Baseball’s sign stealing scandal: Bang the can slowly

AstrosI 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.

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.

13 thoughts on “Baseball’s sign stealing scandal: Bang the can slowly

  1. Something behind the curtain is afoot here. The sign stealing using technology (iWatch not garbage cans… the garbage can is just a prop here -Stros-) is not something that was knows just last year. Even back in 2017 it had already been denounced (see article in link below). Yeah, the million $ question is: why now? Is it just a matter of look over here while over there something else is going on?

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  2. The Patriots’ sign-stealing saga led to a federal court case, which Maarten brought to our attention, the bottom line issued in the ruling was that a ticket entitles its holder to a seat, and nothing more. There is no obligation for teams to play fair or be nice, in fact, fixed outcomes are perfectly legal. It’s just entertainment.

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    1. You are right. I remember that one. Pretty much an eye-opener for sure. They certainly use the “CYA” clause… It might have been even the same for those roman citizens even way back then attending the Amphitheatrum Flavium (aka The Colosseum), just a seat guaranteed… fight fixing must have been going on at such early stages. Perhaps Flamma, Carpophorus, Crixus et al were not that great gladiators… Nothing new under the sun.

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  3. I heard a quote from an Insider that says people should start looking at whether the bad teams are doing this too. I agree that this could explain the higher home run statistics across the league.

    This article deserves credit for the title alone, which is very clever.

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    1. Use of the garbage can, according to LR above, is diversion. You could be right, that they are all doing it. That would make juiced ball a diversion too.

      Thanks, by the way. I did smile to myself as those words for a title popped up. Moments like that are rare and fun.

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    1. You may very well be right on the “something else” being hidden. Remember that Games 7 were played in “Doyer” Stadium so there is no way the cans-camera-monitor scheme setup by the ‘Stros in their stadium could have worked over there.

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  4. I had forgotten about that post and thread. Question: What do you think about the “juiced ball” in 2019. I posted on a baseball site that I thought it was just a cover story, that sign stealing was rampant and that even the bad teams were doing it. They are clamping down now, saving it for the post season
    or to be sure the right teams get in.I didn’t say that last part as they would strike me down. The guy that runs the site, Doug Gray, responded that he had seen proof that the seams on the ball were tighter, producing less drag. I suggested such a thing ought to affect pitching a well as hitting, curves and sliders that don’t break, fastballs without movement, and that anyway, “proof” was a word to avoid.The study that said the ball was juiced could be real, could be fake, could have distorted tiny meaningless differences into big deals.

    But arguing with professional sports writers is a sin.

    https://sports.theonion.com/barry-bonds-took-steroids-reports-everyone-who-has-eve-1819568339

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  5. Bill James remarked that 1970’s baseball was the most diverse in strategy and required a roster of divergent talent, thanks largely to astro-turf. Sluggers aren’t always fast and defense had to be addressed, requiring roster spots to be held by players with speed, if relatively little pop. The pitching staffs had ten men, tops.
    The parks, however, looked like ashtrays and were more like baseball playing machines than the homespun parks of the mythical past. The redesign of the stadiums to accommodate that past has eliminated the need for speedy players who can’t launch and the game’s current design is seriously flawed as a result.
    It is all power, all the time, from both sides of the field. Power arms and power hitters. Striking out at record rates is the cost of doing business in this power economy. The juiced baseball argument doesn’t come close to addressing the design flaws of the current product. It may be a deliberate distraction, or it may be an attempt to make the game even more power happy, because the thinking may be that dwindling attendance can be checked by upping the drama.
    I can’t recall the 70’s having anywhere near as many “walk-off” taters like there are today. That may be the favored recipe of the mind-benders MLB inc. has employed to get the fans back in the seats.
    That said, the collusion I suspect could be going on may be necessary to keep the balls flying out of the park at a clip the hidden persuaders have concluded is required to keep revenues increasing, juiced balls notwithstanding.

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    1. That sounds reasonable. I remember shortstop being a light-hitting position, and left or right field being a place to hide a poor fielder. Now we are told that fielding does not matter as much in a shift-oriented defense. They just want hitters. So then it makes sense that this is the area they would focus on, dingers. And how to assure more dingers? Let the batter know the pitch that is on the way.

      Football did as much, but more in the open, introducing rules to protect the quarterback and to make it nearly impossible to avoid pass interference calls. I remember Jack Lambert of the Steelers saying back in the seventies that quarterbacks should wear dresses. These days, well, gender neutral as we are, it could be that many of them do. Cross dressing is perfectly OK … LGBTQI … it has to be in there somewhere.

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  6. I don’t follow sports, don’t care about sports, had no idea what sign-stealing was until I read this post. (When I read the title, I imagined teams stealing other teams’ stadium signs as a prank, like frat school boys.) Just coming in to say I’m convinced all professional sports are fake because despite the fact that any personal technology program algorithm that tracks my online would realize I have zero interest in sports, my phone’s news feed (which I did not set up and can’t seem to disable) constantly shoves the latest sports “news” in my face every goddamn time I swipe it open.

    I use the word “news” even more lightly than we normally do here, because most of the sports content that my phone desperately wants me to click appears to be not so much about something that happened, but about how some coach or player or sports broadcaster REACTED to something that happened. Guys, I am so fucking tired of looking at my phone and seeing a picture of some meathead contorting his big fat stupid face in surprise or anger or bewildered outrage or whatever the hell emotion their exaggerated expressions are supposed to be projecting. To me, as an outsider, it looks sports media treats these dopey facial expressions the way pornographers treat jiggling boobs and gyrating pussies. I’m supposed to be so intrigued that I can’t help but click on the video. You would think, after however many years of absolutely NEVER clicking on the video–of swiping the news feed away in numb annoyance–that an algorithm somewhere would determine that it should front-load some other type of propaganda to my phone. (Actually, when Trump first got into office, it did. For a brief while, I was inundated with the cartoonish facial expressions of activists, politicians and other phonies reacting to the latest Trump tweet. But then that craze died down and we were back to whoever the fuck these morons in the professional sports world are.)

    Anyway, the fact that so much effort is expended on getting everyone wrapped up in sports drama–even people like me who obviously have no reason to give a shit–suggests that there’s some serious propaganda baked into it. (On the other hand, maybe there’s just a way to fix the settings on my phone that I haven’t figured it out.)

    Whew. Thanks. Just needed to get that off my chest.

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