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Could the Cubs have been affected by sign-stealing in 2019?

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It’s nothing but circumstantial, to be sure. Still...

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Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

The current sign-stealing scandal in Major League Baseball is being investigated by the commissioner’s office. Rob Manfred, though, thinks this might be limited to what’s already been made public about the Astros:

“Right now, we are focused on the information that we have with respect to the Astros,” Manfred said after a tour of Globe Life Field, the Texas Rangers’ new stadium set to open in 2020. “I’m not going to speculate on whether other people are going to be involved. We’ll deal with that if it happens, but I’m not going to speculate about that. I have no reason to believe it extends beyond the Astros at this point in time.”

That’s not what’s been heard from other sources, as Ken Rosenthal writes in The Athletic:

People are too shortsighted when they ask, “How harsh will the penalties be for the Astros?” The bigger question — the question that strikes to the core of this investigation and amounts to perhaps the biggest test of Manfred’s tenure — is more chilling.

How far does baseball want to go?

The league should not stop with 2017, the only season in which The Athletic confirmed rule-breaking by the Astros. It should probe more deeply into the actions of the Astros and other clubs in ’18 and especially ’19, the first season in which baseball enacted more comprehensive measures to clamp down on electronic sign stealing.

After some discussion on this topic in the comments here this morning, I thought about the Cubs’ extreme home/road won/lost split for 2019. This is something that hasn’t happened often, if at all, in Cubs history. Even the lousy 96-loss 2013 Cubs had a better road record (35-46) than they had at Wrigley Field (31-50). And for the first four seasons of Joe Maddon’s tenure as Cubs manager, the Cubs played very well on the road. Overall they were 182-141 (.563) on the road from 2015-18, equivalent to a 91-win season. (If you’re wondering why those add up to an odd number, it’s because of the tie game they had in Pittsburgh in September 2016.)

While they continued to play well at home in 2019 (51-30), the Cubs’ road record dropped to 33-48 (.407). The only teams worse on the road in 2019 were the Blue Jays, Royals, Tigers, Rockies and Marlins, all of whom lost more than 90 games.

Here are the Cubs’ records, home and road, against all teams they played in 2019:

Cubs home/road records vs. all teams in 2019

Team Home W-L Road W-L
Team Home W-L Road W-L
Brewers 6-4 3-7
Cardinals 6-4 3-6
Pirates 8-1 3-7
Reds 4-5 4-6
Braves 2-2 0-3
Marlins 3-1 3-0
Mets 2-2 3-0
Nationals 0-3 2-1
Phillies 2-2 0-3
Diamondbacks 2-1 2-1
Dodgers 2-1 1-3
Giants 3-0 1-2
Padres 2-1 2-2
Rockies 2-1 1-2
Angels 2-1 --
Astros -- 1-2
Athletics 2-1 --
Mariners 2-0 2-0
Rangers -- 1-2
White Sox 1-1 1-1
TOTAL 51-30 33-48

Some of those numbers seem like normal home/road splits. Others are odd, like the Cubs sweeping the Mets at Citi Field, but only splitting four games with them at home.

And then there are the records vs. N.L. Central teams. The Cubs were 24-14 vs. divisional opponents at Wrigley Field in 2019, but against those same teams on the road they went 13-26. How is it possible for the Cubs to go 8-1 against the Pirates at Wrigley, but 3-7 on the road (and one of those three wins was at Williamsport, not PNC Park)? The Pirates were just 35-46 at home this year!

All of this makes no logical sense, especially after the way they played on the road the four previous seasons. Clearly, there was some difference in talent level in 2019 and the bullpen, in particular, was not very good at all in late-inning situations. The Cubs lost eight games they led entering the ninth inning, four of those on the road. They also lost two games after they had taken a lead in an extra inning on the road.

As I said, much of this can be attributed to bad bullpen work. But what if some of that bad bullpen work was because the home team had figured out a way to steal signs from Cubs pitchers and catchers?

Let me be clear: I have zero evidence of any sign-stealing done by technological means by any teams against the Cubs, nor am I specifically accusing any team of doing this. All of what I’ve posted here is simply speculation on my part. Beyond the evidence that has been publicly presented about the Astros allegedly stealing signs by technological means in 2017, there isn’t anything specific noted against any other team at this time, though MLB says it’s investigating. The research done by Ken Rosenthal and Evan Drellich at The Athletic suggests that there might be other teams involved in doing this sort of thing.

So right now, this simply comes under the category of “things that make you go hmmm.”

Sure, it’s possible that the Cubs were victims of sign-stealing in the time-honored way — by runners on second base, using their eyes. That’s always been an accepted part of baseball gamesmanship. I’ll conclude by simply saying that I hope MLB’s investigation of potential sign-stealing through technology is thorough.