How MLB unintentionally encouraged the Houston Astros sign-stealing

An old-school point of view on a current scandal...

On Monday MLB fined the Houston Astros $5 million for a sign-stealing scheme that took place during the 2017 and 2018 seasons. The Astros will also forfeit their first and second-round draft picks for the next two years and GM Jeff Luhnow and manager A.J. Hinch received one-year suspensions.

The owner of the Astros – who was not implicated – decided he could live without Luhnow and Hinch and fired them.

There’s a lot to unpack here, so let’s get started.

What’s OK and what isn’t

If you already know this stuff, bear with me…some people don’t.

A runner on second base has a good view of home plate so the pitcher and catcher use a more complicated series of signs to keep the runner from stealing signs and relaying those signs to the hitter.

Without a runner on second base the pitcher and catcher use a single sign because it’s simpler for everybody.

The Astros crossed the line by setting up a camera in centerfield and sending those images to a monitor just outside the Houston dugout. Someone in the dugout would alert the guy at the plate when an off-speed pitch was coming by whistling or banging a trash can.

Any runner on either team can try to steal a sign when standing on second base, but the Astros set up a system that wasn’t available to the opposing team and that gave them an advantage.

Bottom line:

An on-field competitor attempting to steal signs is considered part of the game (sort of, more on that shortly); a nerd with a camera stealing signs from the centerfield stands is not.

Anyone who claims they didn’t know something was going on is either:

A.     Full of shit, or…

B.     Doesn’t know much about baseball.

Any fan watching at home could see the Astros’ opponents giving more than one sign without a runner on second base which means those opponents believed someone was stealing signs from the stands.

And those opponents were right.

A.J. Hinch

There are people in baseball who don’t think much of A.J. Hinch because they considered him a front-office puppet.

Hinch was hired by the Astros before it became common for a front office to dictate starting lineups and on-field strategy to field managers and some people felt Hinch knuckled under to the shirt-and-tie guys.

To his critics, pulling Zack Greinke in Game 7 of the World Series was evidence that Hinch was letting the number guys control his on-field decisions and it cost his team a championship.

According to MLB’s report Hinch knew of the Astros’ sign-stealing scheme, disapproved of it and wrecked the monitor being used twice, which seems like a really weird, passive-aggressive way of dealing with the problem.

If you’re a big league manager in charge of his team, how about calling a team meeting and telling everybody to knock that shit off?

Instead, Hinch admits he did not stop the practice or let it be known he disapproved of it which is the kind of behavior you might expect from someone who is letting somebody else run the show.

Hire someone to kiss your ass and don’t be surprised if he doesn’t stand up and do the right thing under pressure.

As recently as last October – during the Astros series with the Yankees – Hinch called accusations that Houston was cheating “ridiculous” so keep that in mind when you hear anything he currently has to say on the subject.

How softening the game encourages cheating

My Throwback co-author and former big leaguer Jason Kendall has an interesting point of view on the subject: he blames the opposing catchers and here’s why.  

Any signal that could be heard by the Astros hitters – whistles, trash-can banging – could also be heard by the opposing catcher; why didn’t one of those catchers do something about it?

After a couple off-speed pitches followed by noises from the Astros dugout, the opposing catchers should pick up on that pattern and tell the hitter next time I hear a noise from your dugout you’re getting a fastball in the neck. And when the inning’s over, go back and tell your teammates we hear anymore trash cans getting hit, we’re going to drill the guy standing at the plate. 

When Kendall played he wasn’t shy about putting a stop to sign stealing.

Back when Kendall was catching Brian Bannister for the Royals, Andruw Jones of the White Sox picked something up and was yelling out pitches to the Chicago hitters.

Kendall yelled at the White Sox dugout and told Jones to shut the hell up.

When Chicago’s Mark Kotsay came to the plate – a former teammate of Kendall’s – he told Jason he’d already told Jones if he kept yelling out pitches he was going to have to fight Kendall and he really, really didn’t want to do that.

Jones shut up: problem solved.

But as Jason points out, the game isn’t played like that anymore; these days nobody wants a confrontation, nobody wants a fight, nobody wants a fine.

Because they’re worried about making money MLB has softened the game; no more takeout slides at second base, no more home-plate collisions. MLB does not want the stars who put butts in the seats getting hurt.

But softening the game also means no more old-school solutions to sign-stealing; take away the punishment and players feel free to signal pitches from the dugout and now baseball has a crisis on its hands.

Something a fastball in the ribs could have solved back in 2017.

Unintended consequences

Guys who have never played the game at a high level continue to tinker with baseball and the changes they make often have unintended consequences. For instance: analytics have made baseball games longer and more boring and paid attendance has gone down for the seventh year in a row. Didn’t anybody see that coming?

Old-school baseball had a very efficient justice system.

Act like a horse’s ass after hitting a homerun, get ready for a fastball in the ribs next time you come to the plate.

Get overly aggressive about takeout slides at second base, get ready for a middle infielder to drop his arm angle and try to hit you in the forehead with his throw next time you’re trying to break up a double play.

Try to run over a catcher, get ready for a shin guard in the crotch and hard tag in the head next time you try to score.

Back then baseball players policed themselves and the game, but that kind of play is over.

These days you can send up smoke signals from the dugout and nobody is going to do jackshit about it…until it’s too late. Baseball can fine teams, suspend people and condemn cheating, but in some ways baseball brought this on itself.