Thoughts on Astros’ Sign Stealing Penalties, How to Prevent Future Theft

Monday afternoon brought the announcement of MLB’s punishment of the Astros organization for extensive sign-stealing operations in 2017 and ’18. General manager Jeff Luhnow and manager AJ Hinch were both suspended for a full season and then were promptly fired by ownership, the team lost its top two draft picks for the next two years, and MLB levied a $5 million fine (the largest allowed by under league bylaws).

Additional penalties against Red Sox manager Alex Cora, who was Houston’s bench coach at the time of the scheme, are expected to be harsh. The league’s investigation concluded that Cora was the only coach involved in the sign stealing, which was primarily a player-led system. Cora may also have implemented a similar strategy with Boston, which is also under league investigation.

I like that the league is holding teams, not players, accountable because only management has the tools and authority to fully ensure compliance. Also, punishing players who are no longer with the Astros would penalize teams that are complying with the rules. But most importantly, the league made clear it would hold organizations liable for sign stealing shenanigans after the Red Sox had that whole Apple Watch fiasco of 2017.

I would love it if the league would divide the $5 million fine equally among all pitchers who faced the Astros over those two seasons and were subsequently demoted to the minor leagues. While many different players and organizations were “hurt” by this, the ones who suffered the most were pitchers who had their signs stolen and got shelled. Let the money be an apology from the cheaters to the cheated.

No one is discussing why baseball still uses visible signals in the first place. Everyone seems to treat these signs as a necessity and is focused on how to prevent their theft, but you can’t steal what’s not there. The Athletic’s Molly Knight even proposed the abolition of instant replay ($ubscription) to ensure that the requisite cameras are not present in the dugout. But why not just remove the monitors and change the review proces? Or just stop using signs.

Last offseason, I proposed three rules to improve baseball. One was giving pitchers and catchers an electronic means to directly signal pitch selection, an idea no one is publicly discussing right now. Baseball is trying to distinguish between the age-old practice of picking up signs with the naked eye and the more illicit use of modern technology, but this is a distinction without a difference to the casual fan.

As long as catchers are forced to throw down visible pitch signals, there will be signal theft. The NFL solved the same problem by allowing plays to be relayed electronically to the QB’s helmet. There is no reason baseball cannot have the pitcher and catcher, or even the rest of the position players on the field, communicate via similar means. Give each team a unique encryption cipher or a product like K-Band and make clear ahead of time that any documented hacking attempt will result in a major penalty. Problem solved.

It’s also possible that electronic signals will shorten games. As things current stand, catchers can’t even begin signaling the pitch until after the batter steps into the box lest the opposition have even more time to steal the signal. I re-watched a few games and determined that it takes about 3-4 seconds after the batter steps in to signal the pitch, longer if pitches are shaken off. A typical game has 300-400 pitches, so shaving a few seconds from each amounts to 15-20 minutes of game time. Boring game time, if you agree with Rob Manfred.

Hey, look at that, I think we just solved all of MLB’s ills.

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