Sign stealing

MLB Clears Astros Spy Of Wrongdoing, Because Whose Interests Is It Really In To Call Out That Kind Of Thing At This Time Of Year?

Astros camera

Some people think the Astros were illegally stealing signs from the stands during the playoffs. Okay, a lot of people think the Astros were illegally stealing signs from the stands during the playoffs.

According to Metro US and Yahoo’s Jeff Passan, a guy named Kyle McLaughlin, working for Houston, was perched in a dugout-adjacent photographer well without appropriate credentials and aiming a cell phone into Cleveland’s dugout during the ALDS. He was also caught doing it to the Red Sox during the current ALCS.

Houston said that it was a counterintelligence effort, an attempt by the Astros to ensure that opponents were not spying on them. Of primary concern were last year’s allegations that a Red Sox coach used an Apple Watch to steal opponents’ signs.

Passan’s report, however, details other allegations against the Astros that don’t much square with their defense. Among others, members of the Oakland A’s “noticed Astros players clapping in the dugout before pitches and believed they were relaying stolen signs,” with the Dodgers airing similar concerns during last year’s World Series. Other players noted various Astros banging a trash can in the dugout during games as a supposed method of communicating pinched signs.

As has been noted many times in this space, there are different layers to this kind of thing. If the signs are being stolen from the field of play without use of mechanical aid, that’s normal. If, for example, a baserunner at second has a clear view in to the catcher’s signs, and if the catcher has not mixed things up to the point that said baserunner can quickly and easily decipher them, and if those signs are then relayed to the hitter at the plate prior to the pitch being thrown—well, that’s mostly on the defensive team for not implementing better signs. Even if the runner is indicating only location—where the catcher places his target pre-pitch—that too can be countered by the catcher setting up too late in the sequence for the runner to do anything about it.

It’s all totally legal.

What’s not legal, either in the unwritten rulebook or the actual one, is the use of binoculars, TV cameras, radio devices and the like, including Apple Watches. Unless a pitcher was exhibiting an obvious tell, it’s extremely unlikely that the Astros would be clapping or banging garbage cans in their dugout based on something they saw directly. Much more feasible is that somebody with a video feed was passing them timely information.

In my Apple Watch post I offered some brief history on illicit sign stealing, including the 1950s “exploding scoreboard” at Comiskey Park, the military-grade gun sight that Bob Feller used to help the Indians to the 1948 pennant, and the Cubs’ traveling secretary, who used binoculars to nab opponents’ signs from the Wrigley Field scoreboard in the 1950s. Such affairs are hardly a relic of the past, however. From that post:

More recently, the Blue Jays were accused repeatedly, by numerous opponents, of similar activity at the Rogers Centre, to the point that ESPN commissioned an expansive expose on the practice.

The Phillies drew the ire of multiple teams—including the Yankees, in the World Series—for their alleged ballpark shenanigans. It didn’t help that, in 2010, their bullpen coach was caught on the field with binoculars.

In 2014, Chris Sale accused Victor Martinez and the Tigers of having somebody in center field.

The Padres have had (probably baseless) accusations thrown their way, as have the Marlins.

All of which is to say that this is nothing new. If you haven’t heard about repercussions from those other incidents, you likely won’t remember the fallout from this one either. Assuming that the Red Sox knock it off, you can expect it to quietly disappear.

Perhaps the Red Sox didn’t knock it off, and Houston’s excuse that they were just being vigilant is valid. Or perhaps many teams are involved in this kind of thing, and are only very rarely caught, and the Astros were just trying to get away with something. (That said, we’re in the playoffs now. TV cameras are everywhere and people are paying attention. Houston really has to be smarter.)

MLB responded to the affair by increasing its security detail at Tuesday’s Game 3, sending an additional nine staffers—three from baseball-ops and six from security—to monitor the game, including somebody in each team’s video-review room. Its takeaway: Houston did nothing wrong. The official statement:

Before the Postseason began, a number of Clubs called the Commissioner’s Office about sign stealing and the inappropriate use of video equipment. The concerns expressed related to a number of Clubs, not any one specific Club. In response to these calls, the Commissioner’s Office reinforced the existing rules with all playoff Clubs and undertook proactive measures, including instituting a new prohibition on the use of certain in-stadium cameras, increasing the presence of operations and security personnel from Major League Baseball at all Postseason games and instituting a program of monitoring Club video rooms.

With respect to both incidents regarding a Houston Astros employee, security identified an issue, addressed it and turned the matter over to the Department of Investigations. A thorough investigation concluded that an Astros employee was monitoring the field to ensure that the opposing Club was not violating any rules. All Clubs remaining in the playoffs have been notified to refrain from these types of efforts and to direct complaints about any in-stadium rules violations to MLB staff for investigation and resolution. We consider the matter closed.

Look away. Nothing to see here.

Of course, even as the Astros claimed vindication—”They’ve done their investigation and cleared us” crowed Houston GM Jeff Luhnow prior to Game 4—there’s a lot more to unpack here. Taking Luhnow’s claims of innocence at face value means that, at the very least, his opponents—specifically Cleveland in the ALDS and Boston currently—may well be doing the things that the Astros have themselves been recently accused of. At a minimum, Houston’s suspicions were strong to station a non-credentialed employee in a sensitive location to enact shady surveillance tactics in response.

Is that actually likely? MLB’s claims to support the theory suggest that it is. Or maybe it’s just that the league office wants to avoid a spygate controversy blowing up on the cusp of the World Series, potentially sullying the eventual champion, whoever that might be.

When a baserunner is caught trying to relay pinched signs to a hitter, it’s incumbent upon his team to knock things off, at least for a while. My own guess is that the knock-it-off message here is coming from an institutional level, not from one player to another but from the commissioner’s office to the Astros, telling them that this entire affair is bad for business and it’d be best for everyone if it was quickly forgotten.

Which it no doubt will be.

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