The Houston Astros were widely known as an organization that adopted analytics and embraced new technologies with open arms, while other teams may have been more reluctant. What happens when the use of technology goes too far and becomes cheating? The Astros toed the line on their use of technology, and it has come back to bite them with all of the breaking news surrounding the organization. A pure sound of a bat on a garbage can or bat hitting a bat rack to signal an offspeed pitch to a hitter at the plate has set the baseball world into a frenzy.
The Desire to Win:
Before looking into the sign-stealing specifically, it’s essential to take a look at how the Astros have developed a winning culture that strives to get the best advantage and be a leg up on other teams in the league. In 2011, when the current General Manager (GM), Jeff Luhnow, was hired, the Astros started the turn around in the front office. Luhnow’s reign began a change, with the organization favoring the emergence of analytics, revolutionized player development. The Astros finally saw a difference as the years went on, and the team took off and became a competitive team in the American League (AL) West division.
Any baseball fans know that they bred some incredible talent in the form of José Altuve, Alex Bregman, Carlos Correa, and George Springer. As they took off, the drive to win increased as they began being buyers at trade deadlines, bringing in the right players to help them compete and try to win a World Series. That desire to win got the Astros into trouble once already when the team made a controversial trade to acquire former Toronto Blue Jays closer, Roberto Osuna, who was condemned for a domestic violence issue. The issues surrounding this fizzled away but returned in the 2019 postseason, where the Astros would ultimately lose to the Washington Nationals in game seven of the World Series.
Essentially, this shows that the Astros front office has a willingness to make sure the team has every advantage available to win and compete in Major League Baseball. So what is in place to stop the Astros front office from misusing technology so that players in the dugout can steal signs to gain an advantage over the opponent? Who is to say that Luhnow and the Astros front office has not overstepped the line on cheating with their desire to win?
The Sign-Stealing Epidemic
In the wake of the Astros 2019 World Series victory, former Astros pitcher Mike Fiers has blown the whistle on the sign stealing. In a report from The Athletic, Fiers said that when he got to the Oakland Athletics organization, he warned the new franchise of the Astros illegal use of a camera on the opposing teams’ catcher at home games in Minute Maid Park in Houston.
A simple system was used to relay signals to the hitters while in the box, using a small screen that had the camera feed. Courtesy of a trash can and a bat, the Astros would alert hitters of the upcoming pitch with two possible signals. A loud bang was meaning off-speed, sometimes two bangs for a change-up, or no bangs for a fastball. This sounds ludicrous and farfetched, but since the report, video evidence had emerged from the 2017 season when the Astros won the World Series. See the two videos below from the 2017 seasons, clearing showing the banging noise during at-bats from the 2017 season, using headphones can make the noise clearer and more audible.
ICYMI – This is the infamous garbage can banging noise from a Blue Jays and Astros game back in 2017. It’s very clear if you listen with headphones, too. pic.twitter.com/FLevUbzKnj
— Ian Hunter (@BlueJayHunter) November 14, 2019
After unloading all of these accusations towards the Astros regarding their possible sign-stealing, one thing needs to be said. Sign stealing happens all the time, every team wants to win and find a “tell,” “pitch tip,” or “steal a sign” to help their club win a ballgame, but not when using technology illegally. Runners on second base can try to pick up on sign sets that catchers are using with their pitchers, and that’s all “fair game” in terms of sign stealing. Teams can catch wind of pitchers “tell” as the Astros did with Tyler Glasnow in the 2019 ALDS, where Glasnow struggled while tipping his changeups. That is legal, finding something like that and making the hitters aware of the signs that are picked up is legal, its the legality of cheating that raises concern in this situation.
After establishing meaning for sign stealing and deciding what is legal and what is not, the videos above really make it seem as if something is going on in the grounds of cheating. The Astros can relay the signs to the hitter incredibly quickly, which should be shocking to anyone who watches the video. In the video, the catcher gives the indication for offspeed, and almost immediately after, the loud bang can be heard, and the turnover is quick, showing that some form of technology has to be being misused to benefit the Astros.
The videos above and reported issues from Fiers happened in 2017. Still, since Fiers made the comments this offseason, some other concerns about the sign-stealing were raised from the 2019 World Series by Nationals pitcher Sean Doolittle and pitching coach Paul Menhart. The two personnel both released comments in an article in the Washington Post that was about how they had different sign sets that would allow them to try and prevent any sign stealing. The effective way was catchers using wristbands with multiple sign sets for pitchers, switching them to hopefully disallow the Astros from catching on to what the catchers were calling for.
The Astros were statistically better in home runs, fewer strikeouts, more runs, and better slash lines in Minute Maid Park than on the road. The Astros seemingly have found some way to have better success at home, and the stats do back it up. The Astros appear to have found a way to gain an advantage at home, more than just the “home-field” advantage since, in other years, the numbers were better on the road for the Astros.
What Happens Now?
With all of the rumors coming out about the Astros sign stealing, Major League Baseball has decided to step in and take some action. The league has launched an investigation into all of the accusations, rumors, and evidence that has come out as of late to see what has been happening. The league has already reached out to the Boston Red Sox about any involvement from Alex Cora, who was rumored to be one of the core people involved. New York Mets newly hired manager Carlos Beltrán has reportedly commented on the situation, saying that he was not included in the sign-stealing situation. Other executives around the league have been rumored to be involved in the situation, like Toronto Blue Jays bench coach Dave Hudgens. The Astros have dug themselves a hole, and the league will investigate to hopefully find out what went on with the Astros and the possible misuse of technology.