I had an interesting conversation with a buddy a couple of days ago as we hiked a Colorado trail. He’s a baseball fan, and so am I, him Cubs, me Reds, and we both agreed that the teams we support were not good enough last year to be part of the sign-stealing scandal. I cannot rule that out, however.
First, a couple of baseline thoughts:
- Baseball has a very clean image, and to the casual viewer it would appear that games are very hard to fix. Instant replay tends to get every umpire call right. But games are actually easy to fix. Baseball hitters are some of the best athletes in the world, able to hit fastballs traveling nearly 100 mph. Pitchers are only good to the extent that they are able to fool hitters by concealing their pitches. They cannot just overpower them. However, if a batter knows what pitch is coming, the odds are high that he will send that pitch to the cheap seats. That’s really all it takes to fix a game – tipped pitches.
- We are told that last year that the baseballs used in Major League games were “juiced.” Home runs were up for nearly every team. The aerodynamics behind a juiced baseball were said to be compressed seams that allowed it to go further and faster than in years prior.
The mechanics of the sign-stealing scandal were that the Astros had cameras set up to steal catchers’ signals, and then would quickly relay those signals to the batter. Some of it was done by merely banging on a garbage can, but a more sophisticated method was a device worn by batters under jerseys that would tap their skin … one tap a fastball, two a curve, three a slider, etc.
Sign stealing is an ancient art, and an honorable one, but the use of technology to formalize the process is cheating. I hope we can all agree on that. So far, Red Sox manager Alex Cora, Mets manager Carlos Beltran, and Houston manager AJ Hinch and GM Jeff Luhnow have lost their jobs. There is talk that the Los Angeles Dodgers might contest the outcome of the 2017 World Series.
Our conversation concerned whether baseball is cleaning up its act, or just covering up a much larger scandal.
- It’s hard to believe that only one team figured out how to formalize sign-stealing. If one could do it, they all could. Some, like the Reds and Cubs and others are apparently honest in their dealings. Or they just bad hitters on their rosters.
- The “juiced” baseball might not be juiced at all. The number of home runs hit last year might have been a product of the number of teams that were effectively stealing signs.
- If the baseball was indeed compressed and traveling further and faster, so too should pitching have been affected, curves and sliders not bending enough, fastballs losing their movement. That did not appear to be the case.
One item is of interest to me, I am not sure how it would fit in: The Reds recently signed free agent Wade Miley, a former Houston pitcher, to a three-year deal. Miley was a very good pitcher for the Astros for most of 2019, but his performance tailed off during the season, and the team eventually dropped him from the postseason roster.
After the season was over, so the story goes, a friend of Miley’s called him to tell him that he had been tipping his pitches, which is why his performance slumped. He would position his glove differently for various pitches, and opposing teams picked up on it.
If that is true, the Reds made a smart investment, as Miley will be able to fix his tipping habits. But the fact that he was with the Astros is what catches my attention: How much more is there to his story? Why didn’t the Astros pick up on his habits? After all, teams monitor their pitchers carefully, always on the lookout for pitch tipping. If any team was wired to pick up on pitch-tipping, it was the ‘Stros.
OK. I don’t know what to make of that. I do know this: Baseball is going to have to crack down on communications. Right now they have an open door policy to replay rooms so that players and pitchers can immediately review their performances. Those rooms are going to have to be sealed off or eliminated. Teams will be allowed only certain cameras in certain positions, and players will be frisked for signalling devices. Garbage cans will be sound proofed.
Football seems to have cleaned up its act after the Patriots sign-stealing scandal.
After I wrote that, I had to laugh. At myself. For writing that.