Major League Baseball has meted out severe punishments for the Houston Astros after the team was caught stealing signs using cameras and video monitors at its home field, Minute Maid Park. Here’s everything you need to know about the unfolding scandal.
• What is sign-stealing?
Sign-stealing is a long-standing baseball practice in which one team tries to decode the signs of its opponent. Those signs could be relayed from the catcher to the pitcher, or from the dugout to the catcher, or from one infielder to another, or from a base coach to a batter or runner.
There is a constant exchange of signs by both the hitting team and fielding team during a baseball game. Figuring out what even one of them means — in the Astros’ case, the signs from catcher to pitcher, the most frequent target for sign-stealing — can give a team a major advantage, allowing batters to know, for example, if the next pitch will be a fastball or a breaking ball.
• Is it illegal to steal signs in MLB?
Nope. It’s accepted tradition. Players and coaches try to steal their opponents’ signs, but they’ve traditionally done so mostly by watching the other team and trying to recognize patterns or sequences. Sign-stealing is as old as baseball itself.
But stealing signs using camera, binoculars or other objects foreign to the game is illegal. Major League Baseball took steps to curtain sign-stealing in the digital age during the most recent offseason, according to multiple media reports. That followed a series of allegations of teams stealing signs using electronic means. In 2017, MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred had warned teams about electronic sign-stealing, while fining the Boston Red Sox for “sending electronic communications from their video replay room to an athletic trainer in the dugout.”
• How did the Astros steal signs?
The Astros used a camera positioned in center field at Minute Maid Park to decode the signs from the catcher to the pitcher and inform the batter what kind of pitch was on the way. That camera was used by the team’s replay room, whose operators were supposed to help manager A.J. Hinch decide whether to challenge an umpire’s call.
But in addition to those duties, former bench coach Alex Cora instructed the replay room to relay the decoded information to a player, who would share it with teammates. That information was variously shared using the dugout phone, the cellphone of a staff member on the bench or another cellphone stored nearby.
Eventually, the Astros installed a video monitor displaying the same footage just outside the dugout so players could look at the video themselves. Players would bang on a trash can with a bat to signal to the hitter at the plate what pitch was coming. “Generally, one or two bangs corresponded to certain off-speed pitches,” according to Manfred’s investigative report, “while no bang corresponded to a fastball.”
• When did the Astros start stealing signs?
The Astros started stealing signs using the replay room at the beginning of the 2017 season, the same season they defeated the Los Angeles Dodgers, four games to three, to win Houston’s first World Series. The team began using the monitor outside the dugout two months into the season.
The replay room scheme was revived during the 2018 season, but stopped sometime before the playoffs began. MLB’s investigation did not find any evidence that the sign-stealing racket continued into the 2019 season, when the Astros lost the World Series to the Washington Nationals, four games to three.
• How did the Astros get caught?
A number of teams had suspicions about the Astros, but the sign-stealing became public only in November, when former Astros pitcher Mike Fiers told Ken Rosenthal and Evan Drellich of the Athletic about the scheme.
“That’s not playing the game the right way,” Fiers said. “They were advanced and willing to go above and beyond to win.”
But unnamed sources who spoke with the Athletic said Houston was far from the only club breaking MLB’s rules by using technology to steal signs.
“It’s an issue that permeates through the whole league,” one major league manager said. “The league has done a very poor job of policing or discouraging it.”
• Who got fired from the Astros?
Let’s start with who got punished. MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred suspended manager Hinch and general manager Jeff Luhnow for the 2020 season. Manfred also banned Brandon Taubman, the team’s former assistant general manager, from working for MLB or any of its clubs for the 2020 season, after which he can apply for reinstatement, over a separate matter.
Manfred also stripped the Astros of their first- and second-round selections in the 2020 and 2021 drafts, and fined the franchise $5 million.
Shortly after Hinch and Luhnow’s suspensions were announced, they were both fired by Astros owner Jim Crane.