On Wednesday, Major League Baseball cleared the Houston Astros of wrongdoing in the mini-scandal that threatened to overshadow Game 3 of the American League Championship Series the night before, when a media report suggested MLB was investigating an incident of alleged digitally-aided sign-stealing on the part of the Astros during Game 1 at Boston’s Fenway Park. An Astros employee was observed in the camera well, pointing a camera into the dugout of the Red Sox and texting on a smartphone. It also came to light that a similar incident had occurred involving the same Astros employee in Cleveland during the American League Division Series.
However, the Astros claimed and the MLB’s investigation concluded that the employee was playing “defense” — keeping tabs on the Indians and Red Sox to make sure they weren’t using digital means to steal Houston’s signals — as opposed to using that position to attempt to steal the opponents’ signs. In both cases, the employee was ejected from the area but permitted to remain in the stadium.
“With respect to both incidents regarding a Houston Astros employee,” MLB said in a statement, “security identified an issue, addressed it and turned the matter over to the Department of Investigations. A thorough investigation concluded that an Astros employee was monitoring the field to ensure that the opposing club was not violating any rules. All clubs remaining in the playoffs have been notified to refrain from these types of efforts and to direct complaints about any in-stadium rules violations to MLB staff for investigation and resolution. We consider the matter closed.”
To the Astros, MLB’s statement equaled full vindication: “We’re playing defense. MLB has confirmed there’s no wrongdoing,” Astros General Manager Jeff Luhnow said ahead of Game 4. “There’s no fine. There’s no suspension. They’ve done their investigation and cleared us.”
But Red Sox President Dave Dombrowski, when asked if he considered the matter closed, said, “Yes and no. Yes, I do not think that person in the camera well was stealing signs. So I understand that was resolved. No, in the sense that, first of all, there was a violation. A person was in a credentialed [area] that shouldn’t have been there. Secondly, I don’t like the implication the Boston Red Sox were doing anything illegal . . . So there’s a lot more steps that are attached to this.”
MLB has been clear in recent years, amid the slow creep of digital technology into all aspects of the game, that the sport’s long and accepted tradition of sign-stealing was protected — as long as you don’t use digital means, including cameras, wireless devices or other technology, to do it. The most prominent violation of that policy, what we might call baseball’s Spygate I, came last year when the Red Sox were penalized for an employee using an Apple Watch in the dugout to relay signs to players.
The Astros, Luhnow said, have made it standard practice in road stadiums to station employees at various places to keep an eye out for nefarious sign-stealing practices — which is what he said was going on in Cleveland and Boston this month with the Astros employee, identified by Yahoo Sports as Kyle McLaughlin.
“When we go into a new environment, we keep our eyes open. We look around, and we try and make sure that everything is the way it should be,” Luhnow said. “We have had instances where we’ve seen things that are suspicious and confirmed to be suspicious. It’s happening out there. I’m not going to talk about which teams or what instances or what it looked like, but it does exist. [Sign-stealing] has been a part of the game for a long time, [but] technology is enabling ways of communicating and ways of capturing real-time information that weren’t available to teams five, 10 years ago. And we’re all learning how to operate in this new world.”
But the slow creep of technology has brought with it a slow ratcheting up of paranoia throughout the game. No longer is it just the runner on second base, with a clear view of the catcher’s hands, that teams had to worry about and had to change their signs to thwart. Now it’s that guy in the center field seats with the telescoping camera or the strength coach in the dugout with the smartwatch or the dude in the camera well with a tablet.
Everyone suspects everyone else, although the Astros — with their aggressive use of data, analytics and technology (in the form of high-speed cameras and video), not to mention their success — might lead the league in suspicion.
“What happens is, when a team has success, there’s going to be a lot of other [teams] looking at them and trying to figure out what’s driving their success,” Luhnow said. “Our success is driven by our great starting rotation, our great bullpen and our great lineup. And we very well understand the . . . rules regarding sign-stealing, and we abide by them.”
If you’ve ever wondered why pitchers are taking so long to stare in for the catcher’s signs nowadays or why the batters so frequently step out of the box to reset after these long pauses or why mound visits became so prevalent last year that MLB instituted a rule this year limiting them to six per team per game — this is why. It’s the paranoia over sign-stealing, fueled by technology.
“There’s some unintended consequences that come with the advancement of technology,” Astros Manager A.J. Hinch said. “ . . . I mean, it’s happening right now during a really important series, and I just think it’s bigger than us. It’s bigger than any team. It’s bigger than any series. It needs to be corralled because of the state of the concern over it.”
It is now standard practice for teams to change up their signs throughout a game, using the longer sequences that they once only employed with runners on second all game long and changing them constantly.
“We’re playing in an era of paranoia,” Red Sox Manager Alex Cora, formerly the Astros’ bench coach, said Tuesday. “You don’t want to get caught up on the paranoia. You can’t do that. If you do that, advantage to the [opponent] . . . So you have to prepare, have your set of signs, be ready. If you feel something’s going on with [sign-stealing], hey, man, cover it. Or change the signs.”
For that matter, even the epidemic of passed balls this postseason — seven of them through 23 games, after there were only six in 38 postseason games in 2017 — might be a result of the paranoia. Teams change their signs so frequently it is impossible to keep pitchers and catchers on the same page at all times.
If only there were some electronic means — technology! — to permit pitchers and catchers to communicate without the need for lengthy, confusing, constantly changing hand signals that might allow for faster signs, faster innings and faster games. Some people inside the game, in fact, believe it is only a matter of time — and not all that much time — before pitchers and catchers are outfitted with microphones and earpieces, or some other device, not unlike NFL quarterbacks, for communicating signs.
“That could probably save 20 minutes a game,” Astros ace Justin Verlander said of a theoretical communications system between catchers and pitchers, something he has advocated in the past.
On Wednesday night, the Astros and Red Sox were to play Game 4 of the ALCS. Baseball can only hope Spygate II is over. But unless the sport comes up with a better way for catchers to call signs and for pitchers to see them, there will be another controversy soon — and a whole bunch of four-hour games in the meantime.