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Astros reportedly discussed using cameras to steal signs in 2017

This scandal is widening, per reports in The Athletic and at ESPN.

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A “smoking gun” in the Astros sign-stealing scandal might have been found, per a late Saturday night report by Ken Rosenthal and Evan Drellich in The Athletic.

Rosenthal and Drellich report:

An Astros front-office executive wrote about the team’s desire to steal signs in an August 2017 email that was obtained by The Athletic. As the club discussed its advance scouting plans ahead of the playoffs, the executive asked the team’s scouts to pursue sign stealing from the stands, and suggested cameras could be used to do so.

“One thing in specific we are looking for is picking up signs coming out of the dugout,” the email’s sender wrote in a message from August of 2017. “What we are looking for is how much we can see, how we would log things, if we need cameras/binoculars, etc. So go to game, see what you can (or can’t) do and report back your findings.”

The email was sent to multiple people and provided to The Athletic on the condition that both its sender and recipients remain unnamed.

This is... just plain wrong. The article goes on to say that this could have been a rule violation even back then, and that most scouts who were asked about this were “appalled” by the request. Rosenthal and Drellich write:

MLB rules made it permissible then and today for scouts to steal signs in the stands — so long as the signs are not being communicated during that same game, and so long as those signs are stolen with one’s own eyes or binoculars, a source familiar with the rules said.

That goes back to what numerous people around the game have said about sign-stealing. It’s a time-honored part of gamesmanship if a player or coach can pick up on signs on the field during a game, or as noted, a scout can look at them during a game and pass the information along to game personnel in a report after the game is over.

But this isn’t what was happening, according to the article, and now there appears to be a “paper trail,” per the article in The Athletic. And the scouts quoted in the article all considered what was described there as “cheating.” According to Jeff Passan at ESPN, the email was written by Kevin Goldstein, a special assistant to Astros GM Jeff Luhnow who formerly wrote about the sport for Baseball Prospectus and Baseball America.

If all of this is true — and it’s all still under investigation — this could be the biggest scandal in baseball since the Black Sox 100 years ago, and that’s no exaggeration. A team appears to have cheated its way to winning the World Series. That’s... bad. Very bad. If true, it shakes confidence in the general public that baseball games are being conducted on an even playing field. No, there isn’t bribery being offered as it was allegedly done 100 years ago, but cheating in this way to give a team an advantage is summed up perfectly by Nationals reliever Sean Doolittle:

Agreed. And cheating like this has no place in baseball. If the allegations against the Astros are true, a punishment must be given that would be strong enough that other teams would think twice before doing anything like it.

It’s been suggested by some that such a punishment would include “vacating the 2017 World Series title.” I’m not sure how you do this. Like the supposedly PED-assisted home-run totals of the early 2000s, the 2017 World Series happened on the field. I’m not sure how simply saying “We are taking away your trophy, flags and rings” really accomplishes anything. The games happened, the results are in the books. You can’t simply pretend they don’t exist.

But there are other punishments that would be appropriate, I think. They could include:

  • A loss of draft picks for as many years as it is shown any cheating has been going on. If it’s been going on for three years, say, then perhaps the Astros don’t get picks in the first five rounds for three years, and also get their international bonus pool money taken away for an identical length of time. That would decimate their system, true, but again, we are looking for serious punishment here.
  • Every individual who is proven to have taken part in any scheme like this should be permanently banned from working in baseball. That includes executives, scouts, field coaching staff and players.
  • A fine of up to $100 million. Any money collected from this fine should go towards improving salaries and living conditions for minor-league players.

I should stress that nothing about these reports has yet been proven and everything is still under investigation by MLB. But it does appear that we saw the tip of the iceberg regarding the Astros executive suite mindset in the Brandon Taubman scandal during the World Series. Saturday’s article by Rosenthal and Drellich implies that this sort of thinking — the idea that they can do anything they want without consequences — appears to permeate the entire organization. If proven true, the punishment must be the most severe in baseball history. Otherwise the foundations of the game will crumble.

Last offseason was pretty dull and everyone was hoping for some more offseason action this year. Well, we got some, though perhaps not the kind we were looking for.