Every ounce of the sign-stealing allegations that are being pressed against the Houston Astros must be taken seriously. If they hold true, Major League Baseball should meet the Astros with fire and fury because the situation poses yet another identity crisis for America’s pastime.
Let’s face the facts before dissecting this monstrosity.
On Tuesday Ken Rosenthal and Evan Drellich of The Athletic reported that the Astros stole signs electronically in the 2017 MLB season (information is provided by ESPN‘s Jeff Passan). They did so by using a center-field camera. When the camera detected how many fingers the opposing team’s catcher put down and it was an off-speed pitch, you could occasionally hear the banging of a trash can.
In The Athletic‘s reporting on the matter, former Astros and current Oakland Athletics pitcher Mike Fiers provided some perspective:
“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 also said the Astros “were advanced and willing to go above and beyond to win.”
According to ESPN (linked a few paragraphs above), the Washington Nationals, who the Astros faced off against in the 2019 World Series, were warned prior to the series to be on the lookout for whistling, flashing lights, and signs coming from the outfield train in Minute Maid Park. Reliever Sean Doolittle and Nationals pitching coach Paul Menhart told Barry Svrluga of The Washington Post how they had a multitude of plans in place to evade the issue.
Meanwhile, the New York Yankees complained about sign-stealing on the Astros’ end in the form of whistling in this year’s American League Championship Series (information is provided by the New York Post). Astros manager AJ Hinch laughed off the accusation.
Astros manager AJ Hinch on the allegation that his team was whistling in the dugout to relay signs in Game 1: “It made me laugh. Because it’s ridiculous. Had I known it would take something like that to set off the Yankees, we would’ve practiced that in spring training.”
— Jeff Passan (@JeffPassan) October 17, 2019
On Thursday Rosenthal and Drellich reported that Boston Red Sox manager Alex Cora, the Astros bench coach in 2017, and now-New York Mets manager Carlos Beltran, a member of the 2017 Astros, played “key roles” in establishing the Astros’ sign-stealing system.
Don’t undermine a mere part of this.
It’s vital to understand the difference between sign-stealing and electronically stealing signs. Anyone who has played, been around, or followed baseball should be cognizant of the array of ways signs are utilized in baseball. Signs come from a third base coach to bunt, take a pitch, steal a base, or maybe execute a hit-and-run, among other options.
Meanwhile, coaches signal to their catcher from the dugout what pitch they want their pitcher to throw. Catchers put down fingers facing the pitcher in search of a head shake or nod on a pitch selection. Catchers also signal to the infield for throw-downs and pickoff plays.
Over the course of a game, the other team may look or pick up on what these signs indicate. There’s nothing wrong with that; it’s part of the game. It’s using instincts to get a better idea of what the opposition is trying to do.
There’s a clear line between sign stealing and having a freakin’ camera in the outfield zoomed in on a catcher projected onto a screen in a team’s dugout that consequently results in the banging of a trash can to signal hitters that an off-speed pitch is coming. That’s cheating.
By now, you’ve probably seen the videos that have surfaced online where you can hear a bang before a pitch reaches home plate in games played at Minute Maid Park . Sometimes it resulted in hits, sometimes it didn’t. Even if it failed 100 out of 100 times, it’s cheating.
Here are some events that have occurred at Minute Maid Park over the last three years that either impressed or puzzled the baseball world:
- Games 1 and 2 of the 2017 AL Division Series: The Astros torched Red Sox ace and perennial All-Star left-hander Chris Sale for seven runs, including three home runs. In the ensuing game the Astros struck for four runs, including two home runs in two innings off left-hander Drew Pomeranz. This series projected to be a great all-around matchup. Instead, the Astros demolished Boston’s ace, their pitching staff, and won the series in impressive fashion. It was shocking to watch Sale, in particular, get lit up.
- 2017 ALCS: The Astros won all four games played on their home field against the Yankees and lost all three games played in Yankee Stadium. Home-field advantage is that vital in baseball?
- Games 3 and 5 of the 2017 World Series: Yu Darvish totaled 14 strikeouts across 11.1 innings and surrendered just two runs in his first two 2017 postseason starts — which were both on the road. Then the Los Angeles Dodgers hurler was chased out of Game 3 at Minute Maid Park in 1.2 innings, surrendering four runs. Two nights later Clayton Kershaw, who totaled 11 strikeouts and surrendered just one run across seven innings in Game 1 at Dodger Stadium, surrendered six runs in 4.2 innings in Game 5. The Astros trailed three times but ultimately won the game 13-12 in 10 innings. Crazy game, right?
- 2018 ALCS: The Astros lost this series in five games, but there’s a wrinkle to that story: Cora being the opposition’s manager. He was the Astros bench coach the season prior. The Red Sox won three consecutive games in Houston, and their starting pitching surrendered a combined nine runs in those games. What if Cora knew the system in place and found a way to work around it to Boston’s advantage? Should Boston’s 2018 World Series come into question?
- Game 5 of the ALDS: In a win-or-go-home Game 5, the Astros hosted the Tampa Bay Rays and essentially ended the game in the first inning, scoring four runs off Rays starter Tyler Glasnow by way of five of the first six hitters singling. The young pitcher is viewed as a future ace, as he has superb command of his fastball and curveball. All of those hits came no later than three pitches into an at-bat. That’s odd.
- 2019 World Series: The Astros lost all four games in their home park in this year’s World Series, but Game 6 produced some controversy. Nationals right-hander Stephen Strasburg surrendered just two runs in 8.1 innings, but those runs were given up in the first inning. Strasburg later said Menhart told him to stop tipping his pitches because the Astros were looking for it. Interesting.
A coincidence, or is there more to it with these games?
The Astros have been relentlessly praised for the way they’ve constructed their roster, sustained success, and been formidable from all aspects of the game.
Their offense, which includes star hitters such as Jose Altuve, George Springer, Alex Bregman, Carlos Correa, and Michael Brantley, was first in MLB in OPS (.848) and 30th in strikeouts (1,166) this season. This is a team touted for its plate awareness, two-strike hitting, and overall offensive potency. Turns out it may have been too good to be true.
Maybe Hinch and the Astros regarding themselves as an analytically savvy team that gets the most out of its players is a sham as well. It could just be that they know how to use technology in a deceitful way to get an edge on an opposing pitcher, chasing them out of the game.
There’s no such thing as an irrelevant hypothetical or what-if scenario here. When you get caught cheating, all bets are off.
Baseball has dealt with an integrity issue throughout your entire life. From players getting suspended for the use of performance-enhancing drugs, debate over whether those players should be included in the Hall of Fame, to speculation that the 2019 baseball is juiced, authenticity or lack thereof has plagued baseball. Now it has to deal with one of its preeminent teams using technology to cheat the game.
Casual baseball fans or sports fans in general may look at baseball in the stereotypical light once again: it’s a cheater’s game. Two of the sport’s most successful players, Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens, will likely never make the Hall of Fame due to never-ending discussion over the use of performance-enhancing drugs. Some feel that hitting a home run means nothing anymore because of how frequently it occurs. Now a team that looked poised to be on the verge of a dynasty has an enormous asterisk next to its World Series championship and franchise, as a whole.
This is one of the most important stories in the history of professional sports. The year the Astros are accused of illegally using technology is the year they won the World Series (2017). They may have altered the course of baseball history.
In 2017 the Dodgers were widely viewed as the favorite to win the World Series. What if the Astros prevented the Dodgers from winning the World Series? This past season the Dodgers won a franchise-record 106 games but lost in the first round of the playoffs. Right now they’re a walking punchline for postseason shortcomings, and another October letdown could get their manager, Dave Roberts, fired.
In 2017 the Yankees would’ve gone to the World Series had they won a single game in Houston. They’ve sported great teams since but been unable to get through the AL’s best. What if the Nationals lost a game in Houston in the World Series? Two of their franchise players, Anthony Rendon and Stephen Strasburg, are free agents. There’s zero guarantee that the Nationals make it back to the Fall Classic.
So what can Commissioner Rob Manfred and MLB do?
When it concerns responsibility for these actions, it’s difficult to blame players, as they’re supposed to do what their coaching staff and organization tells them. Managers, staff workers, and management? Different story.
Let’s be clear: according to these reports and players backing them up, the Astros clearly cheated. Don’t sugarcoat it. This affects individuals in numerous organizations, baseball’s global perception, and speaks volumes given how it was done on multiple occasions. And let’s use our brains: if a team successfully uses technology to its advantage and doesn’t get caught, why would they stop doing it?
There’s no single action that can be taken to change the course of baseball, but a combination of severe consequences would be plausible. Anyone who was involved in this catastrophe could be banned from working in Major League Baseball. That could include Hinch, Cora, Beltran, and anyone else who partook in this underground order. Other outcomes could include a combination of the Astros losing the right to select in next year’s MLB Draft, a record-setting fine, and having forms of technology removed from their disposal.
If these accusations are proven to be true, the Astros are undeniable frauds.
Inevitably, some that get blamed for these actions or back the Astros will counter with the idea that other teams are also engaging in malpractice and that they should be disciplined as well. Sure, maybe there has been some sketchy sign stealing across the sport, but there’s no report associating another team with the extensive and in-depth allegations that are being pressed against the Astros. And who in the world could’ve come up with the specifics of this wrongdoing?
Cheating isn’t tolerated in a professional environment. The same principles should apply to sports. MLB’s response needs to be bold, resonate with the baseball community, and set a standard moving forward: cheating can’t and won’t be tolerated.