MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred absolved all of the active players on the Houston Astros‘ roster of any punishment for their involvement in the 2017 sign-stealing scandal. However, other MLB players have other ideas. So far, seven Astros hitters have been hit by pitches across just five 2020 Spring Training games, reports USA Today.
This vigilante justice confirms that this scandal won’t simply disappear before opening day. But wait. Hasn’t sign-stealing been a part of baseball for a long time? Why must Alex Bregman take a fastball to the spine over something that’s long been part of the game? Let’s find out.
How sign-stealing works (usually)
Baseball players have used hand signs to communicate since at least the 1860s, according to CNN. As pitching became more complex and specialized, so did the necessity for signs.
A metagame quickly emerged. With a base-runner at second, the opposing team could get a clear look at the signs between the catcher and pitcher. They could use their own signs to relay the message to the teammate at the plate.
In response, the pitcher and catcher must shift their signs to cross up the opposition. They’re forced to come up with rotating signs for each game. Here’s an example of the method: They’ll agree on a particular number like, say, “four,” and the catcher will flash five signs. All are nonsense except the fourth one.
If this sounds confusing, that’s because it can be. Those sudden mound meetings after a moment of befuddlement? They sometimes happen because one of the players involved doesn’t understand the day’s signs properly.
Stealing these signs over the course of normal play is not explicitly against the rules of baseball, as The Washington Post explains. The signs themselves are not a formal part of the game. Players and managers develop and perfect signs on their own.
The famed unwritten rules of the baseball leave it up to teams to police each other — usually with the threat of throwing behind a noted offender if they get caught.
A condensed history of sign-stealing in MLB
Institutional-level sign-stealing dates back (at least) to the 1891 Brooklyn Bridegrooms, who openly admitted in the press that their success was in part due to their ability to steal signs, reports the Los Angeles Daily News.
Ironically, the team is a precursor to today’s Los Angeles Dodgers, the victims of the 2017 Astros. This isn’t to say 2017 was a karmic debt come due.
Technology-assisted sign-stealing was first exposed in 1951. The New York Giants set up a telescope in the center field stands and relayed info to a plant in the bullpen, who signaled hitters. This desperate move came out of the need to overcome a 13-game deficit behind the Brooklyn Dodgers.
The 1997 New York Mets were accused of cheating with a camera that year. The Philadelphia Phillies fielded accusations that they revisited the Giants’ move in 2011, with binoculars. Neither incident had enough evidence for any punishment. This year, however, Astros hitters are getting punished big time in Spring Training.
Why the Astros crossed the line with their sign-stealing methods
Stealing signs the old-fashioned way is discouraged but technically legal activity. It’s hard to prevent and difficult to consistently pull off, especially if you don’t have a runner with a good angle on the catcher’s hands.
But technology-assisted cheating in any form is explicitly prohibited by MLB. That’s where the Astros went awry in the eyes of baseball veterans. Their tech-heavy sign-stealing method was capable of giving hitters valuable intel within seconds.
Cameras at center field in Minute Maid Park were trained on the catcher. The video feed was sent to a hallway between the dugout and clubhouse. A viewer there relayed the information directly to the hitter by hitting a trash can.
The convoluted metagame is mostly gone with this approach. Hitters simply knew what was coming for many more pitches than traditional sign-stealing methods. Many players see this as a bad-faith overreach.
Oddly enough, the numbers don’t definitively prove the Astros’ cheating actually improved their results. One oft-cited isolated statistic: The Astros’ 2016 strikeout rate was 24.5%. During 2017, the sign-stealing year, this fell to 16.7%, the best in baseball.
The problem is, the improved performances were actually happening more often during away games. Meaning the young Astros core hit the best when they weren’t cheating.
As with so many things in baseball, however, it’s about the principle. They cheated. Manfred let the players off the hook. Now there are a few hundred guys who want to remind Astros hitters to play the game “the right way.”
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