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The Houston Astros Sign-Stealing Scandal

I think this deserves its own thread, because it may be the first time in major league baseball history that there has been a team-wide cheating scandal (at least since the infamous Black Sox fixing World Series games exactly a century ago), comparable to the team-wide doping programs we know have been used in pro cycling.

The Houston Astros stand accused—and the evidence is compelling—of using cameras to steal the signs that catchers use to communicate with pitchers about what kind of pitch—fastball, curve, change-up, etc.-to throw. Batters normally don’t know what’s coming, and have to guess, based on the pitcher’s movement when he releases the ball. No one doubts that having this information before the pitch is thrown would help the hitter. No one doubts, either, that teams have long tried to steal signs. But in the past this was done without technology like cameras, and was permitted or at least tolerated. The Astros have clearly taken it to a new level.

The Astros began using this system early in the 2017 season, and already their World Series championship that year is being considered tainted. It’s noteworthy that in the deciding Game 7, the Astros hit Dodgers pitcher Yu Darvish hard, basically turning the game in their favor. Even at the time, before anyone knew about the sign-stealing system, it was thought that Darvish was tipping his pitches, through some unconscious movements. In retrospect, it looks much worse than that.

The Astros will almost certainly be subject to some stiff penalties, and some heads will probably roll. An interesting question, though, is whether some of those heads will be of the players. By using this system, they were clearly cheating, maybe gaining as much or more of an advantage than through PEDS. A recent article provides some quantitative estimates of this benefit:


While I think this analysis is poor—it doesn’t discuss the values that go in the opposite direction of what would support a benefit from sign-stealing, suggesting that all the differences result from random fluctuations—more analysis like this is sure to come. MLB has probably more information available to it than any other pro sport, and if the players did benefit, it can probably be shown more convincingly.

That being the case, what happens? One of the players, Jose Altuve, won the MVP that year, with his best season ever. If it can be shown he did benefit from sign-stealing, would they strip him of the honor? What kind of statistical significance would be necessary? This would be unprecedented as far as I know. Just in this century, several players have been shown to have been doping during a season in which they won an MVP--Barry Bonds, Alex Rodriquez, and Ryan Braun, for example. None of them was stripped of the award. In 2012, Melky Cabrera was stripped of the batting title after a PED suspension, but Cabrera, to his credit, actually requested this himself.
 
Jul 5, 2018
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I think this deserves its own thread, because it may be the first time in major league baseball history that there has been a team-wide cheating scandal (at least since the infamous Black Sox fixing World Series games exactly a century ago), comparable to the team-wide doping programs we know have been used in pro cycling.

The Houston Astros stand accused—and the evidence is compelling—of using cameras to steal the signs that catchers use to communicate with pitchers about what kind of pitch—fastball, curve, change-up, etc.-to throw. Batters normally don’t know what’s coming, and have to guess, based on the pitcher’s movement when he releases the ball. No one doubts that having this information before the pitch is thrown would help the hitter. No one doubts, either, that teams have long tried to steal signs. But in the past this was done without technology like cameras, and was permitted or at least tolerated. The Astros have clearly taken it to a new level.

The Astros began using this system early in the 2017 season, and already their World Series championship that year is being considered tainted. It’s noteworthy that in the deciding Game 7, the Astros hit Dodgers pitcher Yu Darvish hard, basically turning the game in their favor. Even at the time, before anyone knew about the sign-stealing system, it was thought that Darvish was tipping his pitches, through some unconscious movements. In retrospect, it looks much worse than that.

The Astros will almost certainly be subject to some stiff penalties, and some heads will probably roll. An interesting question, though, is whether some of those heads will be of the players. By using this system, they were clearly cheating, maybe gaining as much or more of an advantage than through PEDS. A recent article provides some quantitative estimates of this benefit:


While I think this analysis is poor—it doesn’t discuss the values that go in the opposite direction of what would support a benefit from sign-stealing, suggesting that all the differences result from random fluctuations—more analysis like this is sure to come. MLB has probably more information available to it than any other pro sport, and if the players did benefit, it can probably be shown more convincingly.

That being the case, what happens? One of the players, Jose Altuve, won the MVP that year, with his best season ever. If it can be shown he did benefit from sign-stealing, would they strip him of the honor? What kind of statistical significance would be necessary? This would be unprecedented as far as I know. Just in this century, several players have been shown to have been doping during a season in which they won an MVP--Barry Bonds, Alex Rodriquez, and Ryan Braun, for example. None of them was stripped of the award. In 2012, Melky Cabrera was stripped of the batting title after a PED suspension, but Cabrera, to his credit, actually requested this himself.
What happens? The league and the media move on to more glamorous topics like free agents huge $ contracts. Nothing to see here. The MLB, NFL, NBA and NCAA are all in the business of image management. Sound familiar at all?
 
Pardon my ignorance but is this "sign-stealing" against the rules in baseball?
That's the weird part. It was never considered against the rules before technology got involved. Players have long tried to do it. But the use of cameras makes it far more effective. There were some new rules put in effect in 2017, after the Red Sox were caught using electronic devices, and more specific ones this past season.

It's kind of like baseball saying, we don't care if you take greenies (amphetamines, to make players more alert), but steroids have too much of a PE effect to be allowed.
 
It's pretty hard to do without a camera. It requires someone in a place where they can see the catchers hands, work out what the signalling system is (and hope it isn't changed/they pick the right call) and then a way they can communicate it to the batter, all in time for them to set themselves and hit the pitch. I'd guess it was tolerated because it's pretty hard to get right and if you communicate the wrong pitch it's detrimental.

I don't think the analogy with amphetamines is fair. It's baseball saying, if you can work out the calls and communicate them in play without electronics then they need to do better at mixing up their calls/hiding them. Similar to teams working out the line-out calls of their opposition in rugby, picking up on play calls/audibles in American football etc. Basically it's part of the game.


Cameras clearly make a big difference here, as do the accusations that the communication with the batter was also electronic.


Looking at the analysis it does seem a bit superficial, although it seems to go inline with what you might expect, with fastball hitting least affected and breaking and off-speed (breaking pitches are off-speed pitches so I'm assuming this really means change-ups?) more affected. Knowing these pitches are coming helps massively in timing and deciding if you're going to leave it. I'd be most interested to see the specific effect on left pitches. Were batters better at leaving breaking balls outside the plate overall? This also has the effect of forcing the pitcher to throw more towards the plate, making all pitches easier to hit.

What will happen? I'd agree with @GVFTA and assume not much, maybe a slap on the wrist to put a marker down in case someone else is caught doing it.
 
I think this deserves its own thread, because it may be the first time in major league baseball history that there has been a team-wide cheating scandal (at least since the infamous Black Sox fixing World Series games exactly a century ago), comparable to the team-wide doping programs we know have been used in pro cycling.
Hmn, does the Yankee pitcher's wife-swapping in the 1970s count as a team-wide cheating scandal since they all probably knew about it before it went down. :p
 
One telling aspect here is the fact that representatives for teams playing against the Astros pretty much downplay the issue. See John Farrell, for instance. The former manager of the Red Sox -- a rival team-- refused to get all uppity about the matter. Sort of like rival cycling teams when asked to comment on an opponent's doping ban. His body language and response pretty much said that everyone does it.
A few years back the Toronto Blue Jays--the best baseball team ever--were accused of doing the same, and there was a lot of corroborating evidence to support the case, but the story went the way of the dodo

Only reason this has become an issue is that a former Astros pitcher played whistle blower. He felt bad knowing that up and coming pitchers would be sent to the minors after being lit up by the 'stros.
 
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