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MLB's Sign Stealing Controversy Explained

Alex Woodward looks at MLB’s latest big scandal, involving technological cheating, sackings on multiple teams and a plastic bin.

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Image Credit: KA Sports Photos

It started off small, a weird banging sound occasionally heard during Houston Astros’ MLB games through the 2017 season. At point of writing, four members of staff have been fired/mutually parted ways on three different franchises, there have been calls for the Astros to have their titles stripped and many more teams have been accused of the same thing with their staff at risk of losing their jobs if found guilty. The Sign Stealing Controversy has taken over baseball and has been the predominant sports story in America over January.

Unlike what the title may suggest, sign stealing is not illegal in MLB. A sign in this case is a signal made from the catcher to the pitcher that he needs to change his throwing style, maybe going from a fastball to a curveball or other off-speed pitch. This could be because the batter has been struggling when presented with that ball or is looking too threatening when presented with the previous ball. Sign stealing therefore, is someone on the batter’s side noticing that the sign has been made for a change of ball and indicating this to the batter so that they’re aware that they will not be facing what they have faced before, usually leading to them not swinging. In 1961, MLB banned sign stealing using mechanical devices, whilst electronic devices were not banned per se, MLB issued a memorandum in 2001 saying that teams using electronic devices would be banned as well.

2017 was the culmination of a long rebuild for the Houston Astros, they had beaten the New York Yankees 4-3 in the ALCS and went on the win the World Series against the Los Angeles Dodgers by the same score, winning Game 7 in LA 5-1. It was the Astro’s first title and the seeming start of a dynasty. They lost 4-1 to the Boston Red Sox in the ALCS in 2018 but were back in the World Series in 2019, strong favourites against the Washington Nationals. The Astros stunningly lost though, losing all four home games, including a Game 7 6-2 defeat. Still, with a young core of players as well as becoming a top destination for older players looking to get a ring, the future seemed very bright for the Astros. That has changed.

After the 2019 season was finished, a report from The Athletic first suggested that the Astros had been illegally stealing signs during their 2017 World Series campaign. They had used a camera in centre field that fed back to a monitor in the tunnel between the dugout and clubhouse. When the players and coaches involved suspected a change of pitch, they would be able to warn the batter what was coming by banging on a large plastic bin with a massage gun that would be able to be heard from home plate. The number of bangs would be able to indicate what sort of pitch was coming. Former Astros’ player Mike Fiers went on the record with the same information and shortly after, MLB and the Houston Astros announced that they were launching an investigation into the matter, at the same time, fans were documenting the clear evidence that something strange was going on. (To see this system in place better, I highly recommend one of the videos at the centre of this controversy https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=M2XNW1qHN9w)

The article wasn’t the start of the rumours, reports that something strange had been going on date back to October 2018 during that ALCS game, the eventually victorious Red Sox were warned from the Cleveland Indians that they had strong suspicions that the Astros had been trying to steal signs. One year later, just before the publication of The Athletic article, the New York Yankees, again facing the Astros in the ALCS mentioned their worries that the Astros had used whistling to signal a change in sign.

Earlier this week, MLB concluded their investigation and the results were more than expected. General Manager Jeff Luhnow and Field Manager AJ Hinch were found to have known about the system and had therefore broken the rules on electronic sign stealing, they were both suspended for one year, before being fired by the Astros. The Astros have also had to forfeit their first and second round picks in the 2020 and 2021 drafts as well as being fined $5 million. Boston Red Sox manager Alex Cora, who was a coach for the Astros in 2017 and acknowledged as one of the masterminds of the plan, agreed to part ways with the Red Sox as a result of the controversy. Mets manager Carlos Beltran, who was one of the key players behind the scheme, left his position despite having just been hired this offseason. Whilst the report admitted that it was primarily player driven, no player has yet been handed any ban by MLB.

The accusations have not stopped here though. This week, a Twitter account claiming to be the niece of Carlos Beltran, claimed that wires and vibrating chips were being used by certain players which could buzz to indicate the next pitch coming. Potential evidence for this could be seen with both Alex Bregman having a suspicious tape on his chest in a post-game interview and Jose Altuve telling his teammates not to rip his shirt off after hitting the game winning home run against the Yankees this year. The former claimed it was actually confetti and the latter claimed first that he was shy, before suddenly changing his answer to his wife told him not to. This has all led to calls from players and pundits for the Astros to have their title stripped, including EPSN pundit Stephen A. Smith and Yankees player CC Sebathia.

Will MLB strip the 2017 World Series title, I would assume not, but does it really matter? The damage has already been done, no one will ever think of the 2017 Astros team as worthy champions, or view the 2017 World Series as legitimate, the baseball public have already stripped them of their title. The
players who are accused of being at the centre of the scandal will struggle with Hall of Fame campaigns and those who are definitely at the centre of the scandal have been fired from their jobs with their reputations ruined forever.

This is not the end, there are many accusations of other teams being involved in sign stealing and every day more accusations and different forms of cheating are being mentioned. In recent years, baseball has been struggling to keep up with the NFL and NBA in getting attention in the public eye, they definitely have that attention now.

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