The Houston Astros didn’t cheat. They didn’t want to get cheated.
That’s their story, and Major League Baseball agrees.
Following an investigation into two incidents this postseason, MLB said that the defending World Series champions were conducting surveillance — not spying — when a credentialed Astros employee was pointing his cellphone into the opposing dugouts during playoff games in Cleveland and Boston.
The Indians filed a complaint following Game 3 of the AL Division Series after the employee was observed aiming his phone into their dugout and taking pictures or video. A few days later, the same man was ejected from an area in Fenway Park during Game 1 of the ALCS.
According to a person familiar with the situation, the Red Sox had been warned ahead of the series about the Astros employee, who was near Cleveland’s dugout for several innings on Oct. 8 before he was removed by security. That person spoke to The Associated Press on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the matter.
On Wednesday, MLB issued a two-paragraph statement saying its department of investigations did a thorough probe and determined “that an Astros employee was monitoring the field to ensure that the opposing club was not violating any rules.” MLB has instructed all clubs still in the playoffs “to refrain from these types of efforts.”
MLB went on to say it considers “the matter closed.”
But while the Astros feel absolved of any wrongdoing, the incidents taking place during baseball’s greatest month have raised questions about sign-stealing and ethics in the age of high-speed, high-definition cameras.
Speaking in Boston’s dugout before Game 4 in Houston, Red Sox general manager Dave Dombrowski said there are more layers to unravel.
“I do not think that person in the camera well was stealing signs, and so I understand that it was resolved,” Dombrowski said. “First of all, there was a violation, a person was in the credentialed box that shouldn’t have been there, he wasn’t supposed to be there. Secondly, I don’t like the implication that the Boston Red Sox were doing anything illegal, and I don’t think that the issue is actually closed from Major League Baseball, from what I’ve been advised from the commissioner’s office, so there’s a lot more steps that are attached to this.”
Prior to the postseason, MLB said “a number of clubs” called Commissioner Rob Manfred to express concerns about video equipment being used to steal signs. To address those worries, the commissioner instituted a new prohibition on the use of certain in-stadium cameras, beefing up MLB security at games and monitoring video rooms.
After the Astros employee was removed from the game at Progressive Field in Cleveland, the team tried to get a second person next to the dugout, two people familiar with the matter told the AP. The Astros employee had been issued a support pass that day.
Following MLB’s ruling, Astros GM Jeff Luhnow said the team has been proactive in policing other ballparks for “suspicious activity” and the team has uncovered some “multiple” times. Luhnow said the club will abide by MLB’s guidelines and that any prior monitoring was done as protection.
“We were playing defense, we were not playing offense,” Luhnow said before Game 4.
Dombrowski, whose team was fined last year for using an Apple Watch to try to steal signs from the rival New York Yankees, isn’t convinced Houston wasn’t using the employee to gain an advantage.
“I don’t think that person was per se stealing signs,” he said. “I will also tell you that person was told in the other series against Cleveland that he should not be in there, and yet he went back in there. So to me, when they say they’re doing this to protect themselves, well they’re also not listening to authorities from above.”
Stealing signs has been part of baseball since the invention of the game. Teams routinely try to gain an advantage by trying to detect patterns, whether it’s a catcher showing signs to a pitcher on the mound or a third-base coach relaying signs to a batter.
However, new technology may have given teams an unfair advantage as the use of high-definition, high-speed cameras allows teams to peer where they couldn’t before.
“There’s some unintended consequences that come with the advancement of technology,” Astros manager A.J. Hinch said. “It’s a league-wide conversation that needs to happen in time. It’s happening right now during a really important series and I just think it’s bigger than us. It’s bigger than any team. It’s bigger than any series. It needs to be corralled because of the state of the concern over it.
“The competitive edges nowadays are so narrow. You’re trying to find everything you can. And whether that’s pitch tipping, pitch sequencing, changing your signs, changing your location of your defenders — this is a bigger topic that’s going to take a lot more time than an overnight story and concern and people’s curiosities.”
During the early innings in Game 3, the Indians became aware that the man standing near their dugout in Progressive Field was aiming his cellphone into their dugout. He stood out because he was wearing a suit jacket in a restricted area reserved for photographers, a member of the team’s social media department and where TV reporters are permitted to stand, one of the sources said.
The Indians were concerned he was trying to see their scouting reports on Houston players.
There have been previous suspicions about the Astros.
Indians pitcher Trevor Bauer went on Twitter earlier this season and intimated that Houston’s pitchers were possibly using pine tar to improve the rate of spin on pitches. Bauer wasn’t specific, but Astros pitchers Lance McCullers Jr. and Collin McHugh defended themselves on social media.
Yahoo reported Oakland’s players believed Astros players were relaying stolen signs during games and the team asked for an investigation.
Following Game 3, Indians starter Mike Clevinger alluded to the Astros having an advantage. Clevinger allowed one run and three hits in five innings, but took the loss as the Indians were pounded 11-3.
“A lot of stuff. A lot of things,” Clevinger said when asked what happened. “I’m going to keep it really short. We were a little bit, I don’t know, kind of had our backs against the wall before this started when it came to the analytical side. But everybody was out there giving it their all, they just had some really good arms to back it up.”
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