A Serious Conversation About Sign Stealing in Baseball

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A Serious Conversation About Sign Stealing in Baseball 

Post#1 » by RealGM Articles » Thu Jan 16, 2020 4:26 pm

The following is a transcript of a conversation between John Watson of RealGM with [name redacted for privacy purposes]. Some of the questions and answers have been edited for brevity and clarity. Just not very many.

I think I heard something pretty big went down in the world of MLB. Between the NBA, NFL and being NHL-curious, I’m very, very busy. I also have three kids I’m supposed to be watching right now. Can you sum up whatever the hell is going on? Quickly, please.

Astros won World Series. Turns out Astros cheated. Bring the rage. 

OK, the kids are good and you’ve piqued my curiosity. Maybe you can dive just a little deeper.

Gladly. It took a little over two months for MLB to mete out punishment for the sign stealing scandal that Ken Rosenthal and Evan Drellich exposed in their article over at The Athletic, but the hammer finally dropped. MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred graced us with a nine-page, scathing indictment of Houston and the methods they employed in procuring the first championship in franchise history. 

Sorry, but is one of those links behind a paywall?  

Yes, but it’s written by a bow-tie-clad dude who’s kind of a big deal when it comes to breaking baseball news. Paying for things you consume isn’t really that weird of a notion, is it? You pay for the food your kids eat, right?

Yeah, yeah, the kids may or may not be hungry, and it kind of feels like you’re getting preachy. Can you summarize, and maybe skip the attitude?

Will do, as best I can, with the caveat that this is all very complicated. A couple of months ago, former Astros pitcher Mike Fiers broke ranks and let us all in on the sign stealing setup Houston employed during the 2017 season, when Houston clinched their first World Series title. Houston’s system (as originally reported by Fiers; it turns out it evolved over time) involved using a camera in center field to relay a feed to a television in the clubhouse where players deciphered the signs and then banged on a trash can to indicate whether the pitcher was throwing a fastball or a breaking ball, providing the hitter with a better chance to do damage.  

Banging on trash cans, eh? Sounds like Houston was spending some time with my kids.

Seriously, do you even care?

Sorry, just trying to liven up the convo. Also, just to be clear, if I wanted “journalism” I would’ve clicked on that link you posted earlier.

Dramatic air quotes are duly noted, but you should probably realize this is a pretty big deal for the MLB, as it calls into question the sanctity of America’s pastime. Houston won the World Series the same season they were employing these methods and we also learned this week that, contrary to the original reporting, they were stealing signs during the postseason. Boston is currently also under investigation for their sign stealing during the 2018 season, when, you may remember, they also won the World Series. It’s not a good look for the sport for each of the last two champions to be embroiled in cheating scandals. 

Alright, I’m listening again, but I thought sign stealing was part of baseball? 

Yes, on this, you are correct. But the “traditional” method of sign stealing goes like this: Get to second base. Get clean line of sight to home. Watch the catcher’s hands from over 100 feet away. Figure out which signs correspond to which pitch. Convey that information to the batter. Avoid letting the other team know that that’s what you’re doing. If you fail to comply with the latter point, you get punished with a baseball thrown at you in the 80-to-100 mph range. 

I’ve got a joke about punishment and my kids, but I’m starting to feel like you might not be in the mood.

Correct. We can talk about punishment soon enough, but first we have to cover the timeline for a second, because Manfred put everyone in MLB on warning in 2017, before the postseason and after the Yankees and Red Sox were both implicated in electronic sign stealing allegations. We’re not going to dig too deep on this, but it’s worth noting that both Houston and Boston, and other teams like the Brewers and Dodgers, to name a couple, were put on notice that this sort of behavior was cheating and absolutely unacceptable. Houston had a chance to put this thing to bed before it became a hot mess and they didn’t. 

Can we get back to the punishment?  

OK, then. Houston’s President of Baseball Operations Jeff Luhnow and manager A.J. Hinch both received one-year suspensions, and they’ve already been fired by owner Jim Crane. Houston is losing their first and second-round draft picks in 2020 and 2021, and they’re getting fined $5 million, the maximum fine MLB can levy.

Hold up, none of the players are being punished?

Nope. Manfred’s reasoning was basically that MLB couldn’t sort out which players were involved, even if it’s unimaginable that everyone at least knew what was going on, even if they weren’t banging on the can. Considering that the whole plan was, to quote MLB’s commish, “player-driven and player-executed,” it’s kind of weird that that not a single player is going to face any repercussions for the sign stealing.  

Ban Astros players for life! What’s the problem?

Well, some of those players play for other teams now and, even if that wasn’t the case, the players are represented by a union. The same isn’t true for managers and front office folks. The MLBPA would’ve lost their collective mind if players started getting suspended, and things would get uglier than they already are.

Just wanted to say that “collective mind” pun wasn’t lost on me.

Thanks. So, yes, this was by far the simplest solution in terms of discipline-doling. But that doesn’t mean it’s worth noting a few things about the whole sitch. Hinch apparently did not approve of what was going on. Not enough to actually tell his players to stop the can-banging, but enough to mangle a couple of TVs in an attempt to get them to stop.

Hold up, he smashed two TVs and that wasn’t a sign that they should maybe cut it out? It only took one TV smashing on my part to get the kids in line. 

Yeah, I’m not really sure how to respond to that.

Did you watch the College Football Championship? 

Yeah, Burrows earned himself a place in football lore. To be fair, I basically only watched because my dad went to LSU. I’m more of a baseball dude, as I’m pretty sure you’re aware, and I also want to note that we’re still on the record here and I think maybe you’re trying to change the subject. 

[Redacted]

I am honestly just trying to have a meaningful conversation about how this affects baseball moving forward. You don’t have to be a jerk. 

[Redacted]

[Redacted]

OK, fair enough. How did we get here then?

Well, it all goes back to instant replay. If you’re going to challenge the umpires’ calls, you need to be able to review them, which meant giving the bench access to video feeds they could use to determine whether a call was correct, but also potentially use to steal signs. Turns out that at least some teams did just that.

Wait, MLB made this mess all by itself? 

Yeah, it turns out that, in professional sports--where every advantage, however small, is going to be exploited by everyone, everywhere--that providing a live video feed to teams where they can use said video feed to gain an advantage over other teams might have been a mistake. Then teams started suspecting other teams of cheating, even if they weren’t, and might have started a downward spiral with respect to sign stealing, and, well, here we are.

Well, at least we can put this mess behind us move on now that Manfred has laid down the law, right?

Unfortunately, no. MLB is still investigating the Red Sox and their manager Alex Cora, who was Houston’s bench coach in 2017 and apparently instrumental in implementing the whole plan in Houston before he went to Boston after Houston’s championship. He’s since been fired, but the lone Astro player to be named in Manfred’s report, Carlos Beltrán, is still the newly-hired manager of the Mets. Which seems apropos of everything, by the way.

Am I supposed to have feelings about the Mets? That seems like something I don’t want to do. I’m even wondering if I should I make time for baseball anymore. I mean, I’m having a hard enough time figuring out where my kids are and whether they’ve ingested any substances which might be “detrimental” to their “development.” 

First of all, we already talked about the air quotes and, second, you should probably check on your kids. But to answer your question, I’m going to keep watching baseball, one way or another. Whether you want to or not is totally up to you. Everything is a burning tire fire right now, but there are a plethora of options MLB could implement to solve the problem immediately. 

Woah, woah, woah. Why didn’t MLB just do that back in 2017 instead of telling teams to just “not cheat?” 

¯\\\\_(ツ)_/¯. Baseball, more so than any other major sport, is, for better and worse, deeply rooted in tradition. Catchers laying down the signs is a part of that tradition, as is position players stealing said signs. But, by choosing to implement these fancy fandangled new technological inventions like instant replay, while failing to anticipate that teams would almost certainly take advantage of them, wasn’t exactly forward looking. 

MLB could do away with replay review, but that cat seems to be out of the bag. While I certainly occasionally get annoyed when I have to watch a toe-tap on first base in slow motion, over and over and over again, I’m OK with it.

It really eats into my time with my kids, though. You sure we can’t speed it up? 

I hate to break it to you, but it’s unlikely that those worms are going back into the can at this point. There are at least two options that are much more realistic, though. The more “drastic” one would be to give pitchers and catchers microphones and do away with this whole mess altogether, no signing required. I, for one, approve of this message, as it really, really doesn’t change that much about the game except for the whole sign stealing thing, which is why we’re here. 

However, if you still feel like there’s something to be gained from the whole “laying down the signs” thing, all you’d need to do is give the pitcher and catcher a buzzer system, and they could use that to change signs on the fly. I just wish they would’ve done something like this sooner. I’m from Houston... 

Ah, hometown bias, no wonder it seems like you’re trying to explain this whole thing away. 

If you think that this was just the Astros and Red Sox engaging in these sort of shenanigans, I have some serpent-based oils that you might be interested in purchasing. MLB basically turned a blind eye, hoping that it wouldn’t become a major issue. Kind of like how they handled things during the Steroid Era. 

MLB has a problem, because it’s a sport that’s supremely obsessed with history. Context matters, though, and stats will never tell the whole story, whether or not you’re talking about a sport that’s riddled with all sorts of idiosyncrasies. Forget steroids, let’s talk about records that were set when the color of your skin dictated whether or not you could play the sport professionally. 

I just want to watch sports with my kids.  

Unfortunately, that’s not really an option. Life is complicated, sports are complicated. 

Every time I wear my Astros cap, I’m going to have to think about this crap. We haven’t even talked about the whole Brandon Taubman thing.

I really thought we were almost done. 

We actually are. I don’t really feel like I have the energy to get into the sexism and domestic violence crap in sports right now. This is more than enough.  

You’re making me feel bad about lying about having kids this whole time.

I think we’re absolutely done here, but I’m also getting the vibe that you might be an excellent fit for a job in baseball right about now. I hear there’s a bunch of positions opening up.

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