Commentary

Signs of trouble in Toronto

The Blue Jays deny they're stealing signs -- evidence may lead to another conclusion

Updated: August 10, 2011, 6:47 PM ET
By Amy K. Nelson and Peter Keating | ESPN The Magazine

"Not too easy, is it?"

From the visitors bullpen at Rogers Centre in Toronto, an American League pitcher screamed at Blue Jays right fielder Jose Bautista as he took his position late in a game in the spring of 2010.

"It's not too [f------] easy to hit home runs when you don't know what's coming!"

The enraged player and his teammates could hardly believe what they had seen in the previous inning. As they sat on the perch above the right-field bullpen at Rogers, they caught sight of a man dressed in white about 25 yards to their right, out among the blue center-field seats. And while the players watched, the man in white seemingly signaled the pitches the visiting pitcher was throwing against the Jays, according to four sources in the bullpen that day.

Blue Jays
Baseball Prospectus/ESPNToronto's home run rate on contact was 5.4 percent at home in 2010, meaning Rogers Centre boosted the Jays' rate by 1.8 percentage points, or about 50 percent. Their opponents' rate was 0.2 percentage points less than at a neutral park.

The players weren't exactly sure how the man in white knew what was coming -- maybe, they thought, he was receiving messages via his Bluetooth from an ally elsewhere in the stadium who had binoculars or access to the stadium feed. But they quickly picked up the wavelength of his transmissions: He was raising his arms over his head for curveballs, sliders and changeups. In other words, anything besides fastballs.

A few of the players in the bullpen turned their backs to the field to fixate on the man in white, while others watched the stadium's radar gun. As soon as each pitch was thrown, those watching the man would call out what they thought he was signaling, and those focused on the radar gun would confirm his signal. Sure enough, the man in white was raising his arms above his head before every off-speed pitch and doing nothing when the pitch being called was a fastball.

Some guys on that team had actually seen the same man making the same motions in 2009. But that had been in the last series of the season against Toronto, and they let it go. Now, stunned not only that the man in white was back but that he was accurately calling every pitch, a call was made to the dugout, and the coaching staff was given the following message: Start using multiple signs, even with no one on base.

When Bautista next came up to bat, he struck out. After the inning, he ran to right field, adjacent to the visitors 'pen, and the livid player issued Bautista a warning.

"We know what you're doing," he said, referring to the man in white, according to the player and two witnesses. "If you do it again, I'm going to hit you in the [f------] head."

When asked in September 2010 about the confrontation, Bautista confirmed that he and the player had exchanged words. But he denied that their argument had been about signals relayed from the stands and denied getting outside help to steal signs.

"First of all, I don't even know how you can do that," Bautista said. "And second of all, it's obviously something that's not legal in the game. We do not cheat."

The inning after the incident, however, the relays stopped, and the man in white left his seat.

The next day, the players who had seen the man in white headed to the field early. One stood in the batter's box while another stood on the mound. From the batter's box, it was clear the man in white had been perfectly positioned just above the pitcher's head so that the batter would not need to move his own head, or even alter his gaze, in order to see his signal. "It's premeditated," said one of the AL players, "as if the guy was a sniper trying to find the best position to make a shot."

When Yankees manager Joe Girardi suggested the Blue Jays were illicitly stealing signs in mid-July, it was not the first time ESPN had heard such an allegation. In the summer of 2010, one of our reporters interviewed several players about allegations of sign-stealing from the outfield seats at Rogers Centre. Then in January, Colin Wyers, a contributor to ESPN Insider who writes for Baseball Prospectus, provided independent analysis that showed statistical deviations in Toronto's hitting stats that he considered too great to be random chance. (Wyers was unaware of the ESPN reporter's information.)

As ESPN began investigating the sign-stealing allegations, the charges also started to gain momentum in the mainstream media. Last September, Yankees broadcaster Michael Kay noted that catcher Jorge Posada was throwing down multiple signs with nobody on base against the Jays and even mentioned the possibility that someone in the outfield stands could be relaying signs.

Similarly, in a June game in Toronto, Red Sox catcher Jarrod Saltalamacchia started mixing up signs to pitcher Clay Buchholz even when the Blue Jays didn't have men on base, and Sox broadcaster Jerry Remy mentioned it on the air. On July 14, Yankees catcher Russell Martin said he thought Toronto was stealing signs from second base.

The next day, when asked by reporters if the Blue Jays were getting signs from outside the field of play, Girardi went a step further, saying, "Could be. Obviously, if you feel like it's coming from somewhere else besides a player on the field, yeah, I do have issues with that." Girardi told the media the Yankees would use multiple signs at Rogers Centre, even with the bases empty, just as Posada had done the year before.

Jose Bautista
Claus Andersen/Getty ImagesToronto is still above .500 despite slugger Jose Bautista's sluggish start.

Toronto GM Alex Anthopoulos denies that his team has relayed signs from beyond the field of play. "That never happened, will never happen, not even a possibility," he told The Mag. "If it did happen, we'd be winning a lot more games at home … I think it's a nonstory because no one ever has picked up the phone and called me about it. It's never been an issue, and I would expect them to do so if it was."

An MLB spokesman said "Major League Baseball has never received a complaint from any club about sign stealing in Toronto, and this is first [we've been] made aware of it."

Stealing signs is as old as signal-calling itself. In 1876, the very first year of the National League, opponents of the Hartford Dark Blues claimed the club was somehow using a shack hung off a telegraph pole outside its home park to relay signals. Decades after the Giants stormed back to win the memorable 1951 NL pennant race, backup catcher Sal Yvars revealed that the team had deployed a clubhouse telescope, an electrician and a buzzer to pass stolen signs to its batters. Just last year, after the Rockies spotted a Phillies bullpen coach using binoculars, Colorado accused Philadelphia of stealing signs. Bud Selig downplayed the controversy, saying, "Stealing signs has been around for 100 years," before letting the Phillies off with a reprimand.

Baseball's unwritten rules have held that traditional sign-stealing, in which a runner on second base picks up signals or hitters or coaches spot tendencies by pitchers and catchers, is fine if you can get away with it but that getting help from outside the white lines is out of bounds. Typically, players are loath to discuss the subject. For one thing, nobody wants to be a rat. And some guys think, If we've been hurt by another team stealing signs, why speak up? Wouldn't it be better to allow our divisional rivals to suffer the same fate?

And then there's the argument that it's unfair to judge a team by anything other than what happens on the field. "If we win games, I give credit to the players," Anthopoulos said. "If we go into another city and get beat, it's just reality. I'm going to tip my cap and realize we're not going to go 162-0. I'm going to give credit to the other team, and I expect other teams to do the same thing with us."

Nonetheless, four players have confirmed they witnessed Toronto hitters being relayed signs from the Rogers Centre stands.

"I wouldn't have believed it unless I saw it myself," said one of those witnesses. Another of the players was so bothered by what he saw last year that he sent a text message to Yankees outfielder Curtis Granderson, telling him to look out for someone at Rogers Centre relaying signs. Granderson recently confirmed that he received that text and says he was looking from the bench during one game when he was serving as DH. "From where I was sitting in the dugout, 300, 400 feet away, I couldn't see anything," he said.

[+] EnlargeJoe Girardi
Michael Zagaris/Oakland Athletics/Getty ImagesYankees manager Joe Girardi told the media the Yankees use multiple signs at Rogers Centre, even with the bases empty.

So what can we see from the numbers? Statistically, the Blue Jays look like a team swinging out of their cleats at Rogers, with an unusual home-field advantage in hitting home runs.

Homer haven

In 2010, the Jays swung at 48.9 percent of pitches, the highest rate in baseball. They hit just .269 on balls in play, the lowest in baseball by 12 points. However, they led the majors with 257 home runs, 46 more than the next-highest squad. In fact, the 2010 Jays had the highest isolated power (slugging percentage minus batting average) of any team since 1954. That's what enabled Toronto to score 755 runs (ninth best in MLB) despite an abysmal team on-base percentage of .312 (fifth worst).

A huge proportion of the Jays' power comes from their home ballpark. In 2010, Toronto blasted a whopping 146 homers at Rogers Centre, just seven homers shy of the all-time home record set by the Rangers in 2005.

Double identities

Several Jays had extreme splits in 2010. Bautista, for example, had a 1.118 OPS (on-base plus slugging) with 33 homers at home but an .879 OPS and 21 dingers on the road. First baseman Adam Lind had a .759 OPS with 15 homers in Toronto but a .660 OPS with eight bombs on the road. Second baseman Aaron Hill? His home-road OPS split was .730-.605. Shortstop Yunel Escobar was traded from Atlanta to Toronto in July 2010, and he has an .865 OPS at Rogers as a Jay but a .683 mark on the road. And then there's Vernon Wells. The outfielder had a .990 OPS and 21 home runs in Toronto last season but crashed to .699 with 10 jacks away from Rogers Centre. This past winter he was traded to the Angels and has a .552 OPS in Halos home games.

Tuning out the noise

Now, by themselves, the above splits aren't conclusive, so to measure the effect of Rogers Centre more precisely, The Mag consulted with Wyers. He has developed a method that generates park factors by comparing a player's performance in any given park with his performance in all other parks, not just in road games for that player. This reduces statistical noise and offers a better estimate of how a park actually plays in a given season. Wyers found that for every ball that batters made contact with in 2010, Rogers added .011 home runs, up from a rate of just .002 from 2005 to 2009. That puts Rogers Centre in 2010 among the top 3 percent of home run ballparks since 1950.

But only the Blue Jays, and not their opponents, got a home run boost in Toronto. When the Jays were on the road in 2010, they hit home runs in 4 percent of plate appearances in which they made contact, compared with an AL average of 3.6 percent. At Rogers, their home run on contact rate soared to 5.4 percent, which is a home-field advantage seven times the magnitude teams typically enjoy.

Opposing batters, however, actually homered on contact at a below-average rate in Toronto. As a result, the power differential between home and visiting hitters at Rogers in 2010 was the third largest of any park in any season over the past 60 years (see chart).

By themselves, these numbers are circumstantial evidence. Unsupported by data, the four players' accounts might describe a scheme of uncertain impact. And without proper context, the Yankees' decision to mask their signs could be chalked up to paranoia. But together, the numbers, the stories and the actions indicate one certainty: Every pitch to a Blue Jay in Toronto is worth watching.

Amy K. Nelson is a staff writer for ESPN.com. She can be reached at Amy.K.Nelson@espn.com and on Twitter at @amyknelson. Peter Keating is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine and can be reached at Peter.J.Keating@espn.com and on Twitter at @PKStatsBlog.

Peter Keating is a senior writer at ESPN The Magazine, where he covers investigative and statistical subjects. He started writing "The Biz," a column looking at sports business from the fan's point of view, in 1999. He also coordinates the Magazine's annual "Ultimate Standings" project, which ranks all pro franchises according to how much they give back to fans. His work on concussions in football has earned awards from the Deadline Club, the New York Press Club and the Center for the Study of Sport in Society.