There is no nightmare in baseball, no feeling of competitive vulnerability, quite like seeing your pitcher getting peppered by a lineup that knows exactly what pitch is coming.
It is a nightmare Andy Pettitte lived in Game 6 of the 2001 World Series, when the Arizona Diamondbacks trucked him for six runs in two-plus innings of a 15-2 victory, a pounding they later acknowledged came with the benefit of tipped pitches.
It is a nightmare Tampa Bay Rays starter Tyler Glasnow lived earlier this month, when he yielded hits to five of the first six Houston Astros in a winner-take-all Game 5 of the American League Division Series and later said it was “pretty obvious” he was tipping his pitches based on the position he held his glove.
And it’s a nightmare Stephen Strasburg endured for two grim starts against Arizona that sullied an otherwise impeccable 2019 resume, before he and pitching coach Paul Menhart discovered and, so they believe, swept up the bread crumbs the Diamondbacks followed to hit him hard.
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Now, Strasburg and the Nationals are heading into the belly of the beast: A World Series date with the Houston Astros, who not only are perhaps the most talented team in baseball but also carry the reputation as the most resourceful at gleaning advantages near the margins of ethical competition.
Given the mini-storm that passed through the AL Championship Series, when a published report raised the fairly absurd notion that Astros in the dugout were passing on the Yankees’ signs via whistle, it’s safe to say the Astros don’t need to do much to get into their opponents’ heads.
The Nationals know it’s wiser to check themselves rather than get caught up in Astro Paranoia.
Nationals pitcher Patrick Corbin has a meeting on the mound during Game 4 of the NLCS. (Photo: Geoff Burke,USA TODAY Sports)
To win the World Series, they will likely have to trot out aces Max Scherzer and Strasburg multiple times, giving sleuths in Houston multiple angles – from the dugout, the video room, the batter’s box – to gain an edge for the second time around.
Washington’s task: Don’t give anything away.
“These games mean a little bit more,” says Menhart, who took over as Nationals pitching coach in May, “and everything’s getting dissected. From pitch-tipping to sign-stealing to pitchouts – you name it.
“This game is seen by a lot more people than a regular season game. Way more eyes. It’s just the nature of it.”
Way more than eyes, too.
Major League Baseball launched an investigation during the 2018 ALCS between Houston and Boston Red Sox when an Astros employee was observed in the camera well aiming a lens at the Red Sox dugout and sending text messages. The same activity was observed in the preceding ALDS against Cleveland and the employee was removed from the area in both instances.
Ultimately, MLB determined that the employee was “playing defense” – in other words, checking to see if the Red Sox were picking up the Astros’ signs – rather than trying to steal the opponent’s signals.
The Astros received a hollow bit of vindication – “A person was (still) in a credentialed (area) that shouldn’t have been there,” Red Sox GM Dave Dombrowski noted at the time – but also a rep for pushing the rules in an era MLB is determined to crack down on digital chicanery.
The need for vigilance was magnified in 2017, when a Red Sox trainer was caught using an Apple Watch to relay signs from the team’s replay assistants to batters. Now, replay assistants are monitored by a security official; they are ostensibly the only ones with access to a live broadcast, as other TVs are required to be set on a several-second delay.
That was perhaps the most notable advancement in a five-page memo MLB circulated in February in its effort to lend clarity in a digital era that still doesn’t frown upon “ethically obtained” signs.
“I think MLB has done an incredible job this year,” Astros starter Justin Verlander said before his Game 5 start in the ALCS. “There's been someone in the video room every game of the season, somebody is there full-time. You're not allowed to have a live feed anywhere in the stadium that the players have access to; they check all that.
“I think that's been an incredible step forward for MLB to go against the trend of all this technology that's out there. That's pretty much it. They did what I think was the best thing possible to resolve whatever issue, paranoia teams have. Obviously, it didn't resolve the paranoia, it's still out there for every team.”
Including Verlander, who, at 36, finds himself changing sign sequences more than ever.
“I understand where the paranoia comes from. We have it. I have it,” he says. “There's just so many cameras and there's so much video now, it just kind of evolved a few years ago. You've got teams studying what signs you use at second base before you even step on the mound. It used to be kind of a gamesmanship thing, runner gets on second base and if he's able to decipher your signs the time he's on second base, that's OK, good for you.
“But if you're pre-studying them or having some person study them before you even get out there and all of a sudden you take the field and the team already knows what you're using, I think that's a little bit different.”
Menhart agrees. The probing eyes – and lenses – make everybody’s job a lot more complicated. Whatever moral dilemmas that arise quickly fade in a cutthroat competitive environment.
“Some of it’s helpful,” he says. “And you can gain an advantage from it, it’s all part of the game. But I wish there was no such thing as that. I wish we could play the game without relying on machines and things that can pick up tipping.
“I’m a purist. I like people to go out and battle and not try to gain an advantage unnaturally.”
Nationals right-hander Anibal Sanchez, their likely starter in Game 4, said a coach helped him diagnose a pitch-tipping tic in 2012, when he held his glove near his chest in a set position. Shortly thereafter, he made an adjustment, holding the glove closer to his belt, and he’s had no problems – that he knows of – since.
Strasburg was forced to diagnose a problem earlier this year, too, when, in two starts against the Diamondbacks, he gave up 18 hits and 15 earned runs in 9 2/3 innings – a 13.98 ERA. His ERA in his other 31 starts: 2.80.
“You feel for him,” Menhart says of a pitcher laid bare by tipped pitches. “Because it’s such a bad feeling as a pitcher when you know the other team knows what you’re throwing. Your mind starts racing and it doesn’t really matter. You overdo it, you tinker around and start doing other stuff, and you totally get out of your game.”
Now, the two deepest and most dominant rotations in the major leagues will square off with a championship on the line. Should Verlander or Gerrit Cole, or Washington’s Strasburg, Scherzer or Patrick Corbin get peppered in a particular outing, the questions will come back.
Were they tipping their pitches? How did the other team know? And was any verboten technology utilized to pass along information?
Both teams hope to avoid that fate. The Astros will have the added motivation to win a title sans the appearance of digital impropriety.
“There's nothing going on,” manager A.J. Hinch insisted during the ALCS, “other than the competition on the field.”
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