Justin Verlander had the worst start of his career on Saturday, giving up 11 hits and nine runs over four innings in a 13-6 loss to the Cleveland Indians, and the Detroit Tigers responded exactly as you might expect in America circa 2017: with paranoia, conspiracy theories and crazy talk.
"For a day where I thought he had his best stuff all season, they seemed to be on quite a few pitches," catcher James McCann said. "What that is, I don't know. We're going to study film and see."
Manager Brad Ausmus proposed that maybe the Indians were stealing signs, explaining that McCann and Verlander used different signs during the game. "Sign stealing has become kind of a new fad in some clubhouses," he said, even though it's obviously not a fad. "They look at video. So we are in a constant state of trying to stay a step ahead."
Verlander seemed at a loss to explain what happened. "I feel like I threw some pretty good pitches today that they hit, and hit hard," he said. "I guess when you go to multiple signs with nobody on, you're just saying, 'Hey, it's a little fishy.'"
Verlander and McCann studied video for an hour after the game. Ausmus joined Verlander in another video session Sunday morning. By then, the tact shifted more to Verlander potentially tipping his pitches than the Indians stealing signs, which Verlander had some fun with on Monday:
Some of the paranoia stems from the fact that the Indians also beat up Verlander twice last season. On May 3, he allowed seven runs and eight hits in five innings. On June 26, he allowed eight runs, including four home runs in one inning. While the Indians have won eight of the past nine games Verlander has started against them, he did have three good outings against the Indians last season, although one of those came after the Indians had clinched the AL Central title and he faced a lineup of mostly backups and minor league call-ups.
Last October, Verlander also tweeted this during Game 1 of the Red Sox-Indians playoff series, a game in which the Indians hit three home runs off Rick Porcello:
Man the ball is flying in Cleveland. 👀🤔🤔🤔 @Mlb— Justin Verlander (@JustinVerlander) October 7, 2016
That wasn't the first time the Indians faced accusations of sign stealing at Progressive Field. Verlander was paranoid enough in his September start there last season that he repeatedly stepped off the mound and had several conversations with his catcher even with nobody on base. Going back further, according to longtime Indians beat writer Paul Hoynes, former Red Sox manager Jimy Williams believed the Indians were stealing signs in the 1998 playoffs, and the Braves believed something fishy was going on in the 1995 World Series.
The Indians did have huge home/road batting splits last season. Their OPS was 136 points higher at home, and they scored 127 more runs there. The last non-Rockies team to achieve both of those differentials was the 2003 Rangers. (Splits for Indians pitchers were pretty even, with a .724 OPS allowed at home versus .696 on the road.)
Of course, there's sign-stealing in baseball, such as a runner on second base trying to read the catcher's hand signals, and there's a more nefarious form that may involve coded signals from spies in the outfield. The most famous of these cases was the 1951 New York Giants, who used a telescope and electronic buzzer system. Last year, a suspicious guy in a Padres polo shirt was spotted in the center-field camera well at Petco Park with a walkie-talkie and binoculars; the Padres said he was a security official. In 2010, the Phillies' bullpen coach was seen with a pair of binoculars looking in toward home plate. After an investigation, no conclusive evidence was found, although the Phillies were issued a warning. When Bobby Valentine was managing the Mets in 1997, opponents suspected him of using cameras.
Indians manager Terry Francona has heard it all before. After the playoff game last October, he said, "You hear all the stories. I heard them all in Boston, how the guys in the bullpen were always giving signs. Once we found that out, we'd line them up out there, and they'd all do different stuff just to aggravate the other teams. I've heard about the guy in Toronto up in center field for years. [Josh] Beckett swore he was up there."
Indeed, for several years around 2009-11, players believed something fishy was going on in Toronto, but those rumors died down after Toronto's home/road splits normalized. That could be the case in Cleveland. The Indians' splits weren't as extreme in 2015, with the hitters faring better at home and the pitchers faring worse, indicating Progressive just played as a good hitter's park that season.
It's also worth noting that the four-homer inning off Verlander last June came in Detroit, not Cleveland, which perhaps tips the story back to, well, tipping pitches. Here's the hit chart from Saturday with all the pitches in the plate appearances in which the Indians got their 11 hits:
The blue dots are the hits, and while Verlander did get some pitches up in the zone, the location of the pitches wasn't bad, with only one hit off a pitch in the center of the zone. Here are the three home runs the Indians hit:
Jose Ramirez homered off a 1-1 fastball. Carlos Santana smoked a first-pitch curveball, and Lonnie Chisenhall hit a first-pitch fastball. One thing mentioned was the Indians didn't have any problems with Verlander's curveball, although he threw just eight of them on Saturday. They swung at four and didn't miss any. Here are the results against his curveball the past two seasons:
Overall: 38 percent swing rate, 22 percent miss rate, .190/.218/.289
Indians: 20 percent swing rate, 11 percent miss rate, .350/.350/.650
They do seem more locked in on the curve than other teams. Is that from seeing him more often? Anticipating his pitch selection? Or is Verlander tipping something?
Or, like so much of what happens in baseball, is this just a random string of events? If the Indians do know something, it seems exclusive to them. Verlander's start Friday is against the Minnesota Twins, a team he dominated last year with 30 strikeouts in three starts (and they didn't get a single hit off his curveball). I suspect Verlander will pitch a great game. After all, the Twins aren't in his head.