2017 Houston Astros sign-stealing scandal

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The 2017 Houston Astros sign-stealing scandal was an illegal scheme implemented by the Houston Astros during the 2017 season to steal their opponents' signs in order to favor their batters. While sign-stealing by normal means is considered part of the game, the Astros' scheme was in direct contravention of orders from the Commissioner's office not to use technology in doing so. In fact the Commissioner repeated the directive by circulating a memo to all teams on September 15th, but the Astros continued with their scheme unabated.

The Astros used two methods to implement their scheme. The first was a "code-breaker" team that taped the opposing catchers' signs in order to figure out the sequences used, and used a live camera feed to then decipher the signs as they were given. The second, used only in home games, was to bang on a trash can in the dugout, the type of banging describing the type of pitch that was coming (one bang for a breaking ball, two for a change-up and none for a fastball). All of this was only revealed following the 2019 season, when P Mike Fiers, who had since left the Astros, made the scheme public in an interview with The Athletic. The reaction was immediate and strong, and the Commissioner's office ordered an investigation.

What made the scandal particularly distasteful was that the Astros had won their first World Series title that year. No matter what would happen next, it would be forever tainted as a result. The fact that this had been done in clear and open contradiction of explicit directives did not help the case either. Internet sleuths began looking at the evidence, and it was there in plain sight: on tapes of games from that season, the banging was clearly audible once the viewer was aware of it, and there was a lot of anecdotal evidence from persons involved in games at the time that something untoward had happened. In particular, the two poor performances by Yu Darvish of the Los Angeles Dodgers in the World Series, when the Astros' batters seem to know exactly what pitch was coming and teeing off at will, was particularly egregious evidence. In January, the Commissioner's office came down with its verdict, and it was quite plain: the Astros were guilty, and suspensions were handed to the team's manager, A.J. Hinch and general manager, Jeff Luhnow, for their role, although individual players were spared. They were also punished with a $5 million fine and the loss of draft choices in 2020 and 2021. During the investigation, it was also revealed that the Boston Red Sox had implemented a similar although more limited scheme the following year, and they were also punished. In addition to manager Hinch of Houston and Alex Cora of Boston who were suspended for one year, Carlos Beltran, who was a player for Houston and had since retired and been hired as manager of the New York Mets, was also fired after being mentioned as a ring-leader.

Did the Astros really benefit from the scheme, beyond the anecdotal evidence mentioned above? It's far from clear. Researchers Will Melville and Brinley Zabriskie studied the issue in depth and published their findings in the Fall of 2020, coming to the conclusion that whatever benefit the Astros may have derived from the scheme was not readily quantifiable, as the effects were small and generally not inconsistent with random data variations during a season. However, they also pointed out that this did not make the scheme any more legitimate, and that it affected the integrity of the game whether or not it had been successful.

The Astros were expected to be heartily booed as cheaters when they returned to the field in 2020, but the Coronavirus pandemic intervened. A number of months passed before games could resume, and when they did, there were no spectators present. The edge of the scandal had dulled by the time they had to face fans on the road in 2021. By then, Hinch and Cora had served their suspensions, and both were back managing a team, Hinch with the Detroit Tigers and Cora still with Boston. Many observers felt that they had got off pretty lightly.

On April 26, 2022, further light was shed on the scandal when a letter from Commissioner Rob Manfred to the New York Yankees was made public after a long judicial saga. That letter, dated September 14, 2017 - i.e. one day before the Commissioner issued his stern warning to all teams to cut out the use of electronics in stealing signs - fined the Yankees $100,000 for improper use of the dugout phone the previous two seasons. The Yankees had asked staff in their video room to decode their opponents' signs and used the dugout phone to relay the information to coaches so that they could inform players in real time. This was clearly akin to what resulted in much more significant punishment for the Astros, but the rules at the time were not explicit enough for the Commissioner to mete out more severe punishment, hence the memo he sent to everyone the following day (and which in contrast was made public immediately). The contents of the letter was very embarrassing to the Yankees, which explains why they fought tooth and nail to keep it private after it was introduced as evidence in a suit by fantasy baseball players claiming MLB's failure to police sign-stealing had caused them harm. The lawsuit had been dismissed in 2020, but the order by that judge to make the letter public was then appealed by the Yankees, until they lost their final appeal shortly before it was made public two years later.

One of the most controversial aspect of the sordid affair was Commissioner Manfred's decision to exempt any player involved from punishment. In an interview with Time magazine in 2023, he stated that was perhaps the biggest regret of his then eight-year mandate, along with his calling the Commissioner's Trophy, earned by the Astros as the controversial winners of the 2017 World Series, a "piece of metal". Were he to do this again, he stated, he would first have tried to investigate the affair without initially granting the players immunity, seeing where that would have led him first.

Further Reading[edit]

  • Skyler Caruso (People): "Everything to Know About the Houston Astros' Cheating Scandal of 2017", Yahoo! News, October 28, 2022. [1]
  • Anthony Castrovince: "MLB, Yankees release statements on contents of 2017 letter", mlb.com, April 26, 2022. [2]
  • Evan Drellich: Winning Fixes Everything: How Baseball's Brightest Minds Created Sports' Biggest Mess, HarperCollins, New York, NY, 2023. ISBN 978-0063049048
  • Jace Evans: "Astros' sign-stealing scheme began with front office 'Codebreaker' program", USA Today, February 7, 2020. [3]
  • Steve Gardner (USA Today): "Rob Manfred second-guesses giving Astros players immunity in sign-stealing scandal", Yahoo! Sports, June 22, 2023. [4]
  • Gabe Lacques: "Severe punishment looms for Houston Astros in sign-stealing scandal", USA Today, January 10, 2020. [5]
  • Gabe Lacques: "Injured parties, defiant execs and a tainted title: Houston Astros' sign-stealing scandal checks all the boxes", USA Today, January 15, 2020. [6]
  • Andy Martino: Cheated: The Inside Story of the Astros Scandal and a Colorful History of Sign Stealing, Doubleday Books, New York, NY, 2021. ISBN 978-0385546799
  • Will Melville and Brinley Zabriskie: "The Houston Asterisks: "Analyzing the Effects of Sign-Stealing on the Astros' World Series Season", in Baseball Research Journal, SABR, Vol. 49, Nr. 2 (Fall 2020), pp. 33-40.
  • Bob Nightengale: "A dark day in MLB history: Astros' cheating scandal taints baseball, ruins club's legacy", USA Today, January 13, 2020. [7]
  • Bob Nightengale: "Astros apologize for cheating, but won't waver on merits of their 2017 World Series title", USA Today, February 13, 2020. [8]