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Bryce Harper, Phillies minor leaguer Addison Russ, and the art of legally deciphering what pitch is coming

Scott Lauber, The Philadelphia Inquirer on

Published in Baseball

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.

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