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The Astros and the long history of sign-stealing in baseball

Needless to say, it’s complicated

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MLB: New York Mets at Houston Astros
At the center of this all, Mike Fiers
Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports

As many folks at Royals Review know, I’m nominally an Astros fan. I’m from Houston and I live here once again, but was not raised an Astros fan. However, they’re a distant second team, more the team I politely cheer for to build local common experiences with fellow Houstonians. Anyone who has a second team knows what I mean - I’m happy when they win but there’s not the emotional attachment as with the first team. They’ve had numerous playoff games here the last five years. I’m still a little mad my myself I haven’t gone to any of the World Series games, but that’s a regret I carry as a baseball fan and the rare opportunity I’ve been afforded. I have only been to one playoff game here in Houston and that was wearing Royals gear. It’s the same number of playoff games I’ve seen the last five years at Kauffman Stadium and that one required a last minute plane flight and associated expenses. I went to the Astros parade in 2017 because I had never been to a parade. But I was there as a tourist, it was not my parade.

So, when my reactions to this sign-stealing story differed substantially from those of many other baseball fans, I had to ask myself if this light fandom was clouding my judgment. So I did what I do: researched all I could about it, turned those findings into a long form article that might get 15 comments, and published it well after the topic has exhausted its newsworthiness. Also, if you’ve seen some of my discussions in the comments about this already, some of this is going to look familiar. I know citing yourself is a no-no in the academic world but we’re not putting out peer reviewed work here. The long and short (mostly long) of what’s below is a compilation of information from most of the major articles out there (with citations), how this story is being reported, the facts of the case, and some editorializing.

Ed Note: There are a /lot/ of sources in this story. I thought it best to present the story in their own words but I also tried to limit my citations to three paragraphs. Please support these journalists and their publications by subscribing and/or reading the full stories on their sites.

Georgia Tech v Tennessee
Colonel Mustard, in the stadium, with the trash can
Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

What are the basics of the story?

November 12th, Ken Rosenthal and Evan Drellich of The Athletic published a story that is sure to dominate baseball’s new cycle all winter. Former player Mike Fiers and three other anonymous sources “said that during that season, the Astros stole signs during home games in real time with the aid of a camera positioned in the outfield”.

As reported, this specific effort for the Astros began in 2017:

Early in the 2017 season, at least two uniformed Astros got together to start the process. One was a hitter who was struggling at the plate and had benefited from sign stealing with a previous team, according to club sources; another was a coach who wanted to help. They were said to strongly believe that some opposing teams were already up to no good.

They had a simple system:

The Astros’ set-up in 2017 was not overly complicated. A feed from a camera in center field, fixed on the opposing catcher’s signs, was hooked up to a television monitor that was placed on a wall steps from the team’s home dugout at Minute Maid Park, in the tunnel that runs between the dugout and the clubhouse. Team employees and players would watch the screen during the game and try to decode signs — sitting opposite the screen on massage tables in a wide hallway. When the onlookers believed they had decoded the signs, the expected pitch would be communicated via a loud noise — specifically, banging on a trash can, which sat in the tunnel. Normally, the bangs would mean a breaking ball or off-speed pitch was coming.

And when it ended is unclear:

Two sources said the Astros’ use of the system extended into the 2017 playoffs. Another source adamantly denied that, saying the system ended before the postseason.

What really makes this story stand out more than any other before (and there have been many) is that a current player implicated his former team and detailed how it worked.

Norm Charlton, of Nasty Boy fame

Sign stealing is OK(-ish)...

Now that we’re into the third week of this story, many articles have been written about this topic. Even though they’re from all corners of the internet, there’s practically a formula for these articles. I believe it’s some sort of sports journalism law that the second section must talk about how stealing signs manually (i.e. having a player on second relay stuff to the batter) is okay but doing it electronically is not. So that’s what we’re going to do here.

For instance, let’s use this article on CBS Sports from Matt Snyder:

Let’s not get our signals crossed here. There’s a big difference between stealing signs via a camera and trash can-pounding relay system vs. finding that an opposing pitcher has a “tell.” The Astros have also made headlines for discovering the latter. Our own R.J. Anderson went through how the Astros have picked up on a tell from James Paxton, for example. Sometimes it’s hand placement, sometimes a pitcher moves his hand in his glove during his delivery on different pitches. Whatever it is, big-leaguers are usually pretty good at noticing this sort of thing. If they do so from the dugout or in the box, that’s completely fair game.

It is followed by a section entitled “Live-action sign stealing is perfectly fine”. Almost every one of these summary articles has to spend the first half nuancing what is ok and what isn’t. The long and short is that it’s acceptable within the sport to steal signs in real time with your eyes but not with technology.

Of course, this action is governed by the unwritten rules of baseball. So you have instances like this, back in 1991, where one of the Nasty Boys actually admitted to throwing at someone for sign stealing:

Norm Charlton has stunned and angered the Dodgers by admitting that he purposely hit catcher Mike Scioscia for stealing signs and that he intends to hurt him again the next time they meet. The Cincinnati Red reliever hit Scioscia on the right arm with a pitch during the Dodgers’ 10-4 victory Monday night. Charlton later claimed it was a payback for Scioscia stealing signs from the catcher while on base. “I threw at him,” Charlton said. “I hit him on the arm, but I didn’t mean to hit him on the arm. He’ll be lucky if I don’t rip his head off the next time I’m pitching.”

But if you look at the manager comments, the issue wasn’t so much that Charlton threw at Scioscia for stealing sings, but that he broke the code of the locker room in talking about it (more about that later):

The comments brought a reprimand from Manager Lou Piniella and angry criticism from Dodger Manager Tom Lasorda.“He made a big mistake by saying that,” Lasorda said. “It’s a disgrace to baseball for a guy to make a statement like that. “You can’t condone it,” Piniella said. “It’s just a foolish statement. I was more surprised than anybody when I saw it.

Of course, the code then was pretty much what we hear about now:

It’s common practice for baserunners to try to steal a catcher’s signs and relay them to hitters. It’s also common for pitchers to discourage the practice by throwing inside when they think a batter’s getting help. Piniella, who admits he stole signs as a player with the New York Yankees, wasn’t happy about Charlton’s comments.

World Series: Tampa Bay Rays v Philadelphia Phillies, Game 5
What are the rules from the official MLB rule book, anyway?
Photo by Elsa/Getty Images

...But using technology is not

Where most people seem to find fault with the Astros is that they were using video technology to steal signs.

I believe this is now where I’m obligated to point out that it wasn’t until the 2019 season that MLB had specific rules against sign stealing (sort of). After some highly publicized paranoia in 2017 and 2018 (more on this in a bit), the issue caught the eye of Rob Manfred as a pace of play issue.

In February, Tom Verducci reported on new anti-sign stealing rules for Sports Illustrated (and confirmed by ESPN’s Jeff Passan):

To make sure teams comply with the rule, MLB is holding general managers and managers personally responsible for compliance. Before and after each season, every GM (or president of baseball operations) and manager must sign a document professing that his club is in compliance with the anti-sign stealing rules and that he knew of no “pre-meditated plan to steal signs,” a source said.

In addition to banning all in-house cameras from foul pole to foul pole, the rule provides that:

* The only live feed of a broadcast will be the one provided to each team’s designated replay official.

* A specially trained monitor, not a Resident Security Expect, will be assigned to each designated replay official to make sure that person has no communication with team personnel regarding signs, either in person, by phone or any other device.

* All other bullpen and clubhouse television monitors will receive game broadcasts on an eight-second delay.

* No television monitors are permitted in the tunnels or auxiliary rooms between the dugout and the clubhouse.

* Each club must provide to MLB an audit of every in-house camera, detailing its purpose, its wiring and where its signal can be viewed.

The exact rules have proved quite elusive, though. There are a number of stories about the rules being codified at the start of the 2019 season. However, pretty much all of them are light on specifics, linking back to Verducci’s originally sourced story.

There was also this information in a Boston Globe story in 2017:

While sign-stealing is not prohibited, the use of electronic devices in dugouts (save for a couple of specific exceptions that do not involve sign-stealing) is a breach of baseball’s rules. Major League Baseball clarified that stance in a preseason bulletin to teams in 2017, which defined the restricted use of electronic equipment thusly:

“The use of electronic equipment during a game is restricted. No Club shall use electronic equipment, including but not limited to walkie-talkies, cellular telephones, laptop computers or tablets, to communicate to or with any on-field personnel, including those in the dugout, bullpen, field and, during the game, the clubhouse.

“No equipment may be used for the purpose of stealing signs or conveying information designed to give a Club an advantage. Laptop computers and hand held devices are not permitted on the bench or in the dugout.

“The only exceptions to this prohibition are the use of a mobile phone for communication between the dugout and the bullpen, and the use of tablets in the dugout or bullpen running uniform programs, so long as such devices and programs have been approved by the Office of the Commissioner.”

Now why would they be writing about this in Boston?

New Apple Products Including iPhone 8 Go On Sale
Oh, right. The Apple Watch thing.
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The Apple Watch incident

Oh, right! The Apple Watch!

Even though there was nothing explicitly in the rule book about it, the Yankees and Red Sox got caught in a highly publicized sigh-stealing story back in 2017. If you ask anyone about it now, they just call it “that Apple Watch thing”. It could have been paid for by Apple for all the buzz it generated for their wearables, more a commercial than a baseball scandal. But below are the details, as reported by the New York Times:

The baseball inquiry began about two weeks ago, after the Yankees’ general manager, Brian Cashman, filed a detailed complaint with the commissioner’s office that included video the Yankees shot of the Red Sox dugout during a three-game series between the two teams in Boston last month.

The Yankees, who had long been suspicious of the Red Sox’ stealing catchers’ signs in Fenway Park, contended the video showed a member of the Red Sox training staff looking at his Apple Watch in the dugout. The trainer then relayed a message to other players in the dugout, who, in turn, would signal teammates on the field about the type of pitch that was about to be thrown, according to the people familiar with the case.

Baseball investigators corroborated the Yankees’ claims based on video the commissioner’s office uses for instant replay and broadcasts, the people said. The commissioner’s office then confronted the Red Sox, who admitted that their trainers had received signals from video replay personnel and then relayed that information to Red Sox players — an operation that had been in place for at least several weeks.

The Red Sox filed a counter complaint about the Yankees and both teams paid light fines.

So, basically, the Red Sox cooperated and didn’t get any real penalties. Then they pointed the finger at the Yankees, who probably were doing it but were better at hiding it (otherwise, they probably would have fought the fine). This was all happening about the same time as these Astros accusations reported in The Athletic.

‘The Sporting News 100 Years of Sports Images’
Baseball’s most famous stolen sign
Photo by Sporting News via Getty Images/Sporting News via Getty Images via Getty Images

Baseball’s rich sign stealing history

We’ve written about sign stealing on this site before. Remember 2015 and Johnny Cueto’s accusation of the Blue Jays “man in white”? The Blue Jays were accused of using a mysterious figure to relay signs from the outfield seats in 2010. Even the Royals have been accused of sign stealing and had to receive clarification from the league over the use of Ned Yost’s Apple Watch (which MLB gave him as a gift at the All-Star game!). Of course this was two years before the Yankees-Red Sox dustup.

Baseball has a long and storied history of sign stealing. In 1951, the New York Giants, the team that won the pennant with the famous “Shot Heard Round the World”, reportedly stole signs, relaying them through an electronic buzzing device. So, yes, one of the most famous moments in baseball history was aided by sign stealing. Not only that, but it was (1950s) technology driven:

In the book, he reported that Giants position coach Herman Franks was using a telescope from the Giants clubhouse during a number of late-season games, including that one to relay the catcher’s signs. A buzzer was set up to alert someone in the Giants bullpen of the pitch call, and he would in turn relay it to the batter.

There are a number of incidents involving runners at second base, which seems acceptable, if not encouraged, around baseball. Other stories in that link involve binoculars, a beaned Amos Otis leaving the game on a stretcher, and the White Sox scoreboard.

The White Sox story is chronicled, along with others, in this Tim Kurkjian piece from 2004:

Stealing signs has always been global. When former major league manager Davey Johnson played in Japan, his manager knew that the visiting clubhouse in a certain ballpark was bugged by the home team, so Johnson’s manager wrote down the signs -- which was a series of numbers -- for each player on opaque wristbands. The manager would yell out a string of numbers, the players would check his wristband, and the play was on.

The 1984 Cubs, the NL East champs that year, knew “the other teams’ signs better than our own,’’ said Oates, then a Cubs catcher, There are countless stories about how teams swiped the signs from opposing catchers to determine if a fastball or a breaking ball was coming.

For a portion of the 1980s at Chicago’s Comiskey Park, there was a 25-watt refrigerator bulb in the scoreboard. A member of the organization would sit in the manager’s office and watch the TV broadcast, which had a view of the catcher from center field. There was also a toggle switch in the office. Flip the switch and the light in the scoreboard came on, telling the hometown hitter if a fastball or an off-speed pitch was coming.

The New York Times covered accusations against the Mets in 1997.

In 1997, teams accused the Mets of planting small cameras near home plate in Shea Stadium to steal signals. The Mets denied that they had used the cameras to try to do so, and the league did not take any action.

A 2003 story in the South Florida Sun Sentinel details even further incidents.

1948: Using a telescope from a World War II navy ship, future Hall of Famers Bob Lemon and Bob Feller stole signs from opposing catchers. When they weren’t pitching for Cleveland, Lemon and Feller took the telescope into the scoreboard and called out the pitches to a groundskeeper, who signaled to the hitter through an opening in the out-of-town scores section of the scoreboard.

1975: The Texas Rangers accused the Milwaukee Brewers of using mascot Bernie the Brewer in a sign-stealing scheme. According to the Rangers, the Brewers had a man with binoculars in the bleachers. He sent his information to Bernie, who signaled the upcoming pitch to hitters with his white gloves.

The last major sign-stealing incident involved the Phillies back in 2010. I ran across a story about them when Googling the exact term “The use of electronic equipment during a game is restricted” from the previous section. In that case:

Major League Baseball officially warned the Phillies not to cheat — while admitting, “We found the evidence inconclusive on what was being done.” The rule against sign-stealing is generally more of an unwritten one. There’s nothing about it the Official Rule Book — in fact, there are no rules regarding signs at all. There was a 1961 rule banning sign stealing by means of a “mechanical device,” but no amendment was put in the modern rulebook. And then there’s a passage in a memo sent in 2000 by Sandy Alderson, then MLB’s executive VP of Baseball Operations: “Please be reminded that the use of electronic equipment during a game is restricted...”

In short, stealing signs with “technology” has been happening for decades. We’ve got an Apple Watch, lots of binoculars, a light bulb in the scoreboard, a mascot, buzzers, and a goddamn navy telescope! And the only that predated the rules about “mechanical devices” was the telescope. The only time there was a penalty, it was a “slap on the wrist”. The rule goes back to 1961, but cheating with them has gone on unabated since then. Methods and prevalence have varied greatly, as have the reactions. Meanwhile, the rule book has never really caught up or outlawed it. Baseball has let players and managers police their own for this infraction.

How many teams steal signs now?

I think this is where there is significant public divergence. Many want to paint this as a problem specific to the Astros, which I would argue is willfully (and/or laughably) naive. Others, myself included, see it as unfair to make an example out of the Astros when many other teams are doing it. It is true that there is only one team implicated by a former player. However every expert seems to agree this is a much more widespread problem.

Below are the opening paragraphs of the story from The Athletic that started this all:

There is a broad story about this era of baseball that has yet to be told. To this point, the public’s understanding of sign stealing mostly rests on anonymous second-hand conjecture and finger-pointing. But inside the game, there is a belief which is treated by players and staff as fact: That illegal sign stealing, particularly through advanced technology, is everywhere. “It’s an issue that permeates through the whole league,” one major league manager said. “The league has done a very poor job of policing or discouraging it.” Electronic sign stealing is not a single-team issue.

A current manager claims it’s everywhere and the introduction to this explosive story states it’s “everywhere”, explicitly saying it’s “not a single-team issue”.

There are a number of other stories that hazard educated guesses about how prevalent this situation is. Verducci’s story about the new rules, cited above, has the following:

Last November general managers thoroughly endorsed the adopting of such rules rather than engage in what they saw as a coming “high-tech arms race to cheat,” according to one source. About six teams last year were commonly understood to have installed in-house cameras in centerfield that were trained on opposing catchers’ signs, according to one general manager. Several other teams were under heavy suspicion. The sign stealing forced most teams to adopt multiple sets of signs even with the bases empty. Those signs were changed often, even within at-bats, which slowed the pace of play.

Fangraphs prospect guru Kiley McDaniel had similar numbers in a chat last week:

1:47 Cito’s Mustache: How widespread do you think electronic sign-stealing in MLB? 4-5 teams doing it? 1/3 of the league?

1:48 Kiley McDaniel: I’d say single digits, around 5 or so have probably done it in some coordinated way in the last few years. And maybe more like 10-12 have tried something less coordinated that could get sanctioned if everyone knew everything

How about this article from Bleacher Report about the aforementioned rule changes?

Predictably, nobody in the game is willing to publicly finger those who were cheating or those whom they believe might be cheating. But given assurances of anonymity, several league sources indicate the Astros, Dodgers, Red Sox, New York Yankees and Arizona Diamondbacks have been especially adept with technological surveillance. One source mentions the Cubs and Washington Nationals dabble a bit “but not as much as others.” Another source says the Indians, while still another notes the Toronto Blue Jays and Texas Rangers once were suspected as well.

This all makes sense, as outlined in Craig Calcaterra’s scathing rebuke of the commissioner:

These schemes cannot, logically, operate in isolation because players and coaches change teams constantly. In light of this, players have to know that their sign-stealing would be found out by other teams eventually. They continue to do it, however, because they know other teams do it too. As is the case with pitchers using pine tar or what have you, they don’t rat out the other team so they, themselves, will not be ratted out. It’s a mutually-assured destruction that only exists and only works if, in fact, other teams are also stealing signs.

Then there are the individual team accusations.

In the LA Times, Dodgers’ president of baseball operations Andrew Friedman was quoted as saying the following about the Astros and sign stealing: “There was just a lot of speculation at the time about it.” Friedman goes on to talk about how Yu Darvish, in particular, was harmed by this (note: this Tom Verducci report back in 2017 details exactly how the Astros knew what Darvish was throwing based on his pitch grips /not/ sign stealing).

You mean the same Dodgers who were accused by the Brewers of stealing signs in the 2018 playoffs (or, more humorously, on Facebook, by a fan of the 95-loss 2017 Tigers)? Never mind their penchant for bending rules themselves.

Wait? Those same Brewers who a Cardinals beat writer claimed “multiple players identify to me as the as the most egregious with electronic sign stealing” along with the Astros and the (?!?) Rangers? The Rangers? A team that hasn’t finished above .500 in 3 years?

In that same LA Times story above, Yankees GM Brian Cashman says: “It just comes down to how you go about your business: Are you going to follow the rules and the guidelines or are you not?” The Red Sox also accused the Astros of stealing signs during the 2018 ALCS (and there was that whole weird thing with the Astros “making sure other teams weren’t cheating”). You mean the same two teams who were busted already for doing this?

That’s practically a list of every team in the playoffs the last couple of years. Since 2017, there have been twelve LCS spots. Eleven have gone to teams implicated above. The only one who wasn’t? 2019 NLCS participant St Louis (who, as the main upholders of the unwritten rules, have never broken any rules themselves). The only other playoff teams over the last 3 years that have not been accused: Rockies (though there’s this hilarious story about “legal” sign stealing in 2018), Twins, A’s, Braves, and Rays. Those teams have a total of three playoff wins in three years against the “cheating” teams.

This section is really what I wanted to research in writing this story. How many other teams are doing this and to what level? The consensus seems to be that a half dozen teams do it very systematically and about half the league does it more loosely. Add in that much of the other half of the league isn’t competing (tho, for some reason, the Rangers, who haven’t been .500 in three years were mentioned) and it appears that almost every team trying to win is doing it in some shape or form.

It appears that the Astros were at the forefront, just as they have been with a lot of this latest data revolution. But many teams were working on it in parallel (never mind that the Yankees and Red Sox were already punished for it) and now it’s all but industry standard. Shockingly, our beloved 100-loss Royals did not make any list.

Oakland Athletics v Toronto Blue Jays
Men in White?
Photo by Brad White/Getty Images

Does sign stealing help?

Do we really even have to ask this question? One could argue about the degree to which it helps and how that affects the proportional response to the crime. But can we just skip over this part that, again, is in seemingly every article? If it didn’t help, teams wouldn’t be doing it, electronically or “manually” for more than a century.

Well, about that... I’m going with someone smarter than me who wrote even more words about this topic: former 538-er, former BP-er, and former Grantland-er Ben Lindbergh these thoughts in amongst many others at The Ringer:

This may seem like a lot of words to devote to searching for statistical evidence of something that sounds so obvious. Knowing the next pitch just has to help, right? But no matter how we slice and dice the data, the statistical case is less compelling than it would be if sign-stealing made hitting as simple as it seems like it should. Great as the Astros were at the plate in 2017, the most fascinating aspect of their sign-stealing scandal is that it didn’t make them even better. When we watch an Astros hitter homer after getting tipped off, it’s easy to assume that he homered because he had inside info... Then again, that could be a textbook case of the post hoc fallacy. Hitters crush plenty of pitches without advance warning. There’s some chance that the Astros incurred the scorn of the sport, forever tainted their title, and opened themselves up to severe penalties—likely fines, loss of draft picks and international bonus pool money, suspensions, or even a John Coppolella–esque ban—for little to no return.

All I have to add to this is that if you assume that only the Astros are doing this, then they have an advantage, whatever size it may be, over the rest of the league for 81 games at Minute Maid Park. However, a number of typically well sourced reporters are saying a number of teams are doing this. In that case, the Astros enjoy an advantage at Minute Maid Park, while the Yankees do at Yankee Stadium and the Red Sox do at Fenway, etc. In that case, it’s a stronger home field advantage than normal but seemingly all of the competitive teams are enjoying it.

If everyone was using sign stealing technology, we’d just all accept it as part of the game strategy. But because there’s a perceived asymmetry (that I don’t think is nearly as large as some want to portray it), it’s being painted like the cheating scale is “Astros 100, other teams 5, most teams 0” when it’s more like “Astros 100, Dodgers 85, Red Sox 75, Yankees 70, Brewers 65…”.

Lindbergh writes:

No one would claim that improper sign-stealing never helped Houston. But if it doesn’t help as much as is widely believed; or if enough teams are doing it that it doesn’t upset the competitive equilibrium; or if teams have grown adept enough at counterintelligence to defuse the effects without slowing the game down dramatically; or if we’re on the verge of switching to headsets or haptic feedback devices that could convey signs to the pitcher, catcher, and other defenders without a visual reveal; then this might be another incarnation of a never-ending dispute, not a new, existential crisis for the sport.

However, Rob Arthur at Baseball Prospectus reached a significantly different conclusion.

Kansas City Royals Photo Day
Cody Decker aka Mr. Jenn Sterger
Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images

The new frontier?

Cody Decker is best described as a journeyman minor leaguer, including some time in the Royals system. When he retired earlier this year, he was “the active career leader in minor-league home runs”. Last week, he went on a Chicago sports talk show to discuss the sign-stealing controversy.

Below are some of his claims, as best I can transcribe them:

  • “The Astros are probably at the forefront of this. They’re just the arrogant organization who probably didn’t think they’d get caught... Several teams are doing this.”
  • ”Every team has a guy in center field, basically with a camera, and they’re basically just - they’re cheating. You’re not allowed to use a lens between the foul poles focused in on the opposing catcher. What they’ve done is petitioned the commisioner’s office to use an Edgetronic camera to look at our pitcher so we can get his slow motion movement so we can best dissect his mechanics.”
  • “Teams don’t just have a video system and people manually doing this, they have machine learning apps that watch the video and decode sign systems... They know what every pitch is coming by the fourth hitter of the game at the latest.”
  • ”This was three years ago. This is a story now and we’re talking about what the Astros were doing 2 1/2 years ago. They’re past that now”

This appears to be another corroboration of the claim that many teams are doing this. However, if the other claims are true, it’s advanced far beyond a simple camera and trash can. And this is coming from a player who only had 8 games in the majors. If only other players would speak up...

Jim Bouton Releases “Ball Four: The Final Pitch”
Jim Bouton and his wonderful Ball Four
Photo by Tim Boyle/Newsmakers

Mike Fiers and the baseball code of silence

If this is so prevalent, why aren’t there any other witnesses on other teams?

I would argue that Mike Fiers breaking the baseball code of the locker room was the most surprising aspect of this entire story. Most of the league seems to think that, well, most of the league is cheating but no one else will identify a team or person doing it.

Is that really surprising? No one wants to risk future employment over this. Fiers is under contract until the end of next year. Will it seem odd if a 36 year old pitcher doesn’t get any good offers, especially considering the market for veteran contracts that last couple offseasons?

Some want to draw lines between this and the steroid scandal that rocked baseball in the late 90s and early 2000s. How many active players went public during the steroid scandal? None. Sure, once the scandal started breaking, some would issue vague statements about a few guys on each team doing it or whatnot. But there were never any names named. No one talked until after they retired.

Heck, Jim Bouton wasn’t allowed back to Yankee Stadium for any alumni functions for more than 25 years after publishing “Ball Four”. So anyone waiting for an active player to indict another team is going to either going to be disappointed is being disingenuous in their logical defense. Odds are quite high there will not be another accusation unless it’s piling further on the Astros.

MLB: General Managers Meetings
Former Braves GM John Coppolella, emphasis on “former”
Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

Recent MLB penalties

We’ve already talked about the inconsequential penalty the Red Sox and Yankees got back in 2017. However, some other recent infractions have been taken much more seriously.

The most memorable one in the last few years involved the Cardinals hacking the Astros. Tim Brown covers the basics:

Two years ago, on the day Chris Correa was promoted to be their scouting director, the St. Louis Cardinals lauded his work with them as “invaluable.” On Monday, the commissioner went ahead and put a firm price tag on that: $2 million and two draft picks to the Houston Astros, that on top of the 46 months jail time and more than quarter-million dollars in personal restitution.

Correa was the mid-30s, prime-of-his career guy who supplemented his over-healthy job ambition by hacking into Astros computers over a two-plus-year period, which presumably served to boost his worth to the Cardinals while also settling old scores with former co-workers.

Now he’s the mid-30s, permanently banned-from-baseball guy who is scratching off days on a wall, the guy who ultimately damaged two franchises, the guy who took you-ain’t-cheatin’-you-ain’t-tryin’ straight into the game’s analytics age, or followed it in, or something.

Meanwhile, both the Braves and Red Sox have had significant penalties around international signings. The international amateur market, which has been described as “baseball’s wild west”, has always had “murky dealings”. However, it could be argued this is taken more seriously by the owners because it risks taking money out of their pockets.

In the first instance, an informant provided specific information to MLB about Boston’s contract bundling for international prospects. They lost five players to the open market and had future bonus restrictions, the first time a punishment of this kind had been handed down. As Jesse Sanchez of reported:

The Red Sox have been banned from signing any international players during the international signing period that starts Saturday, and they had five of their international teenage prospects from Venezuela declared free agents after an investigation by Major League Baseball showed the club circumvented the international bonus-pool regulations, according to a report by Yahoo! Sports.

Because they exceeded their bonus pools during the 2014-15 international signing period by spending $62 million on Yoan Moncada, the Red Sox were unable to sign any international prospects under the international signing guidelines for more than $300,000 until ‘17. But the Red Sox avoided the $300,000 threshold by packaging top prospects with lesser ones while paying them all similarly, the report said. This allowed the players’ agent to give most of the money to the best prospect.

The Braves took this a step further by submitting false records of how much bonus money was paid and, as a consequence, lost 13 prospects and more:

The Braves’ penalties include the forfeiture of 13 international prospects, strict restrictions on the international market over the next three years and the loss of their third-round pick for the 2018 Draft.

Most of the prospects lost, including shortstop Kevin Maitan (the No. 38 ranked prospect in baseball according to MLB Pipeline), were part of the much-hyped 2016 international class signed by former general manager John Coppolella and his former special assistant, Gordon Blakeley.

MLB also placed Coppolella on the permanently ineligible list and Blakeley has been given a one-year suspension. Both men resigned from their roles with the Braves on Oct. 2, when it was revealed MLB was in the midst of what proved to be a very thorough investigation that revealed significant wrongdoing.

In short, during Manfred’s short tenure as MLB commissioner, he has not hesitated to penalize draft picks, large fines, and more for penalties that involved FBI investigations or circumventing monetary restrictions. However, he has yet to do anything substantial about sign-stealing.

Milwaukee Brewers v Houston Astros
Astros GM Jeff Luhnow, perhaps asking “What now?!?”
Photo by Tim Warner/Getty Images

The problematic Astros

I think if this story had come out about, say, the A’s or Twins, a team thought to be generally clean, there would be a different reaction.

Back in 2014, the Astros were coming off of 3 straight 100-loss seasons and had just been hacked by the Cardinals. They were a pretty sympathetic outfit except perhaps the depth to which they tanked. Their young team would finish with 70 wins in 2014 before making the playoffs four of the next five years. They had a pretty likable core led by the diminutive Jose Altuve, the bearded junk thrower Dallas Keuchel, and young prospects like George Springer, Carlos Correa, and Alex Bregman. They won the 2017 World Series title, the franchise’s first, for their hurricane battered hometown. It was a heartwarming story.

However, as these things go, when a larger spotlight shone on them, more of their actions came under public scrutiny. That shouldn’t be all that surprising for a front office that now has a reputation for being “toxic” and “secretive” (though some of this could be piling on after the fact).

Below is a list of their faults from the last few years in chronological order. I’m sure this is not a complete list, but more of a “Greatest Hits”:

  1. Building a new ballpark with comical dimensions (and not being the Yankees). Obviously not built in the last five years but has played a big part in games.
  2. Tanking like no one has tanked before
  3. Knocking the large market Yankees out of the playoffs, preventing the Fox dream of a Dodgers-Yankees World Series
  4. Having a player make a racist gesture at an opposing player
  5. Playing a game that basically broke baseball in the whiffle ball World Series
  6. Keeping the large market Dodgers from winning the World Series
  7. Trading for suspended domestic abuser Roberto Osuna because he could be had at a distressed price
  8. Blocking a credentialed reporter from the postgame interview because one player had a personal beef with him
  9. Keeping the Yankees from the World Series again
  10. Employing Brian Taubman and all that entailed (see below)

In Houston’s postgame clubhouse celebration, assistant general manager Brandon Taubman taunted three woman reporters, one wearing a purple rubber domestic violence awareness bracelet, repeatedly saying, “Thank God we got Osuna! I’m so f—— glad we got Osuna!” Multiple witnesses corroborated the account by Stephanie Apstein of Sports illustrated after the Astros accused Apstein of making it up. It took four days for the Astros to finally fire Taubman, a period when the organization embarrassed itself with each passing day...

And when the Astros finally released an apology of sorts from Taubman, who worked in finance before joining the Astros in 2013 as an operations analyst, it should have ended after the first two sentences: “This past Saturday, during our clubhouse celebration, I used inappropriate language for which I am deeply sorry and embarrassed. In retrospect, I realized that my comments were unprofessional and inappropriate.” Instead, Taubman went on to claim his words were “misinterpreted” (how?), lauded himself as a husband and father, and finished off with the textbook non-apology apology: “I am sorry IF anyone was offended by my actions.” (Emphasis mine.)

Absent from the statements by Taubman and owner Jim Crane: Any acknowledgment that the club’s initial claim of SI fabricating the story was false, and an apology to Apstein and SI. The apology finally came Thursday in the statement announcing Taubman’s firing, but the Astros somehow botched that too. At a press briefing in Washington, Houston general manager Jeff Luhnow wouldn’t say who was responsible for the statement attacking Apstein and SI. Asked if he personally contacted any of the women Taubman taunted, Luhnow said he hadn’t had time. Apstein was sitting in the room when Luhnow spoke.

That last one is particularly damning as it seems like every negative story about the Houston front office all rolled into one. A baseball executive who thinks he’s smarter than everyone else taunting a reporter with a healthy dose of sexism. But there’s a hint of incompetence in his arrogance as he’s yelling “scoreboard”, despite the process they slavishly adhere to wasn’t vindicated by the results (Osuna blew the save). There’s an attempt to slime the source that backfires, as more people corroborate the source’s story. This leads to a non-apology that also backfires as it’s disingenuous, sounding more like a petulant child forced to apologize to a sibling. Finally, the front office fires Taubman, not because it was the moral or ethical thing to do, but because they coldly calculated that his sabermetric asset is no longer greater than his PR liability.

How many of the above (yes, a couple werey tongue-in-cheek) are more problematic to the sport than the sign stealing accusations? How much of the desire for punishment tied up in something other than stolen signs? And if that’s the reason, be honest about it. Don’t get faux outraged at sign stealing when you’re mad about ugly baseball (tanking) or amoral actions (racism, sexual assault, etc). It diminishes those other things.

New England Patriots v Arizona Cardinals
The Deflategate parallels are there
Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images


This story is filled with contradictions. Stealing signs is ok manually, except when you get a fastball in the ear for it. But it’s definitely not ok with technology, except everyone was doing it. And it’s happened, with available technology, throughout history. It wasn’t illegal until 2019, except we already had two teams busted for it in 2017. Except those were the Yankees and Red Sox, which created a high profile incident that went away quietly with just fines for both teams (because, of course, both were doing it). The Astros reportedly cheated that same season and are looking increasingly like they’re going to get the book thrown at them.

If someone wants to throw the book at the Astros, only the Astros, for stealing signs - it seems intellectually dishonest. It’s hard for me to picture an argument that isn’t some combination of willfully naive about other teams and retribution against the Astros for an accumulation of sins. Joe Posnanski covers this in his article entitled: “What is cheating, anyway? The lines between gamesmanship and rule-breaking are blurrier than ever”:

And then, The Athletic breaks the news about how in their World Series-winning season of 2017, the Astros did some serious sign stealing. I’ve heard people describe it as the Astros “using technology to steal signs,” but it really wasn’t too technical. Apparently, they would look at catcher signs using a center-field camera feed and if they saw a change-up or curveball or some slow pitch coming, someone would bang on a garbage can...

So this bit of cheating is clear, right? Yes, except, once again, nothing ever seems clear about sports cheating. In general, baseball fans have long had a very lax policy about sign stealing. The great sign-stealers have been celebrated in baseball history, not punished. Instead of outlawing natural sign-stealing (which, admittedly, would be a difficult, perhaps impossible, rule to enforce), baseball has told teams for a century to protect themselves. That’s why when there’s a runner on second base, catchers go through an intricate series of signs to the pitcher. The expectation is that the guy on second will definitely try to steal the catcher sign so you better use some sort of unbreakable code. If you don’t, it’s your fault. So, fans are not supposed to get riled up about natural sign stealing itself. That’s not cheating, it’s part of the game.

But fans are supposed to get all riled up about this? Oh, wait, this is different. This is using tech to steal signs! That is against the rules. You might remember the Red Sox got punished for this a couple of years ago (or you might not — it didn’t exactly demand Deflategate-style press coverage). Except, the tech argument is also a bit specious because everybody knows that teams do use tech — including in-game video study — to determine if the pitcher is tipping pitches. That’s not cheating, that’s an art form.

However, I think it’s also possible that like, say, the Patriots and Deflategate, to claim that the Astros entire body of cheating will earn them a harsher penalty because there are “degrees” of cheating. It’s reasonable to claim that they’re an octave or two outside of what everyone else is doing. You have to stay within a standard deviation or two of the median level of cheating or risk being punished as an outlier. But that gets into a lot of grey area about how much is acceptable. That lack of clarity opens up the future to more problems.

Texas Rangers v Houston Astros
Rob Manfred will ultimately decide the fate of Jeff Luhnow and others
Photo by Bob Levey/Getty Images

What Should Happen? What Will Happen?

If I were commissioner, I would make the Astros front office pay for both of their “major” sins this offseason: the sign-stealing (never mind that the sign-stealing was from 2017) /and/ the Taubman coverup. I would take away their 1st round pick for 2019, knowing full well that it’s very last pick in the 1st round. I’d also fine them at least $2M, maybe $2.5M or $3M so I could claim it’s the highest fine on record. I would then explicitly state that the money goes directly to a domestic violence charity. I would also make it abundantly clear that this penalty was for both infractions and emphasize how much the Taubman incident played into this. I’d consider a lifetime ban for him, much as Coppolella got, especially if he was instrumental in the sign-stealing operation.

If I could, I’d try to get the Astros on the same page as me and get them to basically agree to a plea bargain. I’d get them to admit they stole signs during the 2017 season but could not do it during the postseason due to the noise. This part is more of a longshot, considering the franchise’s attitude to be both secretive and arrogant. I doubt they would do it and if they did, it would not be sincere. Also, if I found more evidence of it happening in 2018 and beyond (which is very possible, if not likely), then it’s not a story I want to sell. A coverup is the last thing I want out of this.

Then I would pivot to my new rules on sign-stealing. I would announce my penalties for the other teams found to engage in it - probably a half-dozen teams - with fines less than a million dollars per team, depending on severity of infraction. It would send a message to fans and to other teams, that I did my due diligence and investigated, and punished them a substantial but not overly punitive amount. Any talk of banners coming down is laughable, just as it is when then NCAA does it. Similarly, this just can’t be the Astros wearing the penalty or it will still be the wild west, minus the Astros.

What would the new sign-stealing rules be? At the upcoming winter meetings, sign-stealing would be the main topic of one of the closed door sessions. The goal would be that a new set of rules would have to be agreed upon by the majority of the GMs before the session was over. We would need to codify what is cheating and what isn’t. Is it ok to continue letting stealing from 2B be governed by the unwritten rules of baseball? (Probably) Is using a camera ok or should all of those, including Edgetronic, be banned? (Difficult to enforce) Should we go use technology like headsets to eliminate this problem and possibly also speed up the game, as some, like Justin Verlander, have suggested? (Multiple benefits) Should we make hacking those headsets punishable by a specific penalty? (Yes, with fairly harsh specific penalties) While I put forth guesses as to the consensus, as commissioner, I wouldn’t care too much about the specifics so long as they seemed publicly palatable and reasonably enforceable. Publicly, I’d emphasize that the previous penalties were all under the old system and we’re now going to govern with these new guidelines.

But what will happen?

Unfortunately, since we’re talking about MLB’s commissioners office, I expect expediency above fairness, consistency, and a desire to actually address the problem. If they want to punish all teams who do something similar, they can try to root it out. They won’t catch everyone but they will catch enough to be a major deterrent. But I don’t think they have a real interest in doing this. I think baseball realized that going after everyone in the steroid scandal ended with baseball just looking bad. They think they were punished for exposing too much rather than because they waited too long. Then again, as Posnanski wrote “I know almost no one who cares about steroids in football” so maybe they’re right.

Much like the NCAA has shown they don’t really care about paying athletes until the FBI embarrasses them in the public, MLB was fine to let this float along under the radar until The Athletic broke the story. But now they have to do something about it so I expect an arbitrary and capricious penalty. Manfred is on record as saying “I’m not going to speculate on whether other people are going to be involved. We’ll deal with that if it happens, but I’m not going to speculate about that. I have no reason to believe it extends beyond the Astros at this point in time.” To them, this appears to be much more of a PR issue than a competitive issue.

This quote prompted a follow up article from Rosenthal entitled “MLB’s sign-stealing investigation should not stop at the Astros” in which he specifically points to parts of his (and Drellich’s) initial story that talk about how this is not just an Astros problem but a league-wide problem.

I expect the Astros will get a big penalty, one larger than the Cardinals got for hacking the Astros system. Similar to that case, they will pretend it’s just one actor and not many. It will appease anyone looking for their pound of flesh but will not solve the root cause. I’ll end with the closing paragraph of the previously quoted Craig Calcaterra story:

And so here we are again. Baseball has a major scandal on its hands. After some initially promising words about how serious it planned to take it, the league seems content to cordon off the known crime scene and refuses to canvass the neighborhood. Sure, if someone gratuitously hands them evidence they’ll look into it, but it sure sounds like Rob Manfred plans to react rather than act here. That should work. At least until the next time evidence of cheating comes up and they have to start this all over again.