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Every MLB team steals signs, but the Astros took it one step too far

Using technology to steal signs is a no-no.

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Houston Astros v Oakland Athletics - Game One Photo by Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images

Sign stealing is almost as old as baseball itself, and has long been widespread throughout the sport. But it seems the Astros, the team at the forefront of weaponizing technology, have taken things a bit too far.

A report from Ken Rosenthal and Evan Drellich at The Athletic details rampant sign stealing by the Astros at Minute Maid Park in 2017, the year they won the World Series.

Rosenthal and Drellich reported the Astros used a camera positioned in the outfield to relay opposing catcher signs to the home dugout. While this is considered a growing problem throughout baseball, and not limited to the Astros, Houston is the story today because four former Astros are sourced in The Athletic’s story, including pitcher Mike Fiers on record.

This is a problem for Houston, which is under investigation by Major League Baseball after former assistant general manager Brandon Taubman following this year’s ALCS victory targeted three female reporters with comments about closer Roberto Osuna, who was acquired in 2018 amid a 75-game suspension for violating baseball’s domestic violence policy.

Taubman was fired, eventually, but the club’s handling of the situation, from owner Jim Crane to general manager Jeff Luhnow and on down the line, was egregiously poor. The organization even accused Sports Illustrated reporter Stephanie Apstein of fabricating the story, despite it being confirmed by several who witnessed the encounter. The team’s very culture that allowed such callousness to happen is now in question.

Now add sign stealing. From The Athletic:

Now, an MLB investigation into the Astros’ culture in the wake of the team’s firing of assistant general manager Brandon Taubman could be expanded to determine who in the organization was aware of the sign-stealing practice — and whether it continued or evolved in subsequent seasons.

The most enjoyable part of the subterfuge was a detailed breakdown from former White Sox pitcher Danny Farquhar:

“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, North Carolina. “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’s story is corroborated with this video breakdown of that incident from two years ago, in which the banging is evident on the television broadcast.

The Astros have been at the forefront of technology in baseball for the last several years, whether it’s leading the charge in using Rapsodo and Edgertronic cameras to track pitch data, to soft tissue analysis or even a brain simulator designed to help muscle memory. But there is something funny to me that even with the outfield cameras capturing catcher signs, the main method for delivering it to batters is hilariously old school, by banging a damn trash can.

Sign stealing came up again in the 2019 postseason, with Yankees players concerned about the Astros using whistles to relay signs during the AL Championship Series.

“Major League Baseball does a lot to ensure the fairness of the game. There’s people everywhere. If you go through the dugouts and the clubhouses and the hallways, there’s like so many people around that are doing this,” manager A.J. Hinch said before Game 4 of the ALCS. “Then when I get contacted about some questions about whistling, it made me laugh because it’s ridiculous. And had I known that it would take something like that to set off the Yankees or any other team, we would have practiced it in spring training.”

The Astros for their part issued a statement in response to The Athletic report about their alleged 2017 transgressions:

“Regarding the story posted by The Athletic earlier today, the Houston Astros organization has begun an investigation in cooperation with Major League Baseball. It would not be appropriate to comment further on this matter at this time.”

It’s worth noting that the Astros did not attack the credibility of that story (which was written by two male reporters).