Olney: Paranoia over sign stealing will destroy attempts to improve pace of play

Sox's punishment for sign-stealing expected soon (1:08)

Buster Olney says suspensions and fines are a definite possibility for the Red Sox as punishment from Major League Baseball for using electronic devices to steal signs. (1:08)

CLEVELAND -- Michael Pineda will be remembered forever as one the most notorious cheaters in baseball history, after he walked out to the mound at Fenway Park in 2014 with a large gob of pine tar on his neck. On that cold April night, he had struggled to grip the ball in the first inning and told teammates of the problem when he got back to the dugout.

A veteran teammate, trying to be helpful, slathered the foreign substance just above Pineda’s collarbone. It's possible that in the relative darkness of the visiting dugout, it didn’t appear quite so pronounced. But in the center of the diamond, in the full glare of the field lights, it was so obvious that I can remember a member of our broadcast team noticed it immediately from the booth as Pineda walked to the mound and started to warm up. He might as well have placed a floodlight on his neck.

With our cameras focused on it, Boston Red Sox manager John Farrell was immediately alerted by his video staff, leaving him no choice but to ask the umpires to check Pineda’s neck. The Yankees’ pitcher was ejected and suspended for violating the foreign-substance rule that everybody knows is violated repeatedly, daily and by every team in major league baseball. The difference was that Pineda was blatant in his rule-breaking.

As commissioner Rob Manfred decides what to do about Boston’s alleged use of electronics to steal signs and searches for precedent with a decision expected this week, the Pineda example might be one that he could draw upon.

As Red Sox second baseman Dustin Pedroia told reporters this week, the effort to steal signs in baseball is constant and, for Pedroia, dates back to his days in junior high school. Each time a baserunner has advanced to second base, he has an opportunity to glean useful information about signs relayed between catcher and batter; most will at least use that opportunity. Some teams have had coaches specifically assigned to watch coaches on the other team. It’s probably not an exaggeration to say that every club tries to steal signs every day.

But if the Red Sox did what the New York Yankees alleged, and if their system was as apparent as what sources say -- so clear that you can read the lips of the participants as they exchanged information -- then the Red Sox will be the Michael Pineda of sign stealing and Manfred will be forced to make an example of them, as MLB did with Pineda.

Because Manfred certainly understands that this is a two-front fight for him, and that what the Red Sox allegedly did is the least important issue at hand.

For two years, Manfred has been pushing to improve the pace of play, asking players for suggestions, recently meeting with the players' association in preparation for change in 2018. He is acutely aware of the impact of the seemingly exponential increase in mound meetings between pitchers and catchers in recent seasons -- a change that's fueled by the growing concern over sign stealing. Sources within the Yankees organization say that after they became concerned about the Red Sox illicitly stealing signs earlier this year, their catchers journeyed to the mound more often to exchange thoughts with the pitchers directly.

Last week, Arizona Diamondbacks catcher Chris Iannetta told Nick Piecoro of the Arizona Republic about his assumption that the opposing teams were constantly trying to steal signs, and that they might be compromised. From Piecoro's piece:

In recent weeks, the number of trips to the mound by Diamondbacks catchers seems to have increased exponentially, with conversations taking place sometimes between every pitch or every other pitch, depending on the situation.

Catcher Chris Iannetta says this is less a matter of trying to agree on pitch selection but rather an attempt to avoid having signs stolen. Coincidentally, Iannetta said this before a report surfaced this week of the Boston Red Sox using an Apple Watch in the dugout to relay signs about pitch selection in games against the New York Yankees. ...

“One pitch could be the difference in the season now,” Iannetta said. “One pitch could be the difference between making the playoffs and not making the playoffs. We don’t want to run that risk.”

The trips to the mound slow the game down, but Iannetta doesn’t care.

“We’re just out there to win,” he said. “We’ll do whatever it takes.”

Manfred needs to do what he can to reduce the concern -- or paranoia, in the eyes of some players -- over sign stealing, and if he had hard evidence of any team using technology in the dugout, in clear violation of an established MLB rule, he’ll have effectively invited all other teams to explore similar methods. If MLB had fined Pineda $100, a slap-on-the-wrist penalty, rather than giving him a relatively lengthy suspension, other pitchers could have extracted from the example for themselves and operated without fear of consequences.

Instead, you’ll see pitchers in every game don a thin layer of sunscreen or some other substance on the wrist of their gloved hand, which is baseball’s version of driving 60 mph in a 55 mph zone -- a violation, technically, but accepted as reasonable practice.

It’s the outliers that Manfred must be concerned about, especially knowing that in the case of sign stealing, they can work against the efforts to speed up play.

Turn off the cameras: One really smart and perhaps easy suggestion heard from a player regarding the sign-stealing problem: eliminate or black out the center-field feed of the catchers that is sent to the video-replay centers for each team. That particular angle is sometimes used to review plays on which the batters are hit by pitches, but it could be taken down between pitches.

Is technology the answer? The tensions over sign stealing have illuminated baseball's need within to generate technology by which catchers can communicate with pitchers. Some kind of earpiece -- as quarterbacks and defensive captains have in the NFL -- seems impractical for MLB, as one official noted, because usually, the signs don’t come from the sideline; rather, they are given on the field, by the catcher, who can’t verbally give the signs to the pitcher from his position because of the proximity of the batter.

Some college baseball and softball catchers (and pitchers) wear forearm bands that contain the pitch-selection code, and when the catcher relays the pitch selection called from the bench, the pitcher can work off that sheet. "But that would slow down the process even more," said one official.

And with very, very few exceptions, MLB catchers generate the pitch suggestions, rather than a coach. So there would seem to be an opportunity for some inventor to come up with a way for the catcher and pitcher to communicate -- maybe by outfitting their gloves in a way that a catcher could send wireless signals through his gloved hand. A press of an index finger -- one for fastball -- electronically setting off a vibration in the glove hand of the pitcher, or some such thing. Chris Antonetti, the Indians president of baseball operations, spoke on the podcast the other day generally about past conversations about the topic of developing pitcher-catcher technology. MLB seems to be at about the 10-yard line of a 100-yard field in its progress on this, but undoubtedly, the pace-of-game discussion, the increase in mound visits and Red Sox-Yankees incidents could spur more conversation.

Trout charging back: Mike Trout continues to close the gap on the WAR leaders in baseball, and going into Saturday’s games, he ranked third among all players, incredibly, despite having missed more than a month this season. Trout has led the AL in WAR in each season from 2012 to 2016, and 2017 would be Year No. 6. The last player to do that was Babe Ruth, from 1926 to 1931, in a segregated, 16-team MLB.

Baseball Tonight podcast

Friday: Karl Ravech and Paul Hembekides on their level of concern about the Dodgers and more on the streaking Indians; Jessica Mendoza about Trevor Bauer and the technology needed to circumvent sign stealing; and Jesse Rogers of ESPN Chicago about the Cubs.

Thursday: Orioles manager Buck Showalter on the passing of his good friend and former boss Gene Michael; Indians president of baseball operations Chris Antonetti on the competitiveness of Jose Ramirez and superstitions during winning streaks; and Keith Law on prominent nontender candidates.

Wednesday: The Twins’ Byron Buxton on how he prepares defensively and a major adjustment he made at the plate; Tim Kurkjian and Boog Sciambi on the Yankees-Red Sox sign-stealing scandal; John Fisher digs into the red-hot Indians.

Tuesday: A conversation with Yankees shortstop Didi Gregorius; Sarah Langs plays the numbers game; Jerry Crasnick on the level of concern over Jake Arrieta’s injury.

And today will be better than yesterday.