In case the intro post didn’t make this clear, I love sports. I love them enough that if there is nothing better to do on a weekend afternoon, sometimes I will just turn the television on and watch whatever random game that I can find at my leisure. A few months back, I was having one of those afternoons and ended up settling into a game of regular season women’s college softball.
There was nothing particularly special about this game, I don’t even remember what schools were involved any more, but there was one specific peculiarity that I do remember. ESPN U’s budget for this game must have not been especially large, because the center field camera wasn’t in the traditional spot. Instead, any runner on second base, standing in the ready position on base was in full view of the camera, as was their right hand, down by their bent forward knee, using their digits to pantomime the number of fingers the catcher was showing to the pitcher. They were stealing signs. Blatantly, rudimentarily and, in clear view of regional television.
This is nothing new. For as long as there have been signs for bat and ball games, teams have been trying to steal them. We used to even try to steal them in high school. The last time the Indians won the World Series, back all the way in 1948, there were allegations of signal theft using some suspicious scoreboard work. For the most part, if it happens on the field with uniformed personnel and no special technology, I am okay with it. If your opponent’s signs are not sophisticated enough to not be deciphered, then have at it. This seems to be pretty popular opinion in baseball thought.
But like most things, this lives on a spectrum, and while players on the field seem to be free to steal signs, it sure seems the Houston Astros like to push the envelope.
The allegations against them are significant. Last year, after being swept in three straight games during the ALDS, the Indians warned the Red Sox about Kyle McLaughlin. McLaughlin wasn’t Houston’s lead off hitter or lefty specialist out of the bullpen. He was an unlisted employee of the team, caught taking photos of the Indians dugout. MLB went on to investigate McLaughlin and the official ruling was that he had broken MLB rules, but supposedly was not stealing signs himself. Instead, he was taking photos to ensure the Indians weren’t stealing signs. Essentially, he was doing a suspicious looking thing that looked like stealing signs, but was really making sure their opponent was actually not stealing signs. Or that’s how the story goes at least. MLB sent a memo to the remaining playoff teams at that point last year warning them about funny business, and that was the end of the story for 2018.
No further punishment was unveiled besides Boston dismissing Houston in 5 games, and that brings us to now. For both games of this year’s ALCS thus far, Yankees catcher Gary Sanchez has done his best mime impression, cycling through finger signs and body touches while delivering orders to the Yankees pitching staff. Its has worked, as the Astros have only scored 4 runs total in both games, splitting the match-ups at Minute Maid Park. New York to this point, has said nothing, but it sure seems clear that they are a little concerned with the safety of their signals.
And it seems that they should be. This appears to be a home ballpark phenomenon for the Astros. I don’t know if the photographer is afraid of flying or what, but it appears teams get paranoid about going to Minute Maid Park. Andre Knott, who used to work in the media for the Cleveland Browns and now works as a dugout reporter for Indians’ games has said as much on a 2018 podcast, claiming that how the Indians staff has treated going to Houston reminds him of when the Browns would visit Foxboro (around the 6 minute mark).
But what do the Astros get for their efforts? Like I said before, this appears to be a Minute Maid Park phenomenon. Since 2017 and the beginning of their rise to the top of the American League, the Astros have hit .270 at home, good for 4th best in baseball over that time. Their on base percentage of .343 is also 4th best and their strikeout rate of 18.1% is the best in baseball over that span of 3 years while playing at home. However, over the same time period the Astros hit exactly .270 on the road as well. Not only is that the exact same batting average as at Minute Maid, it’s the best road average over that span of time. By 11 points! An OBP of .342 and a K rate of 18.5 % are lesser than at home by a minuscule margin, but are also better than any other team since 2017. They are easily the best road hitting team in baseball since 2017. Either Houston has been stealing signs on the road as well, or they should flat out stop doing it because its clearly not worth the risk.
Further, everyone wants to point to Houston’s home record this year as being suspicious. They were indeed the only team to win 60 games at home over the 2019 season. What is not being mentioned though is that since 2017, the Astros have won more games on the road (157) than any other team. Boston has the second most victories, with a 15 game valley coming between the two American League foes. Houston came down to Earth a bit this year as they were tied for 3rd most road wins at 47, but that’s still really good, and these cheating allegations go back multiple years. You would think that would bare through in the numbers, but Houston has easily been just as good on the road as they have been at home since rising to power in ’17.
Then again, maybe Jose Altuve, George Springer and company are just really good hitters. Maybe the Indians were just displaying sour grapes about another playoff disappointment when they gave the Red Sox the heads up. Maybe all the data is insignificant; the numbers are a matter of random variation.
I can’t tell you what the real answer is, but for better for worse I can guarantee college athletes will continue to show one finger for rise ball while standing on second base, and Astros employees will need to remember to turn their flash setting off. They need to do whatever it takes to get an advantage.
Or maybe they don’t?