The Nationals, though, were ready. If they were going to win their first World Series, they were going to do it with pitching. And their pitchers had to be prepared — for everything.
“It’s the worst feeling in the world stepping on that mound and having an idea that that hitter knows what’s coming,” said Paul Menhart, the Nationals pitching coach. “It’s one of the most unnerving feelings. You feel helpless. You just get ticked off to the point where you lose total focus and confidence.
“So we had to make sure our pitchers didn’t think about it. We had to eliminate the possibility.”
This is news now, in the middle of November, because Tuesday The Athletic published an explosive report that alleged, in terrific detail, how the Astros used a camera in center field to read what pitch a catcher was calling for, showed that feed on a screen in the tunnel between the dugout and clubhouse, and then clanged on a trash can to send an audible signal to the hitter. Clang, and an off-speed pitch was on the way. Silence, and here came the fastball.
“I’m not here to talk about illegal stuff with technology,” Menhart said by phone Wednesday. “If they were doing such things, they’re going to have to answer to a higher power than winning a baseball game.”
“When we start getting into technology, and only one team has access to it,” Nationals reliever Sean Doolittle said, “that’s scary.”
Given the general paranoia about sign-stealing — legal and not — that grips the game now, the Nationals began to mix their signs more elaborately as they faced the Milwaukee Brewers in the wild-card game, the Los Angeles Dodgers in the division series and the St. Louis Cardinals in the NLCS.
“It was mainly because we thought we had heard some whistling,” Menhart said. “Did we really hear it? Whether you do or you don’t, just to put those thoughts in our minds is dangerous. So we just said, ‘Let’s nip this now.’”
Before getting into how, exactly, the Nats thwarted any attempts, it’s helpful to know from whence they came. Menhart pitched for three seasons with three teams in the mid-to-late 1990s. Back then, if a runner reached second base — a position from which he could clearly see the catcher’s signs — it was the battery’s responsibility to mix things up. The catcher would put down a series of fingers, but the pitcher would know which one was the actual pitch for which he was calling.
“In my day, it was, ‘Second sign, shake it off, do it again, pitch,’” Menhart said.
Stealing signs, with a runner on second, is considered fair game. The burden is on the defensive team to make sure it’s properly coding its intentions.
The problem: With a camera in center field, a team doesn’t need a runner on second base. Players, coaches or other staff members could watch the video feed and figure out signs on their own.
“If that’s true — and they’re just allegations for now — why are we to think they only did it in 2017?” Doolittle said Wednesday by phone. “If they did it and they won the World Series, what’s to stop them from continuing to do it?”
There is some circumstantial evidence that something was up with the Astros. In 2016, their hitters struck out 23.4 percent of the time, the fourth-highest rate in the game. In 2017, the year The Athletic report said the camera was installed, that rate dropped to 17.3 percent, the lowest in baseball. At home in 2017, the Astros struck out 16.7 percent of the time, as opposed to 17.9 percent on the road.
Put whatever stock in those numbers you want, or go digging further. Menhart said the Nationals’ video staff worked with the coaches and front office, and eventually with the players, to combat subterfuge regardless of its origins. When the Nats had their first workout after sweeping the Cardinals, the coaching staff revealed to the pitchers their counterintelligence plan to fend off the Astros.
“We were 100 percent on board with it,” Doolittle said.
There were some layers to the Nats’ plan for Houston. First, each pitcher had to have his own set of signs, and catchers Yan Gomes and Kurt Suzuki had to be familiar with each one. So the staff printed out cards with the codes and had them laminated. The catchers could have them in their wristbands, a la an NFL quarterback with play calls strapped to his forearm, and the pitchers would have them in their caps. Each pitcher had five sets of signs, and they could change them from game to game — or even batter to batter, if necessary. Using the set labeled No. 2, but worried the Astros were catching on? The pitcher could signal to the catcher to move to set No. 3.
The Nationals also decided that they would use multiple signs regardless of whether there was a runner on second base or not. No one on? Runner on first? Let’s make sure the catcher runs through a series of signs anyway, just in case.
“It was our best way to counteract anything that might have been going on,” Menhart said.
“We just had our guard up,” Doolittle said.
Next came the way the Nats employed their signs, which was nontraditional. Rather than just use, say, the second sign the catcher put down, the Nats might “chase the two.” That meant the pitcher would watch for the catcher to put two fingers down, and then throw the pitch that corresponded to the following sign. Or they could play “outs plus one.” So if there was one out, the pitch would be the second sign the catcher put down. If there were no outs, it would be the first sign. “Strikes plus one” worked the same way.
That’s a lot of thought, right? But it’s a small cost in preparation if it frees the mind of the pitcher in competition.
“This is the way the game’s going to go now,” Menhart said. “You’re going to have to have this. Sign-stealing has become quite an art.”
Or, in the Astros’ case, a science. Those are my words, not Menhart’s. Major League Baseball has a problem on its hands, perhaps one involving not only Houston’s technology but its morals. The relief: We’re not sitting here talking about the 2019 World Series champion Houston Astros potentially cheating, because the Nationals met them in that series, and were prepared — regardless of the Astros’ talent, and regardless of their methods.