Sign-stealing in Major League Baseball has been around since the beginning of time. Catchers will sometimes get a signal from a coach in the dugout to throw a specific pitch to a hitter, and then the catcher will put down that sign to the pitcher to throw that. The concept is simple since everyone is on the same page, except baseball teams can decode their opponent’s signs during games to know what pitch or play is coming.
So, why is sign-stealing a part of baseball? What did the Houston Astros do in 2017 to bring baseball sign-stealing to a whole new level? What are ways teams are trying to protect their signs during baseball games? Can technology help deter teams from picking up signals during games
Here is the complete breakdown of sign stealing in baseball and softball.
What are Signs in Baseball and Softball?
Signs in baseball and softball allow players and coaches to communicate without the other team knowing what they are saying. Teams practice sign codes in Little League, High School ball, College, and MLB levels. Every team has their language on what the signs mean. Also, most teams will change up their signs between innings or games.
For example, a little league baseball team will have a basic sign to tell someone what to do. However, in theory, an MLB team like the Philadelphia Phillies or the Baltimore Orioles will have numerous signs going on at once to make it harder for their opponent to pick up their signals. We will get into the controversy with a few teams breaking down complex codes with a sign-stealing scheme.
What are Examples of Signs in Baseball and Softball?
A coach might touch the top of their hat at a basic level, which means they want a hitter to take a pitch. Another example is if the coach in the dugout or on the field touches their hat and then wipes their hand down their leg, they are calling off to take the pitch for the hitter. Players can understand what they need to do at this basic level without much issue.
Another example of signs in baseball comes with the catcher communicating the pitch type to the pitcher. At a basic level, teams might put one finger down for a fastball, two for a changeup, and even shake their hand for a curveball.
Finally, a third-base coach might put their hand under their chin, which tells the baserunner to steal second on the next pitch. The third-base coach might even touch their ears, which could mean something like a hit and run or a double steal. Also, the coach might cough, which means to get into a pickle.
However, teams have to complicate their signs to avoid making what they are saying obvious to their opponent. For example, if it is evident that every time a coach touches their hat, someone steals a base, the other team will know that it is coming. Once teams understand that a steal is coming, they can do a pitchout to throw the runner out, trying to take second base quickly.
How Does Legal Sign Stealing Work During a Game?
Legal sign stealing is part of the game of baseball and softball. As a player on second base, you notice that the catcher is setting up for a high pitch. You might alert the hitter that the ball will be up by taping your hand to the top of your helmet. After all, the defense is not hiding what they are doing, and you at second base can see what they are doing, so you alert your hitter.
Another example of legal sign stealing is watching the opposing team’s third-base coach for apparent signs with a base baserunner. The catcher could alert the pitcher to throw over to first base if they sense that the baserunner will steal second, creating a pickoff.
Legal sign stealing is part of the game because it is up to the opposing team to protect their signs. It is similar to playing battleship and wearing sunglasses that reflect where your ships were on the board. It is your fault if your opponent can get that advantage because of something you did not protect them better.
What Does a Team Need to Do to Protect their Signs?
Baseball and softball teams need to protect their signs in multiple ways. First, they need to have a few rounds of signs to make it difficult for a team to see what they are doing. For example, even if touching their hat means stealing a base, they (coach) might say that the sign that says what they want comes third to last. Being third to last is not as apparent to defenders on what your coach wants because they might only be looking for the coach’s last action.
Second, catchers should change the signs when a runner is on second base. Perhaps they make one finger now mean curveball instead of a fastball. Also, catchers can pretend to set up high when looking for a pitch in the dirt. Catchers can confuse the runner on second base if they feel as if they are giving the hitter a heads up on where the pitch comes.
Third, teams need to look out for each other during the game and alert their coach if they think the other team has their signs. Players should watch their opponents closely in the dugout and on the field to see if they might have the sequence. Even a player on the bench should be watching the other team to try and pick up their signs.
What Did the Houston Astros Do in 2017 that Took Sign-Stealing to a New Level?
The Houston Astros, during the regular season to their World Series victory in 2017, took sign-stealing to a brand new level. The Athletic broke the cheating story when Mike Fiers went on record detailing how the Houston Astros were using a video replay room to decipher pitchers’ pitches in real-time and would bang on a trash can alerting the hitter on what was coming. When Jomboy Media recorded a video breaking down the noise of the trash can hit with the pitch, the regular audience understood what was going on.
The Houston Astros had a video camera out in the center field positioned at the catcher in their ballpark, Minute Maid Park. From there, a live video feed went to a TV next to their dugout that was in real-time showing what the catcher was calling to the pitcher. A player or someone else would bang on the trashcan to alert the hitter of the pitch type.
The masterminds behind the electronic sign-stealing scandal were Alex Cora and Carlos Beltran. Manager A.J. Hinch and Alex Corra got year-long suspensions after an investigation by commissioner Rob Manfred for one year. Due to this scandal, Carlos Beltran lost his job managing the New York Mets. Also, the Astros lost their general manager Jeff Luhnow from the front office for his role in this scheme, had draft picks taken from them, and had a $5 million fine.
What was the Problem with what the Houston Astros Do?
The Houston Astros had an unfair advantage when playing home games at their venue vs. on the road. A camera feed alerting the hitters of what pitch was coming was unheard of in the league since it was happening without anyone on base. Teams were suspicious of what was going on in Houston, and teams began changing their signs multiple times during the games, which led to longer baseball matches.
During Game 5 of the World Series against the Los Angeles Dodgers, Clayton Kershaw threw 51 breaking pitchers, which the Astros never swung at once. Kershaw has one of the best curveballs in the game, and it was surprising how much he struggled in that game in Houston. It turns out that Houston knew when that pitch was coming and was instead waiting on the fastball to hit. After the cheating scandal, more articles showed the clear difference between playing on the road and at home for Houston. When the Astros were on the road, their numbers were significantly worse than playing at home.
The Houston Astros did win the World Series in 2017, but many feel they should have not due to their cheating. However, it would be difficult for MLB to take away their trophy because cheating has been part of baseball.
Did Any Other Teams Do Anything Similar?
While the Houston Astros are the poster child for sign stealing cheating since they took it to a whole new level, other teams were doing some form of sign stealing. The Boston Red, also in 2017, had an apple watch relay signals given to a pitcher that was then communicated to the Red Sox hitters from the dugout.
The New York Yankees used their video replay room to decipher signs during games and relay that information to a runner on second base. The runner at second base would then alert the hitter on what pitch was coming.
Both the Red Sox and New York Yankees used technology to relay signs to their team. However, their concept relied on a baserunner to relay the signs to a hitter. The Astros didn’t need anyone on base to tell the hitter what was coming.
Have the Houston Astros Done Any Other Type of Cheating?
Banging on the trashcan in 2017 was confirmed by both MLB and The Athletic. However, 2017 might not be the only year the Astros were cheating via sign stealing. While not confirmed, there are rumors that the Astros had buzzers given to players to alert them of pitches. Fox Sports Radio has a breakdown of some of the suspicious activity in 2019 that looked like buzzers.
The real reason why people think the Astros had buzzers was when Jose Altuve hit a walk-off home run against Aroldis Chapman to advance from the ALCS playoffs to the World Series. Altuve held onto his shirt as he came towards home plate and made sure nobody took off his shirt in celebration. Weirdly enough, Ken Rosenthal asked Jose Altuve why he held his shirt so closely after the game-winning hit. That interview raised the question of whether they did or did not use a buzzer.
At this time, there is no official confirmation that the Astros had a buzzer during games.
Can Technology Help Limit Sign Stealing During Games?
MLB began implementing electronic signs between pitchers and catchers to discourage sign stealing. CBS Sports has a good breakdown of how this technology works during a game. The technology is new, so teams are still getting familiar with it.
Conclusion: What is Sign Stealing in Baseball?
In summary, signs are a critical part of baseball and softball games. Signs are a way for a team to communicate without the other team knowing what they are doing. However, legal sign stealing is part of the game and rewards teams for picking up their opponent’s signs during matches.
However, illegal sign stealing is a whole new conversation in the game. Using technology to relay signs for your team is a form of cheating. Having technology removes the human part from the game, which is why it is not part of baseball.