The Houston Astros and sign stealing

How it works, what’s considered OK and what isn’t it…

According to former Houston Astros pitcher Mike Fiers, the Astros were using a camera in centerfield to steal signs during their 2017 championship season. Apparently it didn’t bother Fiers all that much until he got to another team, but better late than never.

The Astros were also accused of stealing signs in the 2019 postseason, so it seems a number of people think there’s some sneaky shit going on deep in the heart of Texas even though Houston is closer to the coast.

But let’s forget the geography of the Lone Star State and run through sign-stealing basics and what’s considered OK and what isn’t.

Signs with a runner on second base

If you’re a baseball fan (and if you’re not, you definitely came to the wrong place, but stick around…maybe I can convert you) you already know catchers use a more complicated series of signs with a runner on second base. Good start; now buckle up because we’re going to get way more specific.

Here’s an example of a sign sequence that might be used with a runner on second base: “Last sign, shake, first.”

Now let’s try it in English.

In our sign sequence sample none of the signs matter except that last one. If the pitcher shakes off that pitch, the catcher will give another set of signs and this time the only sign that matters is the first one. You could use “Second sign, shake, last” or “Third sign, shake, second” or whatever combination you like.

So far, not all that complicated, but were about to fix that.

Every pitcher has a different sign sequence he likes to use. That’s why you see catchers wait for a new pitcher to get to the mound; they want to confirm the sequence they’re going to use with a runner on second base.

And to make the catcher’s job even more complicated, every pitcher also has a second set of signs he likes to use just in case the runner on second base figures out the first set. (If you see the catcher hold up his bare hand and spin it in a rolling motion, he’s telling the pitcher something’s rotten in Denmark or Texas and they’re going to that second set of signs.)

Every once in a while you’ll see a catcher look like he’s trying to swat a hyperactive hummingbird with a boat oar, which means the catcher got crossed up on what pitch was being delivered and that cross-up is usually followed by a visit to the mound to get back on the same page.

Getting this stuff straight is important and here’s a story that illustrates the point.

My “Throwback” co-author Jason Kendall once called for a sinker down-and-away from a left-handed pitcher and got a cutter inside instead. Jason didn’t have time to flip his mitt over and catching that cutter in an awkward position tore every ligament in his thumb.

That’s how hard big league pitchers throw.

According to Jason some pitchers are overly paranoid about sign stealing and want to use complicated sequences like “Outs, plus one” (if there are no outs it’s the first sign, one out it’s the second, two outs, it’s the third) or “Previous pitch, plus two” (if the previous pitch was a curve, which is called with two fingers, it’s the second sign after the previous pitch is called and if you find that confusing welcome to the club).

Unsurprisingly, Jason didn’t like complicated sequences because he’d already screwed up his thumb once and didn’t want to repeat the experience when the pitcher couldn’t remember a system that required them to divide the prime rate by the relative humidity and add two.

Jason had his own solution for sign stealing and we’ll get to that in a moment.

How signs are stolen

Catchers are pretty good at deciphering sign sequences – so are some veteran players and coaches – so one of them might run to the closest TV outside the dugout, watch the other team’s catcher give a few signs and then be able to tell his teammates what system the other team is using. Then an observant runner on second base can watch the signs and relay them to the hitter.

Here’s how they might do that:

If the runner puts his hands on his hips it’s a fastball, hand on knees it’s off speed. Could be hand on right hip or left hip, or taking off his batting helmet with the left or right hand. It’s gotta be something quick and not overly complicated.

Some hitters would rather have location; inside or outside. That’s why you see catchers set up late to receive a pitch even though umpires would rather they set up early so they can position themselves to call the pitch. It’s also why you see umpires put a hand on a catcher’s back so he can feel the when the catcher moves.

So far everything I’ve described is considered OK in baseball; it’s on-the-field competitors competing and that competition includes stealing signs.

Now here’s the line the Astros are accused of crossing.

Using an outfield camera

With a runner on second base the pitcher and catcher know sign stealing is a possibility. With no runner on second the pitcher and catcher can quit worrying about all that sign-sequence stuff and focus on calling and executing pitches.

Unless…someone goes beyond what’s considered acceptable and uses a camera in the outfield.

During the 2019 postseason opposing catchers were using more than one sign with no runner on second base which indicates they thought the Astros might be up to no good.

If they were doing what they’ve been accused of doing, the Astros would need their own camera to get the stolen signs to the hitter in time because TV broadcasts are on a delay so they can cut out all the F-bombs players use during a game.

Stealing signs from second base is considered part of the game and requires some skill on the part of the sign stealer; stealing signs from centerfield using a camera is not considered part of the game, doesn’t require skill and isn’t considered OK.

How to stop sign-stealing fast

Apparently MLB is investigating the Astros, but since this is the same organization that didn’t suspect anything was wrong when guys showed up with necks wider than their heads and hit more home runs than Babe Ruth, it wouldn’t be surprising if MLB decides the Astros didn’t do anything wrong and Lee Harvey Oswald acted alone.

We’ll see.

Just about everything I know on this subject comes from Jason Kendall and Jason being Jason he had his own system for stopping other teams from stealing signs.

If Jason thought the runner on second base was stealing signs he’d make a mound visit. Jason always kept his mask on and one of the reasons he did that was so he could go to the mound and have a heart-to-heart with a runner on second base while fans thought he was talking to the pitcher.

Catchers are not only good at stealing signs, they’re pretty good at spotting someone else who’s stealing signs and Jason would inform the base runner that if he passed along another sign to the hitter, someone was going to get hurt and the next time he came to the plate that sign-stealing runner was a prime candidate.

Jason might also return to the plate and let the hitter know if he saw a runner pass him another sign the hitter might get a fastball in the ribs. (I love this stuff because it lets us know just how much is happening on the field that most of us miss.)

Pitchers have reported hearing whistles and bats hitting trash cans from the Houston dugout to signal the hitter and if an old-school catcher was behind the plate, he could stop that shit immediately.

But the game isn’t played that way anymore.

These days people avoid confrontation because nobody wants to get fined or have to fight if it comes to that. Heck, in today’s game you can get in trouble for sliding hard.

So instead of the old-school solution MLB will investigate and if the Astros did what they’re accused of doing maybe the guys who condoned a centerfield camera will be forced to go to some type of rehab clinic for cheaters and the people who got cheated can get some kind of grief therapy and the rest of us can have a national debate on whether or not Houston needs to give their trophy to the Dodgers and promise to never do it again, cross their heart and hope to die.

Maybe it’s just me, but a fastball in the ribs seems way more efficient.