Phillies warned by MLB to stop stealing signs

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Tracy Ringolsby reports that Major League Baseball has issued a warning to the Phillies over allegations that they have been stealing signs.

The latest: during Monday night’s game against the Rockies, bullpen coach Mick Billmeyer was seen using binoculars to look in at Rockies catchers. Meanwhile, Shane Victorino was seen in the dugout on the bullpen phone. You don’t have to be Josh Beckett’s wife to figure out what was going on.

There’s nothing in the rule book about sign stealing. There is, however, what amounts to an executive order on the matter. Back in 2001, then-Executive Vice President of Baseball Operations Sandy Alderson sent out a memo to all teams that restricted the use of
electronic equipment during a game. Such equipment and technology, Alderson wrote, “could
not be used for communications or for the purpose of stealing signs or
conveying information designed to give a club an advantage.”

Binoculars aren’t electronic equipment. I suppose the bullpen phone could technically be considered that, though I’m guessing that’s not what Alderson had in mind. He was probably thinking about teams having laptops and cameras and Dick Tracy wrist-radios and light-signals a la the 1951 Giants and stuff.  What the Phillies are doing is a bit more low-tech than all of that.

But there is something that seems like a transgression here. Yes, we’re deep into the murky world of the unwritten rules again, but do you not agree that it’s one thing for, say, Chase Utley to pick up a sign while leading off second base and flash it to Jayson Werth, but something different for the bullpen coach to be doing it via binoculars and telephone?

The former seems like competition. The latter seems, well, rather unseemly.  And that’s the case if, for no other reason, than because Utley can get a ball thrown at his ribs if his subterfuge is discovered where the bullpen coach can’t, and that sort of thing tends to matter when it comes to violating unwritten rules.

So shape up, Phillies. It’s bad enough that you’re getting three more home games this year than anyone else. You don’t need the advantage that comes from stealing signs too.

Players are waking up and getting ready to fight

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There’s this idea out there that the owners have been eating the players’ lunch at the bargaining table in recent years because the players are, generally, rich and happy and maybe don’t care about a lot of the stuff the previous couple of generations of players did. There is probably some degree of truth to that. The difference between a good deal and a bad deal, in both collective bargaining and on the free agent market, is way less dire now than it used to be and thus the urgency may not have been there over the past several years the way it was in 1981 or 1994.

But it goes too far to say that such a mindset is universal among players. Or that it’s a mindset which, even among those who hold it, will always persist. Players may not have been as vigilant about labor matters over the past several years as they used to be, but they’re not idiots and, at some point, the owners are gonna push ’em too far and they’ll respond.

As we find ourselves in the second straight offseason in which teams simply don’t seem all too keen on signing free agents, it’s starting to happen already.

Earlier this week Dallas Keuchel tweeted out some things critical of the current market and teams’ approach to it (and took another swipe today). This afternoon Giants third baseman Evan Longoria chimed in on Instagram, posting a picture of Keuchel, Craig Kimbrel, Bryce Harper and Manny Machado, and saying the following:

We are less then a month from the start of spring and once again some of our games biggest starts remain unsigned. Such a shame. It’s seems every day now someone is making up a new analytical tool to devalue players, especially free agents. As fans, why should “value” for your team even be a consideration? It’s not your money, it’s money that players have worked their whole lives to get to that level and be deserving of. Bottom line, fans should want the best players and product on the field for their team. And as players we need to stand strong for what we believe we are worth and continue to fight for the rights we have fought for time and time again.

Most of that is common sense, the sort of which we’ve been arguing for around here for some time. Fans should care about good players and winning baseball games, not whether or not their front office can get a great bargain for its own sake. It may be interesting to talk about payroll and salaries and wins/$, but the point of baseball is to win, right? When so many teams seem rather uninterested in that, it’s a problem that all of the interesting analytical insights can’t really make up for.

The second part is worth keeping your eyes on. Maybe players have not been on a war footing the likes of which their predecessors were in the 1970s through the 1990s, but it doesn’t mean they won’t get back there if pushed. As is abundantly clear, the owners are pushing. Salaries are dropping in both an absolute sense and, especially, compared to baseball’s revenues. Players are getting a smaller piece of the pie than they have in a while and ownership seems quite pleased to see that continue.

If players are saying stuff like this publicly, it means that players are talking about it amongst themselves privately. The last two years have likely served as quite a wakeup call for them, and they seem to be waking up. Evan Longoria is. Dallas Keuchel is. So are some others. If current trends continue, more and more will wake up.

The current Collective Bargaining Agreement expires following the 2021 season. What happens over the rest of this offseason and the next two is going to determine the mood of the players. The mood of the players, in turn, is going to dictate the tenor of negotiations. If they were to begin right now, those negotiations would be very, very rocky.