On Baseball: In the Majors, the Postseason Is Paranoia Season

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Alex Cora was still a teenager when his brother, Joey, played with Randy Johnson in Seattle in 1995. Even then, Alex could tell what pitch Johnson would throw before he threw it. If Johnson’s glove was narrow when he gripped the ball inside it, he was about to throw a fastball. If the glove was spread wider, a slider was coming.

“And he still became a Hall of Famer,” Cora said on Wednesday, before managing the Boston Red Sox in Game 4 of the American League Championship Series. “So at the end, all this talk about tipping and signs and all that, you know what? The pitcher executes his pitches, the hitter is not going to hit it.”

That is a timeless law of baseball, a game in which every change is really just an update on an old idea. The Milwaukee Brewers pulled their starter in the first inning on Wednesday in an effort to thwart the Los Angeles Dodgers’ lineup strategy. Pretty clever, right? Well, the Washington Senators did the same thing in Game 7 of the 1924 World Series against the New York Giants.

So it is with the furor at the A.L.C.S. over the suspected high-tech sign stealing by the Houston Astros this postseason. Major League Baseball closed the matter on Wednesday without punishing the Astros, who had directed a team employee to use a cellphone camera to survey the home dugouts in Cleveland and Boston this month.

Jeff Luhnow, the Astros’ general manager, said on Wednesday that the team was simply “playing defense” against possible electronic espionage by the Indians or the Red Sox. Dave Dombrowski, the Red Sox president of baseball operations, responded by saying: “I don’t like the implication that the Boston Red Sox are doing anything illegal.”

Using technology to steal a catcher’s signs to his pitcher dates to at least 1951, when the Giants used an electronic buzzer system to help relay pitches to their hitters in their famous National League playoff victory over the Brooklyn Dodgers. If you ain’t cheating, you ain’t trying, as they say — and with the stakes so high in October, it is no wonder this issue is raging again.

“There’s long since, the last few years, been rumblings of places that you need to be aware of stuff,” said the Astros’ Justin Verlander, who will start Game 5 on Thursday. “And I think when you see yourself in the playoffs, you’re going to protect yourself at all costs. That’s why you see a lot of mound visits. You see multiple signs. You’re just hyper aware of it.”

That awareness — or paranoia, a word used Wednesday by Cora and his Houston counterpart, A.J. Hinch — leads to longer, choppier games. Baseball wants to show its best, and fastest, side in the postseason, but the games often crawl along. Batters step out. Pitchers stare and stare at a complex sequence of signs. When those signs are miscommunicated, the catcher gets crossed up and a passed ball skips to the backstop, slowing things further.

“We utilize multiple signs with nobody on base,” Hinch said. “Other teams do that as well. We ask a lot of our catchers. We have 12, 13, sometimes 14 pitchers on a roster that can all have different signs and different sequences.”

The Astros are said to be especially skilled at sign stealing, a reputation that Luhnow attributed to curiosity about his team’s success. The Astros are one of baseball’s most tech-savvy teams; everywhere you look at their spring training complex, it seems, you will see a camera. But Luhnow said the Astros know the rules and stay within them, while also trying to keep rivals honest.

“Our players and coaches are constantly observing stuff and they pick up things all the time, anything that’s unusual,” Luhnow said. “So we don’t have a dedicated employee doing this, but we have a travel party that goes around with the club, so we’ve at times dispatched someone from the travel party to go out to center field and look at a particular area that might be suspicious, or go check out a certain monitor.

“I’m not speaking for other clubs; I’m sure other clubs do this as well. But we’re just trying to protect ourselves as best we can because the technology’s everywhere, the video cameras are everywhere. We just want to make sure we’re protecting our signs.”

At least one Astros pitcher is so suspicious of the Indians that he prefers not to pitch in Cleveland. Last year, a Red Sox trainer was caught using an Apple Watch to communicate signs from the video-replay room to the field. If the Astros act suspiciously, they have company among the other A.L. powers, and probably nearly everyone else.

And let’s not forget that the Astros have reason to be especially sensitive: they were victims of the most high-profile technological crime in baseball history. Chris Correa, a Cardinals official who had worked with Luhnow in St. Louis, hacked into the Astros’ private database in 2013 and 2014, snooping on trade talks and scouting reports. The Cardinals were fined $2 million and lost two draft picks; Correa was sentenced to 46 months in prison and fined nearly $300,000.

“Guess who isn’t surprised?” Correa tweeted on Tuesday, after news of the Astros’ video sleuthing surfaced on Metro USA’s website. The Astros do not need to worry about Correa, though, because M.L.B. banned him for life.

With no punishment for the Astros in this case — and only a fine last year for the Red Sox — baseball is not exactly discouraging teams from aggressively seeking every technological edge, for defensive purposes or not. The league placed a limit on mound visits before this season, and now must find a way to assure pitchers that their signs will not be electronically poached.

Verlander said he would favor the use of a wireless communication device between the pitcher and catcher, like a quarterback uses in the N.F.L. Until that technology arrives, though, the line from the old Buffalo Springfield song applies to every baseball game:

Paranoia strikes deep. Into your life it will creep.

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