4 questions about the Houston Astros’ sign-stealing scandal, answered

AJ Hinch.

The Houston Astros, coming off World Series appearances in two of the past three seasons and a championship in 2017, fired both their manager and general manager Monday after the franchise was fined $5 million and docked several top draft picks for a sign-stealing scheme.

The team’s dismissal of manager A.J. Hinch and general manager Jeff Luhnow came a little more than an hour after they were suspended for one year by Rob Manfred, the Major League Baseball commissioner.

The league’s attention is expected to turn to almost certain disciplinary action against Alex Cora, who was the Astros’ bench coach in 2017 and is now the manager of the Boston Red Sox.

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Here is what we know about the cheating scandal.

What is sign stealing?

For more than a century, baseball players have tried to decode the unspoken cues exchanged by pitchers and catchers over what pitch to throw next and the location: a practice known as sign stealing. The biggest advantage a pitcher has over a batter is the element of surprise.

For a fastball, a catcher will usually put down one finger as his sign. Two fingers is the signal for an off-speed pitch like a curveball. Catchers will relay multiple sets of signs if there is a runner on second base or if they think someone is trying to steal the signs. Pitchers will sometimes shake off catchers if they disagree on the pitch selection.

There was even a scene in the movie “Bull Durham” in which Nuke LaLoosh, played by Tim Robbins, shook off his catcher, Crash Davis (Kevin Costner), who then tipped off the batter that he would get a fastball. The batter hit a home run.

Some of the earliest accounts of sign-stealing go back to the 1870s, when the Hartford Dark Blues, a charter member of the National League followed by Mark Twain, were accused of using a shed and a telegraph pole outside the ballpark to steal opponents’ signs, according to the book “The Hidden Language of Baseball: How Signs and Sign Stealing Have Influenced the Course of Our National Pastime” by Paul Dickson.

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Numerous teams have been implicated in sign-stealing plots over the decades, including the Philadelphia Phillies in 1898, the Cleveland Indians in 1948 and the New York Giants in 1951, James E. Elfers wrote for the Society for American Baseball Research.

How did the Astros steal opponents’ signs?

Since the 2014 season, Major League Baseball has given managers one chance per game to challenge a call on the field using a video replay system, but not balls and strikes. Each team has a video replay review room, including the Astros, who MLB investigators said used the center-field camera feed to steal opponents signs.

At the start of the 2017 season, one of the Astros players would act as the “runner” and would relay the signs to teammates in the dugout and eventually to the batter, according to the investigation.

Early in that season, which culminated with a World Series title for the Astros, the bench coach, Cora, would call the video review room to get the signs. On some occasions, the signs were relayed via text messages to either a smartphone in the dugout or a smartwatch of a staff member, the report said.

Cora eventually arranged for a television monitor to be installed immediately outside the Astros’ dugout with the center-field camera feed on it for the players to watch, MLB investigators said. The players then banged on a trash can with a bat or a massage device known as a Theragun once or twice to signal to the batter to be ready for a curveball or other off-speed pitch. If it was a fastball, they would not bang on the trash can.

Will any of the players face disciplinary action?

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No. While the baseball investigation said the sign-stealing scheme was driven by the players, the report ruled out discipline against individual players as “difficult and impractical.” The commissioner, Manfred, said he wasn’t in a position to evaluate whether the scheme helped Astros hitters or helped the team win games.

In 2017, Houston won 101 regular-season games before its championship run in the playoffs, during which baseball investigators said the team’s sign-stealing scheme continued. In November, Mike Fiers, a former Astros pitcher, provided details about the team’s sign-stealing culture to Ken Rosenthal and Evan Drellich of The Athletic, a sports journalism website.

Before the 2018 season, Joe Torre, the league’s chief baseball officer and a former New York Yankees manager, issued a warning to all teams that they could not use the video replay system or electronic devices to steal signs.

The directive stemmed from another episode, involving the Red Sox in 2017, when the team relayed stolen sign information using videos to an athletic trainer in the dugout who was wearing a smartwatch. MLB fined the Red Sox an undisclosed amount, with Manfred warning that future violations by teams would lead to penalties against managers and general managers.

Who else is in the crosshairs of Major League Baseball?

The league said Monday that it was still investigating allegations that the Red Sox engaged in electronic sign stealing during the 2018 season and that it would hold off on determining the level of disciplinary action against Cora.

Cora is likely to face a severe penalty from MLB, which said he helped develop and participated in the Astros’ sign-stealing scheme, as well as condoning the players’ conduct.

At the same time, Carlos Beltran, who played for the Astros in 2017 and was hired last November as manager of the New York Mets, was named in the league’s investigation but was not disciplined.