The Houston Astros Sign-Stealing Scandal Shocks the MLB


Max Druckman, Staff Writer

“The Houston Astros are champions for the first time in franchise history!” exclaimed FOX announcer Joe Buck, as Yulieski Gurriel caught the final out of the 2017 World Series. The Houston Astros had captured their first Major League Baseball championship, capping a stunning turnaround from a 51-win team in 2013 to the top of the MLB mountain. While baseball fans at the time saw their win as a classic underdog story, the sad truth would be revealed two years later. In November 2019, former Astros pitcher Mike Fiers revealed in an interview with The Athletic’s Ken Rosenthal and Evan Drellich that the team had engaged in illegal sign-stealing during the 2017 season. The report and later findings have had many ramifications within the baseball community. Even though the start of the 2020 season has been delayed because of the Coronavirus pandemic, it is worth understanding the scandal and looking at its impact around the baseball world. 

Minute Maid Park

Sign-stealing has long been frowned upon in major league baseball. While there has never been any official rule banning traditional sign-stealing practices such as baserunners looking at catchers’ pitch calls or a team watching the opposition’s third base coach, Commissioner Rob Manfred has warned teams that the use of electronic sign-stealing would be highly punishable. According to the report from The Athletic, the Astros put up a video camera in center field of their stadium, Minute Maid Park, during the 2017 season. The camera was focused on the opposing catcher’s pitch call signs. Players in the dugout would look at the camera and relay the signs to the batter. If players in the dugout banged on a trash can, the batter knew that an offspeed pitch (like a curveball, changeup, or slider) would be on its way. Moreover, Houston workers in the clubhouse deciphered signs and sent the information to runners on second base, who then sent it to the batter. This provided a huge advantage to Astros hitters, as they were able to adjust their swings and hitting mechanics when they knew what pitch was coming. An investigation by Major League Baseball concluded that the Astros did use these tactics in the 2017 playoffs, but MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred said there was no clear evidence about this. In 2018, the Astros made it to the American League Championship Series. Reports concluded that they used an alternative method of sign stealing in 2018, not the banging, and that it was halted during the season. No evidence of foul play was found in the 2019 campaign, during which the Astros lost in the World Series.

Houston Astros win the 2017 World Series; Getty Images

As a result of their findings, the MLB fined Houston $5 million and stripped them of their 2020 and 2021 first and second-round draft picks. This is a crushing blow to the team, as the draft is a way of getting players for the future. The early rounds usually yield the best talent. Additionally, manager A.J. Hinch and general manager Jeff Luhnow were suspended for the entire 2020 season and were immediately fired by owner Jim Crane. Luhnow had limited knowledge of the scheme but was held accountable since the anti-technology sign-stealing memo went to his office and he did not enforce it with his club. Hinch went as far as destroying the camera but ultimately did not do enough to stop the scandal, paving the way for his suspension. The main personnel behind the scheme were bench coach Alex Cora and designated hitter/outfielder Carlos Beltrán. As Beltrán was a player during the 2017 season, he was not suspended by Major League Baseball. At the conclusion of the 2019 season, Beltrán was fired from his role as New York Mets manager due to the scandal. Cora’s punishment is pending since he could face an even longer suspension due to his suspected actions as manager of the Boston Red Sox during their 2018 championship season. No Astros players were punished. 

The rest of the MLB world has not taken kindly to the Astros’ cheating. Throughout the shortened Spring Training, many Houston batters were deliberately hit by pitches. Outfielder Josh Reddick even received death threats from fans. Supporters of the New York Yankees and Los Angeles Dodgers, who Houston beat in the 2017 playoffs, were calling for the title to be stripped. However, the club and its players are beginning to be despised around the major leagues. Commissioner Manfred did not strip the title. New Houston manager Dusty Baker stressed forgiveness, but also the necessity of apology. The entire Houston ballclub followed this advice. 

Ultimately, the Houston Astros’ sign-stealing scheme is a major scandal that rocked Major League Baseball. The Astros were undoubtedly deceptive, and their downfall serves as a warning for the other teams. It is the biggest headline in recent baseball memory, and its full effects are yet to be seen. For now, we will all anxiously await that famous call “Play Ball!”