The Astros have come under scrutiny once again, this time on the heels of an in-depth report by Ken Rosenthal and Evan Drellich of The Athletic (subscription required), wherein four former employees, including right-hander Mike Fiers, detailed an extensive sign-stealing operation enacted by the team during the 2017 season.
The Astros, per the report, would utilize a center-field camera fixated on the catcher and a television monitor placed in the clubhouse tunnel near the dugout steps to try to decode an opponent’s signs. An Astros employee or player would then at times signal the type of pitch that was coming with a loud sound — typically banging on a trash can to alert the hitter of an offspeed or breaking pitch. Fiers, who was non-tendered by Houston following the 2017 season, confirmed that setup when interviewed by The Athletic. He added that upon leaving the organization, he warned his future Tigers and Athletics teammates of the practice.
“I just want the game to be cleaned up a little bit because there are guys who are losing their jobs because they’re going in there not knowing,” Fiers explained to The Athletic. “Young guys getting hit around in the first couple of innings starting a game, and then they get sent down. It’s (B.S.) on that end. It’s ruining jobs for younger guys.”
Fiers may have been in the Houston dugout during that 2017 season, but opponents on the pitcher’s mound weren’t totally in the dark. Recently retired reliever Danny Farquhar detailed a late-2017 appearance during which he caught wind of what was taking place, telling The Athletic: “There was a banging from the dugout, almost like a bat hitting the bat rack every time a changeup signal got put down. After the third one, I stepped off. I was throwing some really good changeups and they were getting fouled off. After the third bang, I stepped off.”
As one might expect in 2019, it didn’t take long for someone to find video footage of the incident in question. Lucas Apostoleris of Baseball Prospectus quickly found the appearance referenced by Farquhar (Twitter link), and the sound of the banging detailed by Farquhar can be heard quite clearly in the included video link.
It’s worth emphasizing that electronic sign stealing is widely believed to extend beyond the walls of Houston’s Minute Maid Park. As Rosenthal and Drellich explore, concerns surrounding the potential stealing of signs via technology are hardly unique to the Houston organization. Teams are increasingly wary that other clubs are utilizing technology to gain a competitive edge and steal signs, with one anonymous MLB manager telling The Athletic that such habits “permeate” the league and that MLB has done a “very poor job” policing the issue.
The league did fine the Red Sox during the 2017 season for illegal use of an Apple Watch in their home dugout, though there have not been any other publicized instances of league-issued discipline regarding technology-driven sign stealing. The investigation that led to the sanction of the Red Sox stemmed from a complaint filed by the Yankees, which the Red Sox countered with their own complaint alleging that the Yankees had utilized a YES Network camera to steal signs from Boston. Distrust between other organizations is surely prevalent throughout the league.
After the Red Sox were fined in 2017, commissioner Rob Manfred intimated that stricter punishments would be levied for future violations of this nature (link via the Associated Press): “All 30 clubs have been notified that future violations of this type will be subject to more serious sanctions, including the possible loss of draft picks.”
This isn’t the first time that the Astros, specifically, have been accused of stealing signs; a man with ties to the Astros organization, Kyle McLaughlin, was caught taking pictures near the Indians and Red Sox dugouts during the 2018 postseason. At the time, the Astros claimed that they were trying to ensure that those clubs weren’t utilizing illegal and/or unethical measures to gain an advantage. They were cleared of any rule violations by the league. A year later, during the 2019 ALCS, Houston manager A.J. Hinch scoffed at the notion that their players were whistling to call out the Yankees’ signs, calling any such accusations “a joke.” General manager Jeff Lunnow, at the time, told Chandler Rome of the Houston Chronicle:
“We haven’t done anything wrong. If people want to make their own conclusions based on what little evidence there is out there — really just rumors, speculations and accusations without any names behind it — that’s their prerogative. I’m not concerned because I know how we behave and how we act. We’re not doing anything wrong.”
Today, the Astros offered the following statement in reference to the report from Rosenthal and Drellich:
“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.”
Asked to personally comment on the matter today at the GM Meetings, Luhnow told a large contingent of reporters that the organization will cooperate with any investigations but declined further comment (Twitter link via Paul Sullivan of the Chicago Tribune).