Monday, June 25, 2012

How To Prevent Sign Stealing In Baseball

The wristband of South Carolina catcher Grayson Greiner.

Saw this great article from last Friday's WSJ on how collegiate teams are ditching body signals for a football-emulating system, including wristbands with codes:

College baseball coaches have one of the most outlandish job requirements in sports: They must be extraordinarily familiar with their own faces. It is by touching their ears, noses and chins at a dizzying speed that they covertly communicate to the catcher whether the next pitch should be a fastball, curveball or changeup.

These signs, which are also used in the big leagues, are some of baseball's oldest and most charmingly analog quirks. But over the last five years, college baseball has become the incubator for a new approach that has some of the sport's many traditionalists fired up.

Hundreds of teams at all levels of college baseball, including five of the last six College World Series champions, have ditched body signals altogether in favor of a system in which the coach flashes or yells a series of numbers. The catcher decodes the sequence by looking at a chart tucked into a wristband—the kind football quarterbacks have worn since 1965—and then relays the information to the pitcher the way he always has.

Coaches say this scheme isn't just faster and more efficient. It's also pick-proof: Wannabe spies in the other dugout can't steal these signs. The method allows for many combinations that can mean many different pitches, and after the coach calls a string of numbers and the catcher deciphers the code on his grid, that sequence won't be used again for the rest of the game and maybe even the rest of the season. By printing out new cheat sheets as often as every game, teams aren't even vulnerable if an old copy falls into enemy hands.

"When I see teams charting us, I just think, 'Holy smokes, really?'" said Oregon State assistant coach Pat Bailey, whose Beavers won national titles in 2006 and 2007 with this tactic. "It's just a waste of time." [...]

Since yelling out random numbers doesn't exactly seem to jibe with our national pastime, Bancroft said he's considered another idea. Instead of shouting 1-2-3, for example, coaches could indicate a position on a wristband's grid by touching their caps, wrists and belts, just as they used to. "Now you're almost making it three times harder," Bancroft said.

Utah coach Bill Kinneberg tried the numbers-based system in a 2005 game against UCLA. "They had two or three guys writing numbers down," he said, "and by the seventh inning, I saw one of them flip his clipboard up in frustration."

I can see MLB managers with a penchant for micromanaging (Jim Tracy, perhaps?) getting all over this trend. South Carolina lost its opening game of the CWS finals yesterday, for what it's worth.

photo: AP


Steve K said...

I can't imagine a major league catcher agreeing to that yet. Maybe a few years from now, but I think there would be too much pride from established catchers to wear what they might consider a cheat sheet.

Plus, a major league stadium can get loud and you can't rely on hearing numbers being called from a manager. If someone implemented it, they'd have to go with the option where they use signs to signal a location on the sheet.