Sign stealing has always been a part of baseball, going back to the earliest days of the game. Virtually every team has done it, or at least tried to.
However, the Houston Astros may have gone too far with their modern take on an age-old practice. A story released by The Athletic on Tuesday featured former Astros pitcher Mike Fiers revealing that in 2017 the team had cameras in center field that zeroed in on the catcher’s hand signals. He elaborated further by adding that the camera was linked to a television in the clubhouse, and the team would have a person bang on a trash can as loud as they could in order to let the batter know that an offspeed pitch was coming. If no bang was heard, then fastball. A fairly blatant example can be seen here.
Fiers, now pitching for the Detroit Tigers, informed his team whenever they played the Astros to be extremely cautious of sign stealing and to mix them up as often as they could:
“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 in the story. “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.’”
Fiers makes a good point about inexperienced players taking the brunt of the Astros’ alleged cheating. If true, cheating is the only word for these actions. Teams are expected to employ catchers, and center fielders, and shortstops. They are not expected to employ dedicated video people and trash-can bangers in an effort to steal signs.
Of course, the Yankees have had their fair share of run-ins with Houston in recent years. Not to remind Yankees fans of the 2017 ALCS, but the Astros won every single home game in the series. The ‘Stros scored 15 runs at home in four games, and just five runs on the road in three games. Check out some of Houston’s home/road splits from the series:
The #Astros won the World Series in 2017. Look at these postseason splits for the following six players!— Tyler Talks Sports (@Sports_Talker1) November 13, 2019
Home: .472 BA/.513 OBP/1.028 SLG/1.541 OPS, 17 H, 6 HR & 12 RBI
Away: .143 BA, .268 OBP, .229 SLG, .497 OPS, 5 H, 1 HR & 2 RBI
These are small-sample splits that don’t definitively prove anything, but the fact that Houston’s performance in that series now comes under question is bad for the game. A bit of a larger sample is that over the last three seasons combined, the Astros own an 18.3% strikeout rate, which is the best in baseball in that span. In 2019 alone, no team walked more than they did (10.1%), and no team struck out less than they did (18.2%). Are they a talented team? Yes, but would knowing what pitch is coming your way give you a hint whether to swing or take the pitch? I’d say so.
Let’s also not forget about the alleged whistling the Yankees heard from the Houston dugout in Game One of this year’s ALCS. Speaking of the 2019 ALCS, remember how James Paxton got roughed up a bit early, and after the game realized that his grip could be seen from second base/the outfield? Chad Green replaced him, with a closed glove, and hurled two shutout innings. Paxton then got the ball in Game Five and dominated, only this time, it wasn’t in Minute Maid Park. Again, we can’t and shouldn’t draw a straight line between the Yankees’ ALCS losses in recent years and sign stealing, but the fact that such an angle exists hurts the integrity of the sport.
MLB has launched an investigation into the Astros’ conduct, and we’ll have to wait and see what they uncover and whether punishment is rendered. Some in Houston seem to argue that their sign stealing was in self-defense, enacted only because they suspected other teams were doing the same. Perhaps every team in baseball has used technology to spy on their opponents’ catchers.
If MLB determines the Astros are the main perpetrators, though, it wouldn’t be a surprise to see some sort of fine, or possibly even a loss of draft pick. The New England Patriots’ “spygate” scandal from 2007 comes to mind, in which head coach Bill Belichick was fined $500,000 dollars, the Patriots as a team were handed a $250,000 fine, and they were stripped of their first-round draft pick. MLB could dish out similar repercussions to Houston.
However it all shakes out, MLB must find a way to ensure that outside technology isn’t being used to undermine the game itself. The league’s apparent inability to control its own ball already makes it harder to trust the results that come on the field. The idea of a team, or teams, employing some sort espionage to gain an upper hand makes it even harder.