“If the Yankees are stealing signs, they suck at it”

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Rangers catcher Yorvit Torrealba made headlines by yelling at Andruw Jones during Wednesday’s game for what he believed was stealing signs and relaying them to other Yankees hitters while at second base.

Mark Teixeira revealed that Torrealba also complained to him about the same thing during Tuesday’s game, Rangers manager Ron Washington told reporters that Alex Rodriguez is known for stealing signs, and Yankees manager Joe Girardi naturally didn’t like the entire line of questioning.

Meanwhile, there are two interesting issues at play here. One is that, even if the Yankees are stealing signs, so what? That goes on all the time with most and perhaps even all teams, and the general consensus seems to be that it’s the other team’s responsibility to keep their signs under wraps as long as the thieves aren’t being extraordinarily obvious about the whole thing. Torrealba even indicated that he thought it was a relatively minor offense and was simply trying to crack down on it.

Beyond that is the issue of whether or not the Yankees are significantly helping themselves by stealing signs and … well, the evidence seems to suggest no. Or as David Cameron of Fan Graphs put it via Twitter last night: “With a runner on second base the Yankees have a .683 OPS. If they’re stealing signs, they suck at it.”

Sure enough, New York has hit .208 with a .683 OPS when a runner is on second base, which is much worse than their hitting .260 with a .798 OPS overall and .258 with a .787 OPS with no runners on base. Not quite conclusively proof either way, since the sign-stealing surely doesn’t go on every time a runner reaches second base, but situations like the one that angered Torrealba haven’t exactly allowed Yankees hitters to dominate.

MLB to crack down on sign stealing

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We’ve had a couple of notable incidents of sign stealing in Major League Baseball over the past couple of years. Most famously, the Red Sox were found to be using Apple Watches of all things to relay signs spied via video feed. Sports Illustrated reported yesterday that there have been other less-publicized and unpublicized incidents as well, mostly with in-house TV cameras — as opposed to network TV cameras — stationed in the outfield and trained on catchers, for the specific purpose of stealing signs.

As such, SI reports, Major League Baseball is cracking down beginning this year. Within the next couple weeks an already-drafted and circulated rule will take effect which will (a) ban in-house outfield cameras from foul pole to foul pole; (b) will limit live broadcasts available to teams to the team’s replay official only, and the replay official will be watched by a league official to keep them from relaying signs to the team; and (c) other TV monitors that are available to the clubs will be on an eight-second delay to prevent real-time sign stealing. There will likewise be limits on TV monitors showing the game feed in certain places like tunnels and clubhouses.

Penalties for violation of the rules will include the forfeiting of draft picks and/or international spending money. General managers will have to sign a document in which they swear they know of know sign-stealing schemes.

As was the case when the Apple Watch incident came up, there will not be any new rules regarding old fashioned sign stealing by runners on second base or what have you, as that is viewed as part of the game. Only the technology-aided sign stealing that has become more prominent in recent years — but which has, of course, existed in other forms for a very, very long time — is subject to the crackdown.

While gamesmanship of one form or another has always been part of baseball, the current wave of sign-stealing is seen as a pace-of-play issue just as much as a fairness issue. Because of the actual sign-stealing — and because of paranoia that any opponent could be stealing signs — clubs have gone to far more elaborate and constantly changing sign protocols. This requires mound meetings and pitchers coming off the rubber in order to re-start the increasingly complex series of signs from dugout to catcher and from catcher to pitcher.

Now, presumably, with these new rules coming online, teams will figure out a new way to cheat. It’s baseball, after all. It’s in their DNA.