Rockiegate v. Astrogate? Try Our Gang v. the James Gang

Colorado Rockies

The Rockies lined up on the foul line on Opening Day 2019. A former Brewer reserve says the 2018 Rocks were aspiring Astrogate-like sign stealers . . . but . . .

No one with a modicum of intellgence ever suggested the 2017-18 Astros were baseball’s only high-tech off-field-based sign-stealing cheaters. They were just the most sophisticated, top-down, and apologetically unapologetic of the known lot. Not to mention that they either altered a real-time-delay center field camera or installed a second non-delayed one to make their Astro Intelligence Agency work.

Now, former Brewers reserve catcher Eric Kratz has pointed a flying fickle finger of fate at the Rockies. The Rockies, who’ve seen enough of their best players leave for greener pastures administered by less brain-damaged administrations. The Rockies, now accused of being some of baseball’s more inept cheaters.

A couple of days ago, Kratz told the YES Network’s Curtain Call podcast (Kratz also did time with the Yankees, who own the YES Network) the Brewers caught the Rockies banging to relay signs stolen “from a television” in 2018. What were the Rockies banging? Kratz said it was—wait for it—a massage therapy gun.

“I can tell you that a team that has been to the World Series, often, recently, we caught them doing something almost similar,” said Kratz to Curtain Call hosts John J. Filipelli and Kevin Sullivan. Kratz didn’t specify that team, but then he dropped the quarters on the Rockies.

And I can also tell you, because I don’t really care, I don’t know anybody over there, the Colorado Rockies were doing the exact same thing in 2018, and we caught them, and we played them in the playoffs. You know how many runs they scored in a three-game playoff series in 2018? Not many people watched the NLDS. They scored two runs in the ninth inning of Game 2. They used to take a Theragun and bang it on their metal bench. And they were doing the exact same thing, from the TV.

So, there you go. If you think no one else was doing it, you are wrong. The difference is, the Astros may have taken it a little too far. Maybe a little bit too far. Maybe continued to do it. Or maybe it’s just the fact that they won the World Series and everybody’s pissed about that.

Theragun

The Theragun. The ball extension does the rapid-movement massaging at the push of a button. This is what the 2018 Rockies used to send batters stolen signs, reputedly. They only massaged themselves out of that postseason early.

Take careful note of all Kratz’s phrasings. “From the TV” can mean the Brewers caught onto the Rockies likely trying to steal signs the same way the Red Sox were caught doing the same year: deciphering signs from the video replay rooms provided to home and road teams in all major league ballparks, then relaying them forward.

The 2018 Rogue Sox relayed them by hand signs to baserunners to send to the batters. It was a slightly more sophisticated version of the kind of gamesmanship played on the basepaths for over a century. Unlike the Astros, they didn’t install a new camera somewhere in Fenway Park to set up a new underground television network.

Nobody’s yet accused the Rockies of fostering the kind of win-at-all-costs culture that came top down from the former Jeff Luhnow administration in Houston. There, what began as a conscious front-office effort to apply elaborate algorithims on behalf of sign-stealing continued with the development of the AIA Network, the altered/installed camera to the clubhouse monitors to the trash can bangs sending the stolen signs forward.

If you think that inspired rounds and rounds of can gags and signs since, what would the Rockies’ Theragun ineptitude inspire? “If Theraguns are Outlawed, Will Only Outlaws Have Theraguns?”

Kratz has a further point. If the 2018 Rockies really were using that massage gun for such a sign-stealing variant, it didn’t bring them a happy ending. They finished tied with the Dodgers for the National League West but lost a single-game playoff for the title, and the Brewers rousted the Rockies out three straight in the division series to follow.

Kratz mis-remembered the Rockies scoring in the set, though: they scored two in the Game One ninth (on an RBI single and a sacrifice fly) to tie the game at two, before the Brewers won in the tenth inning. Then the Brewers shut them out despite allowing them ten hits over Games Two and Three; the Rockies went 4-for-19 with men in scoring position without a single cash-in in those games.

If the Brewers caught the Rockies stealing signs in that division series, they’d caught one of the most inept bands of bandits since the wiseguys Jimmy Breslin satirised in The Gang That Couldn’t Shoot Straight. It’s almost not even worth calling the Rockies to account.

Almost.

Break into a bank with larceny on your mind, come away with nothing because you and/or your confederates didn’t have a clue about how to dismantle the alarms and decipher the vault’s combinations.You’re still going to face federal charges when you get caught red-handed and flat-footed. Even if you have la policia laughing their fool heads off because they’d just busted Our Gang, not the James Gang.

Just because the Rockies got slapped out of the 2018 postseason fast enough to equal a blink, just because they were the apparent Maxwell Smarts of sign-stealing, it doesn’t make them any less guilty if Kratz is right. The Rockies being petty criminals doesn’t acquit or mitigate the Astros’ grand theft felonies, either. Neither did the 2018 Rogue Sox.

You might not have been the only high-tech cheaters on the block, but you’re not off the hook just because they weren’t as sophisticated or successful as you. Especially when your gang might yet have won a World Series because of it.

From mile-high madness to St. Louis serenity

Like should-be Hall of Famer Scott Rolen before him, Nolan Arenado’s a top third baseman the Cardinals will take happily off an unappreciative team’s hands.

More often than Joe and Jane Fan think, baseball players and those playing other team sports discover that all the money on their paychecks isn’t quite as handsome as winning. It’s the reason such ballplayers otherwise wedded to the teams who reared them swallow pride and paychecks and look out of town when winning isn’t going to happen soon.

The Cardinals are only too willing to show more than cursory interest in such men. They’re baseball’s Emma Lazarus; they might as well engrave the top of Busch Stadium’s entrance with, “Give us your sick-and-tired, your not-so-poor, your huddling supermen yearning to breathe free and win championships.”

They’ll even take your money gladly to take him off your hands.

They’ve just gotten the Rockies to give them sick-and-tired, not-so-poor, huddling super third baseman Nolan Arenado for an apparent bag of mixed nuts. They even accepted the Rockies sending along $65 million dollars for the privilege of taking Arenado off their hands and books.

And, with a few former glitterati due to come off the payroll books after 2021, a couple of big moves that plain didn’t work out for the Cardinals will be gone as well. It’ll make the Cardinals the National League Central favourites and perhaps the only club in the division who can hold up against the monsters of the East and West if they reach the 2021 postseason.

It turns their formerly unassuming off-season into a bristling one. It might make them tempted to think about extending Arenado further depending on what he does with two opt-outs his deal has after 2021 and 2022. And, it adds Arenado to a rather distinguished roll of prior tired, huddling supermen who found baseball a lot more agreeable when they got to play adjacent to the Gateway Arch.

Once upon a time the Padres got fed up with their high-and-wide flying shortstop’s agent and decided to deal him. Then-Cardinals manager Whitey Herzog went to San Diego to talk to the man personally. That kind of personal touch got the Cardinals a Hall of Fame shortstop whose defensive value was equal to his acrobatics and good for big parts of three pennants and a World Series ring. You still know Ozzie Smith as the Wizard of Oz.

Not long after that, Jack Clark bristled over the Giants’ brittle Candlestick Park and their dismissals of him as just too fragile to play major league baseball. They dealt him to the Cardinals, where they moved him to first base for his health’s sake. Jack the Ripper hit the home run that sent the Cardinals to the 1985 World Series and swung big for their 1987 pennant winner until an ankle injury kept him out of that Series and helped keep them from winning it.

Should-be Hall of Famer Scott Rolen got sick and tired of the Phillies’ seeming lack of winning interest and dismissing him despite his play saying what he didn’t like trumpeting on his own behalf. The Cardinals said, “Give us your sick and tired third baseman.” They traded for and signed Rolen to a new deal. They also sent him to four All-Star teams and won a World Series with him.

One fine day Matt Holliday, traded from Colorado to Oakland, discovered the Athletics decided they couldn’t afford his like and traded him to the Cardinals. He shone enough in left field and at the plate for the Birds on the Bat that they made sure he couldn’t take a free agency hike just yet. And, like Rolen, Holliday went to four All-Star teams and won a World Series in St. Louis fatigues.

Another fine day, for the Cardinals at least, the Diamondbacks decided two years ago that they couldn’t or wouldn’t afford to keep franchise-face first baseman Paul Goldschmidt. The Cardinals channeled their inner Monty Hall—Let’s make a deal! They landed Goldschmidt for Luke Weaver and a pair of bodies and signed Goldschmidt in due course to a succulent nine-figure extension. They’ve been to a pair of postseasons with him, too.

Landing Arenado means the Cardinals want a little more than just postseason entries. And Arenado isn’t as treacherous looking going into what’ll be his age-30 season as you might fear. He has five years left on his Colorado-signed extension. He might lose a couple of counting stats weighted heavily on the home side but he might even things out with road performances enabled better by not playing at ionosphere level.

He’ll be able to keep swinging smoothly for extra base hits and doing things at third base unseen since Rolen, Adrian Beltre, Mike Schmidt, and Brooks Robinson, a human vacuum cleaner who no longer has to worry whether his bag will explode in the middle of a flying leap, a running throw, or a swan dive across the line.

Among active third basemen, Arenado is second only to Evan Longoria (thirteen seasons) for total defensive runs saved above his league average, but Arenado has an excellent chance to surpass Longoria at the hot corner and at the plate by the time he reaches his fourteenth major league season.

Matter of fact, let’s look at that pair plus Manny Machado, the $300 million plus man in San Diego, according to my Real Batting Average (RBA): total bases + walks + intentional walks + sacrifice flies + hit by pitches divided by plate appearances:

Player PA TB BB IBB SF HBP RBA
Nolan Arenado 4558 2227 362 58 50 22 .597
Evan Longoria 7380 3108 645 81 89 69 .541
Manny Machado 4989 2211 387 41 36 21 .540

Arenado also has an OPS (on-base percentage plus slugging percentage) 83 points higher. (I’ll bet you didn’t think Longoria and Machado were that similar at the plate, either.) Arenado’s OPS is also 65 points higher than Machado, who’s only 17 defensive runs behind him.

What he won’t have is Rockies general manager Jeff Bridich to kick, jerk, or slap him around anymore. Arenado bristled when Bridich treated his old infield partner Troy Tulowitzki like a chump over trade rumours, failed to include Tulowitzki in any such discussions, then dealt the shortstop to the Blue Jays. (Where he went to a pair of postseasons before injuries ended his career out of town.)

When Bridich told the Denver Post early last week that nothing came of the Rockies “listening” to other teams about Arenado, the third baseman slapped back. “Jeff is very disrespectful. I never talk trash or anything,” he told a Denver television station. “I play hard, keep my mouth shut. But I can only get crossed so many times.”

Kind of reminds you about Giancarlo Stanton and the Miami Marlins two years ago. He’d signed a then record-dollar thirteen-year deal a couple of years before that only to watch the Fish swimming wild and directionless like killies scrambling to escape the incoming sharks. He spoke publicly of that, then called them a circus when they decided he could just suffer along no matter what. Then they dealt him to the Yankees.

Nobody knows whether the 2020 irregular season that ended with the Marlins in second place in the NL East was as fluky as the rest of baseball, but Stanton did get as far as back-to-back postseasons with the Yankees and missed reaching the 2019 World Series by one ALCS-winning home run courtesy of Houston’s Jose Altuve.

The Rockies weren’t half as crass as the Marlins if no less dismissive. When they signed Arenado to his extension, they promised that wouldn’t stop them from tooling up all around. By the end of a losing 2019, following back-to-back seasons good for nothing more than wild cards and too-early postseason exits, though, Arenado smelled a coming rebuild, if not a coming tank.

Bridich awoke Saturday morning to a roasting by Denver Post baseball writer Mark Kiszla. “[S]o insecure he tries to bully every conversation with Ivy League arrogance as thin as his college baseball resume,” Kiszla wrote, “[Bridich] got ripped off by the Cardinals in a trade that appears so lopsided that Commissioner Rob Manfred should consider voiding the deal before it becomes official.”

Once upon a time, Arenado wanted nothing more than to stay a Rockie for life, the way should-be Hall of Fame first baseman Todd Helton was. “I want to win,” he has told Sports Illustrated. “If we win here, that’s why I signed, right? To win here. But if we’re not gonna win, I’d rather play for a winner. I don’t care where it is. I’d rather win a World Series than have my number retired.”

More than a few eyes are now cast upon Rockies shortstop Trevor Story, who may also have noticed too much of the treachery around Arenado and begun to wonder whether that mile-high baseball air has vaporised common baseball sense even further.

If he’s not careful, Kiszla warned, Story “could be the next knucklehead to be fooled by this team’s hollow promise to build a champion around him. My advice? Story demand a trade ASAP to a major-league city where winning matters.”

A city like St. Louis, perhaps. It wouldn’t be past the Cardinals to ponder a shortstop upgrade, take note of the Rockies leaving Story to waste, and deal a couple of sacks of mulch for him while deciding Kolten Wong is more than worth keeping at second base and moving Paul DeJong to the bench or onward.

You don’t want to relieve your sick-and-tired, your not-so-poor, your huddling Hall of Fame supermen to be (assume he keeps his health following that shoulder injury last year and Arenado’s on the Hall track), allowing them to breathe free and win with you? The Cardinals are only too happy to take them off your hands, relieve your headaches, and cause you a few when you meet them in mortal combat.

They might not even be adverse to keeping their eyes upon the West Coast. That’s where  baseball’s still-best all-around player, loyal as he is to the franchise that raised him, may start thinking in a couple of years while he’s still young enough that knocking Hall of Famers out of the record books or off the WAR charts isn’t enough. He may ask at last what can compensate for being a Trout out of water with no winning to show for his extraterrestrial efforts.

Nobody with a brain would put it past the Cardinals to think about reeling that Trout in. Just don’t expect them to include painkillers in the deal.

Dante’s Paradiso

Toronto Blue Jays coach Dante Bichette looking over a sea of cardboard cutouts behnid the plate in the Jays’ temporary Buffalo home.

Whether one of the too-numerous young comers the Los Angeles/California/Anahiem/Los Angeles Angels let get away over the decades, or whether the wizened veteran who called it a career after a season and a half with the Boston Red Sox, one thing stood out especially about Dante Bichette. He looked at times like a mob enforcer.

Wide, wide eyebrows above narrow eyes, plus his muscular 6’3′ physique, often made Bichette look as though he’d break your legs on demand. Until he flashed his boyish, friendly smile. Pitchers who faced him in his prime probably thought they escaped with their lives when he tagged them for one of his 274 home runs.

At 56 today, Bichette remains a muscular specimen whose concurrent sporting of a clean-shaven head makes him resemble Mr. Clean’s tough but tender inner-city nephew. The Florida native also remains one of the friendliest men in the game and, since returning to the profession, one of its most enthusiastically attentive coaches.

The Buffalo Blue Jays of Toronto invited him to spring training as a guest instructor, perhaps because one of his two baseball-playing sons, Bo, has been raising eyebrows among teammates, team officials, and enemy pitchers with his howitzer of a bat. The lad came by it honestly; his father has coached him and his older brother, Dante, Jr. (now a Washington Nationals prospect), since boyhood.

The invitation turned into something the elder Bichette hadn’t felt since he last worked as a Rockies coach. He’d given that up on behalf of not missing valuable time working with his sons. But with Bo helping to make Blue Jays baseball fun again and Dante, Jr. settling into the Nats’ organisational picture (uneasily, with the minor league season mostly cancelled), Dad enjoyed working in the Jays’ “summer camp” so much he got what he called the itch to coach full time again.

Call it Dante’s Paradiso if you must. Even if Bichette wouldn’t necessarily know The Divine Comedy from a double play. “Should I put [my sons] in baseball and put that kind of pressure on them to be like the dad that played in the big leagues?” he once asked his wife, Mariana. “And she said, what else are you gonna teach them? And I was like, yeah, I don’t know anything else.” Then, he laughs.

All that is according to a pleasant profile by The Athletic‘s senior Blue Jays writer, John Lott. “The understanding was, let’s see how it goes, let’s see if I can really help,” Bichette told Lott about joining the Jays.

I was more sensitive with Bo on the team. I didn’t want to make it awkward at all, so I had a long talk with Bo. It was just, let’s try it out first and see how it goes down. Spring training just seemed to work real easy. I helped out where I could and all of a sudden you start to develop relationships with the kids. As a coach, you kind of fall for them. So that’s when I said, yeah, I gotta do this.

Because of the Show’s current pandemic-inspired restriction limiting teams to eight coaches in the dugout, Lott wrote, Bichette had to pick a spot in the ballpark to watch his co-charges (with hitting coach Guillermo Martinez) during Blue Jays games. He likes to station himself atop a section of seats behind and to the first base side of the plate.

From there, he watches to see Jays hitters exercise his counsel. Bichette isn’t big on the mechanics of the swing but he’s huge on encouraging players to step up to the plate with a plan. He teaches or reminds them to take advantage of the reams of information now available about enemy pitchers, and he teaches and reminds them likewise—and especially—to think hard about hitting with two strikes.

Bichette as a Rockies player with his Hall of Fame teammate Larry Walker. He still has the smile that turns his expression from enforcer to big kid.

Much like the Rockies teams for whom Bichette himself played, these Blue Jays have power to burn, think of bases on balls as castor oil, and love to swing their bats. Bichette tries to get them to swing intelligently especially after that second strike is rung up. Since the Show’s overall batting average on two strikes is about .169, Bichette probably had his work more than cut out for him.

“I also point out that every count without two strikes, the whole league mashes,” he told Lott. “So turn (all) those counts into two different counts, not a bunch of different counts. You have a two-strike count and an I’m-looking-to-do-damage count, period. That’s two approaches.

“When you’re looking to do damage, you’re hunting a certain pitch and you’re committed to that pitch,” he continued. “When you’re hitting with two strikes, you have to handle all the pitches in all the parts of the zone. You have to let the ball get a little deeper, so if you are fooled by an off-speed pitch, then you still have some room for the bat to get through the zone and make contact.”

Bichette’s own idol was Hall of Famer Ted Williams, though he was born three years after Williams’s final major league game. Merely mention Teddy Ballgame, and Bichette will talk your ears off more than a politician given an excuse for a speech, if not a tweetstorm.

When he talks about all parts of the zone, he’ll point out happily enough how he read Williams’s book The Science of Hitting and paid scholarly attention to the charts that showed Williams’s batting averages on every pitch in every nook, cranny, and crevice of the zone.

(Fair disclosure: It’s also personal with Bichette. When he was named 1995’s Players Choice Award winner, he told Lott, Williams himself presented the award at a ceremony, leading to an evening’s discussion of hitting and a breakfast invitation for the following morning. “I’ve got it somewhere at home on a CD, the whole conversation,” Bichette said. “It’s the neatest thing I have.”)

Two-strike hitting is something Bichette learned about the hard way. As a player himself, a second strike usually meant he was dead meat. His OPS on two strikes, lifetime: .587. Once that second strike was on the clock, Bichette—who hit 63 of his lifetime home runs after two strikes—was swim-or-sink. His challenge with the Blue Jays’ hitters was helping their Rockies-like aggressiveness deliver instead of drop the packages.

“[T]o me, letting it get deep and getting on top is kind of an inside-out swing,” he continued. “You know, taking the air out of it. We live in an era of launch angle, but we gotta take the air out of it with two strikes. That’s where the pitchers are taking advantage of hitters with two strikes. The hitters are trying to get air and they throw the fastball over the bat.”

So just how much coaching does Bo Bichette now require from the father who first gave up professional coaching the better to make sure he didn’t lose invaluable time with his sons?

“Bo’s very self-sufficient now,” Dad told Lott, who got one of Dad’s 2013 Rockies charges, Michael Cuddyer, to talk about the kid being so attentive while seeming just to hang at the park with his old man that he’d pepper the Rockies’ hitters with serious questions about serious hitting, then take his own batting practise and hit balls into the mountains. At fifteen.

We talk at-bats. He’ll tell me what he was thinking, and most of the time, we’re so connected now that I can tell when he’s looking for a certain pitch or he’s trying to do a certain thing. So we’re pretty much in tune with each other. Now it’s more game plans. Very little swing stuff. We’ll talk about intent or conviction to the game plan . . .

It’s actually really neat because I feel like Bo is an old soul at this. I feel like I’m talking to a 38-year-old veteran when I talk to him about hitting because I’ve talked to him like that since he was six years old. That’s probably why he’s so advanced at hitting for his age.

So says the former Rockie bombardier who was only half kidding when he told Lott his wife raised two sons and a husband. (And, who was as relieved as the rest of Blue Jays fans and the game itself when Bo’s knee injury proved not terribly serious.)

The man who must have had questions and doubts when the Angels traded him to the Milwaukee Brewers for an ancient Dave Parker. Or, when the Brewers traded him to the Rockies for a fading Kevin Reimer. (Both after he’d been little enough used despite his potential, blooming somewhat late with the Rockies at 26.)

The man who quit after a decade plus as the Rockies’ hitting coach because the idea of missing his sons’ continuing development and learning any more than he already missed worried him. The man who now doesn’t mind when his senior Martinez sends him video at two in the morning asking for his takes on this player’s swing or that pitcher’s factoring in the next day’s game plan.

The man who only looked like a headbreaker at times in his playing youth, but whose geniality and intelligence have married to invite anyone who wants it to take a seminar in smart baseball and more than a few reminders that these Blue Jays made him fall in love with them. Not to mention more than a few recollections and lessons from Ted Williams.