A Tuesday report in The Athletic said the Astros illegally stole signs from opposing pitchers in 2017, which isn’t exactly the most surprising bit of news ever to hit the wire. The Astros front office has cultivated a reputation for possessing an amoral kind of cleverness, and just last year the league investigated a man with ties to the club who was caught filming opponents’ dugouts, seemingly for the purposes of stealing signs. The Astros have also become masters of picking up pitch-tipping cues, which they used to great effect against Tyler Glasnow and Stephen Strasburg in this year’s playoffs alone.
But the electronic element of Houston’s on-field intelligence operation, which had long been the source of rumors and open secrets within the game, is now just out in the open. According to Ken Rosenthal and Evan Drellich’s report, in 2017 the Astros set up a camera in the center-field stands at Minute Maid Park and aimed it at opposing catchers. That camera’s feed was then displayed on a wall-mounted monitor in the hallway that runs between the Astros’ clubhouse and dugout. Players and team employees could watch the feed, and, once they’d decoded the catcher’s signs, they’d warn the batter if an off-speed pitch was coming by banging on a large plastic trash can loudly enough that it could be heard from home plate.
In form and function, it’s not particularly different from the telescope-and-buzzer rig the 1951 Giants used to chase down the Dodgers, or the 2010 Toronto Blue Jays’ Man in White. No amount of video technology or inventive streaming hookups can make up for the fact that the Astros essentially had to use an improvised war drum to relay information to the batter.
Astros using cameras to steal signs, a breakdown pic.twitter.com/rncm6qzXxw— Jomboy (@Jomboy_) November 12, 2019
That image makes for a hilarious juxtaposition when held up against the rest of Houston’s enterprise. The Astros have become one of the most successful teams in baseball through use of the very latest in biomechanical research, statistical modeling, and late capitalist management techniques. They believe they win because they’re smarter than everyone else—and they’re more than a little smug about it. But when push comes to shove, even the Astros were reduced to having a highly skilled, world-class athlete stand in a hallway, watch a TV screen, and beat the fuck out of a trash can with a baseball bat. It’s a mode of communication that dates back hundreds of years and is one step less advanced than the system used by the gorillas in George of the Jungle.
Sign-stealing is part and parcel of baseball, and high-level players learn basic cryptography and codebreaking just as surely as they learn to hit a breaking ball. Every MLB player accepts this, within certain parameters, even if many find the practice frustrating. Signs stolen and relayed by players on the field—for example, a runner standing at second base—are fair game, but electronic aids are verboten. Longstanding unwritten norms against using technological aids predate the Astros’ franchise itself and had been codified into black-letter league policy by 2017.
Before the 2019 season, MLB reinforced its rule by prohibiting teams from placing cameras between the foul poles and within view of the catchers’ signs without prior league approval. The league also mandated that TV monitors visible to players be placed on an eight-second delay. Those updates could not have been more clearly written to combat Houston’s Trash Can Conspiracy if they had started with, “Dear Astros, we need you to knock this off.”
So loathsome was this sign-stealing practice that Rosenthal and Drellich didn’t have to rely only on unnamed sources for their story: Pitcher Mike Fiers, who played for the Astros from 2015 to 2017, was so disgusted by it that he was willing to talk about Houston’s system on the record.
“That’s not playing the game the right way,” Fiers told The Athletic.
His story was confirmed by opposing pitchers Danny Farquhar and Carson Smith, and on Tuesday, Tyler Stafford of Baseball Prospectus broke down several 2017 at-bats in which the noise was clearly audible on the TV broadcast. Even Yu Darvish might have been the victim of electronic subterfuge in the 2017 World Series; though Darvish’s fateful Game 7 start took place in Dodger Stadium, the Astros teed off against him in Houston in Game 3 as well. After that series, the Dodgers had Chase Utley—as wizened and cutthroat a ballplayer as has ever walked the earth—watch Darvish’s starts to see what he was giving away, and Utley couldn’t pick anything up. The evidence is, if not airtight, then at least considerable. So when Rosenthal and Drellich approached the Astros for comment, the club said only that it would investigate the matter in cooperation with the league office.
Of course, this isn’t the only Astros scandal that’s currently under MLB investigation. The league is also looking into the club’s front-office culture after Sports Illustrated writer Stephanie Apstein reported that then–assistant GM Brandon Taubman menaced three female reporters in the clubhouse after Game 6 of the ALCS. The more measured response to the sign-stealing story is a welcome change after the Astros responded to the Taubman piece by viciously slandering Apstein and the horse she rode in on, then spent several days trying (and failing) to walk that statement back.
The Astros were almost certainly not the only MLB club to use forbidden cameras or other technology to steal signs in 2017, but it’s probably not a coincidence that they’re being singled out here. Houston’s record of success under general manager Jeff Luhnow ought to speak for itself: four playoff appearances, two pennants, and a World Series in the past five years, to go along with a bevy of individual awards for the players. Winning that much is bound to make a team unpopular—just ask the Yankees or the Patriots—but the Astros aren’t just good: They’re disruptive.
That’s true in multiple senses of the word. The first is that they’re noisy and brash on the field. Alex Bregman is baseball’s most gifted natural heel; Carlos Correa’s celebrations make Teemu Selanne look positively Presbyterian; and Justin Verlander comes from the Harry Burns School of Saying What You Feel the Moment You Feel It. That attitude is a good thing, by and large, because the game is more fun when good teams win with personality and panache. It might turn off hostile partisan fans, but that’s a feature, not a bug. It’s become fashionable to say that the NBA is fun to follow because it’s a soap opera, and the Astros comport themselves more like an NBA team than any other club in baseball.
But the second meaning is more similar to the Silicon Valley usage of the word: breaking down norms, standards, and morals to find the quickest, most efficient way from A to B. I’m not sure there is such a thing as a morally upright MLB owner or executive in this day and age, but Astros owner Jim Crane made his billions running a logistics company that’s settled discrimination lawsuits and war profiteering charges. And for as much of a beating as Luhnow’s current employer is taking in the press, at least the Astros haven’t inspired a New York Times headline that said they “Helped Raise the Stature of Authoritarian Governments,” like Luhnow’s former employer did.
That history forms a base layer that invites observers to make connections among sign stealing, Taubman, the club’s mass layoffs in its scouting department, a string of ham-fisted and hostile PR actions against reporters, and the shenanigans the club played with 2014 no. 1 pick Brady Aiken, among a litany of other offenses ranging from the penny-ante to the truly stomach-turning.
In a vacuum, this sign-stealing scandal is bad. The Astros might have influenced a championship by breaking the rules and ought to suffer the prescribed punishment for doing so. (Even if their execution was more folly than a mustache-twirling, real-world evil plot.) But in context, it’s the latest car in a freight train of misbehavior.
Would this story have broken if another team had been the primary culprit? Maybe not. Is there a real sense of hostility toward the club floating around baseball discourse? Almost certainly. But that doesn’t mean the Astros haven’t earned—and even invited—this level of scrutiny through their behavior under Crane and Luhnow. As the saying goes: Pigs get fat; hogs get slaughtered.