Sign stealing

How Much Sign Stealing Is Too Much Sign Stealing? Never Mind, Heads Are Starting To Roll

We all knew this was coming, and still it’s shocking. Yesterday, the Astros fired GM Jeff Luhnow, the architect of their championship roster, and manager AJ Hinch, for their roles in last year’s video-snooping, sign-stealing, trash-can-banging shenanigans. This came shortly after MLB commissioner Rob Manfred released a nine-page report summary of MLB’s investigation into the affair, and suspended the pair until after the 2020 World Series—plus a $5 million fine for the Astros (the maximum allowable) and the loss of first- and second-round picks in each of the next two drafts.

Luhnow and Hinch, reads the report, failed to “establish a culture in which adherence to the rules is ingrained in the fabric of the organization, and to stop bad behavior as soon as it occurred.”

Still to come: punishment for Red Sox manager Alex Cora, who, as a coach with Houston during the time in question—the only uniformed non-player implicated, in fact—“was involved in developing both the banging scheme and utilizing the replay review room to decode and transmit signs.” It was Cora who had the monitor installed just outside the Astros’ dugout for easy access to the video feed from a center-field camera.

If that’s not damning enough, baseball is still investigating Cora’s role in similar activities after he took over the helm in Boston prior to the 2018 campaign. Last week, the Athletic reported confirmation from three members of Boston’s 2018 championship club that the Red Sox used the video replay room at Fenway Park in ways similar to the Astros, dedicating a video feed to decoding catchers’ signals, which were then passed to players in the dugout. Because those signs ended up being relayed to hitters the old-fashioned way—by baserunners peering in from second, mostly, and not from within the stadium tunnel by a guy in front of a monitor—it will probably be seen by the league as less egregious than Houston’s efforts. Then again, it’s effectively a second strike for Cora, the only person whose malfeasance spans both teams.

Given the precedent Crane set by firing Luhnow and Hinch—both more established than Cora—it wouldn’t surprise if the Red Sox followed suit and dismissed their manager outright. They have even more reason, in fact, given that in 2017, Boston was caught relaying information from a Fenway Park video room to a trainer via an Apple Watch. John Farrell was manager then, but cleaning house of all offending parties makes a good deal of sense for a franchise looking to divest itself from scandal.

The entire controversy helps to demarcate the differences between what management and players alike view as legitimate sign stealing, and behavior that most everybody agrees is out of bounds. To that end, when Manfred fined the Red Sox an undisclosed amount for its smartwatch violation in 2017, he clarified that “the attempt to decode signs being used by an opposing catcher is not a violation of any Major League Baseball Rule or Regulation” [emphasis mine], with the exception, he explicitly pointed out, of those signs stolen or relayed via electronic equipment.

That various degrees of cheating are acceptable in baseball is proving difficult for some people to digest. The sport brought this on itself has been a common theme among columnists recently, who have trouble conceding that simply paying attention on the field can pay off in myriad ways while remaining entirely above-board.

After all, baseball cannot legislate against a runner at second peering in toward the catcher, just as it cannot prevent him from tipping pitches or location to the hitter with as simple a cue as which foot he moves first when taking or extending his lead. It is not baseball’s place to determine what is intentional in this regard and what is happenstance.

If they’re getting my signs, goes the old catcher’s refrain, it only means that I need better signs. This is accepted by every big league ballclub, in part because every big league ballclub has players who steal signs from the basepaths. The model works—has always worked … or at least it did until 2014, when MLB implemented video replay challenges, at which point teams like the Astros figured out new ways to game the system. No matter how much care a catcher takes, should a camera be trained on him, opponents will crack his code. And with no need for a baserunner to relay the signal (which can be done via trash-can banging or, according to reports, finger buzzers worn beneath batting gloves), every hitter, not only those batting with a runner at second, is helped. This is why so many people are now questioning the legitimacy of Houston’s 2017 championship … and, pending the upcoming findings of the league, maybe Boston’s the following year, as well. 

There are legitimate questions about the degree to which such a system helps. Some players are steadfast about not wanting to receive stolen signs (even those pinched appropriately), for reasons that have nothing to do with morals. They feel that they hit better when left up to their own devices, and that advance information can override their instincts. Back in the ’50s, diminutive White Sox second baseman Nellie Fox refrained from his team’s potent scoreboard-based sign-relaying scheme because he felt that knowing what was coming would inspire him to muscle up … and hit a bunch of warning-track flyballs as a result.

There’s also the detail that the Astros discontinued their trash-can practice in 2018 because, reads Manfred’s report on the situation, “the players no longer believed it was effective.” This may have had to do with the advent of a better system (finger buzzers?) or an understanding that the rewards were not worth the risks. Houston’s stats improved against offspeed stuff after the system was implemented midway through the 2017 season, but only marginally. Hinch himself didn’t like it, to the point that he reportedly intentionally damaged the replay monitor. Then again, one reason he’s in trouble now is that he never instructed his players to avoid such tactics.

Regardless, there are ways for opponents to circumvent such espionage. The Nationals reportedly filtered through five full sets of signs per pitcher during the World Series, demarcated on notecards that could be swapped out at a moment’s notice to prevent the types of shenanigans that have since been so carefully detailed. This takes time, of course, which, in a league obsessed with shortening games, is not a good look.

People have talked about a system using flashing lights at the front of the mound that can be seen only by the pitcher, and wearable random-number generators to indicate which sign in a sequence is hot. There’s always the standby idea of earpieces for pitchers. (Ask Billy Martin how that turned out.)

Also feeling some heat is new Mets manager Carlos Beltran, who was in his final year as a player in 2017, and reportedly not only knew about Houston’s system but was active in its conception. Given that no players have been disciplined for this, Beltran will likely skate in that regard. It does, however, put him on thin ice before his rookie managerial season even begins.

MLB was initially reluctant to make a big issue of this—not until former Astros pitcher Mike Fiers came out in the Athletic as a whistleblower did the story gain landscape-shifting traction—and it’s easy to see why. Tainting championships is no fun for anybody. (The league went so far as to clear Houston during the 2019 and 2017 postseasons—mainly, it appears, to avoid controversy.) Also, the Astros and Red Sox were hardly working in a bubble in this regard. According to Sports Illustrated, the commissioner’s investigation includes Astros players detailing eight other clubs that were using technology-aided systems in 2017 and 2018. The Padres were accused of similar extracurricular activity in 2016, the Blue Jays in 2015 and 2012, the Tigers and Marlins in 2014. This list is hardly comprehensive. Now, to maintain credibility, Manfred will have to give due diligence to every incident that might arise.

In the meantime, the next head to roll is certain to be Alex Cora’s. How this affects the rest of the Red Sox organization is anybody’s guess, but one thing about which we can be certain is that Cora’s fate, whatever it is, will hardly be the final chapter of this saga.

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