On Nov. 12, sports journalism organization The Athletic started the controversy of the year by publishing an article revealing that the Houston Astros “stole signs during home games in real time with the aid of a camera positioned in the outfield.”
For clarification, sign stealing in baseball is common. A pitcher might do what is called “tipping” which is giving away what sort of pitch they’re throwing via arm movement or body language. A runner on second base might have a good view of the catcher as he puts down signs for the pitcher. This is allowed. What breaches the rules is the use of illegal equipment to steal signs and consistently inform batters of which pitch they are about to witness. The article from The Athletic stated that four internal sources for the Astros spoke on the topic.
With how baseball is played, it might be hard to grasp how this can be accomplished with such efficiency. As the story picked up steam and people started looking further into the sign stealing, it was revealed that the Astros had a monitor set up between their dugout and clubhouse where they could monitor signs. When the signs were relayed, the Astros would bang on a trash can in the dugout any number of times specific to the pitch that was incoming. Typically, two bangs were to signify a changeup, while no bangs relayed a fastball. Videos of this date all the way back to the 2017 season when Houston won the World Series. The video evidence is honestly kind of incredible in its consistency to the rumors. It has also been alleged that extended whistling patterns were also used to relay the message. When the stadium was simply too loud, the bullpen catcher would be given a message through an ear piece and would reach his hands over the center field wall if a fastball was coming, meaning an off-speed pitch would come any time they weren’t raised. The monitor would be taken down immediately after every game.
If stealing signs is so important, why didn’t the Astros just finish with a perfect or near-perfect record? They kind of did. The Houston Astros finished with more than 100 wins in each of the last three seasons, the only team to do so. In fact, only 10 teams total have totaled 100 wins in any of the last three seasons, with the Astros being three of them. To more thoroughly answer the question, it was an easier setup during home games, which total half the season. That way their ideal situation was in full play, but even then no system is perfect.
If it’s not perfect, why does it matter? The Astros made attempts to explicitly gain an advantage over their opponents through methods forbidden by the MLB. The violation of the rules led to the most successful last three years among all 30 teams, including two World Series appearances and one win.
The implications for this are unlike any we’ve seen in baseball in the last several decades. Commissioner Rob Manfred might be faced with a career-defining decision in how this is handled. Long-term suspensions and fines are in order at minimum. Some players and coaches within the organization might never be involved with baseball again. The MLB could go so far as to revoke their 2017 title.
That’s not all. The long-term implication this could have on the MLB will kick off a new era of baseball. Rules will be made specifically to combat incidents like this, and those could spread to impact America’s pastime as a whole. Great change is coming to the MLB, and it will be incredibly interesting to watch it develop further.