We begin with the understanding that for as long as baseball has been played there has been a concerted effort from some to gain an advantage by cheating.
We don’t necessarily mean in a nefarious way, although you’d have to admit stuffing bats with cork and lathering baseballs with petroleum jelly did cross the line in the American pastime.
One of the most time-tested ways of staying a step ahead has been by stealing signs. In fact, it’s a talent to steal signs. Steely-eyed coaches, managers and players can win acclaim for figuring out ways to intercept steal and hit-and-run signs. But stealing pitch signs requires artisanal flair.
As you might imagine, the advancement of technology has created an environment that takes the process of stealing signs to a whole new level. And it turns out, the Houston Astros may be the best in the business.
In an enlightening piece, The Athletic recently exposed the methodology the Astros advanced for stealing signs during their 2017 World Championship season. And now Major League Baseball has been forced to look into it because its rules prohibit clubs from using electronics to steal signs and relay information.
In its bombshell report, The Athletic collected information and admissions from four people who were with the club that season implicating the team, including pitcher Mike Fiers.
“Beginning in the 2017 season, numerous Clubs expressed general concerns that other Clubs were stealing their signs,” MLB said in a statement. “As a result of those concerns, and after receiving extensive input from the General Managers, we issued a revised policy on sign stealing prior to the 2019 season. We also put in place detailed protocols and procedures to provide comfort to Clubs that other Clubs were not using video during the game to decode and steal signs. After we review this new information we will determine any necessary next steps.”
After first refusing to comment on the report, the Astros finally responded with a statement on Tuesday. And interestingly enough, the team did not deny it.
“Regarding the story posted by The Athletic earlier today, the Houston Astros organization has begun an investigation in cooperation with Major League Baseball. It would not be appropriate to comment further on this matter at this time.”
According to the story, this is essentially what happened: Two uniformed Astros personnel, one a slumping hitter who had received signs from a previous team, hatched the plan to assist the team.
“That’s not playing the game the right way,” said Fiers, who was with the team from 2015-17. “They were advanced and willing to go above and beyond to win.”
The system required a sophisticated approach and required the help and assistance of personnel at all levels of the organization. It is not something that surprises MLB; they heard of similar complaints before about other teams, like the Yankees and Red Sox. They even looked into it. But to this point they had no reason to connect its implementation to the Astros.
Other teams have long suspected the Astros of stealing signs and both the Yankees, during the 2019 ALCS, and Nationals, in the World Series, adopted more sophisticated signs to help combat the situation. The Yankees accused the Astros of whistling from the dugout to tip off their hitters.
“People respect what they’ve accomplished,” one rival general manager told The Athletic. “They don’t respect the culture they’ve created or some of the methods they choose to utilize to become what they’ve become.”
A feed from a camera in center field fixed on the catcher was connected to a television monitor placed on a wall near the home dugout at Minute Maid Park. Astros personnel would watch the screen during the game and try to decode signs.
If someone believed they had been successful, the message would be communicated to the hitter by banging on a trash can in the tunnel leading to the clubhouse. Apparently, there would be silence for fastballs, noise for breaking pitches.
“I just want the game to be cleaned up a little bit because there are guys who are losing their jobs because they’re going in there not knowing,” Fiers said. “Young guys getting hit around in the first couple of innings starting a game, and then they get sent down. It’s (B.S.) on that end. It’s ruining jobs for younger guys. The guys who know are more prepared. But most people don’t. That’s why I told my team. We had a lot of young guys with Detroit (in 2018) trying to make a name and establish themselves. I wanted to help them out and say, ‘Hey, this stuff really does go on. Just be prepared.’
“I told the teams I was on, I didn’t know how far the rules went with MLB, but I knew they (the Astros) were up to date, if not beyond. I had to let my team know so that we were prepared when we went to go play them at Minute Maid.”
The Athletic also sourced an opposing pitcher, White Sox starter Danny Farquhar. He made two mid-September appearances at Minute Maid Park in 2017 just before the playoffs.
“There was a banging from the dugout, almost like a bat hitting the bat rack every time a changeup signal got put down,” said Farquhar. “After the third one, I stepped off. I was throwing some really good changeups and they were getting fouled off. After the third bang, I stepped off.”
Farquhar and his catcher then changed the signs.
“The banging stopped,” Farquhar said. “My assumption was they were picking it up from the video and relaying the signs to the dugout. … That was my theory on the whole thing. It made me very upset. I was so angry, so mad, that the media didn’t come to me after.”
There is reason to believe the Astros did what they did simply to keep in step with the growing trend in the game. The feeling was that many teams were employing some sort of electronic sign-stealing system and the Astros did not want to be left behind.
The 2018 playoffs were the first in which MLB announced new measures to prevent electronic sign stealing. The league then distributed new rules in the spring of 2019.
For instance, there could be no camera installed beyond the outfield fence and between the foul poles with the purpose of stealing a catcher’s signs. And any camera in that area had to be first approved by the commissioner’s office.
The league now also set rules about the placement and use of monitors and TVs, requiring them to be on an eight-second delay. To guarantee the rules are being complied with, MLB assigns personnel to each game.
The problem for the Astros is, there were also rules in place in 2017 guarding against electronic sign-stealing. And if you believe Fiers, the team routinely disobeyed them.
And that’s cheating.