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2014 NLDS St. Louis Cardinals vs. Los Angeles Dodgers: Do the Cards steal signs?

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The seed Dodgers manager Don Mattingly planted last December sprouted Friday night during the Fox Sports 1 broadcast of NLDS Game 1.

Kevork Djansezian

You might recall 2013, when the St. Louis Cardinals led the majors in batting average with runners in scoring position and set a record for highest team BA with RISP since the people who keep track of such things began tracking that stat. There was a lot of analysis of this phenomenon and what might be causing it. Some folks maintained that it was skill—the Cards were just that clutch. Others chalked it up to fortuitous timing. Making the Redbirds' success with men on base and RISP in particular all the more interesting was how comparatively poorly the club batted with no ducks on the pond.

2013 St. Louis Cardinals Splits: RISP vs. Bases Empty

Split

PA

K%

BB%

BABIP

BA

OBP

SLG

OPS

ISO

wOBA

wRC+

Empty

3457

19.3

6.9

.280

.236

.297

.356

.653

.119

.292

85

RISP

1621

15.8

10.6

.377

.330

.402

.463

.865

.133

.370

138

The gulf between the Cardinals' hitting with the bases empty and RISP led to another theory: perhaps the skill that St. Louis had was at stealing the other team's signs and relaying them to their batters. The person who asserted this theory most loudly was Los Angeles Dodgers manager Don Mattingly. Mark Saxon of ESPN Los Angeles reported Mattingly's statements from the MLB Winter Meetings in December:

The Dodgers went into that series highly cognizant of the Cardinals' reputation for stealing a team's signs, manager Don Mattingly told ESPNLosAngeles.com on Wednesday at the winter meetings. Mattingly was quick to say he doesn't think the Cardinals won the series because of their ability to decipher signs. The Dodgers complained to the umpires at times about where Cardinals third-base coach Jose Oquendo stood while coaching third base.

"We felt like we had to be sure we kept an eye on their first-base coach and their third-base coach," Mattingly said. "They're the ones with the easiest way to steal signs. Josie's a guy, at third, who's always looking for my signs from our dugout."

Mattingly said he did not relay signs during the series, having someone else in the dugout do it for him, to keep Oquendo from picking them up. The Dodgers did not change their signs heading into the postseason, Mattingly said, because they felt it was likely to cause confusion among their own players, who were conditioned to the same signs all year.

Some Dodgers also felt the Cardinals were relaying catcher A.J. Ellis' signs once a runner got to second base, helping the hitter determine the location of the next pitch. During the series, the Cardinals batted .190 with nobody on and .259 with runners in scoring position. During the regular season, the Cardinals hit .236 with nobody on and .330 with runners in scoring position.

Mattingly said it was the Dodgers' responsibility to stop it if they felt the Cardinals were relaying signs from second.

"If you think a guy's looking from second base, then you have to have a combination of signs," Mattingly said. "If you think guys are cheating from first base, then you have to have multiple signs even with a guy on first. It's your job to make sure they can't do it."

This year, we haven't heard a lot about the Cardinals' success with RISP because they haven't had much. In fact, the Cards had a trying year in the run-plating department, tying the Phillies for ninth in the league with 619 runs scored. The Redbirds had an overall batting attack that was slightly below average.The timing of the Cards' 2013 hits was fortuitous, but that was not the case in 2014.

2014 St. Louis Cardinals Splits: RISP vs. Bases Empty

Split

PA

K%

BB%

BABIP

BA

OBP

SLG

OPS

ISO

wOBA

wRC+

Empty

3351

19.9

7.0

.306

.253

.315

.372

.687

.118

.309

97

RISP

1565

17.3

9.9

.294

.254

.336

.365

.701

.111

.307

95

So the Cardinals-with-RISP narrative died a merciful death in 2014, even if the frustration of watching St. Louis struggle to score was a more excruciating experience. The theories of the Cards' split differential also largely went by the wayside. That was until Friday's NLDS Game 1 broadcast, when Fox Sports 1 bloviator Harold Reynolds posited during the Cards' seven-run eighth inning against Clayton Kershaw that St. Louis might be stealing signs and then continued to beat that drum.

Television bloviators like Reynolds and Al Hrabosky mindlessly parroting the thoughts shared with them by players, coaches, and front-office types is nothing new. (In fact, I often wonder if the only preparation many so-called analysts do is to talk with the players and coaches.) Reynolds accusing the Cardinals of sign-stealing made me suspect that he and Mattingly had discussed the L.A. manager's belief that St. Louis engaged in such espionage.

In his post-Game 1 piece—which you should read if for no other reason than how an anonymous Dodger analogized his team's loss—Fox Sports columnist and non-bloviating Fox Sports 1 broadcast contributor Ken Rosenthal touched on Reynolds's suspicions and the Cardinals' and Dodgers' reactions to them during post-game interviews:

Analyst Harold Reynolds stated repeatedly on FOX that the Dodgers needed to change their signs, explaining that the Cardinals might be picking them up from second base. Cardinals left fielder Matt Holliday, who capped the eight-run seventh with a three-run homer off reliever Pedro Baez, vehemently disputed Reynolds’ charge in my postgame interview with him. One Dodgers pitcher said he didn’t know if the Cardinals were picking up signs, but added, "They’re notorious for trying."

Ellis acknowledged as much.

"We know the Cardinals are always looking for that competitive advantage. We appreciate that about them. They compete even when they are on the bases," Ellis said.

"We try to do our best to mix things up, be unpredictable, try to set up late to not tip off anything. I don’t think we can credit anything that they did to stealing. Just give them all the credit for the way they swung the bat."

Kershaw refused to make any excuse, specifically addressing the question of whether he was tipping pitches by saying, "I think that discredits their team. It’s just a cop-out."

My interpretation of the Dodgers' statements: The Dodgers know that the Cardinals try to steal signs, especially when they have men on the bases. Everyone knows this about St. Louis. Stealing signs in baseball is a competitive advantage, so the Dodgers change their signs in an attempt to stay one step ahead of the Cardinals and keep their hitters in the dark on what pitch is coming next. To say that the Cardinals' successful sign-stealing is the reason for their eight-run seventh inning against Kershaw is an excuse that discredits the Redbirds' ability to hit the ball and is also a confession that L.A.'s attempts to thwart the Cardinals' sign-stealing were unsuccessful.

So, are the Cardinals stealing signs? I don't think there's any indication in the larger data that necessarily suggests it. If sign-stealing was the key to the Cards' 2013 success with RISP, why were they so unsuccessful in replicating that success in 2014? Did their sign-stealing skill lessen? Were teams more proactive in attempting to prevent the Redbirds from stealing signs in 2014? If the Dodgers are so worried about the Cardinals' sign-stealing ways, why weren't they able to prevent them from doing so against the league's best pitcher in the seventh inning of Game 1? Did the Cardinals hitters just have a good inning, with fortuitously timed base hits that triggered a run-scoring carousel?Or did Kershaw just struggle throwing out of the stretch on a given night? Is a combination of factors?

After all, as Rosenthal notes in a Saturday blog post well worth a read, a scout in attendance thinks Kershaw simply hit a wall:

One rival scout who covered Friday night’s game at Dodger Stadium said that Clayton Kershaw’s issue was not tipping pitches. Nor did the scout believe that the Cardinals were picking up signs.

No, the scout indicated that Kershaw’s problem was fatigue, saying that he lost his "edge" at around 80 pitches and no longer could command as effectively, missing in the strike zone.

We'll likely never know the answer to whether the Cards were stealing signs in NLDS Game 1 and whether that was the primary factor in their epic seventh inning. But it is an interesting subject to ponder.

I sure hope the Cardinals are trying to steal signs. I've always assumed every MLB team does. This is why catcher Yadier Molina regularly visits his pitcher when the opposing team has a runner on second: to thwart sign-stealing. After all, as Ellis states, knowing what pitch is coming is a competitive advantage, and I sure hope the Cardinals are trying to get that particular leg up on their competition.