All Signs Point East As Red Sox Sign-Stealing Shoe Drops

In the Astros/Sox cheating fracas, where will the trail of thievery end? And will MLB and the Astros ever figure out how to stop the bleeding? And when will the dogpile of Astros attackers thin out? Here are some things that aren’t being talked about enough.

MLB Has Inexplicably Failed To Interview The Red Sox Owner or CEO

If you’ve been expecting some kind of cutting-edge anything from MLB, well… you haven’t been a fan for long, have you? To be fair, it seems their investigation of the Astros was fairly exhaustive. Meanwhile, their investigation of the Red Sox, as of Feb. 18, hasn’t even included a chat with the Red Sox’s owner and their CEO. ” Just yesterday, Sox owner John Henry and CEO Sam Kennedy indicated that they’ve yet to even be interviewed as part of the league’s probe into the organization, which is set to wrap up next week,” says Jeff Todd of MLB Trade Rumors.

Make no mistake: Manfred’s goal is to assure the ticket-buying public that the cancer is limited to Houston, and to minimize conflict before the new CBA, even though all the signs point to Boston as a primary source, if not THE primary source. More on that in a bit. MLB is frantic to mitigate the damage, un-Balco this thing, and take baseball back to that idyllic ’50s Mom-and-apple-pie never-existed utopia that they never want to evolve out of. We’ll see what kind of punishment MLB deals out, but given the cursory nature of the Sox investigation, I expect Manfred will blame it all on former Houston coach Alex Cora, levy a token fine on the Sox, and proclaim it all “mission accomplished.”

All The Scandal Signs Point East

Manfred’s Astros report pins most of the blame on Carlos Beltran, who arrived in the Astros dugout in 2017 and told his teammates they were behind the curve on competing with forbidden technology. So… where did he get this idea? Did he just dream that up after an exhausting double-header? Or did he get this from one of his recent teams like the Rangers or (2014-2016) the Yankees, who’ve been quite vocal in their criticism of the Astros? At least one writer believes that the Yankees aren’t innocent.

In a Feb. 21 story in the New York Post:

“I sensed certain guys like Chris Young, Alex and Carlos were guys trying to gain an edge,” Teixeira said [about the Yankees in 2014-2016]. “I was a guy playing every day, so I was in the dugout and not hanging in the video room. I heard Chris Young, Alex and Carlos talk about signs more than others.”

Hmm. So Tex basically says that he was too “old school” to be pulled into some of the schemes that other Yankees, including Beltran, might’ve been involved in. But other Yankees might’ve been cheating, and, as Brendan Mizgala points out, the Yanks were mentioned in the Athletic’s first cheating article and might be getting protection from Joe Torre.

Also supremely fishy is a social media dustup where Peter Gammons quotes the Yanks’ Chris Young as saying, “I started the whole Apple Watch thing. I got it from when I was with the Yankees.” Later Gammons performed a genuflecting total retraction of bizarre thoroughness. However, another source confirmed to SNY (same article) that Young was a leader of the sign-stealing in Boston and also used the replay room to decode signs in New York.

And we have the Red Sox, who one writer calls one of the “cheatingest cheaters in baseball.” (The other being, of course, the Astros.) Again, the Sox were penalized in 2017 for the Apple Watch sign stealing scheme when Alex Cora was still with the Astros. Here’s 2018 video of JBJ telling Mookie Betts what pitch is coming from Luis Severino, when presumably Cora’s Astros-inspired sign-stealing was in full effect:

Yeah… I don’t think Severino was tipping his pitches, do you?

None of this forgives or justifies what the Astros did in 2017. But it’s naive and shallow to think that the Astros were the only team worthy of your contempt.

David Samson and Jonas Knox Say Sign-Stealing Is Widespread

On his show “Nothing Personal,” host David Samson agrees that Beltran didn’t come up with this all on his own and only on the Astros. In fact, he believes that tech-based cheating infects all the teams (at the 4:30 mark). So does Jonas Knox of Fox Sports Radio (at 9:20).

You could even argue that the atmosphere in baseball in 2017 was PRO-CHEATING. This hurts me to say, because this cheapens the sport to the core. What could possibly be pro-cheating in 2017? Well…

In 2017, After The Apple Watch Scandal, Sports Illustrated Called Sign-Stealing “Good For Baseball”

I hate to call out SI like this, but you can see a bit of an attitude differential in this article from 2017, which is a remarkable lens on the Astrogate of today. Discussing the Apple Watch situation, Verducci says, “In the short term, this is good for baseball. The Yankees-Red Sox rivalry is officially back on.”

There’s a jaunty all-in-good-fun mood here. The phrase “technically against the rules” is used. Boys will be boys. And we know how much trouble that can cause.

In 2017, Player Tells SI “Everyone Is Stealing Signs Off the Feed”

Here’s a passage from Verducci’s piece that I found particularly damning:

How common is stealing signs off the live television feed?

“Goes on all the time,” the [unnamed] player said. “Our (monitor) is so close (to the dugout) you could just run up and whistle” to the hitter to communicate what pitch is coming.

“It’s the reason you see all the meetings on the mound—to change signs. You’ve got guys signaling from second base. You see it all the time because everybody is doing it.”

Everybody is doing it. Sound a little steroids-esque? Why wasn’t MLB a little more proactive about this archaic system? Wasn’t anybody at MLB reading Sports Illustrated?

Why Wasn’t the Feed Encrypted or Secured?

It boggles my mind that no one bothered to secure this all-important video feed. It’s like putting a dozen starving pitbulls into a ring to fight over a chicken bone, and then losing your temper when they break out to attack all the juicy roosters you sold tickets to in the stands.

The video feed with all the secrets to success was sitting outside the door to the dugout!

Sure, Manfred says that MLB occasionally sent staffers to supervise the feed. But apparently the video was running all the time, live without any delay or encryption. And the whole purpose of this video was to allow umps to make a call for instant replay… what?

I don’t understand. Why was this thing running all the time? Couldn’t someone just tell Alexa to turn it on when the manager calls for a replay? Hey, MLB and Astros manager A.J. Hinch (who tried to destroy the sign-stealing monitor with a bat, twice)! Here’s an $18 TV lock. And, dearest MLB, for crying out loud, Google “video encryption” as soon as possible.

Isn’t the Sox’s 2018 Title Just As Sullied? Will the Red Sox Get As Much Hate As The Astros? And Ian Kinsler Said WHAT?!?

When the Sox report drops, will they get as much blowback? Or will the Astros continue to be the social media targets?

Hmm. Tough one. Again, I expect MLB to soft-peddle the Sox story as much as possible, which means the Astros will continue to wear the dunce cap. In fact, 2018 Soxer Ian Kinsler said recently, “I just really don’t see any form of punishment coming to the Red Sox.” MIND-BOGGLING.

And the Astros should wear that dunce cap. The Red Sox broke into the cookie jar in 2017, and got wrist-slapped. The Astros won it all in 2017, and got caught with crumbs all over their faces in 2019. And in the meanwhile, the Sox broke into the cookies again in 2018, repeat customers, and won the World Series, but had the dexterity to get caught after the Astros. And baseball rewards such agility. The memes have already been sent and hashtagged. The Astros were in the hot box when America’s faith in baseball was dashed (again), so they will continue to be the poster boys for cheating for the next 20 years.

Here’s another question: given that the Sox beat them both in the 2018 post-season, why haven’t any Dodger or Yankees players criticized the Sox? Isn’t 2018 a fresher memory? Or is there a bit of extra spite aimed at the upstart Astros, who’ve never been part of the old boys’ club?

The Astros, though, can rest easy on one thing. Their 2017 title, as enduringly and rightfully tainted as it is, will remain theirs. Because MLB certainly isn’t going to void the Sox’s 2018 title, which is surely just as dirty, even though remarkably no one is talking about that right now. And MLB isn’t going to admit that, despite the problem being “common knowledge,” they acted so slowly on the 2017 cheating that the same damned thing happened again in 2018.

Now Texas sports fans can proudly lump the 2017 Astros with Lance Armstrong in their Hall of Shame. We do have to wonder… what would the landscape look like if the Red Sox had been caught first? Give it to the Sox — they really outfoxed the Astros on this one.

What About The Codebreaker “Algorithm” and Dark Arts?

On Feb. 7, news broke of “explosive new details” in the Astros case, involving nefarious-sounding technologies and operations with cool names like “Codebreaker” and “Dark Arts.” As Yahoo has it, ” the entire operation was fueled by an Excel spreadsheet developed by a then-intern that used an algorithm to decode opposing team’s signs.”

This is perhaps the saddest fakenews of the entire scandal. I understand that sportswriters are not computer scientists, but you’d think they’d have some exposure to Excel in this stat-heavy sport. So… the explosive news is that they used Excel to track pitching signs… and they had a nickname for it. Wow. I know it’s the offseason but this is the definition of clickbaiting a dead horse.

Should players not talk about signs they’ve seen? Should players not watch tape? Do you think the Yankees and Red Sox don’t have records of other teams’ signs?

Joe Sixpack may think that a pitcher’s signs are some kind of powerful mojo, and Excel is quantum physics. But… both are ridiculously simple. Signs especially. It’s not even a guessing game… it’s a MATCHING game. Each pitcher has maybe four or five pitches in his arsenal. Some just have two! So if you put down three fingers, and then your pitcher throws a fastball, what am I expecting the next time I see three fingers?

Yeah. You just cracked that sign. Congratulations. Let’s face it: stealing signs is shamefully easy. And there aren’t a lot of possibilities, so any child could do it. It would be the world’s worst videogame. Playing Go Fish or tic-tac-toe is harder.

I mean, there can be variations. Pitchers can always have a sign that signals that they’re moving to a different set of signs. Some players are now claiming they changed signs after every pitch when playing the Astros. (Is that really feasible?) But let’s be honest; this Excel thing was really just a tracking tool used to crack an antiquated signaling system that’s less complicated than Morse Code. The team gave it a name that they thought sounded fun and James Bond-ish. To call it a decoding algorithm smacks of the “email server” nonsense that Trump harped on so ridiculously in 2016. Just throw a little techospeak out there and it reliably riles up the hoi polloi, right?

So Yahoo’s Oz here is protesting… that the players are watching video that you or I could’ve watched? That they communicated, observed, and took notes? Wow… I guess we need to outlaw communication, observation, and note-taking in all sports. Let’s get on that ASAP.

Note that Sports Illustrated covered this same story with a considerably different angle. Their headline is “Report: Astros Front Office ‘Laid the Groundwork’ for Sign Stealing,” which is a far sight from Yahoo/Oz’s breathless “Explosive New Details Emerge About the Astros Cheating Scandal.” And that is the real story here: that it really wasn’t just the players who knew of and constructed this scheme.

The other thought here is that pitchers across MLB must be feeling naked and exposed, just like ex-Astros pitcher Mike Fiers surely is. There’s always been a pitchers versus hitters tension in baseball, like two competing factions forced into unholy regional alliances called “teams.” If I were a pitcher right now, I’d be talking with my catchers constantly right now about how I can get the pitches in any form except finger wiggling. Stern gazes? Olfactory signals?

All The Chest-Thumping About The Scandal Is Getting The Crazies Agitated. At What Point Is This Irresponsible?

Honestly, in less histrionic times, I think the incessant off-season coverage of this scandal wouldn’t be a problem. But in an era in which a gunman recently shot five people at a charity ballfield in Alexandria, I hope players, reporters, bloggers, and sports talkshow hosts are thinking about how people might overreact to some of the more inflammatory things they’re saying.

I applaud Jonas Knox and Jeff Passan for calling for some sanity in this shitstorm.

I’m just waiting to hear someone call for baseball fans to mete out some vigilante justice.

I Feel For Jose

The Astros fan who tallied all the trashcan banging in 2017 had plenty of Altuve at-bats to listen to, and Altuve had the least bangs of all starters. Yet he’s a poster child for all the hate, generally centered around the “don’t tear my jersey” home run he hit off Aroldis Chapman and the fact that he apologized for the cheating at the Astros’ remarkably inept press conferences. Altuve could’ve been disavowing any involvement for months, but he’s taking responsibility like a real trooper.

Correa’s given a pretty solid explanation of the jersey incident, the press has seen the tattoo, and we have the tallies of the 2017 ridiculousness. The calls for the retraction of his MVP trophy seem vindictive. I don’t really feel like applauding much Astros behavior right now, but Altuve gets a gold star.

How Much Did The Sign-Stealing Affect The Astros and Sox’s Seasons? Were The Astros Cheating in 2019?

I’ve found a pretty good stat for comparing the home-away splits of these teams in the key years: sOPS+.

It’s not a smoking gun, but it’s food for thought. I’ll also provide some regular batting slashlines (batting, on-base, slugging).

ASTROS 2017 (Trash can fantastic)

Here you can see baseball-reference.com’s explanation of the sOPS+. 100 means the team was league average, so the Astros were 10% better than average at home and 27% better on the road.

Rhetorical question: if they were that good on the road, with no trash-can advantage, why in the hell did they bother with cheating at home? And how bad would they have been without the cheating?

SLASH:

.279/.340/.472 home

.284/.351/.483 away

RED SOX 2017 (Apple Watch era)

sOPS+: 3% worse than league average both home and away. Not much of an advantage. Maybe it was too complicated!

SLASH:

.269/.340/.412 home

.247/.319/.401 away

2018 ASTROS

sOPS+: 99 home, 116 away. So slightly worse than average at home, and 16% better on the road. The difference is totally in line with the road advantage they enjoyed in 2017.

SLASH:

.248/.328/.403 home

.262/.331/.446 away

2018 RED SOX (Cheating Round 2, Penalties Forthcoming, Won WS)

sOPS+: 124 home, 111 away. That is a significant jump from 2017 with a serious 13% home advantage. You do normally expect a home-field advantage, of course. For comparison, the squeaky-clean 2018 Cardinals had the following sOPS+ split: 90 home, 112 away, a 22% difference on the road. Cards in 2017: 99 home, 107 road.

Baseball is weird. I’d say all of these numbers are within a normal range, but Sox jump from 2017 to 2018 with the sudden strong homefield bias does raise eyebrows.

SLASH:

.282/.348/.482 home

.255/.330/.426 away

2019 ASTROS (Still Cheating?)

Kurt Suzuki of the Nationals says the Astros were still cheating in 2019. True or not?

sOPS+: 128 home, 119 away. Some beefy numbers both in Houston and elsewhere (no one says the team’s not talented), with a sudden +9% homefield bias after being the reverse in prior years. Still, I don’t think any of this is conclusive. 9% is nothing.

SLASH:

.284/.362/.516 home

.265/.343/.476 away

YANKEES

2016 sOPS+: 100 home, 90 away.

2017 sOPS+: 112 home, 107 away.

2018 sOPS+: 118 home, 109 away.

2019 sOPS+: 110 home, 125 away. Sudden +14% improvement on the road after several years of homefield advantage. Irrelevant except to show that year-to-year variations in sOPS+ can be rather significant, and that homefield advantage isn’t always an advantage.

NATIONALS 2019 (Won WS)

The Nats are clean, right? Thought I’d run this just for fun.

sOPS+: 119 home, 102 away. That’s a strong 17% homefield bias. Take that, Suzuki! (To be fair, they were similar in 2018: 112 home, 102 away.)

CONCLUSION

Inconclusive. We know the Astros cheated at home in 2017, but their road numbers were so gaudy that it doesn’t show in the stats. That jump from the 2017 to the 2018 Red Sox, though….

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4 Comments

  1. If what the Astros got was a “slap on the wrist” then the Sox will probably get a “soft pat on the butt”. MLB will never punish the darlings of baseball (yanks, sox) just because if they were guilty then the whole sport would suffer.

  2. Totally agree. I understand how this is becoming a real PR nightmare for MLB, and they’re trying to preserve fan confidence (and arguably pander to the old boys’ network), but making the Astros the scapegoats is going to look real bad if a broader truth comes out.

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