CLEARWATER, Fla. — Bryce Harper had been with the Phillies only a week last March when he went out to a back field at the Carpenter Complex to get a few extra at-bats and walloped a ball toward the center-field batter’s eye against minor-league pitcher Addison Russ.
It was almost as though Harper knew what was coming.
Well, actually, he did. He didn’t need a strategically placed camera or teammates to bang on a nearby trash can, either. Harper simply noticed that Russ positioned his glove a certain way each time he threw a split-fingered fastball and jumped all over it every chance he got.
Sign-stealing? In a sense, yes. But it was the traditional, even organic kind that has gone on almost since baseball’s inception, not some furtive decoding of signs through the use of electronics for which the Houston Astros were condemned last month in a scandal that has rocked the sport to its core.
Phillies great Chase Utley was a wizard at old-fashioned sign-stealing. He would watch from his second-base position, or the bench, or while he was on base, and pick up the tells of opposing pitchers and teammates alike. Eduardo Perez, now an ESPN analyst, was known for it, too, during his 13-year big-league career.
“I’m not actually that good at it,” Harper said Wednesday after the Phillies worked out at the Carpenter Complex. “I kind of rely on my teammates, if they have something to let me know or something like that. There’s certain guys in the league that have been here for a long time. It’s pretty cool to be able to see guys that can do it, but I’m not very good at it.”
In Russ' case, Harper said it was overt. The 25-year-old right-hander buried his bare hand more deeply into his glove to grip his splitter, causing the mitt to flare open more than when he came set to throw his other pitches.
It stands to reason that the hitter who can sit on one of Russ’ pitches and eliminate the others would have an obvious advantage.
“I mean, the fact that he was able to pick that up that quick just shows you how advanced he is as a hitter and player,” said Russ, a 19th-round draft pick in 2017 who had a 2.54 ERA in 55 appearances last season at double-A Reading and is in big-league camp for the first time this year. “It’s something I work on constantly, making sure that I hide the pitch as best I can. Having it come from him really was like, ‘Wow, it’s something I really need to work on.’”
Harper paused midway through his round of swings against Russ to clue the pitcher in to his discovery. He walked halfway to the mound, motioned to Russ, and told him about the tell.
“If it’s [a pitcher] in the organization, of course, you want to see it and let guys know so they can work on it,” Harper said. “If it’s a guy on our team, we need to fix it right away because you’ve seen in years past where guys do tip and it hurts them. If [hitters] can get that advantage, it’s definitely better.”
Harper chuckled at the mention of Utley as the quintessential savant, an indication that his reputation is spot-on. In 2017, the same year the Astros used their sign-stealing system en route to winning the World Series, Los Angeles Dodgers pitchers Rich Hill and Ross Stripling credited Utley with identifying pitch-tipping issues that were causing them to struggle.
But although Harper doesn't begrudge players who are wise to stealing a sign or uncovering the tipping of a pitch, he claimed he doesn't trust his skills as a pitch-detector enough to actively seek an edge.
“Actually I don’t like it,” Harper said. “I don’t really like seeing [a potential tip] because it could be 50-50. You could be wrong, you could be right. I’d rather just rely on me being a hitter.”
And that cuts to the essence of why so many players are irate over the Astros’ scandal. Using one’s wits to gain an edge is fair game; applying technology to do so is cheating.
"I think for me it’s more the guys come up for the first time and they’re the back end of the bullpen and they know it and they get hit or shelled and they're never coming to the big leagues again because a team had their signs," Harper said. "It's those guys that I feel bad for. You never want to see it."
Especially when good, old-fashioned attention to detail can yield equally valuable — and legally procured — intelligence.
“Him giving me that information last year before the season started allowed me to really work on it and make sure that I was aware of what I was doing at all times,” Russ said. “When he gave me that information, that helped me out a lot.”