What’s pitch tipping, what’s sign stealing, and when are they illegal?
Start with a couple sideways glances by New York Yankees slugger Aaron Judge toward the first-base line.
Mix in a massive 462-foot homer a couple pitches later.
And voila! Major League Baseball has its latest cheating controversy.
The latest kerfuffle started on Monday, when cameras caught Judge oddly diverting his eyes away from the pitcher just before smashing a long homer against Toronto Blue Jays right-hander Jay Jackson. The Blue Jays weren’t happy.
“It’s kind of odd that a hitter would be looking in that direction,” Toronto manager John Schneider said.
Jackson — demoted to Triple-A a day later — has since said he believes he was tipping pitches during the Judge at-bat. He thought a Yankees coach could tell what pitch he was about to throw and was signaling that info to Judge before the pitch was delivered.
Even if that’s true, though, the Yankees weren’t necessarily cheating.
There is no prohibition on teammates or coaches using the naked eye to study pitchers and relay that info to batters. When the 2017 Houston Astros were punished for sign stealing, it was because they used banned electronics — including live video feeds — to help gather their information.
So what is sign stealing? How is that different from pitch tipping? What’s legal and what’s not?
Here’s a short guide to the Yankees-Blue Jays controversy:
WHAT IS SIGN STEALING?
Sign stealing — at least by using the naked eye — is considered an art form in many baseball circles.
Coaches and players often use hand signals to relay strategy decisions — like for sacrifice bunts or stolen base attempts — which can often be seen by the opposing team. Many times, opposing players and coaches will try to decipher patterns so they can de-code those signs, learn the other team’s strategy and gain an advantage. All of that is legal.
Historically, the most sought-after signs have been the ones catchers used to communicate pitch selection with pitchers. But that recently changed.
The advent of the PitchCom system has eliminated some sign stealing because hand signals aren’t always needed between pitchers and catchers. PitchCom allows catchers or pitchers to push buttons on wristbands to call for fastballs, curves, changeups and anything else, along with the location. Their batterymate then hears the result via earpiece. Short of hacking the encrypted signal, there’s seemingly no way for teams to spy on that communication.
WHAT IS PITCH TIPPING?
Pitch tipping occurs when a pitcher unwittingly telegraphs the pitch he’s about to throw.
Maybe the pitcher digs harder into his glove with his hand when he’s about to throw a breaking ball. Maybe he stands on a certain part of the pitching rubber when delivering a fastball. Maybe he holds his hand outside of his glove before delivering a pitch, giving away his grip.
Hitters and coaches devote significant time to searching for such tells, including by studying video between games. If a pitcher isn’t careful about keeping his delivery consistent, big league hitters are certain to notice.
ARE SIGN STEALING AND PITCH TIPPING ILLEGAL?
The short answer is no. At least so long as teams aren’t using illicit technology during the game — like when the ’17 Astros were found to have used a live feed from a center field camera to spy on opposing catchers.
There are some gray areas.
Schneider expressed concern about where the Yankees were positioning their first and third base coaches, saying his team had spoken to the commissioner’s office about the issue.
There are small boxes on the field where first and third base coaches are supposed to stand, but it’s not uncommon for those coaches to venture outside the box. Jackson alleges Yankees first base coach Travis Chapman was moving outside of it so he could spy on how Jackson was gripping the ball.
That would be a no-no.
“There’s boxes on the field for a reason,” Schneider said.
AP Baseball Writer Ronald Blum and Associated Press writer Ian Harrison contributed to this story.
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