Todd Walker

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Is Stealing Signs Cheating?

How Much Cheating Is Too Much in Baseball?

By: Christopher Crawford


A little over a week ago, former Cincinnati Reds outfielder and NFL Hall-of-Famer Deion Sanders accused Tony Dungy of stealing signals during NFL games. These comments came just after the New England Patriots—who had once been punished for videotaping another team's practices—won their fifth championship.

Dungy didn't deny the claims. Rather, he pointed to the subjectivity of cheating, and also brought up the fact that baseball players were stealing signs back in the 1800s. He has a point. Baseball is no stranger to these kinds of accusations. Cheating is cheating, it's wrong, but it's also part of the game. Think of the performance-enhancing-drug scandal that rocked the sport in the last decade—and all the people who looked beyond it, or even encouraged it. Think of corked barrels and doctored baseballs and the pine tar on George Brett's bat.

Those all seem fairly black and white, but cheating in baseball is also in the eye of the beholder. There is plenty of behavior in the sport that is considered cheating by some and not by others. I spoke to seven people—four players, two scouts, and a National League executive—to get a sense of where they stood on subjects like stealing signs, leaning into pitches, and balky pick-off moves.

Dungy's argument that sign stealing is OK because it is commonly practiced might not hold up to logic tests, but he does have a point: it is commonly practiced. Technically, it's also a legal practice. There is nothing written in the rulebook that says that it is illegal for another team to steal signals. Since there's nothing in the book that says you can't steal signs, it's impossible for umpires or officials to police the practice. It has, however, been "enforced" on the field.

"I've thrown at a guy who was stealing signs," one pitching prospect said. "In college. I would never throw at a guy's head, but if I think someone is cheating and taking our signals, I'm going to go send a message that it's unacceptable to do that."

Considering there isn't an actual rule, you might be under the impression that it'd be a cut-and-dry answer as to whether or not players and scouts considered stealing signs cheating. You would be incorrect.

"There's no question in my mind that stealing signs is cheating," a NL executive who also coached said. "It can give you an advantage in the batter's box, it can give you an advantage when you're on base, it can give you an advantage when you're in the field. How many things can you say would give you that kind of advantage? Stealing signs is cheating, plain and simple. It shouldn't even be up for debate."

The word "advantage" was used a lot in these answers, and of course, that's what stealing signs—or any form of cheating—is about. The ability to gain a competitive advantage. Those who felt that the act wasn't illegal or even immoral all seem to have reached a similar conclusion: that there are far too many practicing it to call it cheating.

"If it's cheating, then there's an awful lot of cheaters playing baseball," an NL Central prospect said. "Guys are constantly looking to break down the signs from the catcher or the third-base coach or whatever. It's a natural part of the game that everyone does. You can say that's poor logic or whatever, but this is a competitive game. I don't think there's anything wrong with trying to gain an edge that way."

At some point in your baseball playing or following days, you've probably heard someone instructed to lean into a pitch. That means purposely getting into the way of a pitch, or just not getting out of the way, in order to obtain a free trip to first base. Chase Utley does this. But Rule 6.08(b) says that a batter is awarded first base if he is touched by a ball outside of the strike zone and attempts to avoid it. If the umpire feels that the batter didn't make an effort to avoid the pitch, it's then at his discretion to determine if the pitch was a strike or ball, and the pitch is dead.

While it's clearly a violation, the rule is rarely enforced, and many I spoke with believe that the reason it isn't called is because it's a judgment call, and the home plate umpire might not be the one in the best position to make the judgment. The most well-known enforcement was when Don Drysdale "hit" Dick Dietz with a pitch with the bases loaded on May 31, 1968. It was ruled that Dietz didn't attempt to avoid the offering, and it kept Drysdale's record-breaking streak of not allowing a run to score alive.

Of the seven people I surveyed, only one believed the act of leaning into a pitch was cheating.

"I don't think it's cheating," a player said. "I kind of think it's stupid because you could really get hurt, but I don't think it's cheating. People have been doing it for too long for me to consider it [cheating]. If my team is down by a couple runs and I know a [pitcher] is going to throw inside, I may not jump out of the way. I wanna hit, but I also wanna win."

Again, we come down to the competitive advantage. As the player said, most want to come up to the plate and swing the bat. They also want to win, and if taking one for the team gives them a chance to do that, they're willing to break a rule. For one scout, however, the act of getting hit by a pitch without trying to avoid it crossed the line.

"It's in the rules that you have to try to get out of the way of the baseball," the scout said. "When I see a guy lean into a pitch or just stand there while a pitch plunks them, I can't help but question the integrity of the player. Maybe it's not as bad as some other things you can do, but I wouldn't want players like that on my club."

There are 16 different ways a pitcher can get called for a balk. Some of them involve issues like a quick return (not the same thing as a quick pitch) or dropping the baseball like Johnny Cueto did against the Pittsburgh Pirates in the playoffs.

The majority of the ways you can get called for a balk, however, involve an attempt to pick off a runner. With so many different ways to make an illegal move, you'd think balk calls would be common. They are not. On blatantly obvious mistakes like a left-hander faking a throw to first while on the mound, or the Cueto drop, you might see it called. On anything remotely subjective, you usually won't.

Just take a look at Twitter after a close pick-off throw, and you'll see someone calling a move to first a balk. You'll also see someone complaining that no one knows what a balk is. The most famous examples are of potential balks not being called, like this pick-off by Julio Urias of Bryce Harper.

But is it cheating? It depends on your perspective.

"Calling it cheating is just an excuse for being picked off," a American League West prospect said. If you really look close, almost every left-hander is crossing the line before they get throw over to first. Outside of a runner just having no idea what's going on, you're not going to be able to pick guys off without it. It's too harsh to call it cheating."

As you might expect, batters were much more likely to call the "balk" move cheating than pitchers, for obvious reasons.

"I'm biased because I like to steal bases, but I absolutely think it's cheating, and I wish they'd call it more," a player said. "Some of these guys are blatant with it and I have no idea why umpires don't call it. I don't want to say that umpires don't know the rules, but there were times even watching the World Series where I was wondering how that wasn't a pick-off."

One of the best things about baseball is how much subjectivity there is in the game. We may all have strong opinions about certain aspects of the game, and we may do a fair share of research to try and make these feelings concrete. At the end of the day, it's those shades of grey that make baseball enthralling to so many, so it's not surprising that players and executives don't necessarily see eye to eye on what constitutes cheating.

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