Major League Baseball (MLB)’s the Houston Astros, have gone into damage-limitation mode after the side that has appeared in of two of the last three World Series championships was found guilty of using technology to steal signs.
The use of technology by the Astros, amongst others, to achieve an unfair advantage makes this a potentially ground-breaking sanction — with the prospect of more to come.
And the league is taking this very seriously, imposing a year-long ban on Astros manager AJ Hinch and general manager Jeff Luhnow.
Those are the longest penalties imposed by the league since former Cincinnati Reds player and coach Pete Rose was banned for life in 1989 for gambling on matches he played and coached in.
The league also fined the Astros the maximum-possible $US5 million ($7.25 million) and stripped them of their first and second round draft picks for the next two seasons.
But why is stealing signs such a big deal, and is there a warning for other sports in how they embrace and police the use of technology?
What are signs and how does one steal them?
When you next watch a baseball game, you may notice the catcher make some signals with their fingers before the pitcher throws the ball.
These signs indicate to the pitcher what he should be throwing, such a fastball or a curve ball, and where they should be aiming it.
Attempting to decode signs used by an opposition catcher is not against the rules and has been happening to unwary catchers and coaches for years.
Baseball Australia and Brisbane Bandits head coach David Nilsson, a former All Star catcher with the Milwaukee Brewers, said that signs are actually pretty easy to decode.
“[Signs] are a lot easier to interpret than people realise … if you watch a catcher you can pick it up very quickly.”
Nilsson, who played 837 games for the Brewers in an eight-year Major League career — the majority as a catcher — knows something about signs and how to conceal them from your opponent.
“There’s a whole bunch of things [a catcher can do to hide the signs he is giving],” Nilsson said.
“If you’re lazy or just not good, your signs can be picked up pretty easily,” he said.
Nilsson explained, therefore, that sign-stealing was a slightly misleading term.
“Stealing signs is an exaggeration,” Nilsson explained.
“It’s actually relaying signs. The difference is cheating versus taking advantage of an opponent.”
‘Cheating’ with technology
As a batter, knowing what the pitch is going to be is hugely advantageous to your chances of hitting the ball.
“When you’re hitting a baseball, you have to make a calculated guess, that’s how hitting goes,” Nilsson, who hit 105 Major League home runs and recorded 789 hits, said.
“If you think about Shane Warne and he’s going to bowl a flipper for example, if you know he’s is going to be bowling a flipper, you have a better chance of dealing with it.”
But stealing signs is nothing new. In fact, it is not actually illegal in the game.
The difference in this case is that technology was being used, which is a big no-no.
“In real time, [signs] can take a bit of time to relay and decipher,” Nilsson said.
“Occasionally in a game you have a genius player who can pick and decipher signals very quickly … but it doesn’t happen much.”
Using technology to steal signs, on the other hand, is a different matter.
“[Teams] systematically setting up their electronics to cheat … you can’t defend it,” Nilsson said.
Were the Astros the only team involved?
It wasn’t actually the Astros who got caught doing this first.
That dubious honour falls to the Boston Red Sox, who were issued with an undisclosed fine for stealing signs and communicating that information via smartwatch to the dugout during a series with the New York Yankees.
At that point, the commissioner of the MLB, Rob Manfred, issued a reminder to all 30 Major League teams that any future violations would be subject to more serious sanctions.
However, the Astros continued to steal signs throughout the 2017 and 2018 seasons, including their 2017 World Series title — the Astros’ first-ever championship.
“There was a warning, but some teams did not heed that warning,” Nilsson said.
So the Astros just kept on stealing those signs?
Pretty much, yes.
The Astros trained a camera on the catcher and used the live feed to communicate electronically to the bench what each pitch was signed to be.
By banging a drinks container in the dugout, the Astros bench was able to communicate different pitches to the batter in real time.
This was led, according to the MLB department of investigations, by bench coach Alex Cora, who is now coach at the Red Sox — who are also under investigation.
(Oh and yes, the MLB has a department of investigations, which will not be news to Simpsons fans.)
The investigation, which involved interviewing 68 “witnesses”, reviewing tens of thousands of emails, communications, text messages, video clips and photographs.
Rules need to catch up with technology
The use of technology to provide real-time analytics to coaching staff is well advanced.
Nilsson said the rules now needed to catch up with how that technology was implemented.
“The rules weren’t written for 2020 technology,” Nilsson said.
“All sports are encountering [technological advances] in a different way, it is not new to any sport.”
Since the MLB sanctions came out, Hinch and Luhnow have also been fired from their jobs at the Astros by owner Jim Crane.
“When I found out, I was very upset. We want to be known as playing by the rules,” Crane said in a press conference.
“Neither one of those guys implemented this or pushed it through the system … but neither one of them did anything about it.
“That’s unfortunate and the consequences are severe.”
Australian sport knows all about guilt through inaction — and much in the same way the ball-tampering scandal promoted wholesale changes to the attitude of the men’s national cricket team — this ruling could have major impacts for baseball in the near future.