Cheating is baseball's oldest profession
November 14, 2019 8:18 AM   Subscribe

A bombshell report in The Athletic (subscription required; secondary coverage here) alleges that the 2017 World Series Champion Houston Astros used a camera mounted in center field at their home park to steal signs, relaying the results to hitters with the sound of a banging trash can. The ensuing investigation figures to involve three current MLB managers. (The Athletic again/Sports Illustrated)

@jomboy has compiled pretty damning video evidence on Twitter. (See also this famous George Springer home run from 2017.)

The Astros have been suspected of sign stealing for some time by other clubs. This year's Washington Nationals team went to the extreme step of creating five new sets of pitch signs for each pitcher just for the World Series. (WaPo/alt: The Sporting News.) Even this sign stealing scandal from 2018 looks different now, since Sox manager Alex Cora might have been calling out the Astros sign stealing program he helped create.

The Astros have been the targets of increasing scrutiny in recent months, not just with allegations of cheating (other allegations of other kinds of cheating) but for a toxic internal culture. Assistant GM Brandon Taubman was fired during the World Series after taunting female reporters who had criticized the team's acquisition of domestic abuser Roberto Osuna with shouts of "Thank God we got Osuna! I’m so fucking glad we got Osuna!"

MLB Players react to the new sign stealing scandal. Indications from the league office are that punishment may be "significant."
posted by DirtyOldTown (119 comments total) 20 users marked this as a favorite
 
Pardon my ignorance (please correct me where I am wrong), they keep saying "sign stealing" but these articles are written under the assumption the reader already knows what that means. From context, I think I have the idea. Nothing is being stolen, they're just spying on the opposing teams hand-gestures. Using non-verbal communication is allowed, trying to see and decode those signs is allowed, but there's a limit in which technology can be used to assist this espionage.

Seems like there are a lot of better things that it could be called that aren't misleading, stealing implies theft, and also conflicts with the more common useage of stealing in baseball, in regards to stealing bases.

/baseball-ignorant observer blurb over

Damn, where the Rangers are the main baseball hotdogs in town. You only hear of "the 'stros" when an errant fan wanders too far north or someone wants to just have fun saying "'stros." I had no idea the Astros were so shady, along with the Osuna stuff... seems like a shithead club for assholes.
posted by GoblinHoney at 8:42 AM on November 14 [11 favorites]


Dang, y'all got me learning all kinds of new stuff with these cheating scandals (I too had to decode "sign-stealing"). My poor boyfriend is still getting updates on Mike Postle, he might actually faint if I drop some baseball knowledge today.

How do fans generally feel about this sort of foul play? Is it a steroid-esque shrug of "everyone does it" or will this be seen as undeniably wrong behavior? Or do folks just instinctively support their existing team/players?
posted by youarenothere at 8:52 AM on November 14


That makes the Nationals win even more satisfying!
posted by tavella at 8:56 AM on November 14 [23 favorites]


A couple of the articles do break it down, but there are a stack of 'em, so no harm going over it again.

Sign stealing is the practice of intercepting the catcher's signs to the pitcher indicating what pitch will be thrown next and then relaying that to the hitter to give him an unfair advantage. While no one loves this practice, it is allowable under the limited purview of a baserunner at second seeing them and relaying them on a limited basis, generally with his eyes.

Installing surveillance equipment, using personnel and technology from off the field, and using electronic devices of any kind are not only strictly prohibited, but liable to bring down the unrestrained wrath of the commissioner's office.

For a recent precedent, the Red Sox got in big trouble for using Apple Watches to steal signs a few years ago.

For a more human angle on why this is wrong, check out the MIke Fiers bits from the first Athletic article (or here from ESPN if you don't subscribe.) Fiers, the former Astro who was a primary source on this scandal, noted that there have been young pitchers whose shot at the majors basically ended because they were lit up in one of their early starts by Astros hitters who had cheated to know exactly what they were going to throw.

Highly recommend the jomboy Twitter videos, as they lay it bare in about a miniute: it's technology-aided sign stealing, with signals coming from off the field, giving hitters a HUGE advantage.
posted by DirtyOldTown at 8:56 AM on November 14 [12 favorites]


How do fans generally feel about this sort of foul play?

As a Dodger fan, I might be biased, but I honestly and truly believe that without lifetime bans for everyone involved, the MLB will never fully recover. Black Sox and Pete Rose were not as bad as this.
posted by sideshow at 8:56 AM on November 14 [14 favorites]


As a fan I'm pissed off. This is undeniably wrong and I hope that the league comes down hard on it. This is low, unconscionable, and I predict the league will be really shook by this.
posted by Gray Duck at 9:00 AM on November 14 [5 favorites]




Sign stealing the old-fashioned way (having your base runners relay what they're seeing when they're on base to the other players/coaches) is fine, it's just part of the game. This electronic stuff is Serious Business, and accusations can create a ton of bad feeling between ball clubs and their respective fanbases regardless of the implications for the careers of individuals. (Also, steroid use is Serious Business these days, and I haven't encountered any fan in my circle who shrugs it off as "everyone does it.")

I'm disappointed in how shitty the Astros culture has been this last year; before they got Osuna I always felt like I could root for them once my Blue Jays were knocked out, but clearly I can't. (Also fuck the Texas Rangers. I guess the MLB in Texas is all just trash now.)
posted by Fish Sauce at 9:07 AM on November 14 [7 favorites]


Seeing as how the Astros seem to have gone hard into the Patriots' playbook, I can't wait for some sort of complicated scheme involving doctoring the balls somehow.
posted by Copronymus at 9:11 AM on November 14


From context, I think I have the idea. Nothing is being stolen, they're just spying on the opposing teams hand-gestures. Using non-verbal communication is allowed, trying to see and decode those signs is allowed, but there's a limit in which technology can be used to assist this espionage.

Yes, this is it. In baseball, the catcher typically suggests the type of pitch/placement to the pitcher by signalling with their hands between their legs. That's called a "sign" or "signal." Players on the other team typically can't see these signals because they are carefully shielded by the catcher. But when a runner is on second base - right behind the pitcher - the runner sometimes CAN see them and they try to tell the batter what is being called.

There's a long-standing and general view that "honest" sign stealing is an appropriate or even admirable strategy - it's up to the pitcher and catcher to change up the code enough that it's not easily decipherable, to cover their signals, and to be as discreet as they can be. (A related notion is that some pitchers or catchers "tip" or forecast their pitches by the way they set up, wind up, or deliver the ball, similar to how some poker players have a "tell" when they are bluffing. Figuring these out and exploiting them are also fair play.)

Going back to the olden days, some teams allegedly had coaches or staff in centerfield using binoculars to watch signs and relaying the message back to the dugout - the Giants even allegedly had a wire and buzzer to get the signal back to the dugout. That was obviously over the line but not super effective in that you couldn't easily instantly communicate the pitch to the batter standing in the box.

In the world of HD televised games and more instant electronic communication, deciphering and communicating signs becomes easier without overtly cheating and there's some quasi-gray area about what you can use and how. Some teams/people would argue that any use of electronics is over the line, while others take the view that watching a feed of the game to decipher the signals is okay so long as you are not actively communicating them. And you still have the issue of speed - a broadcast game feed is usually delayed at least a couple of seconds so you can't translate the pitch and get the word to the batter in time.

So the Astros actively installing a camera and tv for real-time transmission, and then working on audio signals to get that information to the batter before the pitch, is some super shady stuff. That's especially true where the team involved won a World Series.

And the argument of "everybody does this" is like saying you are allowed to rob a bank because the other teams sometimes take an extra dollar for themselves.
posted by AgentRocket at 9:12 AM on November 14 [12 favorites]


One fun bit of strategy to avoid "honest" sign-stealing by a baserunner on second happened earlier this season when the Dodgers did an intentional balk to move an inconsequential baserunner from second to third and remove the risk that he could steal signs.

(A balk is a rare technical...thingee...done by a pitcher, where the penalty is that all of the baserunners automatically get to move to the next base. Generally teams try their best to avoid it. So doing it on purpose was a clever move.)
posted by AgentRocket at 9:17 AM on November 14 [12 favorites]


Why is it up to the catcher to signal to the pitcher what pitch is desirable? I mean, it seems to me this ought to be the pitcher's job.

Of course, I say this from the POV of someone who thinks baseball is very, very silly -- what with all the unwritten rules and the idea of grown men getting upset about how bats are tossed away or whatever -- so if the answer is just "because baseball" then I'll never understand.
posted by uberchet at 9:18 AM on November 14 [4 favorites]


I also don't know baseball, but I assume the catcher wants to be rock solid on where a 90+ MPH ball is going to be before it's thrown at them.
posted by Jpfed at 9:20 AM on November 14 [40 favorites]


Seeing as how the Astros seem to have gone hard into the Patriots' playbook, I can't wait for some sort of complicated scheme involving doctoring the balls somehow.

Oh, the Astros are doing that, too. "Foreign subtances."
posted by DirtyOldTown at 9:21 AM on November 14 [2 favorites]


> Why is it up to the catcher to signal to the pitcher what pitch is desirable? I mean, it seems to me this ought to be the pitcher's job.

They work together. You'll see the pitcher shaking off a suggestion from the catcher, sometimes. And the catcher can see the coaches.
posted by The corpse in the library at 9:22 AM on November 14 [11 favorites]


Astros fan here. I regret nothing.

My lasting memory of 2017 is the Astros winning the World Series for the first time, having previously not ever won a World Series game in their entire existence since 1962. My second lasting memory is about 847 mound meetings in the playoff games whenever anybody got on base for either team, to change up the signs. The league had to pass rules limiting how many mound visits teams get during a game.

The Astros hit better on the road than at home in 2017, so whatever they were doing, wasn’t helping enough.

Starting last year, I think, they put in a bunch of actual specific rules about electronic equipment and where cameras are allowed to be. Video available in the clubhouse is on an 8 second delay. So they’re not doing this anymore.

And of course while they won their home games in the AL playoffs, the road team won every game in the World Series.

Trevor Bauer accused Astros pitchers of cheating last year because spin rates go up when you sign with Houston. As far as I know, no Astros pitcher has been checked for a foreign substance in a game since then, and teams are allowed to have the umpire go check the pitcher for stuff. Nobody’s been caught. Bear in mind I also think Mike Scott was innocent back in the 80’s (he wasn’t ever caught, either!)

Taubman sounds like a dick, but he got fired anyway.

Bear in mind, I think the Patriots got railroaded in the deflate thing, and I have rooted for a guy as both a college athlete and a pro who it turned out murdered at least one person, so I am not what you would call a reasonable unbiased fan here.

I regret nothing. Flags fly forever.
posted by Huffy Puffy at 9:23 AM on November 14 [4 favorites]


Boston Astros.
posted by Bee'sWing at 9:24 AM on November 14 [2 favorites]


Why is it up to the catcher to signal to the pitcher what pitch is desirable? I mean, it seems to me this ought to be the pitcher's job.

The pitcher and catcher will generally have established a plan prior to the game, so think of it more like the catcher is confirming the strategy before each pitch. Like Jpfed said, the catcher wants to be sure what's coming because a fastball moves differently than a slider which moves differently than a curveball. You don't want the pitcher signalling the pitch because the batter can see him.

The pitcher makes the ultimate call: if you watch a game you can see the pitcher 'shake off' a catchers suggestion by shaking his head 'no': the catcher will then confirm a different pitch.
posted by The Notorious SRD at 9:24 AM on November 14 [6 favorites]


Why is it up to the catcher to signal to the pitcher what pitch is desirable? I mean, it seems to me this ought to be the pitcher's job.

It's a problem of logistics. Obviously the catcher needs to know where in a 6 square foot area the ball is going to be coming at him, so they can't just let the pitcher huck it wherever he feels like in the moment. The batter is looking right at the pitcher, so whatever information the pitcher would give to the catcher is equally available to the batter. The only person in this transaction who isn't totally visible to the batter throughout is the catcher, so he makes the calls. As has already been pointed out, it's usually more of a negotiation, but it has to be initiated by the catcher if there's going to be any attempt to disguise exactly where the pitch is going from the batter.
posted by Copronymus at 9:25 AM on November 14 [12 favorites]


Why is it up to the catcher to signal to the pitcher what pitch is desirable? I mean, it seems to me this ought to be the pitcher's job.

Each team has a dozen or more pitchers, each of whom has a unique ability to throw a ball super hard and fast at a tiny target. You hire them principally for that skill. But those pitchers have variable abilities at knowing the hot/cold spots, preferences, and tendencies of 15 other major league batting lineups. So you rely on the catcher to be the "smart" one. They do the homework and direct the strategy, with the help of the coaches in the dugout.

Some pitchers are great strategists and students and are more involved, and the pitcher can always "shake off" a sign, but in general you want the catcher to do the heavy lifting.

(That and it really helps to know where that ball is going when it's being whizzed at you.)
posted by AgentRocket at 9:28 AM on November 14 [14 favorites]


One of the funnier "solutions" i have seen earnestly proposed is that signs be scrapped altogether and the pitches just be called from the dugout by the manager via microphone-to-earpiece.

Oh you sweet summer children, believing that changing the information from on-field communications to networked electronic data flows will protect them.
posted by DirtyOldTown at 9:28 AM on November 14 [10 favorites]


In addition to what others have said, the pitcher has a bunch of other things to worry about, and the catcher is also in a better position to understand how batters and umpire are looking at things, they can not only see the coaches they can also see the entire team's field, and there's also chatter going on up there. The catcher has a lot more information than the pitcher, and as a result they are often hired for their ability to think on their feet as much as their ability to play, physically. There is a plan, and it is a group effort, but if your pitcher is just an imbecile with a decent arm, if they have a good enough catcher all they need to do is throw the ball how they're told and they can win games.
posted by Fish Sauce at 9:28 AM on November 14 [8 favorites]


The Astros seem to be exploring some kind of gross amoral version of sabermetrics that includes doctored baseballs, stolen signs, relievers acquired on the cheap because they beat their wives. It's... yeah, it's gross.

Maybe they want to trade for Addison Russell. Cubs will let you have him cheap.
posted by DirtyOldTown at 9:30 AM on November 14 [8 favorites]


The bummer of this is that the Astros have a bunch of seemingly likeable young players - Altuve, Bregman, Springer - but their front office did a dramatic heel turn that makes you cheer against them. And the whole lot of them get tainted when you know they were actively cheaters.
posted by AgentRocket at 9:33 AM on November 14 [2 favorites]


TIL it's possible to regret rooting against the Yankees
posted by CheesesOfBrazil at 9:34 AM on November 14 [19 favorites]


The MLB players react link has a couple little links one amusing, the Trevor Bauer gif thing made me giggle, and one with some additional context, the Trevor Plouffe vid that suggests this happens more often than you'd think so is no surprise, but can be made pointless if pitchers and catchers are proactive about it, and provides examples of how.

The bigger thing I want to know about the Astros is how they're getting pitchers to so dramatically improve their spin rates. Some have hinted there may be ball doctoring involved.
posted by gusottertrout at 9:35 AM on November 14


Maybe a practical solution would be to sell the middle part of center field as an "electronics free zone," which many people would definitely be into. The league could either put cellular jammers in place or simply have ushers promptly escort anyone out found to be using a device. The only cameras allowed could be wired cameras belonging to the broadcasters, with no access allowed to the home team. You could then even blur the catcher's signals during broadcasted shots.
posted by DirtyOldTown at 9:36 AM on November 14


TIL it's possible to regret rooting against the Yankees

NEVER regret that.
posted by DirtyOldTown at 9:37 AM on November 14 [16 favorites]


If you watch a few baseball games, you will see instances where the announcers talk about a catcher and pitcher getting "crossed up," meaning the pitcher erroneously threw a different type of pitch than the catcher called. These are always extremely awkward and make it very obvious why it's important for the catcher to know what's going to be thrown to him. If the catcher isn't expecting to have to block a breaking pitch in the dirt, for example, it's likely to be a wild pitch/passed ball that could advance runners on base. If he's not expecting a fastball, there's a slight injury risk.
posted by AndrewInDC at 9:38 AM on November 14 [4 favorites]


My apologies to Fish Sauce and others if I've misspoken regarding general perceptions of steroid use in baseball; I acknowledge my understanding is based on a small sample of randomly overheard chatter throughout the years as I am relatively unversed in sports in general.
posted by youarenothere at 9:39 AM on November 14


I've also read that the Astros -- like some other teams with domed stadiums -- will crank the AC/fans when the opposing team is up, in hopes of slowing down fly balls and reducing their chances of going over the fence. Something tells me that aerodynamics are not quite that simple, though.

There's a long history in baseball of tweaking the conditions to favor your team, like soaking the dirt around home plate and the infield right before the game, so when the opposing team leads off, any ground balls are slower and become outs instead of hits. (Especially in summer months, it dries out by the time the home team is up.) And leaving the grass long if your pitchers tend to give up a lot of grounders, beveling the basepaths so bunts are more likely to stay fair or go foul, depending on your preference, etc.
posted by martin q blank at 9:41 AM on November 14 [1 favorite]


I say this from the POV of someone who thinks baseball is very, very silly

If you're trying but failing to understand baseball, it could be this attitude that's getting in the way. If you're not trying to understand baseball, I'm not sure why you're posting in the thread.
posted by ultraviolet catastrophe at 9:45 AM on November 14 [56 favorites]


I love this sort of skullduggery thing even if I don't actually follow major sports :)
posted by sperose at 9:52 AM on November 14 [1 favorite]


God I miss deadspin
posted by The Ted at 9:54 AM on November 14 [55 favorites]


Burn the Astros organization to the ground.
posted by Holy Zarquon's Singing Fish at 9:58 AM on November 14 [3 favorites]


Another big no-no when it comes to sign-stealing is that there is a firm social contract that batter will not turn their head and see where the catcher is set up to see if the pitch is coming inside or outside. We get to see the catcher's location on tv or in-person, but it's supposed to be a mystery to the batter who is standing just a foot or two away.
posted by thecjm at 10:01 AM on November 14 [2 favorites]


Also fuck the Texas Rangers.

Is there some nasty story behind this or is it just sports loyalty feelings? Rangers are the baseball team I say I like if I need to appear to like a baseball team, and they're also the most of baseball I've ever watched, due to some dollar beer promotion during all of their games a few years back when they were going for the world series 2x in a row. It's not a deep love and I'd like to hear a reason to cast them off.
posted by GoblinHoney at 10:02 AM on November 14


I've also read that the Astros -- like some other teams with domed stadiums -- will crank the AC/fans when the opposing team is up, in hopes of slowing down fly balls and reducing their chances of going over the fence. Something tells me that aerodynamics are not quite that simple, though.

The late 80s/early 90s Minnesota Twins were accused of this. The thinking in that case wasn't that the temp would affect the flight of the ball, it was literally just wind/air flow. The a/c blew straight in from the direction of center field.
posted by DirtyOldTown at 10:03 AM on November 14 [3 favorites]


thecjm, I always thought that was less of a social contract and more about "if the pitcher sees you looking, he's got no reason not to throw the pitch before you can get your head back around."
posted by Holy Zarquon's Singing Fish at 10:04 AM on November 14


Also, the "no looking at the catcher" thing is easily policed. When they see it, they just send a pitch right at your ear.
posted by DirtyOldTown at 10:06 AM on November 14 [10 favorites]


There's a long history in baseball of tweaking the conditions to favor your team, like soaking the dirt around home plate and the infield right before the game, so when the opposing team leads off, any ground balls are slower and become outs instead of hits. (Especially in summer months, it dries out by the time the home team is up.) And leaving the grass long if your pitchers tend to give up a lot of grounders, beveling the basepaths so bunts are more likely to stay fair or go foul, depending on your preference, etc.

My feeling on this kind of thing is that there's a long, tapering slightly-morally-grey area before you hit a threshhold beyond which the league needs to step in and crack down on it. Screwing around with the field of play is mostly fine since it affects both teams equally-ish. You can optimize for some weird field conditions but then you don't get to whine when it backfires. Obviously at some point that starts to break down because if you just let them run wild, some team would eventually plant land mines in the outfield and train their players not to run there or something, but grass heights, weird fences, all that stuff is fine to me, and in some ways part of the charm of the game. If every team had some goofy unique feature in their park, it might actually be a good thing for the game.

Mucking around with air conditions for only your opponent is running right up to my personal line since it affects the teams unequally, but as you point out, it seems a little unlikely that baseball guys, even smart ones, have fully mastered atmospheric fluid and temperature dynamics, so I'm skeptical it's doing all that much. Just the Astros being the Astros as much as anything. If every team starts doing it, I guess it'll get colder in the stadiums sometimes, but I don't really see it as something that needs an immediate and severe response. Maybe something to keep an eye on to see if it does have some outsized effect on the game.

Using cameras to steal signs and immediately transmit that to the batter is way past the threshhold, especially because if you don't come down hard on this, every other team will immediately start doing it and by next March there will be no point to anyone having catcher signs at all. You might as well go back to the 1870s when the batters could request a specific pitch. It'll change the game in a way that having 1% more flyballs die in the outfield or even 40% more marginal bunts go foul wouldn't.
posted by Copronymus at 10:50 AM on November 14 [9 favorites]


Surely catchers and pitchers have made significant attempts to communicate the pitches in a way that is not as easily intercepted and understood, haven’t they? A more deeply-encoded set of signals by both pitcher and catcher? Intervening signals from coaches to disrupt possible stealing? Electronic communication cheating on the pitcher/catcher side of things and not only on the offense’s side?

I mean even just changing the understood meaning between a specific pitcher and catcher of what the pitcher means if he appears to shake off a signal so that different “shake-off” signals trigger the next sign by the catcher to have a different potential meaning?

Surely this is a thing, right? I’m getting the impression from the sign stealing scandals over the last few years that it’s trivial for the team that intercepts the signs to then decode them.
posted by The World Famous at 11:07 AM on November 14 [2 favorites]


I’m getting the impression from the sign stealing scandals over the last few years that it’s trivial for the team that intercepts the signs to then decode them.

They're easy to decode because it's predicated on the catcher being able to hide the signs so that only the pitcher can see them. When there is an opposing team runner on second base, standing directly behind the pitcher, they switch to a more complicated system.
posted by 1970s Antihero at 11:11 AM on November 14 [1 favorite]


The league could either put cellular jammers in place

No they couldn't.
posted by ryanrs at 11:25 AM on November 14 [4 favorites]


In the first-hand account from former Astro Mike Fiers, he mentions that the sign stealing was initiated by a veteran player off to a slow start, looking to gain an advantage. He also mentions that this player was assisted by a member of the Astros staff. It's interesting that virtually everyone is connecting the dots in the same way to peg the player as Carlos Beltran and the coach as Alex Cora. These two are now the managers for the New York Mets and Boston Red Sox, respectively. Beltran is firmly denying the accusations, but a quick scan of the Astros players from 2017 does make it look like he is the only veteran every day player who had recently come from another team and was off to a slow start.
posted by DirtyOldTown at 11:27 AM on November 14 [4 favorites]


They're easy to decode because it's predicated on the catcher being able to hide the signs so that only the pitcher can see them. When there is an opposing team runner on second base, standing directly behind the pitcher, they switch to a more complicated system.

So, just totally incompetent OpSec as a standard practice on the part of pitcher/catchers and sophisticated and constantly-evolving spycraft on the batter-side? That can’t be true, can it?
posted by The World Famous at 11:29 AM on November 14


Sorry, but how do the non-baseball people here think a catcher ought to rely calls to the pitcher?
posted by Ahmad Khani at 11:34 AM on November 14 [11 favorites]


So, just totally incompetent OpSec as a standard practice on the part of pitcher/catchers and sophisticated and constantly-evolving spycraft on the batter-side? That can’t be true, can it?

That's sorta what Plouffe argues in a video in one of the links and suggests it is easily defeated by catchers and pitchers willing to keep adjusting their routines from inning to inning, which certainly seems reasonable to believe, but pitchers are creatures of habit (and like many players often superstitious) and tend to like set routines that don't vary as a way to maintain focus, so it might not be easy to get some players to change routines.
posted by gusottertrout at 11:35 AM on November 14 [2 favorites]


You also want your signs to be easy enough for your own players -- who are under a lot of mental stress -- to understand on the field. If you're changing your signs all the time on the fly, it leads to confusion. Even when pitchers and catchers switch to the "second sign" when a baserunner is on 2nd, you'll often see signs get missed.

Even apart from catcher signs, a lot of the coded signs in baseball (to baserunners, from the dugout to the catcher, etc.) are almost laughably simple and are primarily to avoid having to yell across the field in a way that everyone would hear. There's a bit of an assumption that nobody is bothering to expend a lot of energy to sign-steal in real time, an assumption that obviously technology is making increasingly incorrect.
posted by AndrewInDC at 11:36 AM on November 14 [5 favorites]


Yeah, it's important to remember that pitching is more than just a method of securely communicating signs between two players, and anything that gets in the way of the pitcher throwing good pitches (which often requires consistent focus) is going to meet a lot of resistance from the people who would be responsible for it.
posted by Holy Zarquon's Singing Fish at 11:42 AM on November 14 [3 favorites]


Traditionally when you got a runner on second the catcher would come out to the mound and talk to the pitcher and they would decide which sign obfuscation system to use. Now that mound visits are limited, a lot of teams have little cards the pitcher has and the catcher can just tell him which system on the card to use.

That’s not to say catchers don’t use technology. Most of them use fingernail polish to make the signs easier for the pitcher to see.
posted by Huffy Puffy at 11:43 AM on November 14 [1 favorite]


I find it interesting that two of the more active threads here today are on baseball and religion; both passengers in a leaky boat with about a generation left before sinking.
posted by MorgansAmoebas at 11:46 AM on November 14 [4 favorites]


Sorry, but how do the non-baseball people here think a catcher ought to rely calls to the pitcher?

I think if there’s a risk of the other side observing the signs, then the catcher and pitcher ought to come up with a more sophisticated code to make it more difficult for someone who observes the signs to understand their meaning in a particular context. Yes, I understand they’re in a high pressure situation and that internalizing the code is difficult mental work. I’m confident they’d be up to the task.

Here’s just one idea to make it the tiniest little bit more secure: Add a secondary sign as part of what the pitcher does to indicate he’s shaking off or confirming the catcher’s sign so that when it’s observed that the pitcher has shaken off a sign, that observation is not necessarily correct. Maybe they already do that!

It appears - and maybe I’m mistaken - that they’re in an escalating war of espionage where only one side is going to great lengths to escalate to win. That strikes me as very strange and, honestly, hard to believe is actually the case.
posted by The World Famous at 11:47 AM on November 14


Like, have the pitcher and catcher never cheated by using a hidden electronic transmitter and receiver to communicate their signals? It seems like it would be trivially easy to do and consistent with the type of efforts teams have gone to in stealing signs.
posted by The World Famous at 11:52 AM on November 14


God I miss deadspin

Came here to say just that. My first thought was "I wonder what Deadpsin published about this. I'll just click on ov.... Oh yeah."

Weeping ensued.
posted by Joey Michaels at 11:55 AM on November 14 [5 favorites]


All he has to do is give the pitcher one of 3 choices. There’s no need to bring technology into this.

And traditionally you don’t need to worry about anybody stealing your signs most of the time, except for the obvious case when there’s a guy on second looking right at them, and it’s pretty easy to hide the real signs from him for a couple of outs.

Plus, the sign stealer now has to communicate the same information to the batter in even less time, also without getting detected. And if it’s the baserunner, the catcher can see him.

If there’s always someone watching, you can either go to a rotating code system full-time (which you see some of) or get the league to make them stop it.
posted by Huffy Puffy at 11:58 AM on November 14 [1 favorite]


Sorry, but how do the non-baseball people here think a catcher ought to rely calls to the pitcher?

Shouting in code, like you're playing a game of euchre from a great distance and want to send a hint to your partner. "I have a LOCOMOTIVE of MITOCHONDRION so get out your SOUTHSIDE VEGETABLE STEAMER!" *Catcher waggles eyebrows, knowingly*
posted by Gray Duck at 12:01 PM on November 14 [16 favorites]


Yeah, I think the reason more elaborate systems aren't used is that breaking the system is only one of a few steps that have to be completed. You also need to relay that information in real-time and have the batter receive and act on it. A complicated system seems like it might be a distraction for a guy whose primary job is to make good pitches and only adds benefit when there's a runner on second (a time when not concentrating on your pitches can cost your team runs).

That said, historically there have been some pitchers who don't want their opponents to have any extra bit of information that might help them, even if the help would be marginal. Bob Gibson, for example, didn't believe in shaking off pitches as he thought the batter could learn something from that. So he would just stand there until the catcher put down the sign he wanted. (All this according to Tim McCarver.)
posted by HiddenInput at 12:07 PM on November 14


I’m perplexed by the notion that a more elaborate system only adds benefit when there’s a runner on second, in a thread where we’re discussing a series of stories revealing that an extremely successful team was most likely observing, understanding, and communicating the signs to the batters all the time without a runner on second.
posted by The World Famous at 12:36 PM on November 14


Seeing as how the Astros seem to have gone hard into the Patriots' playbook, I can't wait for some sort of complicated scheme involving doctoring the balls somehow

The Rockies have already been there, done that.
posted by mach at 12:41 PM on November 14


lol the Astros cheated and still lost the 2019 World Series to the underdog, that's how much they suck
posted by sugar and confetti at 12:55 PM on November 14 [9 favorites]


I think some people are probably underestimating what the signals are conveying in major league pitching. It's not just the specific pitch but the placement and depending on the pitch they will try to control other variables as well. The message is less "throw a fastball" and more "throw a slider, but not your normal one, use the special grip that makes it break more, and put it high and outside so it breaks down and in because this guy chases pitches." It's tough to encode all that in a system that is memorable, reasonable, and also hard to eavesdrop. So you don't, you create a system that is easy to use but also easy to steal.
posted by feloniousmonk at 12:59 PM on November 14 [3 favorites]


I’m perplexed by the notion that a more elaborate system only adds benefit when there’s a runner on second, in a thread where we’re discussing a series of stories revealing that an extremely successful team was most likely observing, understanding, and communicating the signs to the batters all the time without a runner on second.

...using a method that organized baseball has said is off-limits. Hence the investigation by MLB, rather than everyone just smacking their foreheads and saying "Ohhhh, a camera. Why didn't we think of that?"
posted by Etrigan at 1:03 PM on November 14 [9 favorites]


lol the Astros cheated and still lost the 2019 World Series to the underdog, that's how much they suck

They kept the Yankees out of the World Series in 2017 and 2019. You’re welcome.
posted by Huffy Puffy at 1:05 PM on November 14 [3 favorites]


The New York Giants were stealing signs in 1951, and it was a pretty elaborate affair; it involved a man hiding behind center field with a telescope, and having a wire between center field and the dugout to relay the information. That avenue of attack was pretty much eliminated once games were regularly shown on TV. The TV stations had their own camera placed behind center field, and they would tend to notice if someone else was also there stealing signs and relaying them.

It's only in the past decade or so that this attack became practical again, with the availability of cheap, tiny, wireless cameras.
posted by 1970s Antihero at 1:10 PM on November 14


lol the Astros cheated and still lost the 2019 World Series to the underdog, that's how much they suck

Important to point out that the scandal involves a sign-stealing setup at their home park and yet the Astros lost all four of their home games in the World Series. This is both hilarious and makes me wonder if the Nats figured out that something shady was happening and managed to make it backfire on them somehow.
posted by Holy Zarquon's Singing Fish at 1:16 PM on November 14 [8 favorites]


This is both hilarious and makes me wonder if the Nats figured out that something shady was happening and managed to make it backfire on them somehow.
The Astros have been suspected of sign stealing for some time by other clubs. This year's Washington Nationals team went to the extreme step of creating five new sets of pitch signs for each pitcher just for the World Series.
posted by Etrigan at 1:18 PM on November 14 [8 favorites]


Astros fan here. I regret nothing.
Houstonian here. I'm ashamed of the Astros, for many reasons. For example:
Taubman sounds like a dick, but he got fired anyway.
Sure, Taubman got fired, but they still employ Osuna. Fuck 'em.
Also, the "no looking at the catcher" thing is easily policed. When they see it, they just send a pitch right at your ear.
Which, in any other context, would be attempted murder. Yay baseball!
posted by uberchet at 1:19 PM on November 14 [12 favorites]


I regret nothing. Flags fly forever.

We’ll see about the “forever” part.
posted by sideshow at 1:20 PM on November 14 [7 favorites]


Oh, also important to remember: traditionally the catcher's signs are also read by the shortstop and/or second baseman to give them a read on if the batter might pull the ball or not and help them get an extra jump. So that's another potential barrier to more complicated signaling schemes, since you're trying to get 3-4 people on the same page in a few seconds and not just 2.

But now that every club is moving their infielders around on every pitch based on spray charts, the shortstop knowing the pitch is probably less important than it's ever been.
posted by AndrewInDC at 2:02 PM on November 14 [1 favorite]


Important to point out that the scandal involves a sign-stealing setup at their home park and yet the Astros lost all four of their home games in the World Series. This is both hilarious and makes me wonder if the Nats figured out that something shady was happening and managed to make it backfire on them somehow.

If you have a subscription to The Athletic, here are some details. Apparently a whole bunch of guys on other teams called up the Nats and told them whatever they knew about how the Astros were stealing signs. They also always operated as if their signs were under threat, whether a runner was on second or not.
posted by Copronymus at 2:26 PM on November 14 [5 favorites]


The Astros have been suspected of sign stealing for some time by other clubs. This year's Washington Nationals team went to the extreme step of creating five new sets of pitch signs for each pitcher just for the World Series.

Ok, so yeah, there we go. They actually did suspect it and did the very thing I’m asking whether they do or not. I guess it wasn’t too difficult or whatever. Thanks!
posted by The World Famous at 2:29 PM on November 14 [1 favorite]


I regret nothing. Flags fly forever.

Well, shit. I didn't like that they changed leagues though I came around after the World Series win in 2017 and was glad to have them here still. Although I was really only a fan during playoffs and usually had little idea about the standings until September. Still, I grew up seeing tons of games at the old Astrodome and it's surprising how time can ingrain affinities into a person. I don't regret anything either because I don't have any say in what goes on there, but fuck the fucking Astros. I started rooting for the Nats in game 7 this World Series and don't regret that either.
posted by Burhanistan at 2:47 PM on November 14 [3 favorites]


If you're ignorant of baseball and have a question, or if you just don't like it and want everyone to know, refrain from the "baseball is stupid" comments and go do something else.
posted by bongo_x at 2:50 PM on November 14 [24 favorites]


(Not to mention that it's obvious even to little kids who pay attention to a few plays how the catcher and pitcher agree on the next pitch.)
posted by Burhanistan at 2:51 PM on November 14 [1 favorite]


As an outsider to baseball who's come to enjoy watching games from time to time, all I have to say is: jeez, y'all take the meta-game VERY SERIOUSLY.
posted by runehog at 2:53 PM on November 14 [1 favorite]


The Rockies have already been there, done that.

Yes and it's obviously been very successful for them.
posted by evilDoug at 2:57 PM on November 14 [1 favorite]


...y'all take the meta-game VERY SERIOUSLY.

So, one of the things about baseball is that it's very very slow. This gives us a lot of time to think about these things and it really is a big part of the fun, at least for me and I'm only a casual fan
posted by Think_Long at 3:18 PM on November 14 [7 favorites]


I guess it wasn’t too difficult or whatever.

They did this for seven games. There are 162 games in the regular season.
posted by Etrigan at 3:19 PM on November 14 [6 favorites]


Sorry, but how do the non-baseball people here think a catcher ought to rely calls to the pitcher?

THE CATCHER SHOULD SIMPLY EMBRACE JOYOUS UNION WITH A BRAIN SLUG AND THEN LOVINGLY TOSS THE BRAIN SLUG FILLED WITH HIS REQUESTED PITCHES ONTO THE CATCHER'S HEAD I ENTHUSIASTICALLY RECOMMEND THE USE OF BRAIN SLUGS FOR MANY PURPOSES
posted by GCU Sweet and Full of Grace at 3:41 PM on November 14 [16 favorites]


They did this for seven games. There are 162 games in the regular season.

Exactly. I’m not sure we’re disagreeing here. I asked whether the teams, on suspecting the signs are being stolen, change up the signs to be more complex and, therefore, less likely to be decoded by the sign-stealers. And it turns out that yes, that’s exactly what they do sometimes, and that they did so in this very instance.
posted by The World Famous at 4:01 PM on November 14


> This gives us a lot of time to think about these things and it really is a big part of the fun, at least for me and I'm only a casual fan

Same. I do a scorecard and everything. I haven't been to a game in ages because I like games where I know the background of what's going on, and since I haven't been to a game I don't know the current players, and since I don't know the current players I haven't been to a game, and since... (Plus tickets are too damn expensive here.)
posted by The corpse in the library at 4:05 PM on November 14 [1 favorite]


One of the most impressive things, to me, is that the pitcher noticed the banging and did something about it. It's the sort of extraneous detail he could (justifiably) have simply tuned out, being super-laser-focused on PITCHING IN THE WORLD SERIES and everything...
posted by The Tensor at 4:08 PM on November 14 [4 favorites]


jeez, y'all take the meta-game VERY SERIOUSLY
It IS part of the game. I have friends that prefer the off-season to the times when the teams are actively playing. Sabrmetrics, trades, drafts, it's all part of baseball.
posted by Gray Duck at 5:06 PM on November 14 [3 favorites]


Cheating has always been a part of baseball. Pitcher getting caught with sandpaper or nail files, batters using corked bats, etc. Getting caught is where you get punished. Not getting caught makes you a legend. Well, that one guy in minor league baseball who swapped the baseball for a potato (to fool a base runner) got punished, but he's a legend anyways for it :)
posted by baegucb at 5:19 PM on November 14 [3 favorites]


Non-baseball people who are surprised at how seriously this is taken, be aware that teaching signs for pitching and baserunning starts pretty early in little league, for me after tee-ball. It's baked into baseball people from an early age. We had simple signs, but even for youth leagues we'd change them each game. Communicating intent and sharing plans across the field without the other team catching on is an inherent part of the game, and for that reason I'd be opposed to any tech being introduced to prevent players on the field from trying to figure out the other teams signs. Not that it's probably that common in the majors, but being able to pick up on a steal sign from an opposing coach and communicate it to the pitcher and catcher to attempt a more likely throw-out is a legitimate baseball skill, not cheating. It's the distinction between gamesmanship and cheating, and it's just part of baseball. If it confuses you, think of it like picking up on a tell in poker, or being able to read a QB's target in football.

This as a scandal is one I'm currently having fun with, largely because fuck the Astros, but also because most of the stats we have suggest that this advantage doesn't actually give batters much of a leg up at that level in most situations, which reveals some really interesting parts about baseball. It really demonstrates exactly how good an established major league pitcher is, and exactly how hard hitting a professionally thrown baseball is, even when you know what is coming and have all the advantages of video and sabermetric analysis walking to the plate.

The one real bummer is the point about new pitchers getting shelled in one of their first outings and getting sent back down or such, and I would like to see a study about how much that happened compared to the normal rate that a rookie pitcher gets blown out in early starts. Data and my intuition tells me that having a split second indicator of pitch type isn't all that significant of an advantage to a professional-level batter facing professional-level pitching in the way it might for lower level players. Someone playing in the MLB is walking to the plate with some hours of study into how this pitcher attacks batters and has a plan they can adjust by pitch, and probably has a decent idea what will be thrown anyway much of the time. The way you get to be a MLB-level batter is by not needing this kind of cheat to get ahead.

I am very interested if having this advantage does make a more significant difference against less experienced players vs more experienced players, because the more time you spend in the majors, the more data is collected for batters to use against you, but also by the fact that you have pitched for that long, you're probably pretty good at working around that and also just probably plain good, and the less you've played in the majors, the less data, and also probably you're not as good at adjusting to MLB batters, and also probably just not that good. I'm very interested and excited, this could reveal a lot about player performance in ways that baseball doesn't organically provide.

My suspicion, as a baby baseball stats person, is that this is ultimately a moral crime and not a crime with a lot of real victims, and also that probably a good number of other teams are or have done a similar thing. I'm fine with as harsh of penalties as MLB wants to bring down, I think it's bullshit and totally against the spirit of the game, but I don't actually think it really matters in the same way steroids matter, and certainly not in the way the league's response to domestic violence matters.
Also it's hilarious that the Mets hired a beloved former player for a manager and a week later he's center to a cheating scandal. Never change, Mets, never change.
posted by neonrev at 5:40 PM on November 14 [6 favorites]


I mean you can see in the jomboy video they get up lay off a certain percentage of pitches that are more than likely outside the zone. That seems to be more real issue that just morals. To me it's less about being shelled and more about knowing a hitable pitch and getting more walks.
posted by Carillon at 6:23 PM on November 14


The jomboy video, while a great breakdown, is part of a very, very small sample size in a situation that is notable for how blatant the practice was. I don't think it's enough to prove a season-long advantage. I'm unsure that it even proves that much of an advantage vs inherent player skill. Perhaps it functions as a way to help confirm or deny a batter's expectations, but I don't think it comes with enough time or information to sustainably change outcomes. There's a lot of weighing correlation and causation here, given how long a baseball season is. It's harder to tell with the Astros, who were a very good baseball team regardless, but so far I'm unconvinced that it actually made them a better baseball team, or was a deciding factor for anything. That doesn't make it any less repugnant, but it does allow me to not find it worth discounting records from that year.

I do eagerly await deeper studies of this. The Astros did a very bad thing, I don't think it had a significant effect, and it feels shrill to get up in arms about this sullying the reputation of a game based in an abusive minor league scheme and which doesn't have much of a problem employing known terrible men.

That said, I'm open to being proven wrong, that would also suggest some interesting data about hitting, if there is an advantage situationally that isn't immediately obvious from bulk data analysis, that would also tell us a lot about how hitters approach at-bats over the course of a season.

Sorry to ramble, I spent all day at work thinking about this surrounded by non-baseball fans, and I'm not concerned with outcomes as a fan of the Twins. None of this made or broke us, so I'm just gawking and theorizing. Mostly this is amazing as a possible inflection point where we know at least one team was doing something specific, and we can look at the numbers and try and see how it helped or didn't over time, and compared to actual MLB crimes, this is arbitrary to a degree. A degree that I find totally against the spirit of the game, but can recognize as based in subjective decisions about what is and isn't right in a sport that is a capitalistic behemoth.

Fuck the Astros, fire and ban players and front office folk at will, burn the entire practice down, there's no defense for doing it, but I think that's the funny part, that there's also no real benefit to doing it. Getting Pete Rose'd for a half dozen extra walks and maybe some chance hits or lucky fouls a year would be both stupid and hilarious.
posted by neonrev at 6:59 PM on November 14 [1 favorite]


Cheating has always been a part of baseball. Pitcher getting caught with sandpaper or nail files, batters using corked bats, etc. Getting caught is where you get punished. Not getting caught makes you a legend.

One of the things that's interested me for a while is the different levels of "breaking the rules" and when it becomes cheating. I mean, offensive holding in football is clearly not considered "cheating" even though you're getting an unfair advantage by breaking the rules. Chop blocks or spying on a team practicing is.

I never really got the impression corked bats or scuffed balls quite rose to the level of dirty cheating. Worse than holding, but you get caught, a few games suspension, life goes on. Fans--even the ones who rooted against you--joke about it. Hell, Gaylord Perry trying to get a Vasoline endorsement while he was still pitching.

Stealing signs by people not players always seemed to be treated as way over the line. I think part of it is it's not players being clever, it's just logistics. If you won this way you wouldn't joke about it later, you'd lie about it to save your reputation.
posted by mark k at 7:02 PM on November 14 [2 favorites]


So, just totally incompetent OpSec as a standard practice on the part of pitcher/catchers and sophisticated and constantly-evolving spycraft on the batter-side? That can’t be true, can it?

So I know there was a whole conversation about this that I'm just getting to the tail end of, but I wanted to point out that the CBS article linked as the secondary source contains a link to an NBC Sports article (don't think too hard about it) that explains part of the reason why teams don't do this on a regular basis:
While gamesmanship of one form or another has always been part of baseball, the current wave of sign-stealing is seen as a pace-of-play issue just as much as a fairness issue. Because of the actual sign-stealing — and because of paranoia that any opponent could be stealing signs — clubs have gone to far more elaborate and constantly changing sign protocols. This requires mound meetings and pitchers coming off the rubber in order to re-start the increasingly complex series of signs from dugout to catcher and from catcher to pitcher.
Pitchers and catchers are not finely tuned cryptographic machines. The more complicated your system of encoded communication is, the more energy you have to put into maintaining it, and the more fragile it becomes. Baseball already has a reputation for lengthy games that bore people. Asking teams to constantly use complex systems of signage because your opponents have mounted telescopic cameras in center field is detrimental to Major League Baseball as a form of entertainment and as a business, even if it didn't offend people's sensibilities about the sanctity of the game.

Why don't pitchers and catchers just wear earpieces and mics, then? See above re: sanctity of the game, but who knows? I'd imagine baseball would be more likely to cave on something like that than they would allowing teams to mount cameras. Though also, if you're an athlete, do you want to have to wear radio gear during the game?
posted by chrominance at 8:13 PM on November 14 [10 favorites]


Mr. Burns' overly complex signs is a 30 year old joke, non-baseball fans going "why don't they simply invent a one-time pad for pitching?" would make the game worse if it were even workable.
posted by Space Coyote at 8:41 PM on November 14 [5 favorites]


Maybe they already do that!

It seems we have several non-baseball fans here. Welcome! Love your interest and enthusiasm. You really, really should watch a couple games, or even better, go to a ballpark and see it live. Especially if it's a bunch of kids playing in your neighbourhood. It's a great game, and you'll pick up a lot of information that way.

It's a weirdly complicated game, with a bunch of really bizarre sounding rules that were developed over many decades because certain problems came up and they had to find a way to maintain competitive balance. Watch a couple kids games and you're sure to find examples of each. Why do they run counter-clockwise around the bases? Why do they tag the bag instead of the baserunner sometimes? Why, when there are runners on first and second, or on first second and third, with less than two outs, does a popup in fair territory that could reasonably be caught by an infielder automatically result in an out even if the player drops it? It's not arbitrary, and many times it's because someone tried something that went against the spirit of the rules but not the letter of them.

At a major league game, you're watching the very best players at the highest level. The skill level of even the worst of them is significantly higher than average, and even the smallest advantage can make a huge difference. Check out some amateurs playing for a bit, to see just how much information is going on with every play and how difficult it is for players to cope with and properly process all that data, and then imagine scaling that up to the pro level.
posted by GhostintheMachine at 1:23 AM on November 15 [7 favorites]


Regarding whether this had a significant effect on the Astros' performance: via Reddit, here is a chart of the year-by-year changes in their team-wide strikeouts in home games.
posted by Holy Zarquon's Singing Fish at 3:43 AM on November 15 [1 favorite]


even the smallest advantage can make a huge difference

To support this, consider that the all-time record for most games won in a 162-game regular season is 116. That’s the equivalent of going 12-4 in the NFL. Three teams went 12-4 in the NFL last year, and two went 13-3. The NBA version would be 58 wins; the NBA record is 73.

The differences between great MLB teams and mediocre ones can be tiny.
posted by Etrigan at 4:07 AM on November 15 [2 favorites]


All the more so when you consider how many baseball games come down to individual at-bats or even pitches. Look at any team over the course of the season and you can find a decent set of close losses that would've been wins with one timely hit.
posted by Holy Zarquon's Singing Fish at 4:10 AM on November 15


At a major league game, you're watching the very best players at the highest level. The skill level of even the worst of them is significantly higher than average, and even the smallest advantage can make a huge difference. Check out some amateurs playing for a bit, to see just how much information is going on with every play and how difficult it is for players to cope with and properly process all that data, and then imagine scaling that up to the pro level.

I attend minor league games more frequently than majors these days (though I only attend a couple of games per season). The minors have given me a deep appreciation for how fucking good the players in the majors are. The minor league players are incredibly skilled too, but a lot more falls through the cracks. This has given me a greater appreciation for major league play, but at the same time I've realized I prefer minor league games, because shit actually happens.
posted by sugar and confetti at 5:48 AM on November 15 [2 favorites]


Some observers say Astros catcher Robinson Chirinos may have had a corked bat in this year's World Series.

That one is far less solid than other accusations, all the way down to "some people are saying" territory. But it's crazy a person can just Google "Astros [form of cheating]" and get a result right away. (Which is what I did.)
posted by DirtyOldTown at 5:56 AM on November 15


In 2017, the Astros had the fewest strikeouts per home game, at 6.14.
They also had the fewest strikeouts per away game, at 7.33.

Their hitting counting numbers were all better on the road, and they had a better W-L record on the road than at home. But I’d have to go into some detail to compare those numbers better, because the home team doesn’t bat as often. Also, there are park factors; Minute Maid Park is less of a hitters’ park than it looks.
posted by Huffy Puffy at 6:20 AM on November 15 [1 favorite]


The chart posted above by Holy Zarquon shows a dramatic decrease in their home strikeouts in 2017.
posted by DirtyOldTown at 6:41 AM on November 15 [2 favorites]


Different players could account for part of that, but I'd be hesitant to just use change from previous year in Home Ks as the measure anyway, since it makes more sense to show difference between home and away ks in 2017 compared to rest of the league that year and over time without bringing in complications of roster changes since team rosters do change.

The chart, as I understand it, is only showing a comparison to the what they did the previous year, so it's an unstable base line they're using which makes the swings in difference appear more dramatic than they might be. Which isn't to say the assumption they gained some benefit is wrong, just that I'm not really convinced that chart makes much sense on its own.
posted by gusottertrout at 7:19 AM on November 15 [1 favorite]


Something to keep in mind is that while stealing the signs provides a serious advantage, it doesn't make anything a guarantee, it just shifts the odds in your favor. That's why it's inisidious, hard to track, and possible to overlook.

It's not like the Astros became invincible or started batting 1.000 or anything. There were at-bats that should have been strikeouts where because of cheating they put the ball in play, Most of these instances (like most of all balls in play) were outs, some of these were hits. There were instances where they would have awkwardly hit high flies or weak grounders because their timing was off where they now were able to drive the ball because they knew in advance if it was going to be a fastball or whether it would be an off-speed pitch. Some of these became hits, most of them did not. Some of these at-bats, the hitters were skilled enough to be able to guess what would have been thrown anyway. No change there. Other at-bats, the hitter simply gained an ability to sit on his pitch and wait for it. Hard to even say what that is worth, but something, some of the time, for sure. Watch that George Springer clip where after an audible trash can hit telling him what pitch to expect, he unleashes a swing you would never see on 0-2 to smash a home run.

But baseball is a game of averages, where most attempts at the plate, even by the best hitters, result in failure. If you can, across the entire team, take 30-50 at-bats that should have ended in strikeouts and turn them into balls in play, you've got 10-15 extra hits. If you can take another 30-50 at-bats that should have turned into pop flies or grounders and turn them into line drives, you're adding another dozen or so hits. If you take another 100-200 at bats and give the hitter the chance to sit on the fastball, you add another few dozen hits. It adds up.

And even if you are unconvinced this logic holds up, that this wouldn't be an appreciable advantage, just watch the @jomboy videos. The Astros are definitely trying to cheat this way. There's a loud-ass garbage can banging on every offspeed pitch. It isn't subtle. They were definitely breaking the hell out of the rules and not the harmless skullduggery to get an occasional advantage kind... they were breaking the oprganized conspiracy with technology and off-field personnel to cheat constantly kind of rules.
posted by DirtyOldTown at 7:23 AM on November 15 [6 favorites]


Actually, I have since found you can simply look up "AT HOU 2017" on YouTube and watch nearly any Houston home at-bat. In my random sampling, I heard banging on off-speed pitches around half the time.
posted by DirtyOldTown at 7:29 AM on November 15


Here’s some raw data, which I am going to regret trying to post from my phone:
     K/game    % change    Rank
Year Home Away Home Away Home Away
2015 8.61 8.75            29  27
2016 9.19 8.74   7%   0%  28  20
2017 6.14 7.33 -33% -16%  1   1
2018 7.08 7.80  15%   6%  2   2
2019 7.34 7.33   4%  -6%  2   1
They switched from a team that struck out all the time while they were rebuilding (did make the playoffs somewhat surprisingly in 2015) to a team that hardly ever strikes out. Some of this is personnel choices and player development, some is approach, some of the home number that one year could be a guy banging on a trash can, some is probably a fluke, but most of it has stayed the same since then and is happening as much on the road as at home.
posted by Huffy Puffy at 7:31 AM on November 15 [1 favorite]


It seems we have several non-baseball fans here. Welcome! Love your interest and enthusiasm. You really, really should watch a couple games, or even better, go to a ballpark and see it live.

The over-the-top condescension of “real” baseball fans who pretend that anyone who is not obsessed with all the minutiae of the game or doesn’t keep up with every development at every moment is not only a “non-baseball fan” but has never watched a game or been to a ballpark is honestly probably the worst thing about baseball and one of the main reasons I am only a casual fan and I only go to a few MLB games every season. I’d roll my eyes at it, but then you’d tell me me it seems we have a non-eye roller here who should really, really watch someone who actually rolls their eyes.
posted by The World Famous at 7:36 AM on November 15 [2 favorites]


'It's not against the rules if it didn't provably advantage them' and 'it's not illegal if the attempted bribe never occurred' is not the defense that some people in baseball and DC seem to think it is . . .

They switched from a team that struck out all the time while they were rebuilding (did make the playoffs somewhat surprisingly in 2015) to a team that hardly ever strikes out.

I wonder if this generally tracks with overall improvement during that period or if the % change is an outlier.
posted by Think_Long at 7:36 AM on November 15 [2 favorites]


Considering the number of cheating scandals to which the Astros are tied, I think it's a helluva leap to treat it as fact that they don't have a sign stealing program for road games.

I mean... there's a link to them getting called out for stealing signs in Boston right there in the post.
posted by DirtyOldTown at 7:42 AM on November 15 [2 favorites]


> The over-the-top condescension of “real” baseball fans

I hate gatekeepers too, but I'm guessing it was a reaction to the condescending "baseball is very, very silly" comment and not to the honest questions.
posted by The corpse in the library at 9:20 AM on November 15 [8 favorites]


Which comment was the “baseball is very, very silly” comment?
posted by The World Famous at 10:26 AM on November 15


I used the phrase, but in the context of identifying myself as someone who thinks that, not in a statement of objective fact.
posted by uberchet at 10:30 AM on November 15


> Which comment was the “baseball is very, very silly” comment?

It's right here. That wasn't me being uncharitable with a paraphrase.
posted by The corpse in the library at 10:31 AM on November 15 [5 favorites]


To be fair, uberchet was correct that this bit :

what with all the unwritten rules and the idea of grown men getting upset about how bats are tossed away or whatever

is indeed very silly, but it's not really germane to compare the old guard mad about bat throwing to what's happening here.
posted by Think_Long at 10:56 AM on November 15


Stealing signs by people not players always seemed to be treated as way over the line. I think part of it is it's not players being clever, it's just logistics. If you won this way you wouldn't joke about it later, you'd lie about it to save your reputation.

I think there's definitely something to that distinction. If MLB made what the Astros are doing legal, every team would just start doing it immediately. If the NHL made it legal to intentionally cut people with your skate blade or the NFL stopped calling chop blocks, well, then, every team would immediately do that about as often as possible. There no skill barrier to everyone just doing that stuff all the time, just a moral/rule-following one. With the infractions that get treated like folksy craftiness instead of cheating, though, there's often still skill required to execute them. If the spitball got legalized, not every pitcher would throw one, and you definitely wouldn't see teams pick up random guys off the street just for spitballing purposes like you might if the rules on intentional injury were relaxed. I have somewhat heterodox views on the way the steroid stuff was handled by MLB, but that's right at the heart of the issue there, too. If you can just take a substance that makes you 10% better at sports, pretty quickly everyone's just going to do that without needing to get better at any of the skills of the sport.

Corking your bat is sort of a weird edge case because while as theorized it would be an advantage to anyone who could hit a big league pitch, people who've looked at it say that it doesn't actually provide any advantage at all, so it's not really hurting anything and comes off as goofy rather than malevolent. The weird related nonsense like the time a guy stuck a bunch of bouncy balls in there only to have the bat break and spill them everywhere helps keep it on the funny side. Plus the word "cork" has a little bit of the inherent funniness you get in some English words, and is even funnier when used as a verb, so I think it gets some more leeway just for sounding like a silly thing rather than something no-good cheaters do.
posted by Copronymus at 1:30 PM on November 15


Why isn't this story in the other newsfeeds?
Seems pretty important . . .
posted by Mesaverdian at 4:13 PM on November 15


What news sources are you thinking of, Mesaverdian? I'm seeing it all over the place.
posted by The corpse in the library at 6:11 PM on November 15


The over-the-top condescension of “real” baseball fans...

Well that's unkind. My comment was neither "over-the-top" nor was it condescending. It was entirely heartfelt. I coach non-competitive kids baseball (ages 5-18), and I really do think it's great to watch games that are just for fun. And seeing games played at different levels of quality really does highlight the importance of the weird rules, and can help someone who's not a fan to appreciate why a seemingly insignificant thing like sign stealing can have an outsized effect.
posted by GhostintheMachine at 6:46 PM on November 15


The weird related nonsense like the time a guy stuck a bunch of bouncy balls in there only to have the bat break and spill them everywhere helps keep it on the funny side.

Copronymus, I thought there was no way that was real, but holy shit: Graig Nettles.
posted by sugar and confetti at 7:42 PM on November 15 [1 favorite]


Sorry, but how do the non-baseball people here think a catcher ought to rely calls to the pitcher?

Atreides Battle Language
posted by Ray Walston, Luck Dragon at 1:33 PM on November 16 [5 favorites]




Copronymus, I thought there was no way that was real, but holy shit: Graig Nettles.

Doctored bat shenanigans really brings out the weirdest stuff baseball has to offer. There's also the time where after Albert Belle got his bat seized by the umpires on suspicion of corking it, one of his team's pitchers jumped up into the ceiling and crawled around until he got to the umpires' room, then replaced the corked bat with a non-corked one and went back into the ceiling again to escape undetected.
posted by Copronymus at 11:01 AM on November 17 [4 favorites]


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