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If you have not followed baseball very closely over the last several years, and you just happen to turn on a Houston Astros game, you would probably have several questions.
“What’s with all ‘boos’?” “Why are so many Astros players getting hit by pitches?” “What is this scandal the announcers keep talking about?”
In 2017, the year they won the World Series, the team participated in one of the biggest scandals in recent sports memory: sign stealing.
In baseball, sign stealing is when the opposing team figures out the other team’s signs and therefore knows which pitches the pitcher will throw and/or which plays they will run.
Sign stealing has been a part of baseball since the game started being played competitively in the 1800s, but many believe that the Astros took it way too far. In the rest of this article, we will discuss more details about this scandal and sign stealing in general.
What are Signs in Baseball?
Have you ever seen a baseball coach tap his cheek, wipe down his arm, touch his belt, wipe across his chest, and do all sorts of other crazy movements? Your first thought is probably, “What’s wrong with that guy?”
There’s nothing wrong with him. He is just giving signs to his players.
Signs in baseball are how coaches and players communicate with each other when putting on a play or calling a pitch without the opposing team knowing what is called.
Traditionally, coaches go through a series of touching, tapping, and swiping their clothing and parts of their bodies to give the hitter and the runners on base a sign to bunt, steal, hit and run, take a pitch, etc.
To call pitches, catchers often use their throwing hand to relay a number to the pitcher to determine which pitch to throw.
Oftentimes at lower levels of baseball, the catcher looks over to the dugout at his coach who gives him some sort of sign that signals the pitch that he wants him to call.
Typically, 1 signals a fastball, 2 signals a curveball, 3 signals a slider, and 4 signals a changeup. These can vary as different pitchers throw different pitches, but these are the most standard signs that a catcher gives a pitcher.
Each team has its own unique signs. Some are more complicated than others, but every baseball team has some form of signs that the players must learn in order to know what is going on.
How Do Teams Steal Signs?
Now it’s time to get into the meat and potatoes of this topic and talk about how teams actually go about stealing the opposing team’s signs.
Teams and players can steal signs by picking up on a coach’s tendencies, looking at the catcher’s signs while on second base, or noticing a catcher’s sign if he does not hide it well enough.
Before we discuss this, it is important for readers to understand that this has been a hotly debated topic recently – thanks to the Astros.
Some people view any form of sign stealing to be a way of cheating and believe it has no place in the game. Others view it as a part of a game, and as long as it is done within reasonable bounds, then sign stealing is fair game.
One of the most common ways to steal another coach’s signs is to simply study him as he is giving his signs and try to pick up on any tendencies he may have.
For example, a team may notice that any time the opposing coach touches his hat, the runner on first steals. Or when the coach in the dugout gives signs to the catcher and touches his wrist twice, the pitcher throws a curveball.
Doing this takes a lot of time and focus as well as a strong memory to be able to pick up on a coach’s signs. Sometimes it doesn’t take much to pick up on the other team’s signs because they are so obvious.
Coaches are not the only ones who may try to steal the other team’s signs. Players do it all the time. When a runner is on second base, he has a clear view into the catcher’s signs to the pitcher.
If the runner on second can see the sign and knows what pitch is coming, he may make some sort of subtle gesture that signals to the hitter which pitch is coming.
Many teams have their own system for this such as making a fist with your hands if a fastball is on the way or putting one hand out toward third base if an offspeed pitch is coming.
Knowing which pitch is coming is a huge advantage, so when stealing signs from second base, players want to make sure that they are subtle enough to where the opposing team does not pick up on the fact that their signs are being stolen and change them.
Another way that signs often get stolen at lower levels of baseball is when the catcher gives his signs to the pitcher too low and the opposing coach can see them from the coach’s box.
When relaying the sign to the pitcher, the catcher must be careful to keep his signs hidden. Most are taught to close their legs slightly and give the sign around their crotch area. If his legs are wide open or his sign is below his crotch, the opposing coach will be able to see his sign.
If the coach picks up on this, he may relay the sign to the hitter by saying something that signals which pitch is coming.
For example, the coach may say something encouraging to the hitter and mention his last name to signal that he knows a fastball is coming. If it is an offspeed pitch, he may exchange the last name for the player’s number.
These are the most common ways that signs are stolen in the game of baseball. Again, some people in baseball view this as cheating while others view it as an art. Regardless, it has been part of the game for this long and probably isn’t going anywhere anytime soon.
How Can Teams Prevent Their Signs from Being Stolen?
The argument for sign stealing (within limits) in baseball is that teams should be able to disguise their signs enough that the other team can’t possibly steal them. There are many ways of going about doing this.
Changing signs frequently, creating a first or second sign system, and using wristbands (play cards) are some of the most common ways that teams can prevent their signs from being stolen.
Changing signs throughout a game or season has advantages because it limits the opportunities that opponents have to pick up on a coach’s tendencies.
For example, teams may have even and odd inning signs. This means that they have a set of signs for odd-numbered innings and another set of signs for even-numbered innings.
Sometimes, coaches have multiple sets of signs that they use, and before the game, they let their players know which set will be used for that game.
While this prevents opponents from catching on to their signs, it can create confusion among the team. Changing signs so frequently creates more opportunities for players to miss signs.
With this type of system, all it takes is for Johnny to forget that it’s the third inning and not the second to miss the bunt sign.
With a runner on second, catchers often use the first, second, or third sign system to try to keep the runner from knowing the sign. For example, he may give multiple signs, but only the second one tells the pitcher which pitch to throw.
There are other variations of this system. Sometimes, the number of outs or number of strikes determines which sign is live for the pitcher. Sometimes, the catcher will touch different parts of his catcher’s gear as well as give number signs to throw off the runner.
Teams often create their own system for this scenario, but the goal is to keep runners on second from picking up on which pitch is being thrown.
The system that most coaches choose to use these days to prevent their signs from being stolen is the wristband system.
In this system, players wear a wristband, and instead of giving signs, coaches call out a three digit number, and players reference the play card on the wristband to know what play or pitch is called.
On the player’s wristband, the plays and numbers are completely randomized making it difficult for opponents to steal the sign.
This can also be used to relay pitching signs as well. As of late, coaches have even been giving their pitchers wristbands to eliminate the catcher as the middleman.
This system is difficult for many baseball traditionalists to embrace, but no one can argue that it is effective in preventing opponents from stealing signs.
What Happened in the Astros Sign Stealing Scandal?
The Houston Astros sign stealing scandal is still a sore subject for many players and fans of the MLB – especially for the Los Angeles Dodgers whom the Astros beat in the World Series in 2017 while they were cheating.
In 2017, the Houston Astros were using various forms of technology to steal pitching signs from their opponent during their home games.
As mentioned earlier, sign stealing has been a part of baseball ever since the game started being played competitively. However, many feel as if the Astros went too far in their attempt to steal the opponent’s pitching signs.
At their home park, they had a camera placed in centerfield that could see the opposing catcher’s signs. During the game, someone on the Astros would watch the video in their video replay room and relay the signs to the hitter.
They used various methods of relaying this information. The most famous way that they did this was by banging trash cans. Another sign-relay method that was reported was the use of a buzzer taped on a player’s chest.
Someone in the replay room would watch the signs coming in and buzz one, two, or three times to signal the pitch coming, and the Astros hitters would feel the buzz on their chest.
This did not come to light to the public until 2019, but several teams had been suspicious of the Astros’ use of technology in stealing signs and had made other teams and the MLB aware of the measures they were using throughout the 2017 and 2018 season.
We can argue whether or not peaking in at the catcher’s signs from second base or picking up on a coach’s steal sign is “bush league”, but most baseball people agree on the fact that the measures the Astros took to steal their opponents’ signs was out of bounds.
Manager AJ Hinch and General Manager Jeff Luhnow were suspended for the entire 2020 season, and the Astros were fined $5 million while also losing their first and second round draft picks for 2020.
But fans and players across the league did not believe the punishment was steep enough for the crime. Many believed that every player, coach, and support staff member involved should receive some sort of punishment.
Some even called for the Astros franchise to be disbanded and for players to be banned from baseball.
The MLB has since cracked down on the use of technology to steal signs.
What does the term “Bush League” mean?
In baseball, the term “Bush League” refers to anything that may lack class or professionalism. For example, a player sliding into second with his spikes high may be considered bush league.
The phrase comes from the Bush Leagues in the early days of baseball which was a professional league that consisted of players who couldn’t make it in the Minor Leagues.
Is stealing signs illegal?
Stealing signs without the use of technology is perfectly legal in baseball. Once teams begin using cameras and other devices to steal signs from the other team, that is when they are breaking the rules.
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