Tuesday, November 12, 2019

The Athletic, the Bombshell, and the Astros

It wasn't supposed to be an eventful day but here we are. Ken Rosenthal and Evan Drellich dropped a report in The Athletic that the Astros used a high-tech camera on the centerfield wall that would relay the signs instantaneously to a tv in the hallway between the dugout and the clubhouse. The Astros would bang on a trash can loud enough for the batter to hear it as the pitcher was in his wind-up. Obviously The Athletic is pay-walled. If you would like a recap of The Athletic's report from someone who is Not Me, you can click here, or here, or here.

The Athletic (I'm not going to quote liberally from The Athletic since it is a subscription site):
Four people who were with the Astros in 2017, including pitcher Mike Fiers, said that during that season, the Astros stole signs during home games in real time with the aid of a camera positioned in the outfield...Now, an investigation into the Astros' culture in the wake of the team's firing of assistant general manager Brandon Taubman could be expanded to determine who in the organization was aware of the sign-stealing practice - and whether it continued or evolved in subsequent seasons. The Athletic's confirmation of rule-breaking by Houston is limited to 2017.

That last one is a key line at this time.

Fiers, as quoted by ESPN's Jeff Passan:
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. Young guys getting hit around in the first couple of innings starting a game, and then they get sent down. It's bullshit 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.'

On the 2017 Astros, Fiers:
That's not playing the game the right way. They were advanced and willing to go above and beyond to win.

There are a few ways to look at this situation:

Viewpoint #1: "All teams do it, it's not a big deal. It ain't against the rules." On the surface this may be true.

Let's go back to April 19, 2016. The Rangers beat the Astros for one of the 142 Ranger wins against Houston in 2016. Even though Arlington pitcher Derek Holland won, allowing 5H/2ER, 5K:1BB, he had this to say:
Yeah, they knew what was coming....It looked like they were telling each other what was coming; that's what it felt like. I could be wrong, but we were hearing some things...for them to be jumping on fastballs inside and curveballs, it's like they knew something was coming...They would whistle every time we went inside. It was just weird. We could hear it, big time, and it was only when I went inside. Now, that could be - it sounded like it was coming from their dugout, but...we could be totally wrong.

Future Astros Great Robinson Chirinos, after a 7-1 Arlington loss to Houston on June 2, 2017:
Knowing when we played with Carlos Beltran here last year, the guys (on the Astros) steal signs like crazy on second base. That's why I was going to the mound every pitch, switching signs, making sure those guys wouldn't relay signs to the hitter. I think when we struck out Correa, we switched the signs just before we went to hit; if you see his swing, he was late because they thought we were trying the slider....it's because they were relaying the wrong signs from second base. We knew that when we went to play in Houston, that's just something we have to do...because we know those guys are relaying signs when they have a guy on second base.

All seven of the Astros' runs were scored that game with a runner on Second Base.

In September 2017 the Red Sox were fined by MLB after the Yankees accused them of using an Apple Watch to steal signs (side note: I've had an Apple Watch for two months and I apparently need some pointers on how to use it). From the NY Times:
The Yankees, who had long been suspicious of the Red Sox' stealing catchers' signs in Fenway Park, contended the video showed a member of the Red Sox training staff looking at his Apple Watch in the dugout. The trainer then relayed a message to other players in the dugout, who, in turn, would signal teammates on the field about the type of pitch that was about to be thrown, according to people familiar with the case.

Apparently Boston admitted it, and Manfred said that stealing signs was allowed, but not by using technology. Manfred:
All 30 Clubs have been notified that future violations of this type will be subject to more serious sanctions, including the possible loss of draft picks. 

On September 21, 2017 the 60-91 White Sox beat the 93-58 Astros at Minute Maid Park. Danny Farquhar's first batter of his outing was in the 8th inning against Evan Gattis, who struck out on the 7th pitch of the AB after fouling off four pitches. You can see the video of the AB here (hat tip to Baseball Prospectus' Lucas Apostoleris for finding it). For a Yankee fan's viewpoint of this AB, check this Jomboy breakdown. Admittedly it's not exactly unbiased against the Astros. It's Jomboy.

In January 2018 Lance McCullers tweeted that the pitch clock/mound visit-limit wouldn't work "when everyone is using adv tech to steal signs." In April 2018 the Rockies seemingly started using something like a football play-calling sheet in an effort to reduce the chance of having their signs stolen.

Ken Rosenthal also published a piece at The Athletic in January 2018 noting that MLB's pace-of-play initiatives were driven by the duration between pitches and mound visits. In that piece he noted that the 2016 Yankees "liked" getting signals but the 2017 Yankees didn't because the signals "were a distraction."

Jaime Barria was not happy on August 25, 2018. He had just thrown 72 pitches to get nine outs - in Anaheim - against the Astros, In the 1st Inning he threw 36 pitches, allowing 4H/3ER. Barria said the Astros were stealing signs, and that he changed them after the 1st inning. He limited the damage after the 1st to a further run on a hit and two walks, but that first inning drained him.

Two days later the Astros faced Oakland's Brett Anderson at Minute Maid Park. On May 7, in Oakland, Anderson threw his second start of the 2017 season. The Astros won 16-2, Anderson threw 3IP, 10H/9R (7ER), 0K:3BB. In his four starts coming into that August 27 start Anderson had thrown 26.2IP, 12H/2ER, 14K:2BB. On August 27? 3IP, 5H/4ER, 1K:2BB. Anderson:
I don't know if I was tipping pitches with guys at second or something but they seemed to be laying off good pitches and on certain pitches. So I've got to look at video, re-evaluate that.

Anderson admitted he didn't have a good feel for his slider. There were reports of clapping inside the Astros' dugout.

On August 31 - four days after the Anderson start and six days after Barria's disaster start - the Astros played the Angels at Minute Maid Park. Barria needed 85 pitches to get through 6IP, 3H/0ER, 4K:1BB.

September 4: Minnesota opener Trevor May saw his ERA inflate from 1.88 to 4.11 after the Astros tagged him for 5H/4ER in the first inning. May, asked about tipping and relaying:
These guys are pretty good at it.

Spoiler Alert: The Astros won the division in 2017 and played Cleveland in the ALDS, whom they swept on October 8. On October 9 the Red Sox called Cleveland to ask what happened (maybe This is Normal who's to say).

Four days later, in the 3rd Inning of 2018 ALCS G1 at Fenway Kyle McLaughlin, "an Astros employee," was removed from a media credential-only area next to the Red Sox dugout. The linked report quoted "multiple security sources" who said McLaughlin had a small camera and was texting frequently, but did not have a media credential. Danny Picard, the author of the initial report:
After the man was removed another Astros staffer intervened - according to sources who were on the scene - and tried to convince security that he was authorized to be in the area next to the dugout.

The Astros staffer who intervened was apparently Brandon Taubman, who, with McLaughlin, had gotten into it with a Yankees employee during a May series between Houston and New York at Yankee Stadium. One source with knowledge of the May incident:
It was a whole tag team. [The Yankees employee] was on his belly taking pictures [in center field]. And then Brandon went into a secured area, was very aggressive. They just didn't give a [crap].

Jeff Passan - then with Yahoo! Sports - found some pictures of McLaughlin with Jim Crane. Passan:
Two major league players said they have witnessed the Astros hitting a trash can in the dugout in recent years and believe it is a way to relay signals to hitters. The Los Angeles Dodgers also believe the Astros were stealing signs during the World Series [in 2017], according to two sources. MLB has attempted and failed to corroborate such accounts, the league source said. Other teams, the source said, have been accused of similar actions.

The story was that the Astros were spying on the Red Sox to see if they were spying on the Astros. During the 2019 ALCS Luhnow said:
Last year, we were trying to prevent other teams from doing things. It was dumb and we shouldn't have done it because it made us look guilty.

On October 17 - Nine days after the Astros completed the sweep of the Indians and before the Red Sox would take a 3-1 lead over Houston - Cleveland filed a formal complaint with MLB over the Astros. Esteemed baseball writer Paul Hoynes (there's no sarcasm there):
An employee of the Astros, holding a cellphone camera, was removed twice by security from the photographer's pit next to the Indians' dugout during Game 3 on Oct. 8. The Astros completed a three-game sweep of the Indians with an 11-3 win that day...For almost two weeks before the ALDS the Indians worked hard to protect their signs because of Houston's reputation for stealing signs. The Astros reportedly try to train cameras on the opposing catcher, manager and bench coach in an effort to steal signs and pick up tendencies.

Complaining about sign stealing is always a two-edged sword in the big leagues because so many teams do it. Boston manager Alex Cora was Houston's bench coach last year when the Astros won the World Series. So if the Astros have any tricks up their sleeve he would know about them.

The Astros would lose their 4th straight game of the 2018 ALCS on October 18. The last three games - and four straight after McLaughlin got popped at Fenway - were Astros losses.

Prior to the 2018 World Series, 2017 Astros bench coach/current Red Sox manager Alex Cora went on a Boston radio show and talked about how they used the Astros' paranoia against them in the 2018 ALCS. Cora:
That is part of the game - tipping, stealing signs, relaying pitches and paying attention to details. That is the way I took it. If [the Astros] feel that way about us, we might as well push the envelope and keep doing a lot of things that are going to make them uncomfortable and you saw it. They kept changing signs and the tempo of games was awful, but that worked into our advantage I think.

Tom Verducci wrote on November 2, 2018 that using advanced technology to steal signs is the biggest threat to the integrity of baseball. Verducci:
Three years ago, if you walked into the Dodgers' video room behind their Dodger Stadium dugout you would likely have found Zack Greinke pouring over video of opposing hitters, looking for any edge he could find to match up his stuff against their weakness. This year, if you walked into the same room you would have found a small army of 20-something analysts in polo shirts and slacks pouring over video from the in-house cameras, like the security room at a Vegas casino. Most teams train their cameras on the catcher, the pitcher (from several angles), the third base coach and the dugout.

One club exec who spoke to Verducci:
We've reached a point where the attractiveness of the sport as an entertainment option has been lost in the quest to find every incremental edge. And video has changed things rapidly. I'm increasingly thinking something has to be done.

Manfred did something. In February 2019 MLB adopted a series of rule changes designed to crack down on high-tech sign stealing. MLB banned non-broadcast outfield cameras from foul pole to foul pole "as well as tightening restrictions on in-house video," like putting TV monitors available to clubs on an eight-second delay to prevent real-time sign-stealing. Violating these new protocols would result in the loss of draft picks and/or international bonus pool money. From the above-linked Verducci article:
Manfred believed the restrictions were necessary because high-tech sign-stealing grew more prevalent and slowed the pace of play because of the paranoia it engendered. Last November [Ed. Note: November 2018] general managers thoroughly endorsed the adopting of such rules rather than engage in what they saw as a coming "high-tech arms race to cheat." according to one source.

Verducci went on to say that:
About six teams [in 2018] were commonly understood to have installed in-house cameras in centerfield that were trained on opposing catchers' signs, according to one general manager. Several other teams were under heavy suspicion.

For the "Err'team does it, it ain't against the rules" crowd, you were right, but not any more. It's against the rules now.

Viewpoint #2: "Yeah, that's shady, but I'm not punishing the Astros for something they did prior to the rules changing." And that is very fair. It's unfair to accuse the 2017-2018 Astros of being guilty of crimes codified in 2019. Let's see:

On April 10, 2019 the Astros beat the Yankees 8-6 in part by lighting up New York pitcher/Astros nemesis James Paxton for 8H/5ER on five extra-base hits. Paxton accused the Astros of stealing signs. Paxton, to the NY Post:
I did find out I was tipping my pitches when there were guys at second base, so they knew what was coming. They were fouling off some pretty good pitches, taking some pretty good pitches. They were stealing some signs. So that didn't help.

In that article Paxton found out that he was tipping his pitches on his knuckle-curve because of the positioning of his knuckle. Who told him? Carlos Beltran. Paxton:
[Beltran] showed me some video. [He said], 'Look at these takes, look at these swings. They wouldn't be making these swings or these takes if they didn't know what was coming.

A couple of days after the Rangers battered Gerrit Cole for 9H/8ER in Arlington - Cole's literal worst start of the season - Rangers manager Chris Woodward celebrated his team because of how well they're stealing signs. Woodward:
You know what you are holding. Now, if you had a chance to know what both cards the dealer has are, wouldn't that increase your chances of success? And if you knew (what) the dealer had with those two cards before you even placed your bet, wouldn't that increase your wager?

Gonna guess that - if the Astros were testing the boundaries of what is Right and Acceptable - so were other teams.

But then you have the whistling. The Yankees lost their got dang minds during 2019 ALCS G1 over what they heard coming from the Astros dugout. SNY Reporter Andy Martino:
According to three sources, a Yankees coach noticed a whistling sound in the opposing dugout on certain pitches on Saturday night in Houston. The Yankees started yelling across the field, and people in the dugouts argued back and forth. "The whole dugout was pissed," said one source. "Everyone was chirping."

That SNY report (and that's short for SportsNet New York):
A major-league coach - not for the Yankees - noted the unproven suspicions that the Astros use cameras to get signs. "They are NASA," the coach said. "If a pitcher is tipping and the players can see from the dugout, no biggie. If they get it from somewhere else, that's dicey.

Let's be clear, the lines have been blurred for a long time. The Astros have a lot of guys with non-traditional backgrounds and that has been a lightning rod. "Another coach" from that SNY report:
Baseball, traditionally, doesn't like audio sign. For some reason we are more comfortable with the opposite. So did the Astros go over the line? Probably. But honestly I don't know where to draw the lines anymore.

A.J. Hinch:
It made me laugh because it's ridiculous. And had I known that it would take something like that to set off the Yankees or any other team, we would have practiced it in Spring Training. It apparently works, even when it doesn't happen. So to me, I understand the gamesmanship. I understand kind of creating a narrative for yourself or wondering how things are going.

If you still think that these allegations are still not a big deal, then I envy you. It's really easy to dismiss Jaime Barria, Derek Holland, Brett Anderson, Danny Farquhar, etc. as being Not-Great Pitchers Who Got Lit Up By A Historically Great Offense. But all their complaints are of the same substance. It's consistent. You may not care about it but Rob Manfred does, and the Astros have been a brilliant - if unplanned - foil to take the spotlight off of how MLB has absolutely no idea what's happening with the baseball company they bought. Teh Base Balls was the biggest crisis in baseball up until Ivy League Finance Douchebro drunkenly went all Boiler Room on a group of female reporters. And that has allowed MLB to expand this investigation into the Astros "culture" to re-litigate Taubman and the Astros as an organization. Fair or not, this is what is coming.

*Viewpoint #4 3: This report is extremely damaging, to the entire organization, front office to players. That's something we didn't have to confront with Ivy League Finance Douchebro. It was, well, not simple enough, but it was easier to compartmentalize during the World Series. That thought exercise went as such:

1. Yeah, Osuna could be a piece of crap. But he served his suspension and, as far as we know, hasn't been domestically violent since. The Astros gave a literal fraction of their revenue to some non-profits who try to protect women in an effort to save some PR.
2. The only reason we were actually talking about Osuna was because of Taubman. It's not Osuna's fault that Taubman got fired.
3. Taubman is the bad guy. The guys on the field are actually likable (well, maybe 24/25 of them, anyway) and had nothing to do with the situation where the Astros were cast as the Baddies. Let's root for the 25 guys wearing the H and whatever mountain of cocaine Taubman runs into next is just what happens.

If MLB's investigation into the Taubman Incident - which I firmly believe is warranted - given the above evidence, has an added benefit of Manfred placing the responsibility of the credibility of the sport at the feet of the best team in baseball from 2017-19, Rangz be damned (and both can be in question at the same time - this is not a zero sum game facing baseball) - I have no doubt that Manfred will scapegoat the Astros and it will all unravel because of Taubman. Maybe it's deserved, I don't know anymore. It's possible that, if an assistant general manager had kept his mouth shut after the Astros won their second Pennant in three years, then this [waves hands] culture gets swept under the rug.

Counter-points that have a right to be entertained: If all of this is a result of a camera at Minute Maid Park, there's no rational way to understand Marwin's home run off of Kenley Jansen in Game 2 of the 2017 World Series at Dodger Stadium. Or how the Astros were able to so thoroughly dismantle Yu Darvish in Game 7...at Dodger Stadium. It doesn't explain how the Astros went 57-24 on the road in 2018 (46-35 at home) and 65-22 at home through the ALCS (52-35 on the road)...and 0-4 at Minute Maid Park in the World Series. If you think the Astros could cheat at home all through 2018 and 2019 when it mattered most, might I remind you that the Houston Astros are 0-7 at home in the 2018 ALCS and 2019 World Series. I don't know how to reconcile this.

This is where we are. Either you don't care and it doesn't matter. Or you don't matter, so no one cares. I guess I'm to the age where, if everyone else is doing something wrong, it doesn't make it right.