Joe Mauer and Stealing Signs

There has been a minor sensation across the web today in response to a video a fan posted of Joe Mauer supposedly stealing signs and relaying them to the batter by touching either the earhole on his helmet or the front of his face (that's a YouTube video, by the way, so chances are it will be removed by MLB before long; if it's down when you follow the link, someone videotaped his/her TV screen during a 6th inning plate appearance by Jason Kubel where Mauer was on second base with comments inserted in the video explaining why the author is sure Joe Mauer was stealing signs and relaying them to Kubel). Of course, the discussion has mostly centered around whether or not stealing signs is cheating, whether Detroit should bean Mauer, and generally just the ethics of the game. Not to say that's not interesting, but I think there is another issue that is being overlooked. Regardless of what stealing signs means to you, does the video even make a good case that Mauer was in fact stealing signs? In case you can't see it by now, whoever posted the video seems very sure of him-/herself and that the video, along with the explanatory comments, provide clear evidence of sign stealing, even going so far as to point out at one point that sign stealing is usually not so blatant.

There's really nothing in the video that is blatant evidence that that's what is going on, though. Whoever made the video arrives at his/her conclusion based both on evidence that just isn't in the video and on a series of assumptions or logical jumps that make little sense and don't point to the clear conclusions the author of the comments seems to think.

For one, we are expected to see how Mauer is picking up the signs by looking at the signs the catcher puts down. Watch the catcher put down 2 fingers, for a curveball, the video tells us. This is impossible both because we don't know the sequence or indicator the Tigers are using with a runner on second and because the resolution of the video is too poor to see the signs anyway. I assume the person who posted the video could see the signs before recording and uploading it killed the quality, so we just have to take the his/her word for what the signs were. I am guessing that this person is just telling us the first sign in the sequence, since he/she doesn't know the pattern Detroit uses either. The problem is, this is clearly wrong. It's possible that Detroit would just go by the first sign as their pattern, but there is no reason to assume this, and checking what the pitches actually were shows that the person is reading the signs wrong.

The first pitch, that 2-for-a-curveball, was not a curveball. It didn't move like a curveball, the radar reading was fast for a curveball, and low-and-behold, Pitch F/X says there's no way it was a curveball. It was in fact a change-up that moved nothing like Verlander's curve, both by the GameDay algorithm and the pitch's recorded flight path. So we are already off to bad information in the video, as the sign that the person sees the catcher give and that we are assured is what Mauer is seeing to tip pitches to Kubel is wrong (and if 2 is really for a change and not a curve, then they are wrong later because there are 2-for-a-curveball's that really are curves).

This might not seem that important. After all, just because the person who posted the video can't read the signs properly doesn't mean Mauer can't. Mauer relays the signs to Kubel very early in the sequence, though, early enough that the sequence would almost have to just be that the first sign is the real sign. Since I suspect the first sign is probably what the video-maker is relying on to tell us what the catcher put down, and the video-maker's interpretation is wrong, it seems unlikely that Mauer can relay the pitch to Kubel so early in the catcher's sequence even if he does know the pattern.

Even if the real sign is the first one, Mauer gives his sign for one pitch after clearly missing the beginning of the sequence of signs the catcher puts down. He is checking the fielder positioning as the catcher begins giving signs but gives his signal anyway. No matter what the pattern is, if you miss the beginning of the sequence, you can't be sure you got the right sign. Then, there are other pitches where Mauer is looking straight toward the plate the whole time but relays nothing. For one of these, the explanation given is that the catcher either changed the signs or that Verlander just threw what he wanted without a sign. The latter explanation is unlikely, as the catcher gave the signs just like for every other pitch, they didn't do this at any other point in the at bat, and the catcher responded to the curve in the dirt like he knew exactly what pitch it was. The former explanation makes even less sense because it requires that:

-the catcher changed signs without notifying Verlander (possible if they worked out alternate sequences in advance with a signal to switch because they suspected sign stealing was likely, but that makes it less believable that Mauer could keep stealing signs, especially if they noticed he was doing it)
-they suddenly switched back to the signs that Mauer was supposedly stealing for no apparent reason, or Mauer knew for certain the new sequence after seeing it once.

On another pitch, the explanation as to why we don't see Mauer give the sign is that he was out of frame, but that if we watch Kubel's eyes, he looks to Mauer for the sign (another example of evidence that isn't in the video, as the resolution is too poor for us to see this as well). However, Mauer is only out of frame very early in the shot, earlier than the catcher had begun giving signs in any shot where such can be seen. Mauer is in frame for the entire range of time we would expect to see him relay the sign based on the timing of every other pitch he gave a sign in the at bat, and he gives no sign.

During one catcher sequence, Mauer gives Kubel both signs. He touches his earhole and then moves his hand to wipe the front of his face.

One bit of evidence is that Kubel steps out after he gets the sign for a curveball from Mauer, as if his stepping out will make the Tigers change the pitch they want to throw. He does not do this for any other curve signal Mauer gives.

We are told that everybody knows what is going on. Every time the camera cuts to a new person, that person knows what is going on. After Kubel eventually hits a sac fly, it's clear that the Twins knew Mauer was stealing signs because they give Kubel and the runner who scored from third high fives in the dugout for scoring and driving in a run. Michael Cuddyer knew as he stood on deck. Of course, Leyland and Laird both knew as well. But Laird's reaction to knowing someone is stealing signs is to, when he starts putting down signs and Mauer gives no signal, stop and start over (which he does in the video, accompanied by the explanation that he doesn't want to give a sign because he knows Mauer will steal it)? Is he trying to make sure Mauer gets it? The video-maker cites Laird's stopping and restarting on the signals as evidence he knows Mauer is stealing signs. If he even suspected Mauer were stealing signs, he would visit the mound and change the sequence with Verlander, not just keep putting down the same signs and looking frustrated.

Mauer was only the second Twin to reach second in the game, and the first was two batters earlier. Mauer would have had no chance to study the sequence the Tigers were using for that game. Unless Span picked up the pattern in 4 pitches and told Mauer what it was as he passed him at the plate before Mauer's at bat without Laird noticing, Mauer would have had to know that the Tigers were using the same sequence every game to confidently give a sign on the first pitch. This is not a safe assumption for an important late-season game against a division rival.

At one point, we are told that a pitch must be a fastball because the sign was given too quickly to tip. It wasn't. The camera was just on Ron Gardenhire for a few seconds as the signs were given. If the sign were abnormally quick, that wouldn't be a sign that a fastball was coming. It would be a sign that the catcher is just telling the pitcher to use the same sign he gave before calling time. For what it's worth, this pitch was probably a change-up, not a fastball. It moved like a change and was well slower than Verlander's fastball. It may have been a slow two-seamer, though.

The video is full of claims pointing out why what we are seeing has to mean Mauer is stealing signs. For the most part, this evidence is faulty. It is not nearly as clear-cut as the author of the comments purports, and much of it is just jumping to conclusions without any logical justification. The video fails to explain why, if Mauer knows the signs, he fails to relay them multiple times. It fails to explain why, if Detroit knew exactly what Mauer was doing (part of the evidence relies on the assumption that Laird's actions must be explained as being his reaction to knowing Mauer is stealing signs), they didn't meet on the mound and change the signs. There is no attempt to reconcile the unlikelihood that Mauer could know the sequence the Tigers were using so quickly, nor how could relay the sign without watching the sequence. There is no explanation as to why Mauer gives Kubel both signs before one pitch (in fact, this is just cited as evidence that Mauer knew which sign was given). Actions that don't logically lead to the conclusion of sign stealing, like Laird going through the signs multiple times, are attributed to the fact that Mauer was stealing signs.

Joe Mauer may or may not have been relaying signs, but it is unlikely that he knew the signs Detroit was using, and the video certainly presents no good evidence that he did. The more likely scenario is that Verlander and not Laird was tipping the pitches to Mauer. Verlander was pitching out of the windup, which is unusual for having men on base, and he holds his glove high enough that Mauer may have been able to see his grip over his shoulder. If Verlander is used to regripping early from the windup, Mauer may have been able to see his grip on some of the pitches. Some pitches, he probably didn't get as good a view or Verlander didn't change his grip quickly enough for him to relay a pitch, which is more likely than him missing a sign if he knew the sequence. He may have also given both signs on one pitch because Verlander regripped and then changed to another grip immediately after. After this point in the at bat, there is no evidence of Mauer relaying signals on the video (though there is only one pitch where they show him at the right time to catch it if he were), so Mauer may have figured Verlander was onto him after he gave the dummy regrip and given up on trying to relay the pitches. Heck, maybe Mauer was just adjusting his helmet and scratching his face. Seeing him do that a few times in an at bat isn't clear evidence that it's not just a coincidence or a habit of Mauer's, especially since he does both at one point, does one at a time where he probably didn't see the sign, and does neither multiple times when he did.

Fans too frequently take what they are told as fact without checking its validity first. It happens when broadcasters cite statistics or rules off memory and fans repeat them in arguments. It happens when someone mistakenly cites factual claims in a discussion and then someone who heard it takes their word. It happens when analysts make offhand remarks and people mistake them for researched analysis. The responses to this video are just another example of this tendency. This habit can get in the way of good baseball discussion because not enough people want to make sure they even have the facts straight before they run headlong into debate. How are we ever going to learn anything from each other if we can't at least do that?


Mike Fast said...

Thank you! Good explanation. I thought I was the only one who couldn't see the emperor's new clothes.

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