Ask a professional athlete why they play the game, and they will probably tell you that it’s because they love it. Ask that athlete what matters most at the end of the day, and they will probably tell you that it’s winning.
But winning is seldom easy, especially at the highest levels. Sometimes athletes or teams need a leg up, a little outside help. Sometimes, they cheat.
Cheating in sports is almost as old as sports itself. Whether it be Barry Bonds and Lance Armstrong taking performance-enhancing drugs or the Patriots deflating footballs, cheating to gain a competitive advantage has been around forever. However, according to The Athletic, there’s a new scandal to be added to the list.
Just over a week ago, The Athletic reported that the Houston Astros stole signs during the playoffs in 2017. Anyone familiar with baseball knows that stealing signs is part of the game. For most of baseball’s history, stealing signs came when a player on base (most likely on second base because a player here can see the pitcher, the catcher and his teammate: the batter) signals to the batter what kind of pitch is about to be thrown. The player on base may be able to determine what kind of pitch is about to be thrown by studying the hand signals the catcher gives to the pitcher.
Stealing signs via another player on the field is fair game and has long been utilized by MLB teams. Stealing signs using a camera positioned in center field, relaying a live feed to the dugout or clubhouse — as the Astros did — is anything but fair game. According to initial reports by The Athletic, this camera produced a live feed to someone near home plate, likely in the area between the dugout and the clubhouse, who would study the signals the catcher gave. This person would work to decode which signals correspond to which pitches. Once the person determined this, they would watch for the signals and then bang on the side of a garbage can sitting near them to alert the hitter about what kind of pitch was coming. One bang could mean fastball; two bangs could mean breaking ball. This procedure broke MLB rules, which dictate that any in-park camera must be on an eight-second delay.
Conversely, many around the league have reason to believe that foul play was not the reason for the Astros’ success at the plate. According to FiveThirtyEight, a popular analytics website, the Astros team strikeout rate went from the fourth-worst in the league in 2016 to a league best percentage in 2017. This data takes both home and road games into account. According to the article, during the year the scandal supposedly began, the Astros were an outlier compared to all other MLB teams in that they increased power and decreased strikeout rate, both at home and on the road.
News of the alleged rules violations have been addressed by many in the world of baseball, as many show discontempt with the effects the scandal has on competition within the league.
“I always want the ability on the field to determine who the winner is, and I just don’t think it’s a level playing field and it’s not good for our game, ” said MLB Chief Officer Joe Torre.
Others voiced their lack of surprise regarding the news, such as infielder Trevor Plouffe who tweeted: “Why are the pitch stealing allegations a surprise to anyone?? Do you know the stakes involved? That’s why guys still get popped for PEDs. The reward outweighs the risk for many. That goes for organizations and players.”
The entire scandal was brought to the forefront when pitcher Mike Fiers, who was on the team in 2017 and now pitches for the Oakland Athletics, broke the code of silence among players and detailed the accusations to reporters from The Athletic. In the wake of the scandal, the MLB has opened up an investigation and will ultimately have to decide what kind of punishment the actions warrant.
In response to the publishing of the article, the Astros released their own statement: “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 is unclear what kind of punishment the league will deliver to the Astros, mainly because cheating to this degree surpasses anything the league has had to deal with before. Back in 2017, the Boston Red Sox were fined for the use of smartwatches in sign-stealing activities, yet the lack of involvement from ownership and front office warranted a small punishment for the Red Sox.
However, comissioner Rob Manfred did note that “future violations of this type will be subject to more serious sanctions,” per ESPN. Now, some around the league are calling for very serious sanctions surpassing fines such as suspensions, the forfeiture of draft picks and possibly championship titles.