November 15, 2019

Astros' System Of Stealing And Relaying Signs In 2017 Is Confirmed By Four People, Including Pitcher Mike Fiers; Numerous Videos Of Astros Home Games With Tell-Tale Banging Before Off-Speed Pitches Have Surfaced; Alex Cora, After Being Questioned In MLB's Investigation, Declined To Comment

NOTE: Correction/clarification added to first paragraph.

Sign-stealing via electronic (illegal*) means has suddenly dominated the hot stove season, as four people who worked for the 2017 Astros, including pitcher Mike Fiers, have confirmed the team illegally stole signs in real time during home games via a camera positioned in the outfield. The Astros won the 2017 World Series.

*: The sign-stealing the Astros are accused of doing in 2017 was not against MLB's rules at the time.

MLB had already been investigating the Astros after an assistant general manager made comments expressing support for an alleged woman-beater to three female reporters during the postseason, and MLB is now investigating the sign-stealing allegations.

The Astros stated this week that they have "begun an investigation in cooperation" with MLB. Knowing the Astros blatantly lied for days only last month about their "investigation" into the locker-room comments of Brandon Taubman means you should probably take everything that organization says with a pillar of salt.

ESPN's Buster Olney agrees, and cannot imagine any reason to ever trust either Astros owner Jim Crane or general manager/head of baseball operations Jeff Luhnow. Olney says the Astros' announcement has overshadowed other breaking news:
• Pete Rose declared that he's going to look into the question of whether he bet on baseball.

• Ryan Braun announced he's investigating why he accused a urine collector of tampering with his sample tainted with performance-enhancing drugs.

• Hunter Strickland has hired detectives to determine how it came to pass that he threw a fastball into the middle of Bryce Harper's body in 2017.
MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred:
We want to make sure we understand everything that went on, who was involved, how far up in the organization it went. And at that point in time, we'll make a decision as to what, if any, discipline is appropriate.
Manfred's quote was not meant to continue the comedy of the Olney snip, but it can certainly be read that way. I'm doubtful that MLB, which is about as transparent as a brick wall, will (a) conduct a wide-ranging investigation of the illegal sign-stealing activities throughout the major leagues and (b) report fully and honestly on its findings. MLB would prefer to avoid the publication of any bad news that could have a further effect on decreased attendance.

If illegal activities are widespread throughout both leagues, MLB's conduct will likely mirror its actions regarding the news of widespread steroid usage throughout both leagues (for years). Still, Jeff Passan of ESPN reports "if the league can prove wrongdoing, the severity could be unlike anything seen in the sport's recent history".

"That's not playing the game the right way," said Fiers, who pitched for Houston from 2015-17. "They were advanced and willing to go above and beyond to win."

Ken Rosenthal and Evan Drellich, reporting for The Athletic, state that "inside the game", everyone accepts that "illegal sign stealing, particularly through advanced technology, is everywhere." One major league manager admits: "The league has done a very poor job of policing or discouraging it."

MLB prohibits clubs from using electronic equipment to steal signs and convey information, but it has not publicly punished any team since the Red Sox were fined an undisclosed amount in 2017 after MLB determined the team had stolen signs through instant-replay monitoring and transmitted the information with Apple watches or Fitbit devices.

According to Rosenthal and Drellich, at least two Astros - a coach and a struggling hitter who had benefited from sign stealing with a previous team - hatched the plan early in the 2017 season.
A feed from a camera in center field, fixed on the opposing catcher's signs, was hooked up to a television monitor that was placed on a wall steps from the team's home dugout at Minute Maid Park, in the tunnel that runs between the dugout and the clubhouse. Team employees and players would watch the screen during the game and try to decode signs — sitting opposite the screen on massage tables in a wide hallway.

When the onlookers believed they had decoded the signs, the expected pitch would be communicated via a loud noise — specifically, banging on a trash can, which sat in the tunnel. Normally, the bangs would mean a breaking ball or off-speed pitch was coming.

Fiers, who confirmed the set-up, acknowledged he already has a strained relationship with the Astros because he relayed to his subsequent teams, the Tigers and A's, what the Astros were doing.

"I just want the game to be cleaned up a little bit because there are guys who are losing their jobs because they're going in there not knowing," Fiers said. "Young guys getting hit around in the first couple of innings starting a game, and then they get sent down. It's (B.S.) on that end. It's ruining jobs for younger guys. ... We had a lot of young guys with Detroit (in 2018) trying to make a name and establish themselves. ... I had to let my team know so that we were prepared when we went to go play them at Minute Maid."

Two sources said the Astros' use of the system extended into the 2017 playoffs. Another source adamantly denied that, saying the system ended before the postseason.
While it stretches credulity that a team cheating during the regular season would decide to stop giving itself an advantage just as the most important games of the year were beginning, it's possible there may have been a problem hearing the bangs over loud October crowds. (I'm sure someone is re-watching the games right now and will report. ... Someone did! See below.)
If the system was halted prior to the postseason, it was not stopped long before it, based upon an incident recalled by both an opposing pitcher and an Astros source.

Pitching for the White Sox in 2017, Danny Farquhar made two mid-September appearances at Minute Maid Park, just before the playoffs. One Astros source recalled that Farquhar appeared to visibly notice what the Astros were up to.

Farquhar, the source remembered, pointed to his ear on the mound.

"There was a banging from the dugout, almost like a bat hitting the bat rack every time a changeup signal got put down," said Farquhar, who is now the pitching coach with the White Sox's High-A affiliate in Winston-Salem, N.C. "After the third one, I stepped off. I was throwing some really good changeups and they were getting fouled off. After the third bang, I stepped off."

Farquhar said he and his catcher changed the signs to the more complex kind used when a runner is on second base — a situation where base runners have long been able to legally relay signs, using their own eyes.

"The banging stopped," Farquhar said. "My assumption was they were picking it up from the video and relaying the signs to the dugout. … It made me very upset. I was so angry, so mad, that the media didn't come to me after."
Here is footage from that game (and two others in the replies), with Jimmy "Jomboy" O'Brien pointing out the bangs.
Jomboy has other videos with obvious banging (here, here, here, here, here (hmm ...), here, here), but he's skeptical about the whistles (here, here). He writes: "if you search "AT HOU - 2017" on youtube and click any random game you'll find some banging on off speed pitches".

Michael Baumann of The Ringer notes the
hilarious juxtaposition [of that video clip] when held up against the rest of Houston's enterprise. The Astros have become one of the most successful teams in baseball through use of the very latest in biomechanical research, statistical modeling, and late capitalist management techniques. They believe they win because they're smarter than everyone else—and they're more than a little smug about it. But when push comes to shove, even the Astros were reduced to having a highly skilled, world-class athlete stand in a hallway, watch a TV screen, and beat the fuck out of a trash can with a baseball bat.
Max Wildstein has footage from August 1, 2017, with the Astros signals: no bangs for a fastball, one bang for a slider, and two bangs for a changeup.

There is also at least one Astros clip from 2018 with the banging sounds.

Paranoia is the default setting for most teams in general, but especially when dealing with the Astros. During the 2018 postseason, two teams (Cleveland and Boston) discovered a person connected to the Astros (Kyle McLaughlin) taking pictures near their dugouts. The Astros stated McLaughlin was only making sure the other teams were not cheating. MLB accepted that excuse (and the incident disappeared from the sports pages).

Rosenthal and Drellich:
[In the 2019 postseason,] the Nationals during the World Series employed a sophisticated set of signs against the Astros that they did not use in previous rounds of the postseason. During the American League Championship Series, the Yankees believed the Astros were whistling from the dugout to communicate pitches. ...

At least once [in 2017], some on the Astros were worried enough that they would be discovered that, in the middle of a game, someone in the dugout ordered the screen hauled out of the tunnel and hidden.
MLB's investigation has included an interview with Red Sox manager Alex Cora, who was the Astros' bench coach in 2017. Cora has declined to comment publicly. Carlos Beltran, one of Cora's closest friends and a member of the 2017 Astros, has denied any involvement. MLB has also spoken with former Astros bullpen coach Craig Bjornson, who joined the Red Sox in 2018, along with Cora.

Cora prides himself on his sign-stealing ability, recognizing tipped pitches, etc. Matt Vautour of MassLive noted that in 2018, the Boston manager discussed taking advantage of anything his team sees on the field:
"I talked about it in my first press conference with the Red Sox. We're going to win some games, and we will steal some games because the game will dictate what we do. And if we have a chance to steal a game, we'll do it. We'll do it."

He was asked what the Astros did while he was there and his memory got fuzzy fast.

"Honestly, I don't remember too much about it. One thing for sure, us, as a staff, we prepared. And I'm not talking about cameras or whatever people were thinking," he said.
Sign-stealing has been a big topic at this week's GM meetings in Arizona.

Twins chief baseball officer Derek Falvey: "Part of me wonders if some of the competitive advantage is in a team making you think you're doing it, and the other team is freaking out all the time about it."

Dodgers president of baseball operations Andrew Friedman: "[Y]ou have to be pretty brazen to do certain things. And when you do, people are going to find out about it."

The Dodgers lost to the Astros in the 2017 World Series and Friedman said it would "sound like sour grapes" if he complained about the Astros' alleged behavior (though he had certainly heard all the rumours).

Last month, the Washington Nationals' advance scouts were extremely concerned about any possible Astros shenanigans. One Nationals official: "Everyone in the game was calling with little tidbits. We were tipped off to all of it."

The Nats operated as if there was a runner on second base at all times, often changing their signs batter-by-batter. Sean Doolittle: "This was the first series all year where we used cards, so that we had five sets of signs that we could rotate through. ... That was something we worked on during the break, after the NLCS."

Joe Posnanski (The Athletic) is unsure "which sports rules matter to the general sports fan":
The backlash to steroids in baseball has been enormous. ...

Meanwhile, I know almost no one who cares about steroids in football.

I also know almost no one who cares about amphetamines in baseball. ...

I never know what cheating is supposed to enrage us and what cheating isn't. ...

I've heard people describe it as the Astros "using technology to steal signs," but it really wasn't too technical ["if they saw a change-up or curveball or some slow pitch coming, someone would bang on a garbage can"]. ...

It's exhausting to try and figure out where gamesmanship ends and cheating starts, where "part of the game" becomes "out of bounds." There are already reports, and there undoubtedly will be more, that this kind of sign-stealing is widespread throughout baseball. And, let's face it: Of course it is. Teams cheat. People cheat. Always have. Always will. ...

This Astros cheating seems pretty blatant and aggravating.

But is it? Now we find out just how much people care.
Whether people care is also probably (sadly) dependent on which team is caught. The Astros have been in the news recently for acting like dicks, so this could have some resonance.

Trevor Plouffe, who played in the majors for nine years, tweeted yesterday:
Anybody curious to know how the Astros relayed signs in the 2017 WS when banging a trash can couldn’t be heard?? A very reliable source just let me know...

Ok I’m glad I waited because it looks like this is already out there. So not exactly breaking news, but confirmation on something already reported.

According to @Carson_Smith39 and now confirmed by my source, the Astros had someone watching a live feed and then relaying the pitch calls via ear piece to the bullpen catcher. Hands up on fence for FB and hands down for offspeed.

ALLEGEDLY (I think im supposed to say that) I don’t have the footage in front of me but apparently you can see the Astros hitters looking toward right center before the pitch is thrown (where their bullpen is).

If you’ve seen anything else that I’ve posted I’ve stated numerous times that this isn’t an isolated event and that it’s happening (in different ways) all around baseball.
Red Sox pitcher Carson Smith's current Twitter feed has nothing after November 12, so either he deleted a tweet to which Plouffe is referring or Smith told him by email or phone. Smith does mention the bullpen catcher in this tweet, but it is not as specific as Plouffe's reference ("they forgot to mention the bullpen catcher also relaying in signs for specific batters specific ways").

Rob Arthur tweeted:
The Astros' trash can banging/sign stealing system left a clear signature in the audio data, which I then used to track when/how they were doing it.
Arthur's findings are at Baseball Prospectus. His article is behind a paywall, but he posted a few tweets:
A couple of interesting things: one, they started the sign-stealing almost immediately in each game, usually by the fourth or fifth pitch or so. Also, they were very accurate, like maybe suspiciously so--they never seemed to make a mistake.

And I also heard/saw in the audio some trash can banging in multiple playoff games. But they certainly weren't using the exact same system as in the regular season, because there wasn't a one-to-one correspondence between banging and breaking balls.

In retrospect, it's kind of stunning they went with such a clear and obvious audio signal. Given how devious the overall system was and how they knew there'd be more attention on the playoffs, I'd be very surprised if they didn't switch to something more sophisticated.

the banging was SO loud it increased the average noise level significantly before each non-fastball when the Astros were batting.

If MLB really wanted to thoroughly investigate the cheating (I suspect they don't), I would suggest going to the raw audio data and coming up with a way to systematically detect trash can bangs or other suspicious noises correlated with the next pitch.
Brad Lee replied: "Using analytics to identify Astros cheating is super ironic and satisfying."

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