The Athletic: The Astros stole signs electronically in 2017 part of a much broader issue for Major League Baseball

SoxFish

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There's a new piece by Jason Stark and Eno Sarris on The Athletic (https://theathletic.com/1573075/2020/01/31/does-electronic-sign-stealing-work-the-astros-numbers-are-eye-popping/) that's pretty amazing to read. Apparently strike-out rates plummeted for some hitters in 2017 at rates never seen before:



The piece goes on to talk about individual players and their numbers -- it's quite good.
I'm not a BP subscriber--but there's an article behind the paywall that looks interesting (https://www.baseballprospectus.com/news/article/56750/moonshot-the-banging-scheme-hurt-the-astros-as-much-as-it-helped-them/). Apparently they determined that the sign stealing was inaccurate about 7% of the time and the hitters did miserably when given the bad information.
 

loshjott

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This is a good argument why Baker's strengths are a good fit for HOU and his weaknesses don't matter so much in the current climate, and also arguing that he learned from his previous mistakes in his last job with WAS.

It's true he was good with the Nats. The biggest worry going in was overusing starters and he did not do that. And as for in-game managing, The Athletic article includes this:

"he was the guy who pulled Gio González after three innings of Game 5 of the 2017 NLDS because he knew he had Max Scherzer available and still lost."

Scherzer flamed out in relief in 2017 NLDS Game 5 so Dusty's an idiot. Strasburg/Corbin dominate in relief in 2019 post season so Martinez is a genius.

I take back my snarky post above...
 

SoxFish

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I'm sure the vision that the Astro's have and direction that they are choosing to follow was a main topic of discussion with Baker during the interview process, I think he'll be OK in that regard as he's surrounded by the same folks that Hinch was surrounded by. I also think that given Hinch's claims that he tried to stop what was going on in '17 that this hire intends to send a message to the team and perhaps the league that things on that front will be much different. That said I didn't see Baker as a good fit for the Sox. I don't think he would have been terrible, but the Sox have many more question marks than Houston. Where I see Baker as more of a caretaker of what's in place in Houston, Chaim is still in the process of implementing his vision for the team both on and off the field. He needs to make the hire that he believes will further that vision.
I'm not convinced that Crane thought through all of this and got commitments from Baker--but he might have. I also don't understand this general idea that you need a Dusty Baker to fix their clubhouse. They stole signs. Is it that hard to hire a leader who makes it clear that that sort of behavior is frowned upon? There's a type of baseball writer that has used these events to pile on "analytics" (or more accurately, a warped understanding of analytics). They refer to the Astros FO members as "analytics bullies," equate their innovations to "cheating," and are taking pleasure in the hiring of the "old school" Baker who can re-establish the right "culture." I'm no fan of the Astros but generally find that the "old school" folks are more likely to be bullies. Moreover, at least as described in the accounts I've read, the Astros system encouraged all kinds of innovation, listening to voices throughout their system (regardless of job title), and continually refining their approach. This, to me, is a healthy culture. My point, I guess, is that if you hire a manager who thinks that the job of "manager" is to run the show, make the decisions, be the boss, then you are doing damage to your entire model. Of course, Baker may have evolved but it seems unlikely to me.
 

Plympton91

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One of the reasons I had acute interest in the Astros is that I live in the Pittsburgh area and followed the development of Morton and Cole after they were acquired by the Astros. I wanted to better understand why Morton and Cole failed to reach their potential in Pittsburgh, and then improved so quickly with the Astros (and why Verlander rejuvenated his career). Per Sawchik and Lindbergh, none of that happened by accident.
Trevor Bauer has a good theory as to what at least part of that “accident” entails, and it’s the pitching equivalent of trash can banging.

MVP Machine was a good book.
 

DeadlySplitter

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I remember the 2017-18 'stros being very tough to strikeout and also fouling off a ton of pitches, ruining pitch counts. I could see sign stealing helping at the margins in that context.
 

OurF'ingCity

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Trevor Bauer has a good theory as to what at least part of that “accident” entails, and it’s the pitching equivalent of trash can banging.

MVP Machine was a good book.
The Yankees really better hope that's not true. (Sounds great from a Sox fan perspective, though.)
 

Marciano490

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So, was there just not a lot here or did MLB crack the whip? It was crazy for a couple days with names leaking and fingers pointing and seemingly more franchises about to be involved...then crickets.
 

SoxFish

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Trevor Bauer has a good theory as to what at least part of that “accident” entails, and it’s the pitching equivalent of trash can banging.

MVP Machine was a good book.
Given what they got caught doing, Bauer's allegations are certainly possible. But I also know that Morton's and Cole's pitch usages completely changed. My (unsupported) theory is that the Bucs' analytic innovation was the early adoption of extreme defensive shifts. As part of that, they encouraged their pitchers to use the 2-seamer. While this made sense with some of their pitchers, it really didn't make sense with those who had elite fastballs (who should not have had such mediocre K rates). Also, as the league began emphasizing launch angles, and strikeout and fly ball rates climbed, the Bucs took way too long to realize that their former strategy (which provided big advantages for a period) no longer made sense.
 

Rough Carrigan

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So, was there just not a lot here or did MLB crack the whip? It was crazy for a couple days with names leaking and fingers pointing and seemingly more franchises about to be involved...then crickets.
I wonder if they didn't find, as Will Middlebrooks said on Twitter, that every team was using the replay team to try to figure out the catchers' signs so they might have been all set to throw penaties at the Sox but discovered they'd have to penalize everyone. And they don't want to say the whole game is somehow rotten.

They like the idea of the tumor being only in Houston and maybe one or two other places but they've realized that they can't honestly say that, not if they're going to punish for using the replay tv. So now, with a little more delay, they can more easily let the Red Sox off lightly. I hope that's it, anyway.
 

OurF'ingCity

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I wonder if they didn't find, as Will Middlebrooks said on Twitter, that every team was using the replay team to try to figure out the catchers' signs so they might have been all set to throw penaties at the Sox but discovered they'd have to penalize everyone. And they don't want to say the whole game is somehow rotten.

They like the idea of the tumor being only in Houston and maybe one or two other places but they've realized that they can't honestly say that, not if they're going to punish for using the replay tv. So now, with a little more delay, they can more easily let the Red Sox off lightly. I hope that's it, anyway.
I think either way they want the Sox report to be the last report they issue on the subject, which means addressing all plausible accusations that other teams did things similar to what the Sox are accused of so they can accurately say, at minimum, "MLB was told by multiple members of the Red Sox that [X team] also used the same system in 2018, but MLB was unable to confirm those allegations after further investigation" or something like that.
 

KiltedFool

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I think either way they want the Sox report to be the last report they issue on the subject, which means addressing all plausible accusations that other teams did things similar to what the Sox are accused of so they can accurately say, at minimum, "MLB was told by multiple members of the Red Sox that [X team] also used the same system in 2018, but MLB was unable to confirm those allegations after further investigation" or something like that.
Agreed. There's a whole spectrum of sign stealing/misconduct out there, with the Astros way out on the end of the branch and the other extreme being basic gamesmanship that everyone agrees has always been a part of baseball. MLB's goal is to be able to do enough due diligence to be able to stamp a bright line somewhere on that spectrum, dole out penalties on the negative side of that line, and close that chapter with everyone knowing where the line is. They don't want more crap trickling out later with "what about this?"
 

ehaz

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No surprise, but Lunhow knew waaaaaay more than he led on in his statement. Looks like Manfred also held back a ton of info on the Astros process and FO involvement.

On Sept. 22, 2016, an intern in the Houston Astros organization showed general manager Jeff Luhnow a PowerPoint presentation that featured the latest creation by the team’s high-tech front office: an Excel-based application programmed with an algorithm that could decode the opposing catchers’ signs. It was called “Codebreaker.”


This was the beginning of what has turned into one of the biggest scandals in Major League Baseball history. Throughout the 2017 season and for part of 2018, Astros baseball operations employees and video room staffers used Codebreaker to illegally steal signs, which were then relayed to batters in real time. Another Astros employee referred to the system as the “dark arts.”


This previously undisclosed information about the origins and nature of the Astros’ cheating comes from both a letter MLB commissioner Rob Manfred sent to Luhnow on Jan. 2 that outlined the findings of a league investigation, as well as interviews with several people familiar with the matter.
 

ehaz

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Koch-Weser told MLB that Luhnow would “giggle” at the title and appeared “excited” about it. Koch-Weser also said that Luhnow sometimes entered the Astros’ video room during road games and made comments such as, “You guys Codebreaking?”
 

JCizzle

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No surprise, but Lunhow knew waaaaaay more than he led on in his statement. Looks like Manfred also held back a ton of info on the Astros process and FO involvement.
Fuck this shit. These guys blamed Cora (employed by another team) when they were, in fact, at the front and center.
 
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DeadlySplitter

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the only thing that would make me irate is if MLB completely lied about Hinch/Cora/Beltran's involvement to try to deflect (e.g. they had zero involvement). unfortunately we're never going to know the truth on how much of it was them.
 

edoug

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the only thing that would make me irate is if MLB completely lied about Hinch/Cora/Beltran's involvement to try to deflect (e.g. they had zero involvement). unfortunately we're never going to know the truth on how much of it was them.
All that sound from the trash can banging, they had to know.
 

Tyrone Biggums

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So you mean to tell me there's a chance Cora is innocent and was somewhat framed?

Jesus...

I mean I don't believe it...but I guess anything is possible.
 

DeadlySplitter

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that's really the conclusion you get when Luhnow is calling in the "Codebreaker" back in 2016, before Cora was hired. And it makes sense the Astros' front office would create this program to decode in the first place.

if Manfred and MLB HQ really decided to try to deflect it all on on-field management, and the buzzers (which I would assume would also be a front office idea) were actually a thing but MLB is protecting the players, that's some really corrupt shit right there.
 

uncannymanny

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I’d like to hear from Cora and Beltran now more than ever, but they’ll probably keep a low profile in hopes of returning next season.
 

InstaFace

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So you mean to tell me there's a chance Cora is innocent and was somewhat framed?

Jesus...

I mean I don't believe it...but I guess anything is possible.
"innocent" is a stretch, he was clearly an enthusiastic participant, and was a part of management.

But "I was told to do it by my superiors", while not an excuse, is certainly a mitigant. As is "they were doing this before I got there", in substance if not in form.
 

uncannymanny

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Why would Cora accept being labeled the mastermind if he didn’t do it?
He was involved in the in-game portion of the scheme and making waves isn’t likely to do him any good in the long run.

With this report, do you think it’s likely that he was the “mastermind”?
 

CaptainLaddie

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Not gonna lie: this WSJ story makes me think they should strip the Astros of the title. I've never felt this way before, but it's clear this was an organization-wide effort to cheat.
 

djbayko

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Wow, his answer to the question about the existence of a buzzer system in 2019 was awfully squirrelly.

Paraphrasing: "We were investigated thoroughly by the commissioner's office for 3 months. They put out a report. And I believe it."

What do you mean you believe the report??? You were the damn manager, and it's a simple Yes or No question. I wasn't exactly sold on the buzzer theory, but answers like that make me second guess. It sounds like he's hiding behind the MLB report because it exonerates them on that count.
 

CarolinaBeerGuy

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Wow, his answer to the question about the existence of a buzzer system in 2019 was awfully squirrelly.

Paraphrasing: "We were investigated thoroughly by the commissioner's office for 3 months. They put out a report. And I believe it."

What do you mean you believe the report??? You were the damn manager, and it's a simple Yes or No question. I wasn't exactly sold on the buzzer theory, but answers like that make me second guess. It sounds like he's hiding behind the MLB report because it exonerates them on that count.
I just watched the interview and that’s exactly what he’s doing. He’s taking enough responsibility that he looks like a stand-up guy while also providing plenty of cover for the players and ownership. He’s auditioning for his next job by proving he’s a loyal company man.
 

santadevil

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I'd love for Bolsinger's lawsuit to be successful, but I'm assuming the courts will toss it out.
SSS and all, it's entirely possible for pitchers to have awful portions of innings. It would hilarious if they were able to turn this into a class-action lawsuit

Even though Bolsinger has a mountain of evidence to support his claim, this isn't going to go anywhere
MLB will still get its protections from the courts


edit/ Did any players/former players (or pitchers I guess) sue hitters for using steroids? I don't recall anything, but maybe there was something?
 

normstalls

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The first of hopefully many apologizes. Quite a contrast to what Bregman or Altuve said.
 

uncannymanny

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Eh, paint by numbers apology. “Also, did I mention yet that I’m remorseful?!” GTFO with that shit. Everyone that has spoken about it is sorry for one thing, and one thing only – that they got caught.
 

DeadlySplitter

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Rosenthal & Drellich have another article out, trying to reassert Cora & Beltran as the masterminds again, particularly Beltran. cynically, this feels like Manfred trying to deflect knowing that WSJ article from last week is bad (even though it is addressed in this article).


The Astros’ development of an algorithm to decode signs from video was legal as an advance scouting tool, and the use of that algorithm would have remained legal if it had not been deployed live during games — a practice the Astros eventually adopted. However, it was their other sign-stealing effort, involving the trash-can banging to signal pitches in real time, which Beltrán and Cora helped direct, that MLB found most egregious.

“What happened was Cora and Beltrán decided that this video room stuff Koch-Weser was doing (with Codebreaker) was just not working, inefficient, too slow,” a person with direct knowledge of the investigation said. “They just had some lower-level guy put up this monitor and did it themselves.”

“But it was two different things,” that person continued. “The real kind of crime here was they didn’t stop (in September) and the banging on the trash can was over the top compared to what happened before.”

The front-office clearly had a role in developing the Astros’ rule-breaking methods, and the environment in which those flourished. But the trash-can banging — the sign-stealing main event — originated with uniformed personnel.
 
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Awesome Fossum

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Part of me would love it if someone was like, "You know, I'm not sorry. I'm here to win games, and I'm going to push any advantage as far as I can. If I woke up tomorrow with ESP, I'd read the pitcher's mind before every single pitch and bat .600*. I'm embarrassed to be caught, and I sure hope I don't have to eat too may fastballs on my ass this year. But I'm here to win baseball games."

MLB has framed this as an Astros (and Red Sox and, who knows, maybe Yankees!?) scandal. It's really a Commissioner's Office scandal. It's their job to create and enforce the rules and put in systems to properly incentivize and ensure fair play. They introduced the replay room without anticipating the ways it could be abused. They stood flat footed as technology creeped in. If anyone should be apologizing, it's Manfred.

Another part of me feels differently. But I sort of think we've completely twisted who is responsible for enforcing what in sports.

* I remember a short story that I read as a kid about some middling pitcher who woke up with the ability to delay the batter's reaction time, so he went out and threw a 27 strikeout perfect game despite his coach's protests that he was being too obvious. I can't find anything about it online. Does this ring a bell for anyone else?
 

ehaz

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Wow. So Cora/Beltran were the real management and the manager and front office felt powerless to stop them.
 

ehaz

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Assuming the Red Sox investigation doesn't find anything too extreme, I feel like this excerpt (obviously from an MLB source) bodes well for them because it's clear MLB views the Houston scheme on a different level from video room shenanigans.

The Astros’ development of an algorithm to decode signs from video was legal as an advance scouting tool, and the use of that algorithm would have remained legal if it had not been deployed live during games — a practice the Astros eventually adopted. However, it was their other sign-stealing effort, involving the trash-can banging to signal pitches in real time, which Beltrán and Cora helped direct, that MLB found most egregious.
“What happened was Cora and Beltrán decided that this video room stuff Koch-Weser was doing (with Codebreaker) was just not working, inefficient, too slow,” a person with direct knowledge of the investigation said. “They just had some lower-level guy put up this monitor and did it themselves.”
“But it was two different things,” that person continued. “The real kind of crime here was they didn’t stop (in September) and the banging on the trash can was over the top compared to what happened before.”
 

StupendousMan

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* I remember a short story that I read as a kid about some middling pitcher who woke up with the ability to delay the batter's reaction time, so he went out and threw a 27 strikeout perfect game despite his coach's protests that he was being too obvious. I can't find anything about it online. Does this ring a bell for anyone else?
I remember reading something similar when I was a kid (early-to-mid-70s), in our local public library. It was a short story, and I recall that the pitcher was from Mexico or Central America. He had the ability to cause batters not to swing at the ball, and so had great success.

Unfortunately, I had to leave before finishing the story. If anyone can provide the name, I'd love to have the chance to read all the way to the end.
 

patoaflac

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I remember reading something similar when I was a kid (early-to-mid-70s), in our local public library. It was a short story, and I recall that the pitcher was from Mexico or Central America. He had the ability to cause batters not to swing at the ball, and so had great success.

Unfortunately, I had to leave before finishing the story. If anyone can provide the name, I'd love to have the chance to read all the way to the end.
I believe the only guy in baseball history who has struck out 27 in a game (Bristol, Appalachian League) in 1952 was Ron Necciai, but he was an American.
 

amfox1

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The back of your computer


The Astros’ system for using electronics to steal signs came into full public view Nov. 12, when former pitcher Mike Fiers exposed the machinations in a story published by the Athletic. The report prompted an MLB investigation that resulted in the suspension and firing of both Luhnow and Hinch. Paranoia about the Astros’ methods had gripped baseball, affecting the way other teams scouted and prepared to face Houston — in some cases crippling officials with worry.
According to people at all levels throughout the sport — players, clubhouse staff members, scouts and executives — the idea that the Astros employed nefarious methods was an open secret.
“The whole industry knows they’ve been cheating their a---- off for three or four years,” said an executive from a team that faced the Astros in the playoffs during that span. “Everybody knew it.”

Like most of the people interviewed for this story, the executive spoke on the condition of anonymity to defy an MLB request that personnel from other teams refrain from speaking freely about the Astros. He estimated “10 to 12” teams had complained to MLB about the Astros over the years. An executive from another team agreed with that number.

While the logistics of the Astros’ scheme — a camera in center field, a video monitor near the dugout, banging on trash cans to signal pitches and what the Wall Street Journal reported was an operation called “Codebreaker” to decipher the catcher’s signs — remained unknown as it was happening, suspicions that games against the Astros were contested on an uneven playing field skyrocketed.

“It was a big open secret, really big,” said a veteran scout from another team whose coverage included the Astros. “Throughout baseball, throughout the scouting community, for several years, not just starting in 2017. I would say probably 2016, maybe earlier, through [2019], things were going on that were blatantly against the rules.”
As one member of the Nationals put it, “It was amazing, once [it was assured] we were playing the Astros, how many people were coming out of the woodwork to let us know what they were doing.”
The Los Angeles Dodgers, who lost the 2017 World Series to Houston, were particularly forthcoming. Several Dodgers reached out to Washington second baseman Brian Dozier, who had been with Los Angeles the previous year, to say Houston was stealing signs, according to one person with knowledge of the talks.

Martinez spoke with Alex Cora, the former Houston bench coach, who was by that point managing the Red Sox, according to two people with knowledge of the conversations. Cora, named in the MLB report as a primary instigator of the Astros’ scheme, was subsequently fired by the Red Sox, with whom he won the World Series title in 2018 but failed to make the playoffs in 2019.

Martinez, according to one person, also reached out to Tony Sipp, a reliever for Houston from 2014 to 2018 who spent the first part of 2019 with Washington. Martinez and Sipp didn’t connect, but Nationals pitcher Max Scherzer took his own steps to track down Sipp. It is standard for pitchers and catchers to switch to a more complex set of signs with runners on second — to prevent the runner from stealing the sign and signaling it to the batter, a practice that for years has been considered acceptable — but Scherzer asked Sipp whether the Nationals needed to be concerned about the Astros even with no runners on base. Sipp said yes, according to a person familiar with the conversation.