Baseball… What’s Fair and What Isn’t?

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November 3rd, 2022

Today’s blog headline should set the table for what might be a litany of agreements and disagreements. That’s fine. Just like most of you, I played Little League baseball. Like a few of you, I played high school ball. Like fewer, I played college ball on a full scholarship. Like very few, I was honored to play professionally at the minor league level for the Detroit Tigers and Oakland A’s. I have opinions, but I’ve also been there. On the field and in the dugout.

A few years ago, the Houston Astros were caught “cheating” by using video monitors just outside the dugout to see the opposing catcher’s pitch signals, and they would relay that info to hitters by banging on a metal trash can. People still hate them and boo them to this day because of it, and many who were involved paid a heavy price for having been part of it.

Was it really cheating?

For one thing, it certainly was a crude way of imparting information to your teammates, but this sort of thing has been going on in baseball since before the Boston Americans won the first World Series in 1903. For me, as a former player and a lifelong fan of the game, it’s all just part of the chess match. The game typically polices itself.

From high school on through college and pro ball, and into my lengthy post-professional career playing semi-pro ball, I don’t remember a time when teammates and coaches weren’t trying to find any possible weakness or “tips” the other team happened to be exposing. Third-base coaches give signals. If you’ve been around long enough, you can decipher the “indicator” signal within an inning or two, and can then put the puzzle together as to what signal follows the indicator. Is the indicator the belt? Is the signal for a sacrifice bunt a brush down the forearm right after he touches his belt? Is “steal” a rub down the thigh? Even in college we had dozens of coded signs, but none of the codes were unbreakable. As a matter of pure fact, our college head coach Roy Lee kept the signals pretty simple because he figured we were idiots. The indicator was usually the belt, and all running signs were then on the legs. Any hitting or bunting signs were on the arms. The signal to take a pitch was the hat. I missed that one once, and got a base hit on the first pitch. The first-baseman for Coastal Carolina said to me, “I think you’re in trouble.” I asked him why and he said “You got the signal to take at least one strike. Your coach is about to blow a gasket.” Sure enough, I got benched for getting a hit when I’d been given the sign to take a pitch. True story.

Catchers have put fingers down between their legs to call pitches forever. Until now. Some teams still use that system, but most now use an electronic version of pitch calling, as the catcher presses a button on his wrist and the pitcher hears it in his hat. It’s an adaptation not unlike what the NFL does now. No more signals from the sidelines. Now, the coach calls the play right into the quarterback’s helmet.

This electronic thing is an answer to the Astros problem from a few years ago. Seeing the catcher put down a series of fingers was decipherable, and watching a high-def monitor just outside the dugout and then banging on a trash can was easy to do.

There are so many codes in the game. Most can be figured out, including the always popular signal from a runner on second when he either sees what pitch the catcher has called for or where he’s set up (inside, outside, high or low?) and he relays that to the hitter. Does the runner touch his hat or look to the left or right after seeing the sign? The baseball remedy for such a blatant transgression was simple. That runner would be nailed with a fastball in the ribs the next time he came to the plate.

It’s a chess match. There are rules. Some are written but many are not. Drill my power hitter? Your best hitter had better be ready to get drilled the next time he comes up. Then everyone will get riled up and rush the mound. Catch a coach using simplistic signs? Let your guys know what’s going on. Pass the word and take advantage of it. See a pitcher doing something different with his delivery on different pitches? Well, now we have a national media story!

Lance McCullers, pitching for the Astros, was blitzed by a barrage of long balls in Game 3 of the World Series the other night. He’s fine pitcher with good stuff, but the Phillies seemed to know what was coming and jumped all over it.

Did they? Did they cheat? No, they may very well have seen a difference in his leg kick and his delivery between his fastball and breaking ball. That is “tipping your pitches” and it’s fair game. Just like figuring out the third-base coach’s signs to hitters and runners.

To be fair, McCullers and his team have refuted that he tipped his pitches, but the video evidence is pretty damning. He definitely changed his delivery for different pitches. Any good hitter would pick that up and, like Bryce Harper, would pass that on to teammates.

When my pro career was over, and I was playing high-level semi-pro ball for the Sauget Wizards, we were playing a team that featured a former minor league star for the St. Louis Cardinals. Joe Silkwood could really throw, and the challenge of being ready for his fastball but still able to adjust to his off-speed stuff was very tough. Pro ball tough. And then, from the on-deck circle, I heard him slightly grunt when he threw his fastball but not when he threw his curve. I found a flaw.

When it was my turn at bat, I listened. His fastball was a good one and you had to be ready for it. I clearly remember thinking “Will I be able to adjust if he grunts when he throws it, or will it already be too late?”  I heard the grunt and laced a rocket into left field for a hit. He tipped his pitched, and I took advantage of it. Fair enough.

There have been many Major League pitchers who didn’t know they were tipping pitches. Stick your tongue out on your breaking ball but not your fastball? Obviously move your grip in your glove to a splitter after you nod to the catcher that you liked the sign? The tips are many. You just have to look for them and decipher them.

Where is the line? When does it go from being perceptive to being cheating? I don’t know. It’s always been part of the game. Figure it out and gain an advantage, and the rules might soon be changed or your opponent will find a way to make you “pay the price” during the game that day. Or tomorrow. Or five months from now. Baseball players have long memories!

My own father reveled in telling a tale from his days in the big leagues. I think it was when he was the bullpen coach for the Chicago White Sox just after his playing days. He told the tale as follows:

“We had a pair of military binoculars, like they would use on a ship. I’d go out and position myself inside the big scoreboard in center field, which was hand-operated so I could see out of it toward the plate. Within an inning, I had their signs. We had a crude hook-up with a switch that activated a light on the scoreboard. If it was a fastball, I wouldn’t touch the switch. If a curve was coming, I’d flip it on.”

Now, to be fair, knowing my dad that story could well be embellished, but he rarely (if ever) just made stuff up. I’m sure there is a lot of truth to what he said. And he never thought it was cheating. He just figured it this way: “If we could decode anything the other team was doing, and find that little edge, it’s all fair.”

Also, to be fair, many hitters don’t want to get that tip. Fastballs to the head can kill you, and accepting advice that a curve is coming can be precarious. Some of us just liked to try to do it on our own, with our eyes.

It was all part of the game. And yes, the game does adjust. Pitchers have their hands inspected every time they come off the field now, to make sure no foreign substances are involved. Gaylord Perry would not have liked that. Catchers electronically signal pitchers as to what they want. My own dad would not have liked that.

There is absolutely nothing wrong with the Phillies noticing Lance McCullers Jr. tipping his pitches. It’s his fault, not the Phillies’ fault. His denial is just a natural way of shifting the blame to his performance, not his mechanics.

And I’m old enough now to state that Lance McCullers Jr is the son of another fine pitcher. His dad, Lance McCullers Sr was drafted out of high school (by the Phillies, ironically) in 1982. I was a scout for the Blue Jays then, and saw him pitch. He was really good and did well in the Major Leagues. I have no clue if he ever tipped his pitches.

It happens. Players know it. Coaches know it. It’s a chess match.

Below you will see two shots of Lance McCullers Jr pitching. He stayed taller in his mechanics and raised his knee more for this breaking ball. That’s kind of natural to do. You want to stay back and “on top” of your breaking ball and not get too far out in front of it. For his fastball, which any pitcher wants to “drive into” to get max velocity, he changed his delivery ever so slightly. Bryce Harper saw it and passed the word to his teammates.

See you again soon. For the record, even with help from my teammates I was often late on the fastball and too early on the breaking stuff.

As always, I ask that if you read this and liked it please click on the “Like” below! Gracias.


This is “tipping your pitches”