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MLB must address sign-stealing scandal after report on Astros’ video espionage

Former Astros pitcher Mike Fiers confirmed the existence of a sign-stealing system in 2017, in a report by the Athletic. (Bob Levey/Getty Images)

The Houston Astros have long been suspected by rival teams and industry insiders of using electronic methods to steal opponents’ signs at Minute Maid Park, and a story published Tuesday appears to confirm the team used a video feed from a camera stationed in center field to steal catchers’ signs and relay them to its hitters during its 2017 World Series championship season.

The story, published by the Athletic, quotes former Astros pitcher Mike Fiers, as well as three other team sources granted anonymity, as confirming the existence of the sign-stealing system. Major League Baseball rules prohibit the use of cameras or other electronic equipment for the purpose of stealing signs.

“They were advanced, and willing to go above and beyond to win,” Fiers, who pitched for the Astros from 2015 to 2017, told the publication.

According to the story, a camera in center field caught signs from the catcher and sent a video feed to a monitor behind the Astros’ dugout. Once the signs were decoded, the pitch choices were relayed to hitters by a player or staff member banging on a trash can to indicate breaking balls or off-speed pitches.

Former big league pitcher Danny Farquhar also went on the record with the Athletic, saying he noticed the banging noises during a September 2017 appearance at Minute Maid Park while with the Chicago White Sox — with the noises always appearing when his catcher called for a change-up.

“My assumption was they were picking it up from the video and relaying signs to the dugout,” Farquhar, now retired, told the Athletic. “ … It made me very upset.”

While the Astros’ alleged sign-stealing operation was initiated by players, it also “required the direct aid of at least some on the baseball operations staff,” people familiar with the situation told the Athletic.

The Astros declined to comment on the story, citing in a statement an investigation it has begun “in cooperation with Major League Baseball.” General Manager Jeff Luhnow referred to the team’s statement and declined further comment when peppered with questions at the general managers meetings in Scottsdale, Ariz.

Although the Athletic made clear its story was specific to the 2017 season, whispers about the Astros’ sign-stealing operations have persisted. During the 2018 postseason, an Astros employee was discovered filming into the opposing dugout, but the Astros claimed the employee was only “playing defense” by ensuring no one from the opposition was stealing the Astros’ signs, and MLB did not discipline the Astros.

Largely as a result of that incident, MLB distributed new rules to teams regarding electronic sign-stealing before the 2019 season, including one that specifically banned cameras beyond the outfield fences trained on the catcher’s signs.

“Beginning in the 2017 season,” MLB said in a statement issued Tuesday, “numerous Clubs expressed general concerns that other Clubs were stealing their signs. As a result of those concerns, and after receiving extensive input from the General Managers, we issued a revised policy on sign-stealing before the 2019 season. We also put in place detailed protocols and procedures to provide comfort to Clubs that other Clubs were not using video during the game to decode and steal signs. After we review this new information, we will determine any necessary next steps.”

But the scrutiny of the Astros did not end with the new rules and protocols. During this year’s American League Championship Series, the New York Yankees at one point accused the Astros of stealing signs and relaying them to their hitters through a system of whistles, though an MLB investigation found no evidence of wrongdoing by the Astros.

During the World Series, the Washington Nationals went to great lengths to alter and disguise their system of catchers’ signs in preparation for playing at Minute Maid Park, with pitchers and catchers using five different sets of signs. The Nationals won all four games in the Astros’ home stadium on their way to the championship.

The dark arts of sign-stealing and pitch-tipping recognition have a long and accepted history within baseball, at least when accomplished by non-electronic means. Typically, catchers have switched to a more complex set of signs with runners on second base, to prevent that runner from deciphering them and signaling pitch-calls to the batter through subtle movements.

But with the advancements in video and mobile technology, teams have begun employing the more complex signs — and changing them frequently — even with no runners on base, either out of suspicion of sign-stealing or paranoia. Either way, the counterespionage measures have added time to games, with pitchers taking longer between pitches. The average time of a nine-inning game rose by five minutes, to 3 hours 5 minutes, in 2019.

Much of the suspicion — or paranoia, if you prefer — has centered around the Astros, who are known to be among the most aggressive users of video technology in their scouting, player development and coaching efforts. But while the Astros have drawn most of the scrutiny, and not without reason, many within the industry believe electronic sign-stealing is a problem throughout the game. The most visible example came in September 2017, when the Boston Red Sox were fined for using an Apple Watch to relay stolen signs against the Yankees — still the only time a team has been disciplined, at least publicly, for violating sign-stealing rules.

With MLB investigating the Astros’ front-office culture in the wake of the team’s firing of assistant general manager Brandon Taubman following his profane and offensive comments directed at three female reporters, the sport could expand its reach to include an assessment of team executives’ knowledge and direction of the sign-stealing operation.

But while the Astros sit at the center of this controversy, all of baseball will be watching closely to see how MLB responds. In the digital age, it is fair to speculate every team in the sport has been either a victim or a perpetrator of electronic sign-stealing, or quite possibly both.

Jesse Dougherty in Scottsdale, Ariz., contributed to this report.

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