Sean Doolittle: 'We Had Our Guard Up' for Astros Stealing Signs in World Series

Chris Lingebach
November 15, 2019 - 5:19 pm
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Sean Doolittle of the World Series champion Nationals took to Twitter on Thursday to weigh in on the sign-stealing controversy the Houston Astros are currently embroiled in.

Mike Fiers, a former pitcher for the Astros, blew the lid off this widening scandal by alleging, along their 2017 championship run, they used a center-field camera, fixed on the opposing catcher's signs, to then relay those signs to a monitor near the home dugout. The signs were decoded and relayed to Astros hitters in real time.

After Fiers' comments were published in The Athletic, the Astros issued a statement announcing they've launched an investigation in cooperation with Major League Baseball and would not be commenting further at this time. In the days since, internet sleuths have unearthed a treasure trove of public evidence that's been shared en masse.

Doolittle in particular hopes the investigation brings more evidence, and that through new preventative measures, MLB "can remove this stain from our game."

The Nationals, who defeated the Astros in seven games in the 2019 World Series, obviously were able to overcome any and all obstacles presented to them in Houston, where they won all four of their road games in the series. They also came well-prepared to combat any technological influences the Astros might have been using to gain an edge.

"Well, I think going into that series, and again, I mentioned this in one of my tweets, just that there had been suspicious activity, there had been strong suspicion of this kind of stuff in some stadiums around the league over the past few years, so we had our guard up," Doolittle told 106.7 The Fan's Grant Paulsen and Danny Rouhier on Friday.

"We didn't have any evidence of any of these allegations at the time," he said. "We didn't know what to look for. We didn't have any specifics, but we definitely had our guard up. We went with the method that you've seen some other teams around the league use, where the catcher and the pitcher have an index card that's laminated with several series of signs that you can use.

"The pitcher tucks into his hat and the catcher is wearing kind of a wristband like a quarterback. That way you have options. You can constantly mix up your signs. Even when there was nobody on base, we were going through sequences of signs. Typically you just put down whichever pitch you want if there's nobody on base. You don't go through the whole sequence."

"We also were watching each other," he said. "There were guys in our dugout that were watching our own guys, just to make sure that they weren't giving anything away based on how they came set, or they weren't doing anything different with their windup or their mechanics that might have been a tell as to what pitch they were throwing. So we were trying to help each other out in that aspect, too.

"I don't know, there was just a lot of stuff that we were trying to do to just maybe stay ahead of it, but also just not be predictable and disguise our game plan as best we could."

The Astros have a formidable lineup that's dangerous enough for pitchers to navigate, even before any technological advantage. Asked how that additional mental prep might become overbearing for a pitcher, already tasked with facing a loaded lineup on the biggest stage in baseball, Doolittle agreed it was a lot to handle.

"You're exactly right. And I think that's part of the frustration with these allegations," he said, "is that like, oh my gosh, like this lineup is absolutely stacked as it is. One through nine, these guys are really good, and they might be getting help? And I think that's some of the frustration that's there."

"I think our pitchers did a really good job of kind of putting those thoughts in a proper place in their mind and just being able to, I don't want to say look past it, because it was definitely something some guys were thinking about, but when they crossed that line, all they were thinking about was executing the pitch," he said.

"Because they were like, 'Look, we can mix up our signs.' Guys were mixing up signs when there was nobody on base, they were switching to different sets of the signs multiple times throughout an inning, so I think we were able to do those things that put your mind at ease enough that you were able to kind of block that out and just focus on playing baseball. And that was a lot of the stuff that we had worked on in that break that we had between the NLCS and the World Series, was talking with the catchers, talking with Yan and Zuk about different sets of signs that we could use, and how we could mix it up and keep from becoming too predictable."

There was a lot of talk coming into the series about the week off the Nationals had – by virtue of sweeping the Cardinals in the NLCS to advance to the World Series – historically serving as a disadvantage. After winning the title, Nats GM Mike Rizzo spoke of flipping this narrative inside the clubhouse, and doing everything they could to turn that abnormal amount of downtime into a positive for the club.

You can see at least part of their success in that plight now, in how they were able to log extra time preparing for Houston's eventual sign-stealing methods.

Asked how many teams he thinks might be doing this, Doolittle said, "I don't know how many are being shady about it, but I think the hope is here, that with this instance, as we continue to have some evidence and MLB's launched an investigation, that they can find out maybe how it came about, what more of the specifics were, and then we can put measures in place that are going to dissuade teams from doing it. Or maybe they'll make it impossible for teams to be able to relay stuff like this in real time."

"Starting in 2019, MLB put an employee in the video room of all the stadiums, in both the home and visiting clubhouses, and they put the TVs on a pretty substantial delay," he continued. "So they're starting to take measures, but it sounds like we're gonna have to keep looking at those to see if there's anything else that we can do.

"Because, you know, the general consensus amongst guys in the league is that like, if you can pick up my signs with your eyeballs; if a guy on second can decipher them; if I'm doing something with my set position after I get my signs on the mound; that's fair game. That's gamesmanship. That's part of the game and that's stuff that we work on in spring training and throughout the year to disguise so that teams can't pick it up. But once you're talking about maybe using a video feed that now only one team has access to, or different technologies to relay signs, that's a whole different ballgame."

"As far as when you're out there, when you're pitching," Doolittle said, "a lot of the noises just in and around the stadium, when you're so focused on executing the pitch and there's a lot on the line, the sounds just kind of become, not muted, but like dulled. So if you don't have a really good idea of what to listen for or what to key in on, I mean it just kind of blends into the background, to be honest."

Doolittle referenced a tweet from Mets starter Marcus Stroman, who reacted in amazement to footage of himself facing the Astros, then as a pitcher for the Blue Jays, in a 2017 game.

"And I don't think that any of these guys – like Stroman tweeted the video – I don't think that he could have heard that unless he knew exactly what he was listening for and when to listen for it," said Doolittle. "Because it comes after the catcher gives his sign and right as the pitcher is kind of starting his windup. That's a time when as a pitcher, you're so focused on delivering the pitch and executing what the catcher just put down, that there's a really good chance that you don't hear that. I don't think anybody – all your focus is on the catcher."

Rouhier mentioned that he would like to see MLB take decisive action against the Astros organization.

"We said this penalty needs to be among the harshest, if not the harshest, ever handed out," he said. "There's a difference to me between a guy behind the scenes popping a hormone to make himself better, versus this systemic, team-wide video type cheating. I think this needs to be one of the harshest penalties ever levied. Commissioner Doolittle, what do you think the punishment should be?"

Doolittle was reluctant to suggest any specific punishment.

"I honestly don't know, because, for me, I'm really hesitant about offering a suggestion on the punishment, because so far, all I have are some internet videos and some stuff from Twitter to go off of," he said. "And it doesn't look good right now. I kind of want to stay out of the process of the punishment. I want to focus on...

"To be clear, I hope people do have to answer some questions and I hope people are held accountable, but for me and I think for players around the league, we want to see MLB figure out what might have been going on and then implement ways that we can keep this from ever happening again. Whether the punishment is part of that process, or they start... I really don't know. They sweep the stadium so that there's no hidden cameras anywhere or something like that. But just so that no team could ever use technology to relay back to the hitters in real time."

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