Professionalism/Sign Stealing in Major League Baseball

BackgroundEdit

A sign in baseball is a cue that is relayed from one member of a team to another, usually to coordinate strategy. Sign stealing is a term used to describe when a team attempts to understand a competitor’s signs in order to gain an advantage[1][2][3]. Sign stealing itself is not against the rules of Major League Baseball[1][4][5]. It has even been acknowledged as “part of the game” and an enjoyable aspect of baseball[5]. Over the course of professional baseball’s existence, however, rules regarding sign stealing aided by technology have been put in place in response to various sign stealing scandals[5][6]. In the early 2000s, Major League Baseball sent out a memo reminding teams of the limitations on use of electronic equipment during games; the memo specifically mentioned that using electronic equipment for sign stealing is prohibited[5].

One of the earliest cases of technology aided sign stealing was carried out by the Phillies during the 1899-1900 season; the team used a buzzer system to notify batters of upcoming pitches[6]. Another notable case occurred about 60 years later when teams were accused of using cameras in centerfield to steal signs; the teams stopped using these cameras when discovered[6]. In the 1980s, a team was known to use a light in its scoreboard to indicate upcoming pitch type to its batters[7]. Punishments for electronically aided sign stealing have been a bit inconsistent over the years; more recent cases have resulted in fines and suspensions[6][8].

Teams are cautious and try to make sign stealing difficult, but competitors may still attempt to steal signs and take on the risks it presents[3][8][9]. The motive for sign stealing is usually competitive advantage[1]. Major League Baseball’s better performing players tend to earn more money and gain more recognition than others; top earners have signed contracts worth over one hundred million dollars[10]. Furthermore, teams that compete in the postseason are rewarded a portion of the revenue it earns; better teams earn larger portions. Teams often divide their revenue among players and coaches, but other staff may receive bonuses as well[11]. While the competitive advantage brought about by sign stealing can have a huge upside for teams and their players, it comes at a cost to opposing players. Opposing players’ talent levels may not be perceived to be as high as they truly are, which could diminish these players’ careers[12]. So, sign stealing can be a source of controversy, especially when aided by technology[5][6][8].

The Houston Astros Sign Stealing ScandalEdit

Sign stealing has recently been thrust into the national spotlight with the Houston Astros Scandal. The Astros have been one of the most successful MLB teams in the past decade, with a World Series Championship in 2017 and another World Series appearance in 2019 [13].

Initial Accusations and MLB InvestigationEdit

On November 12, 2019, former Houston Astros Pitcher Mike Fiers told the Athletic that the Astros used center field cameras to steal signs during their 2017 World Series Championship season [14]. He noted that his goal in coming forward was to “clean up the game”[14], as pitchers across the league are “losing their jobs because they are going in there not knowing” [14] As a result of Fiers’ comments, the MLB launched an investigation of the Astros, where they found the Astros guilty of using two different forms of sign stealing[15]. During their 2017 playoff run, the astros installed a monitor just outside the dugout that streamed live footage from their centerfield camera, which they used to steal signs between the opposing catcher and pitcher[16]. Astros’ players and coaches in the dugout then used a coded “trash can banging system” to alert the batter what pitch was coming next[16]. The report pegged former Astros Bench Coach Alex Cora and former player Carlos Beltran as the two masterminds behind the sign stealing scheme [16]. While many players and media members have speculated about the Astros use of illegal buzzers and sign stealing during their 2019 playoff run, the MLB’s investigation found no wrongdoing outside of the 2017 season [16].

Response from the AstrosEdit

In the aftermath of the investigation, many Astros players released statements of apology. Perennial All Star Jose Altuve emphasized that “the whole Astros organization feels bad about what happened in 2017,” [17] while Alex Bregman stated that he “regrets the choices made by my team, my organization, and by me”[17]. What garnered more national attention were the comments made by Astros Owner Jim Crane. Crane opened his statement by removing all blame from the shoulders of players, pegging them instead as victims of “the failure of our leadership” [18]. He further claimed that sign stealing “didn’t impact the game,” and that the Astros “had a good team, won the World Series, and we’ll leave it at that” [18].

Reactions around the MLBEdit

Opposing players throughout the MLB used social media to express their anger with the Astros scandal. Orioles third baseman Danny Valencia used the term “Houston Asterisks” [19] to question the validity of the Astros 2017 World Series Title, while pitcher Alex Wood said he “would rather face a player taking steroids than one who knew what pitch was coming” [19]. Former Blue Jays Pitcher Mike Bolsinger is suing the Astros for unfair business practices, as he claims that sign stealing “changed the course of his career” [20]. After spending years in the minor leagues, Bolsinger was finally given a chance in the majors in August of 2017, where the Astros scored four runs in just a third of an inning[20]. Bolsinger has not pitched in the majors since[20]. Oddsmakers in Las Vegas anticipate retaliation from pitchers across the league, as “sportsbooks put out an over/under total of 83.5 for the number of times the Astros will be hit by a pitch in 2020” [21]. This number has only been reached five times for any team in the past decade [21].

Cheating Scandals in Professional SportsEdit

Cheating scandals have been ubiquitous in professional sports since their inception. Some forms of cheating are consistent across multiple professional sports, while others are unique to individual sports. Similarly, the impact and repercussions associated with each scandal varies. The following cases are generally recognized as some of the most notable. [22]

The Black Sox ScandalEdit

In 1920, eight Chicago White Sox baseball players were indicted for colluding with gamblers during the 1919 World Series. The players, along with five gamblers, agreed to lose games on purpose, called ‘throwing games’, for financial gain. The so-called Black Sox Scandal of 1919 resulted in the players’ acquittal in 1921, but all eight players were banned from professional baseball that same year. [23] [24] Judge Kenesaw Mountain Landis, baseball’s first commissioner and commissioner at the time of the scandal, said “Regardless of the verdict of juries, no player that throws a ball game, no player that entertains proposals or promises to throw a game, no player that sits in a conference with a bunch of crooked players and gamblers where the ways and means of throwing games are discussed, and does not promptly tell his club about it, will ever again play professional baseball” [4]. [25]

Lance Armstrong DopingEdit

In 2012, cyclist Lance Armstrong decided to stop fighting against illegal doping charges, one year before he ultimately confessed to using illegal performance-enhancing drugs. [26] The United States Anti-Doping Agency (USADA) ruled that Armstrong would receive a lifetime ban from professional cycling, and he would be stripped of all winnings, including seven Tour de France titles [6]. [27] The USADA CEO at the time commented that the case was “the most sophisticated, professionalized and successful doping program that sport has ever seen”. [28]

New England Patriots Spygate and DeflategateEdit

In 2007, the New England Patriots were found to have illegally videotaped opposing coaches’, starting the scandal called ‘Spygate’ [8]. [29] The team was fined $250,000, head coach Bill Belichick was fined $500,000, and the team lost a first-round draft selection. [30] A team of investigators also found evidence of Patriots’ illegal monitoring of many other teams up to seven seasons prior. [29] [30]

The team was then suspected of intentionally underinflating footballs for the 2014 AFC Championship game. Team ownership and players denied the accusations, and the evidence against the team was not strong. Nevertheless, the scandal, dubbed ‘Deflategate’, resulted in a four-game suspension of quarterback Tom Brady, a $1 million fine to the team, and the loss of multiple draft selections [9,10]. [30] [31]

Steroid Use in the MLBEdit

Performance enhancing drugs have been used by many MLB players to gain an advantage, and it is contended that PEDs are widely used throughout the entire league today. Players like Mark McGwire, Sammy Sosa, Roger Clemens, Barry Bonds, and Alex Rodriguez had taken steroids throughout their illustrious careers. [32] Though the MLB did not test players for PEDs before 2003, it is estimated that over 30% of professional players use them [12]. [33] Players are faced with suspension and potential fines if caught taking PEDs, but many are enticed by an average increase of about $2 million in annual salary as a result of an OPS increase of about 0.100 from steroids, as one report found [13]. [34]

Effect of Technology on CheatingEdit

Technology increases the amount of information and the speed at which information is available. While increased information availability undoubtedly leads to more efficient solutions, unclear rules of how this information can be used creates scenarios where cheating can occur. For example, before technology allowed a dugout to view close up images of a catcher and pitcher in real time, sign stealing was respected as “part of the game” of baseball. As technology increases the possible ways cheating can occur, rules must be updated to draw clear lines about how technology can and cannot be used and punishments must factor in the losses incurred by opposing players and teams.

In high schools and colleges across the country, thousands of students have benefitted from the use of study tools such as Quizlet, Chegg, and Khan Academy. Like high-tech cameras in baseball, these resources provide students new avenues to cheat where outside aid is not permitted and where such avenues may not be available to all parties. The difference between students using these resources to gain additional tips and instruction versus searching for homework solutions or online test answers is where clear rules must be illustrated to prevent technology being used in an unfair way. Similarly, questions on what is considered public information complicates what constitutes insider trading, which can lead to millions of dollars of profit at the expense of other investors. Information will only continue to become more accessible as technology advances, further suggesting the need for clear rules and strict punishment of cheating to keep the playing field level across all industries.

ReferencesEdit

  1. a b c What is sign stealing? Making sense of Major League Baseball’s latest scandal.
  2. What Does it Mean to Steal Signs in Baseball?
  3. a b GOIN’ THROUGH THE MOTIONS – THIRD-BASE COACHES RARELY MEAN WHAT THEY SIGN
  4. Memorable Sign-Stealing Moments in Major League Baseball History
  5. a b c d e Red Sox crossed a line, and baseball’s response must be firm
  6. a b c d e How MLB Handled Sign Stealing Before Punishing Astros
  7. Can you read the signs?
  8. a b c Astros, Red Sox sign-stealing scandal timeline: Everything we know as MLB announces Boston's penalties
  9. Yelich: Players have always been paranoid about sign-stealing
  10. These are the highest-paid players in MLB right now
  11. How much money the 2019 World Series champions will earn
  12. Ex-Astros pitcher Mike Fiers: Team stole signs with camera
  13. MLB World Series Winners
  14. a b c The Astros stole signs electronically in 2017 — part of a much broader issue for Major League Baseball
  15. MLB completes Astros' investigation
  16. a b c d Statement of the Comissioner
  17. a b Astros Fumble Yet Another Apology for Cheating
  18. a b Astros apologize again for sign stealing, but owner Jim Crane says he shouldn't be held accountable
  19. a b MLB players react to Astros scandal: What was said around the league at spring training
  20. a b c Pitcher Mike Bolsinger says cheating Houston Astros changed course of his career
  21. a b Prop bet: How many times will Houston Astros be beaned?
  22. Cheating Sports Scandals
  23. Guide to the Black Sox Scandal
  24. New York Tribune, September 29, 1920
  25. Kenesaw Landis
  26. Lance Armstrong Cycling Doping Scandal
  27. Lance Armstrong USADA Report
  28. U.S. Postal Service Pro Cycling Team Investigation
  29. a b Spygate to Deflategate
  30. a b c Belichick Taping Since 2000
  31. Tom Brady Suspension Case Timeline
  32. Baseball and Steroids
  33. PED Independent Investigation
  34. Steroids and Major League Baseball