Did the Astros Cheat in 2017?

Infographic by Edward Tufte

Since the news broke earlier this week about the Astros potentially cheating their way to their 2017 World Series victory, I’ve been struggling with what to say about the controversial allegations brought against them. For those living under a rock, earlier this week it was revealed that former Astros pitcher Mike Fiers (yes, the guy with the beard) had told The Athletic that his former team electronically stole signs via a centerfield camera during the 2017 season.

According to the information released, the Astros had set up a feed from a camera in center field, that would show the opposing catcher’s signs. This camera was hooked up to a television monitor near the team’s home dugout at Minute Maid Park, in the tunnel that runs between the dugout and the clubhouse. Players and team personnel would watch the screen during the games and try to decode signs — sitting opposite the screen on massage tables in a wide hallway. They would then make a loud noise, most often a bang on a trashcan, to signal to the batter when an off-speed pitch was on its way.

via GIPHY

The team is ‘launching an investigation’ into allegations.. against itself. When asked about the allegations, the team issued the following statement:

“Regarding the story posted by The Athletic earlier today, 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.”

Here’s the thing, however… Sign stealing has always been a part of baseball. Though not quite as advanced as setting up a feed to a monitor in a dugout, how often is a runner on second base relaying the signs he sees from the catcher to the batter? Yes, it was always frowned upon, but there weren’t elaborate rules in place until 2019 to really crack down on sign stealing as a form of ‘cheating’. (New rules include things like requiring an eight-second delay on camera feeds in the clubhouse and dugout, and each club must provide to MLB an audit of every in-house camera, detailing its purpose, wiring, and where its signal can be viewed.) Were these rules put into place amidst the allegations like the ones against the Astros? Duh. But if the rules weren’t in place before, were the Astros actually cheating? Will there be grounds for heavy punishments when it wasn’t actually illegal?

The historically slow-to-shift-toward-technology MLB powers-that-be didn’t address tech-savvy teams stealing signs until just this season. Baseball has always been a game that has been slow to catch up to technology. Despite the technology being there for years, replay wasn’t a thing until 2014 (which still hurts if you’re a fan of the Minnesota Twins and you’re still pissed about Phil Cuzzi effectively blowing a call when Joe Mauer clearly hit a double and not a foul ball, shifting momentum to yet another Yankees playoff win in 2009.. And yes, there have been lots of other blown ump calls in high stakes games, but this is not what we are really talking about, and I digress). People are still torn about the threat to use robotic umps. So when it comes to making any rules that invoke the T-word (technology), progress can be as painfully slow as a scoreless fifteen-inning game.

Supposedly, the Astros stopped stealing signs during the 2017 playoffs (before the World Series), though some people claim that this isn’t true. And whatever the case may be, you have to remember that the high-tech sign stealing allegedly took place during home games, and therefore couldn’t have happened during the away games, including Game Seven of the World Series, which they won on the road in Los Angeles. And with this, their championship shouldn’t be tarnished – if half of their games were being played on the road, this means that they were still good enough to win without the tech-reliant cheating. Were they still stealing signs the old-fashioned way? Perhaps. However, are other teams doing the same? I’d be willing to be my entire collection of bobbleheads that they are.

Again I’ll ask: if the rules regarding using technology to steal signs weren’t in place in 2017, were the Astros officially cheating? It’s a gray area. But isn’t that so much of what the baseball rules are? A gray area? Look at the ‘blown call’ in Game Six of this year’s World Series – while yes the call was technically correct in terms of the ‘rule’, when that rule is implemented is completely a gray area. Baseball purists say that the human element of baseball always has been and always should be a part of the game. These same purists will be torn about whether this was in fact cheating: sign stealing is a part of the game. But then again, using technology to do so is reaching a new level of behavior unbecoming to the integrity of the game. So I will turn the question on you, readers..

What say you, readers? Leave a comment below.