Baseball has seen its fair share of cheating. A full century ago, Shoeless Joe Jackson and his teammates, colloquially known as the Black Sox, were forever banned from the game of baseball for throwing the 1919 World Series for the mafia. The league was riddled with scandal from ’60s through the ’80s: players abused drugs and gambled, and collusion ran rampant among the owners (unsurprisingly, the players were the only offenders ever punished). The ’90s and early ’00s were full of star athletes brought down by steroid scandals, marking many of the statistically greatest players of all time with asterisks. Now, sign stealing has tarnished the legacy of two of the most successful franchises in the league today, the Houston Astros, and possibly the Boston Red Sox who are currently under investigation.
Sign stealing, though? Ask any baseball coach, whether in Little League or the majors, and odds are they’ll be able to tell you a story about successfully stealing a sign or having it stolen. Although it certainly isn’t condoned in the rule book, sign stealing is often treated like speeding—as long as you’re not putting someone else in danger, you’re fine. Therein lies the problem; if the Astros were speeding, they’d have been doing 100 in a 65.
The Astros didn’t just sign steal occasionally—they created and used a complex system to steal signs for multiple seasons. Go back and watch any home Astros game, and you’ll hear banging from the dugout whenever the catcher signaled an off-speed pitch (New York Times, “The Rise and Sudden Fall of the Houston Astros,” 01.18.2020). You’ll also see an incredible disparity in performance if you compare Astros home games to away games—Clayton Kershaw, one of the greatest pitchers in the game today, saw his ERA jump by nearly 3.5 when he pitched in Houston compared to when he pitched at home.
That kind of disparity doesn’t happen without cheating, and the subsequent MLB investigation revealed exactly that. The Astros have a camera planted in the outfield that stole the signs and relayed that information to the players through loud bangs in the dugout. The camera here makes a huge difference—while officials often let traditional sign stealing slide, technology-assisted sign stealing was a particular focus of rule changes in the last few years. The league repeatedly warned teams that any use of technology to steal signs was illegal and would be punished on a case by case basis.
The worst part about the Astros cheating scandal is that it worked. Jose Altuve won MVP while knowing the pitches he was about to face. The Astros won the World Series in 2017, and were runners-up in 2019. They were undeniably one of the best franchises in baseball, bordering on a dynasty. But that legacy is tarnished now, replaced with one of dishonesty and falsehood.
The Astros fired their GM, Jeff Lunhow, and manager, A.J. Hinch, after they were suspended from baseball for a full year. Former assistant GM Brandon Taubman was also banned for one year. The Astros forfeited their first and second round draft picks for the next two years, and the franchise was fined $5 million, the maximum allowable under the current collective bargaining agreement. No players were punished, as they were offered immunity in exchange for testimony. Many left for other teams prior, making punishment even more complicated.
The Astros will likely not be the last team punished for technology-assisted sign stealing. The Red Sox are currently under investigation for a similar kind of scandal, this time featuring improper use of their replay booth. Coincidentally, the Red Sox won the World Series in 2018 under the leadership of Alex Cora, who coached for the Astros while they were cheating a year prior. He has since been fired, but it stands to reason he could have brought over techniques used in Houston to Boston. While the details are still cloudy, it would come as little surprise if the Red Sox faced punishments similar to Houston’s.
Whether you think the Astros were punished too harshly or not harshly enough probably has to do with how you view cheating. From a moral perspective, using technology to steal signs seems pretty tame, especially when contrasted with rigging games, gambling on baseball and rampant drug abuse, performance enhancing and otherwise. However, when viewed purely in-game, this kind of cheating could be viewed as some of the most severe ever—in terms of giving one team an advantage, sign stealing probably did more for the Astros than Barry Bonds’ steroids ever did for the San Francisco Giants in the 2000’s. Every player on the Astros was given a tool that no other player in the league (that we know of) had access to while at home, and they turned that advantage into two World Series appearances, with one title. Ask a Dodgers or Yankees fan about playoff losses that may not have been.
The Astros reworked the game of baseball in their favor. To be fair, baseball should be reworked to punish the Astros an equal amount, and the punishments levied are pretty close to it. Punishing management rather than players was a surprising but welcome action given baseball’s history of doing the reverse. Punishing the players would simply be too complex right now, even though the cheating was largely player driven. However, it is worth keeping an eye on how a player like Altuve is treated by the Hall of Fame. As one of the game’s best position players and a former MVP, he had at least a decent chance based on the apparent merits of his career. But players like Pete Rose and Barry Bonds are a testament to how illegal actions can limit a player’s favorability among Hall voters. Only time will tell, but one thing remains certain—the Astros will be league villains for seasons to come.