The Astros, Sign Stealing, and Baseball Innovation

In watching the Houston Astros Sign-Stealing scandal unfold, its punishments getting doled out, and the open resentment from other players in the league, the same question kept popping into my mind:

Wouldn’t it be possible to equip pitchers with a microphone that enables one-way communication to an earpiece in the catcher’s helmet? If the pitcher quietly speaks into the mic with the glove over his mouth, wouldn’t that stop sign-stealing?

I posed the question on Twitter and Facebook (and thank you to those who responded) and received many illuminating responses.

A quick primer to those not familiar with sign-stealing: when a batter’s at the plate, the catcher will relay a series of signals from his hands (typically between his legs) over to the pitcher, seemingly proposing pitches. The pitcher provides non-verbal responses in the forms of head shakes or nods, then throws the agreed-upon pitch. Sign stealing is when the opposite team tries to intercept and decode the signals, then relay them non-verbally back to the batter. Typically this has been done when there’s a runner on 2nd, but players and teams continue to be innovative in employing sign-stealing, with the Astros having team personnel monitor the signs real-time, relay it to the dugout, with players banging a trash can to get the message back to the batter. The scandal now has a Wikipedia entry if you want to learn more.

Technically, sign-stealing is considered cheating, but the culture of baseball tolerates it as long as you don’t cross an invisible line. Under the mantra, “If you don’t cheat, you don’t try.”, players continually innovate to find new and more effective ways to steal signs, which is what landed the Astros in hot water.

This brought me to the above question, wondering why can’t baseball incentivize teams to apply the same level of innovation to thwart cheating. With apologies to the people for not better representing their thoughtful comments, the gist of reasons were:

  1. Catchers are the ones that have all the knowledge and are instructing the pitcher on what to throw.
  2. It would be too much to ask of pitchers, especially relievers, to call pitches.
  3. Teams would try to intercept the transmissions.
  4. It’s not too much to ask teams not to cheat

For the sake of argument, let’s discard #4 and accept that teams will continue to push boundaries. As for point #3, football has been using play-calling radios for decades – and Patriots jokes aside – has not generally had a problem.

That leaves us point #1 and #2, which to a baseball skeptic like me translates, “It’s always been this way and it’s asking too much for pitchers to change”.

This is the crux of why I struggle with baseball. The double-edged sword of being steeped with tradition also has the ill effect of being resistant to new ideas and methods.

I’m not saying that the sport needs to force every team into doing this, but if they changed the rules to allow for this, you might see some teams taking advantage of the technology, even if it’s just for playing certain teams suspected of cheating. We’ve seen this play out in other sports. When a team finds success, the copycat league will try to adopt and further the methods. Instead, many baseball purists seem to accept that the players will work this all out, with their own form of vigilante justice – taking a few pitches to the ribs. At least through enabling and promotion innovation, you at least give teams an alternative than resorting to physical retaliation.

This also boils down to the fact that Commissioner Rob Manfred opted not to punish the players, in part to achieve their cooperation in the investigation, but also to avoid drawn-out appeals from the Players Union. There wasn’t a great solution to this, but as players have been reporting into training camps it’s been obvious that many harbor vast resentment towards current and former Astros. Perhaps Manfred should consider placing a permanent asterisk on the Astros 2017 championship. Outright stripping the title opens a can of worms (Who would get the title instead, no one? Do the players have to give back their championship rings?), but placing an asterisk allows people to view the 2017 World Series in their own light and allow history to ultimately pass judgement.

The way baseball views sign-stealing is not unlike hockey views fighting: they pay lip service to being against it, but through their inaction they don’t do anything to actually thwart it, relying on some invisible line. People then clutch their pearls after it gets crossed.

Ultimately this is indicative of the decisions that are relegating the National Pastime into a distant third in popularity. The NFL and NBA have their own sets of problems, but they don’t seem to be afraid to promote new ideas and innovation to help the game evolve. I get that baseball is a timeless, individual-statistics-driven game that favors the record books, but this seeming apprehension to evolution is going to be the sports undoing.

Now baseball has their “hoodie”

OriginalHoodie McDHoodie

Quick Reaction: Even though we’ve grown tired of Bill Belicheat’s hoodie (which has also spawned Josh McDaniels taking that tradition to Denver), it seems that another coach has decided to join this exclusive club of fashion-insensitive coaches: Tampa Bay (Devil) Rays coach Joe Maddon (Maddon, not Madden):


Maddon’s hoodie however, has caused much more controversy, since baseball still insists that baseball managers need to wear the same uniform that their batters and pitchers have on.  Yes, they may be permitted to wear a team coat if it’s cold, but certainly not a hoodie.  All that changed this month when MLB Brass decided that Maddon wearing a hoodie would not ruin the tradition of the game, and reversed their original ruling.

Belicheat, inspired by Maddon’s courage, decided to send him a Patriots hoodie.  However the story didn’t specify whether Belicheat chopped off the sleeves before he sent it.

This story reminds me just how ridiculous it is to see these middle-aged & older men wearing these baseball uniforms as if they’re going to step into the batter’s box.  This makes as much sense as having Josh McDaniels or Mike Shanahan strap on some shoulder pads, or George Karl putting on some baggy shorts.  I’m glad baseball’s loosened the reins a bit for cold weather gear, but they should really relax these rules for all games.  Maddon admitted he didn’t want to wear a shirt & tie, but it’d be nice to see these managers in a nice polo or something.

More Baseball Scheduling Thoughts

Well the Rockies had a great run and blew everyone’s expectations – especially when you consider that back in the Spring Hurdle got fired because the team was so bad.  I’ll be honest: Now that the Rockies are out of the Playoffs, my level of interest in MLB has significantly decreased.  I did want to offer a thought, more-so an expansion of something I Twittered about last night before fatigue got the better of me.

The Rockies started playing at 8pm on a Sunday night, with the game ending well past midnight.  We’re talking Mountain Time, never mind that we were playing Philly, an Eastern Time Zone team.  Yet somehow baseball doesn’t see anything wrong with that.

Look, I’m not in so much denial about the Rockies’ stature that I believe the team warrants the major prime-time spot, and I am somewhat grateful that they re-scheduled the Rockies game to give Broncos fans the opportunity to watch..  but really an 8pm start time?!?  Baseball can’t get away with the same tricks that basketball and hockey pull – their games are under 3 hours – and an 8pm start time doesn’t work for playoff baseball.

I’ve heard the detractors of my views (and debated with them on Twitter), that I am being selfish and am unwilling to sacrifice a little to support my home team.  Perhaps they’re right, but consider this: Baseball has been in an arguable decline in popularity over the last few decades.  Their die-hard fans aren’t getting any younger, and the only way to build your stature is by getting your product in front of as many potential fans – especially kids – as possible.  It’s pretty hard to that when they’re all in bed.

I’ve stated previously that the NBA is pretty obnoxious about their playoff scheduling, but in the beginning they’re trying to fit in 8 games.  Yet somehow baseball only has to manage 4 games and still finds a way to screw that scheduling up.  Baseball is in a tough spot, but they need to start somewhere and accept a few things.  For one, accept that you can’t avoid football and may just need to compete with it.  If you’re going to play on a Sunday in the fall, you can’t avoid all of their games.  Secondly, you need to make sure you’re on in the afternoons on weekends, the fact that you didn’t have a game scheduled on Saturday afternoon is nothing but a missed opportunity.  Thirdly, if it’s too hard for you to take 2 games each night and alternate nights, then you maybe should accept the fact that the games will need to run on alternate channels.  I know each sports feels their playoffs should run exclusively, but if you can’t manage the 4+ hours your game run then you need to do something.

Playoff Schedules: Who screws it up the most?

Rocktober is here! The Rockies are in the playoffs and I’m really looking forward to see the Rockies take on the Phillies. only to find out that the game aired at 12:30pm on a Wednesday?!?  We’re talking about playoffs – the pinnacle of your season – yet MLB in it’s idiotic lack of wisdom puts the game on when the entire country is at work and can’t watch the game.  At what point is this a good idea?   I realize that these leagues feel like their game should be the only game on TV, but at what point does it seem like a good idea to air your game in the middle of the day compared to airing two games in the same night, or rotating the 4 games with 2 on each night for opposite nights?  Thanks for nothing baseball!

However baseball isn’t the only sport that screws up their playoff schedules.  Nobody is perfect at doing this, but a lot of leagues have a lot more to learn than others.


It’s pretty hard to screw up football, and the NFL does a pretty good job of not killing momentum with the playoffs.  With the “1 and done” format and the fact that the NFL is played on weekends, it’s not surprising the the Super Bowl is an unofficial national holiday.

What they need to improve: Get rid of the week between the Conference Championships and the Super Bowl.  While I’m sure all those involved with the game appreciate that week, it’s excruciating watching the hype-machine in overtime.  This year they’re putting the Pro Bowl in that week between the games, so hopefully this schedule/format change will improve things a bit.


The NHL arguably does the “best of.” playoff series most effectively.  The NHL isn’t afraid to alternate nights, and have teams play on the same night, yet ensure that each series effectively gets a share of the spotlight.  The playoff rhythm is strong and consistent from the start of the playoffs to the Stanley Cup Finals.

What they need to improve: Get on a network where people can watch them.  They would have the perfect playoff format if they were on at least a major cable network.


The NBA is obnoxious with it’s playoff scheduling, especially in the early rounds.  You have teams that play one night, then won’t play again until 3 or 4 nights later.  They get in a better rhythm in the later rounds, but it’s tough to get through the first round and realize that the playoffs are going to span a better part of 2 months.

What they need to improve: Go to a best of 5 series for the first round, maybe even for the 2nd round.  Alternate nights for these rounds so that the series won’t last longer than 10 days.  If necessary, air 3 games on the same night.  The Eastern/Western Conference layout makes it easier to make sure the home teams can get a the game on in their prime-time.


MLB has a lot of wrongs that they need to correct, and they need to start with October.  First off, they need to get their games at times when people can watch them. That means that they need to get their first-round games out of the mid-afternoon time slot, as well as get their League Championship Series and World Series at earlier start times so that people on the East Coast can watch them without staying up until 1-2am.  Trust me, the West Coast will tolerate a 4:30 start time for the World Series.

What they need to improve: Aside from the previously mentioned time changes, they need to move to an “Alternate Night” model and stick with it.  if a series ends early, don’t be afraid to kick it off reasonably early.  Rest after a series is not a right guaranteed to both teams, it’s something you earn by sweeping your opponent. It’s inexcusable that the Rockies had to wait nearly 10 days to play the next round.

Honorable Mention: College Basketball. They do the most effective job maintaining intensity for a 64 team playoff throughout the end. If they could just do away with the 64/65 “Play-In” game they would be perfect.

Dishonorable Mention: College Football. It’s hard to have a playoff schedule without a playoff.  Aside from that, the fact that the bowl games are played up to 5 weeks after their last game is asinine.

Latest baseball debacle: The Mitchell Report

Today’s the day of the long-awaited Mitchell Report: the definitive study on the Steroids Era in baseball.  The news delivered as promised – some pretty big-named players have been named including Roger Clements, Andy Pettitte, and of course Barry Bonds.  George Mitchell concluded that there’s plenty of blame to go around.  I’m just glad to see that not any big-named Rockies (with the exception of Dante Bichette) weren’t on that list.

So the big question – now what?  Now we know that steroids were prevalent since the mid-90’s to only a few years ago, where does baseball go from here?  Many of the players named in the report are still active, so how do we treat those?  I’ve heard many advocate for leniency against the players, as there technically wasn’t a rule that they broke by taking steroids – since steroids weren’t banned until 2004.  However, I think Mitchell himself best states the players’ crime:

They violated federal law and baseball policy, and they distorted the fairness of competition by trying to gain an unfair advantage over the majority of players who followed the law and the rules. The players who follow the law and the rules — are faced with the painful choice of either being placed at a competitive disadvantage or becoming illegal users themselves. No one should have to make that choice.

They broke the law and used illegal substances.  I don’t know how much content from this report can be leveraged in a court of law, but one thing is clear: baseball needs to do something to deal with this ugly mark on their sport.  There should be consequences to this debacle, and I think the following should happen:

Don’t suspend or ban the current players – while there’s not necessarily a statute of limitations against this in baseball, it’s questionable to punish players for what they did many years ago when management shares as much blame for looking the other way. Fans will choose whether or not they want to come out and see the tainted players – don’t take that choice away from them by suspending them.

However, I do think that that if there is evidence that players perjured themselves when they testified in front of Congress or the Grand Jury, then they should be prosecuted under the fullest extent of the law (that includes McGwire and Bonds).

Burn the league individual record books from the steroids era – Any individual records attained by players found to have used Performance Enhancing drugs during the steroids era should be stricken from the record books – this includes any MVPs and namely the Home Run records attained by McGwire and Bonds.  I also think Bonds should be stripped of the HR crown as well. Any records attained by players that are not found on the report should be kept, but “written in pencil” and able to be removed if performance-enhancing news about that particular player were to surface.  Team records could still be maintained on a team-by-team basis, which would essentially create two sets of records (team-wide and league-wide), serving as a consequence of this era.

Granted, that’s pretty harsh, and I don’t really expect baseball to strike their records, but I do think it’s not unreasonable to expect an asterisk next to records of implicated players in the Steroids Era.

Bottom line – baseball is a great sport that is managed poorly and continues to give fans less and less reasons to want to be passionate about this sport.   Today is a sad day for baseball and sports.