Searle/Goldstein: Minute Maid malice

From Ginny Searle and Craig Goldstein at Baseball Prospectus on November 18, 2019:

We now know for a fact the Houston Astros were stealing signs at home games throughout their 2017 season—the one that culminated with a division title and a World Series championship. Ken Rosenthal and Evan Drellich kicked the discovery phase off with a deeply reported article which includes the benefit of an on-the-record statement from former Astros’ and current Oakland Athletics’ pitcher Mike Fiers. The subterfuge was also confirmed to The Athletic by three others who were members of the Astros organization throughout 2017. Houston is alleged to have used a real-time feed displayed on a screen set up in the tunnel between the clubhouse and the dugout to watch and decode signs from the catcher and then relay whether the upcoming pitch was a fastball or offspeed by banging on a trash can, loudly enough that the batter (and crowd noise microphones) could hear it. As noted by Tyler Stafford on Baseball Prospectus, this banging can be identified as early as the seventh pitch of the 2017 season.

Rosenthal and Drellich note that sign stealing is pervasive throughout the league, and that electronic sign stealing is not a single-team issue. They mention that the commissioner’s office hears complaints about many different organizations, painting a picture of a league where attempts at gamesmanship are endemic and constant. The Astros’ defense of their staff, players, and operations will likely hinge on saying or showing they were simply doing what the rest of the league was. And in fact there is evidence of other sign-stealing campaigns within the same season: the Red Sox and Yankees were both fined in 2017 after offering evidence against each other; the former for a scheme involving the use of Apple Watches, the latter—due to a dearth of evidence—technically for a transgression from the previous season. The simultaneous meting of the fines, though, would imply MLB felt the Red Sox’s complaint also had merit.

Still, at this point only the Astros have been revealed to have used real-time electronic means to decode signs and then relay them to hitters at the plate. Boston’s scheme was to pass signals from replay officials (outside of the dugout) to trainers inside, who passed them onto players so they could relay them to batters whenever on second base. The differences between this plan and the Astros’ is stark. For one thing, just 19.4 percent of all plate appearances in 2017 occurred with a runner on second base, giving the Astros 515 percent more chances to cheat. For another, there was no evidence, at least per MLB, of Boston front office officials or ownership being privy to this plan.

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Originally published: November 18, 2019. Last Updated: November 18, 2019.