is working on. So too with baseball players. It's likely that most Red Sox players didn't know what was going on. When your teammate leaves the dugout during the seventh inning stretch, you may or may not know what he's doing. A winning team is a collection of harmonious cliques of various sizes, and a losing team is a collection of cliques who are variously suspicious that the behaviors of the other cliques may be detrimental to the team.

As a fan, when you see a player exit the dugout during a broadcast, half the time he's heading to the video room to see whether a pitch was a strike or not, but there are myriad possibilities—is he taking a shot of whiskey? Texting his wife? Grabbing an HGH gummi bear? Cramming Corinthians 9:24? Vaping? Vaping? Many athletes are great actors, but others are like those people who, when you tell them don't look now at the person nearby you want them to notice something about, will immediately look at them. These men must be cut out of the cheating.

Just as a person might leave their front door unlocked to run a quick errand, a major league catcher may be inclined to simplify the sequences of signs he will ultimately flash to his pitcher. The more complicated the signs are, the easier they are to screw up, so the catcher has to find a balance. Most often, this sacrifice is made in order to avoid the worst case scenario, wherein the catcher calls for a curveball that will be thrown at about 70 miles per hour, but the pitcher mistakes the sign for a fastball, and throws a 94 MPH fastball with unpredictable movement that will be virtually impossible to catch and may even hurt him or get past him.

The wipe-system, where a battery is sharp enough to have the pitcher swipe at his uniform with his glove once or twice just before starting his windup in order to modulate the sign up or down just before each pitch, is the best analog defense against sign stealing. That it is largely used in the windup, proves that teams have been wary of sign stealing coming from somewhere other than second base for years. The use of this system alone usually shuts down sign stealing attempts, though not all batteries are willing or able to do it.

If none of these Dodgers are stealing signs, one of them might want to try. Photo: Jayne Kamin-Oncea-USA TODAY Sports.

Stealing Signs in the Analog Watch Era

Throughout baseball history, teams have been accused of stealing signs with binoculars or telephoto lenses and finding simple ways to relay the signs to the hitters. Bobby Thomson's famous Shot Heard Round the World to win the 1951 National League Pennant for the New York Giants came on the back of an elaborate sign stealing system that involved a telescope and buzzer wire at the Polo Grounds. Cleveland used their scoreboard. Accusations have been consistently leveled at Toronto, whose centerfield suites are basically wearing two-way spy glasses.

Sign stealing is a part of the game. It is expected. And when live video became standard for every big league ballgame, it was inevitable that teams would use it to steal signs. Teams have been using game broadcast feeds to cheat ever since the first time a video technician or a player had an epiphany when looking at the camera feed of the game, canvassed the signal tendencies of the opposing catcher, and transferred this information to the dugout. This is relatively low tech cheating—and there's a high barrier to entry. You have to crack the code, get to second base, and relay the signs.

Considering the generally unsurprised reactions I've collected on the matter from players, scouts and staff, this Red Sox controversy reminds me a bit of Mark McGwire "getting caught" with Androstenedione at the height of a steroid era in which better performance enhancing drugs were available (in fact, many people in the game believe McGwire planted the Andro in his locker knowing that writers would go for that pump fake while he drained bottles of better steroids). Here we are, as always, focusing on less sophisticated ways to cheat while more sophisticated methods can be easily implemented.

Without knowing exactly what was said, or sent via SMS in the Red Sox dugout, the central questions is whether the Apple Watch was used to simply save someone the physical trip from the video room to the dugout and more swiftly inform players what code the Yankees were using—or whether the Red Sox had something else up their sleeves.

Stealing Signs in the Smartwatch Era

With the use of an Apple Watch, it's clear that the Red Sox have gone high tech. We don't know the details of the Yankees complaint or the MLB investigation, but it's possible that Jochim could have been relaying signals directly to hitters. Think of this scenario: somebody delivers the sign to Jochim, via the watch—then Jochim gives a discrete signal to right handed Red Sox hitters with a peripheral view of the team's home dugout at Fenway Park. The signal could be anything: a cup placed or not placed in a particular part of the dugout, or a towel draped over the right or left shoulder. Right handed hitters are already facing the dugout, but lefties could even listen for a specific cheer from their teammates, for instance a "let's go now 2 - 7" rather than "let's go now kid" to denote one pitch over another without giving the other team the tell of a consistent glance into the dugout. That's the way it's always been done.

The video room is the wildcard—especially the home team's video room, which can presumably be customized. If nothing stops teams from accessing the camera feed trained on the catcher's crotch where the signals are splayed—the old cat and mouse game of changing the signs is simply played a bit faster, encouraging more variation.

Today, telecommunications devices are made pin-sized. With a telephoto lens trained on the catcher in the right stadium, someone could send a message directly to a hitter, who could even have two of these devices—on vibrate—sewn into both back pockets in his pants to denote location. The trick would be not to dip too many times into this cookie jar. If you are too good, you might raise suspicion.

There seems to be a common consensus in the baseball world that the Red Sox overstepped by using technology. If anyone can get the signs, anyone can relay the signs from the dugout—information is being processed and then shared in real time. That goes beyond anything even in the digital era of sign stealing, when a player still had to get to second base and relay the signs from there.

But ironically, technology might be the only thing that can neutralize cheating. By implementing the radio technology that NFL teams use to communicate with their quarterbacks, MLB would also streamline the game by cutting out the time wasted not only in catchers and pitchers communicating, but by the third base coach doing his hand jive between every pitch. If baseball actually embraced change every once in awhile, there's a considerable chance this flurry of allegations and investigations could be a watershed moment.

There are a lot of interesting possibilities in radio communications that could offset baseball's likely reticence to adopt it. For instance, a pitching coach could talk via radio with his battery, propose a pitch, and have that pitch thrown when both the catcher and pitcher nod their heads. A hitter could turn the volume up to receive advice from his hitting coach should he find himself lost at the plate.

Cheating too is governed by unwritten rules. Teams crossed the video cheating line in unison, and the addition of the Apple watch threatens to pull everything apart. The league has to address this, though replacing time consuming analog hand signals with something as simple as radio would probably lead to a rash of complaints from people who don't realize how easy it already is to cheat.

It's worth noting that many players don't want to know the other team's signs even if his team is sure they have them. Here are three good reasons: the danger of getting crossed up if the stolen signs are incorrectly relayed, feeling confident you can hit the pitcher fair and square having confidence in your approach, and of course, fear of retribution in baseball's manic enforcement of the unwritten rules.

(This is another example of the absurdity of baseball's unwritten rules. A team that is itself stealing signs may throw at another team for stealing their signs.)

Regardless of the consequences, or the technology, it's worth keeping in mind that stealing signs is really, really hard. One of the more intelligent players I ever met told me he was once accused of relaying signs during a game. The opposing team was adamant, but incorrect in the same way a team can be incorrectly certain that a player is thrown at intentionally by an opposing pitcher. He said sign stealing was too much, he could barely keep track of his own team's signs.

For more stories about the culture of baseball, check out La Sangre: Baseball in San Pedro.