Sign stealing has always been a part of baseball. If a runner standing on second base can decipher the signs being put down by the catcher, and then relay those signs to the batter at the plate, it is fair game. The issue in today’s MLB is technology makes it even easier to steal signs.
MLB has never outright said that sign stealing is not allowed, but they made the distinction that one could not do so with the help of technology. Even with this ruling, most teams still likely use their home stadium to their advantage in this regard.
Occasionally, you may be watching a baseball game in which the road team gives up a couple of hits in a row. After this, you may see a meeting on the mound between the pitcher, catcher, and pitching coach followed by the catcher giving multiple signs to the pitcher in the following at-bats.
The road team in this case is clearly paranoid that their opponent is stealing signs and is most likely using some type of camera to do so. The Toronto Blue Jays seem to be a heavy offender of this if you ever watch a game at the Rogers Centre.
There are clearly teams that have been using cameras to their advantage, but it seems that the issue with the Houston Astros is how they used this information. The problem with stealing signs with cameras is, how do you let the batter know? Houston figured out how to do just that.
The set-up that the Astros had was a TV monitor in the hallway between the dugout and clubhouse that had a live feed, not a delay like most of the TVs in the stadium, with a set-up where players could watch the game and bang a trash can with a bat loud enough so that the player at the plate could hear.
One bang would be a change-up, two could be a slider, but the important part was that no bang meant a fastball. The issue with other sign stealing schemes is that someone not in the clubhouse would have to relay a sign to someone in the dugout who would then relay that information to the batter at the plate. That is just far too many steps for it to actually work.
In 2017, the Boston Red Sox were accused of stealing signs using an Apple Watch. The way the Red Sox went about their plan is courtesy of the New York Times.
“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.”Michael S. Schmidt -The New York Times
This is just far too many steps for this to actually work. You would need someone watching a live feed to send a message to someone in the dugout with the Apple Watch who would then signal the message to people in the dugout who would then pass on the message to a baserunner who would then finally get the pitch to the batter at the plate.
This process is inefficient and simply could not work. The pitcher would already be delivering the pitch by the time the batter finally received the information. This scheme also relies on a player already being on base, so you cannot do this for every pitch.
The problem with the Astros is they cut out the middleman and figured out a way to directly get the pitch to the batter at the plate any time they wanted.
It is actually surprising that this is just coming to light today with how blatant the sign stealing attempt was, and this probably does not see the light of day unless former Astros pitcher Mike Fiers comes out and confirms the allegations.
If you follow @jomboy_ breakdowns on Twitter, you’ll see that this sign stealing scheme has been in front of us the whole time. There are even instances where certain pitchers realize what is going on, and yet it took until earlier this week for this information to get out.
Astros using cameras to steal signs, a breakdown pic.twitter.com/rncm6qzXxw— Jomboy (@Jomboy_) November 12, 2019
There are other accusations against the Astros in terms of sign stealing. They allegedly also had a bullpen catcher with an earpiece who would get the signs and then relay it to the batter by putting his hands on the cage. This is far more subtle, but maybe a little more far fetched.
The only issue is that there is not going to be any video with a smoking gun like there is in the banging scheme.
A case like this is unprecedented in the MLB, so it is unclear what the punishments may be. There could be suspensions and fines for those involved as well as the loss of several draft picks for the Astros organization.
The MLB could follow in the NCAA’s footsteps by vacating the Astros 2017 World Series Championship, but they could not simply hand over the title to the Los Angeles Dodgers.
Doing this would just open up Pandora’s box as the Yankees could make a claim that they should be in the World Series as they played the Astros in the ALCS, and then the Red Sox could claim that they should have been in the ALCS as they played Houston in the ALDS.
I would not be surprised if this is the second highest punishment given out to an MLB team with the Astros being behind the 1919 Chicago Black Sox in terms of overall punishment.
The issue with the Houston Astros is they found a way to cutout the middleman in the way of sign stealing, and they figured out a way to be able to relay information to the batter on every single pitch. Videos clearly show how they cheated as well as how they benefited.
The Astros were caught red-handed and it would not be surprising if more people with knowledge of the scheme come out and confirmed the accusations. After this, I would expect the Commissioner’s Office to completely crackdown on electronic sign stealing.