Astros sign-stealing allegations: Why use of technology crosses line in long-standing practice


Astros sign-stealing allegations: Why use of technology crosses line in long-standing practice

One of Major League Baseball’s big offseason storylines was born Tuesday as The Athletic released an in-depth report on the rampant use of technology to steal signs in baseball. The issue appears to be widespread, but the report centered around the Astros, who used a sign-stealing method involving video during their World Series-winning 2017 season.

Back in February of this year, MLB introduced newer and more specific rules outlawing the use of technology to steal signs. As part of these new sets of rules, teams have been required to provide an audit of every in-stadium camera, and every clubhouse or bullpen TV was required to be placed on an eight-second delay. 

Last month, I wrote a piece about sign stealing and how it’s not really a big deal in the eyes of many (including former players), but let’s get a bit more specific about what this latest report comes down to. 

Some distinctions are necessary here. 

Pitch tipping vs. sign stealing

Let’s not get our signals crossed here. There’s a big difference between stealing signs via a camera and trash can-pounding relay system vs. finding that an opposing pitcher has a “tell.” The Astros have also made headlines for discovering the latter. Our own R.J. Anderson went through how the Astros have picked up on a tell from James Paxton, for example. 

Sometimes it’s hand placement, sometimes a pitcher moves his hand in his glove during his delivery on different pitches. Whatever it is, big-leaguers are usually pretty good at noticing this sort of thing. If they do so from the dugout or in the box, that’s completely fair game. 

Live-action sign stealing is perfectly fine

If a catcher and pitcher aren’t effectively masking their signs and players from the bases or even the dugout can pick them up — the latter of which would be inexcusable from an MLB catcher — that’s fair game as well. That’s mostly what when I spoke about sign stealing with former big leaguers. If there’s a runner on second figuring out the signs, the team on defense needs to do a better job of switching things up and making the calls more complicated. 

The new sign-stealing rules weren’t in place in 2017

As alleged in the major report on Tuesday, the Astros were using a camera in the outfield that relayed video to a hallway between the dugout and clubhouse at Minute Maid Park. The feed allowed them to bang on a trash can to alert the hitter if an off-speed pitch was coming. You can hear as much on this pitch: 

Of note is that while MLB was investigating sign stealing during 2017, the rules weren’t specifically firmed up until before last season. 

The main issue is the technology

Generally speaking, what seems to be widely accepted by many teams and players is that sign stealing is acceptable if it comes via the naked eye, but using technology to do so is crossing the line. 

While we’re here, none other than Astros starting pitcher Justin Verlander had an idea last year to actually use technology to eliminate the worry over stealing signs by using sort of earpiece on the pitcher. Now, we can’t have the catcher saying out loud the pitch, but surely there is some sort of way to relay pitch and location to the pitcher and this would be great. Also, as Verlander noted in the USA Today piece, it would cut down on pace of play if implemented properly. 

Regardless, we already have our hot story of the offseason that doesn’t involve trades or free agent signings. 



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