The Houston Astros may soon find themselves in trouble with Major League Baseball again. This time for an electronic sign-stealing scheme the club is accused to have used during its World Series-winning 2017 season, a scheme that one former Astros pitcher is now talking about on the record.
Mike Fiers, who pitched with the Astros 2015 to 2017, was among four people with the Astros at the time who described to The Athletic’s Ken Rosenthal and Evan Drellich a system in which at least two Astros — a hitter on the team and a coach — set up a camera in the outfield that was focused on opposing catchers. Astros players would watch the other team’s signs on a video monitor near their dugout and then clank on a garbage can to signal what pitch was coming.
The belief, according to the Astros sources The Athletic spoke with, was that other teams were already engaged in high-tech sign stealing, so the Astros involved were trying to create their own system.
We know this to be at least partially true. Electronic sign-stealing is something that is an issue all around Major League Baseball, almost certainly more than the common fan knows. In 2017, the Boston Red Sox and New York Yankees were both fined by MLB after a story broke in which the Red Sox were using an Apple Watch in the dugout to relay signs from their video-replay team. The Red Sox’s defense was that the Yankees were doing it too, and after an MLB investigation, both teams were fined.
This didn’t turn into MLB Spygate, however. Baseball, by and large, is OK with sign-stealing as a form of gamesmanship. If a team figures out another team’s signs through old-fashioned methods, that’s OK by the league. But if a team is using technology or has illegal electronics in the dugout, that’s where the league steps in.
In this case, the Astros announced Tuesday afternoon that they had begun an investigation alongside MLB.
The most surprising part about this may be Fiers’ decision to speak out publicly — particularly given a baseball culture that generally expects such things to remain unspoken and for teams to carry out their own justice. Fiers admits he had already told the Tigers and A’s, the teams he played for after the Astros, about Houston’s system.
“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 told 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. The guys who know are more prepared. But most people don’t. That’s why I told my team. We had a lot of young guys with Detroit (in 2018) trying to make a name and establish themselves. I wanted to help them out and say, ‘Hey, this stuff really does go on. Just be prepared.’”
“I told the teams I was on, I didn’t know how far the rules went with MLB, but I knew they (the Astros) were up to date, if not beyond,” said Fiers, who became a free agent on Dec. 1, 2017. “I had to let my team know so that we were prepared when we went to go play them at Minute Maid.”
One important note, per The Athletic’s story, is that the Astros stand accused of this sign-stealing scheme during the regular season, but there is debate whether it continued into the postseason. One source, The Athletic wrote, was adamant it did not happen during the postseason while another remembered the garbage-can signal before a postseason homer. World Series games at Minute Maid Park, The Athletic reports, may have been too loud for the Astros to even use their garbage-can-banging system.
We know the Astros were accused of improper surveillance another time, too. In October 2018, a man credentialed by the Astros was spotted taking pictures in the dugouts of the Cleveland Indians and Boston Red Sox. He was removed by security in both cities. In a Yahoo Sports story at the time, Jeff Passan wrote that two MLB players had witnessed the Astros using a garbage can to relay signs.
This past October, the Astros were again accused of sign-stealing by an opponent.
MLB took new measures prior to the 2019 season to make their sign-stealing rules more current with the times. Players can still try to figure out signs from second base, but the league outlawed outfield cameras, put all broadcasts in the clubhouse and bullpens on an eight-second delay and limited live broadcasts to each team’s replay official.
The Athletic writes that MLB could use its investigation into fired Astros assistant general manager Brandon Taubman to see what else it can learn about the sign-stealing accusations. Taubman was the Astros exec fired in October after taunting a reporter in regards to closer Roberto Osuna, who was arrested in 2018 for domestic violence.
The question now for the Astros is whether this 2017 sign-stealing scheme will earn significant punishment since it came before the new rules were implemented. The question for MLB and its 29 other teams is whether there’s proof the Astros continued these practices into the 2019 season.
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