Nobody threw more regular-season innings for the 2017 world champion Astros than Mike Fiers. But after Fiers slumped badly in August and September, Houston left the righthander off its postseason roster.
Fiers alleged that Houston stole catchers’ signs from a camera positioned in centerfield at Minute Maid Park. The signs were read on a television monitor just steps behind the Astros’ dugout. A signal for an off-speed pitch would prompt someone to bang a dugout trash can loudly enough for the hitter to hear. The absence of such a noise would alert the hitter to a fastball. The use of devices to steal signs is illegal in baseball.
MLB commissioner Rob Manfred ordered an immediate probe into Fiers’s claim. A source familiar with the sign-stealing investigation said by midweek that Manfred’s investigators had interviewed “15 to 20” Astros personnel, including the 2017 coaching staff and manager A.J. Hinch—some more than once. The source said the investigation confirmed the scheme as described by Fiers was used during a period of about three months during the 2017 regular season. The source added that the investigation is also pursuing whether the Astros used modified systems to acquire signs in the 2017 postseason, when scrutiny is heightened and the banging of a trash can would be more manifest. The Astros were 8–1 at home in the 2017 postseason.
MLB is also investigating a directive by the Houston front office to its scouts that encouraged the use of cameras to surveil dugouts of potential playoff opponents as part of the team’s preparation for the 2017 postseason.
One team official says, “I don’t know if MLB wants to turn over every rock, because this is the culmination of where the game is going. Whatever comes out of this has to be good for the game. This gives MLB ample opportunity in this day and age to do whatever they want with protocols. You can reshape where technology is in our game. You have a golden opportunity to restructure some processes in baseball.”
Another team executive gave this example: If you walked into the team’s video room in 2015 you might see one pitcher and one catcher studying how to pitch hitters from the opposing team that night. Two years later the same room would be packed with players, coaches, support personnel and analysts fresh out of prestigious universities studying multiple camera feeds both to decode the signals of opposing catchers, coaches and managers and to find any “tells” from the pitcher that might give away his pitches.
“The whole microclimate of the video room has changed,” the executive says. “It’s no longer about how you pitch a certain player. It’s a competition of espionage moves. In MLB there is not a single viewer who tunes in to see a shell game of sign-stealing. As entertainment value it has none. It actually slows down the game. Let’s try to clean it up.”
Says another team official, “As technology grew in the game so did the curiosity of where you could take it.”
The official suggests confining players to their dugouts and closing video rooms during games. Outfitted with banks of laptops and monitors, many of the rooms now are within steps of the dugout, allowing players to scout themselves or the other team in between innings or at bats.
Sign stealing has wrought few penalties historically, even recently as technology has changed rapidly, with devices becoming smaller, more powerful and even wearable. That’s why the baseball world is waiting on a ruling from Manfred on Fiers’s allegation with such keen interest. It will not just conclude the investigation into the Astros. It will define the game that baseball wants to be.