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Sign of the times: High-tech swindling of pitch calls steal all the attention at GM Meetings

Sign of the times: High-tech swindling of pitch calls steal all the attention at GM Meetings

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Houston Astros general manager, Jeff Luhnow speaks during a news conference before Game 4 of a baseball American League Championship Series against the Boston Red Sox on Wednesday, Oct. 17, 2018, in Houston. (AP Photo/Frank Franklin II)

SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. — Faced daily this week with further questions about the culture of his club and allegations of the high-tech swindling of signs, Houston general manager Jeff Luhnow, surrounded by a gaggle of reporters, said he’s concerned all the focus will be on whether or not the Astros spy the waggling of opponents’ fingers and not the rings they wear on theirs.

“It’s taken away some of the enjoyment, but I don’t want it to take away from the legacy of this Astros generation,” Luhnow said. “Won a 100 games three years in a row because A.J. Hinch is a great manager and we have great players. I think ultimately the story that will be written is how great this team was and how many great players we had and what a great manager we had, great owner, great organization. It’s challenging when you’re having to defend things that are not the topic you want to be talking about. But you have to if it’s something that people are talking about or want to talk about or is real.”

It really was the talk of the General Manager Meetings.

The first gathering of the offseason is usually a place where teams will go for intel — on free agents, on trade possibilities, and on rules and regulations and policies. It’s were speculation bubbles, rumors boil, and then everybody returns to their offices to settle on who to protect for the Rule 5 Draft.

This week, all of the usual noise was drowned out by detailed, on-the-record allegations of sign-stealing by Houston — all of it reported in an article by The Athletic that prompted Major League Baseball to acknowledge it has an ongoing investigation and the Astros to hastily announce that they, too, will conduct an investigation.

The allegations stem from 2017, when the Astros won the World Series and allegedly used a camera in center field to peep the signs from the catcher, a television near the dugout to watch the video, and then the super-advanced thumping of a trash can to signal to the hitter whether it was an off-speed pitch or fastball headed his way. In 2019, during the American League rounds of the playoffs, the Astros were accused of using whistles to do the same thing.

The chatter at the GM meetings became how widespread sign-stealing is — and how to differentiate between illegal sign-stealing and strategic sign-stealing.

Using tech is the obvious no-no.

Theo Epstein, the Cubs’ president of baseball operations, said a team his club faced in a recent postseason would bang on the railing of the dugout to convey what kind of pitch was coming. He added that he wasn’t sure how the team had picked up the signs or even that the opposing team was doing something wrong. Other teams use whistles. In the past, at least one team shouted the player’s last name to signal what kind of pitch was coming. The Boston Red Sox paid a fine for using Apple watches to relay pitches. There was the “man in a white shirt” in Toronto that led to allegations of sign-stealing there, and there have been allegations of teams using binoculars from the bullpen to swipe signs and tip the hitters. The Rockies accused the Phillies of binocular espionage back in 2010.

The Cardinals had several players who were gifted at reading a pitcher’s mannerisms to determine pitches — or what’s called “tipping” pitches. Ryan Franklin and Jim Edmonds were both excellent at picking up the tics and then relaying them to teammates. It might be a flare of the glove that signals a changeup or the hang of the pitching hand that signals a fastball is coming. During the World Series, Stephen Strasburg said he was tipping pitches in the first inning of his Game 6 start and the Astros picked up on it until he corrected. The Cardinals have had issues with the Pittsburgh Pirates when they get a runner on second base and relay signs to the hitter. A few years ago, catcher Yadier Molina stopped putting down signs at all during a game at PNC Park to avoid the Pirates sneaking that peek.

One other way to avoid that is to not let an opponent get to second base.

The line crossed by the Astros, according to the various reports, is the use of advanced technology to pull off the heist. That violates baseball’s rules and forces teams to question the consequences of expanded use of technology throughout dugouts during games. The genie may be out of the bottle with iPads and video scouting reports in the dugouts, and ballparks around the game outfitted with an unregulated amount of cameras and such.

The Athletic’s report prompted conversation within the ranks of baseball execs on how widespread illegal stealing is in the game, how to stem it, and … what would be the penalty for it. A previous allegation against the Astros resulted in squat. It was ushered out of the limelight and the Astros faced no punishment, despite photo evidence. They explained away the incident of an employee taking pictures of an opposing team’s dugout and suggested they were actually investigating whether their signs were being stolen.

Counterespionage was the cover.

As the investigations continue, videos surface professing to reveal how Houston did it, and the conversation engulfs the game, it’s possible Houston could face penalties, and the commissioner has a broad range of power when it comes to what those penalties would be. When the Cardinals had an executive convicted of illegally hacking into the Astros’ database, the Cardinals were stripped of draft picks.

This latest round of allegations toward the Astros have brought the hacking scandal back to the surface, because the root cause of the initial illegal hack was a Cardinals employee trying to find evidence that the Astros had absconded with intellectual property from the Cardinals when Luhnow and others left to run the Astros after the 2011 season. Documents filed in court showed some similarities between data points and nomenclature that the Astros used, and advancements developed for the Cardinals. Data, scouting reports, and algorithms, like signs, have value and are worth protecting from theft. Luhnow has repeatedly denied this.

Houston lobbied the commissioner’s office to impose far more severe penalties on the Cardinals, several sources confirmed at the time. The former Cardinals exec, Chris Correa, was also banned from baseball for not cooperating with Major League Baseball’s investigation.

Penalties are tangible.

The damage to a team’s reputation is less so.

But it’s not hard to see the signs.

“I think that when an organization has success there is naturally going to be critics trying to figure out things that might not be right or things that the organization might not have done properly,” Luhnow told’s Richard Justice this week when asked about the welt growing from Houston’s bruising fall off the field. “And we haven’t done everything properly. But I do feel confident that in general, most of the time, we get things right and we try to follow the rules. We try to be good citizens. And we try to compete as hard as we can.”

Some other notes, as the GM meetings close:

• By the time several Cardinals execs left the resort to return to St. Louis, they had not been notified formally that Marcell Ozuna has rejected their one-year, $17.8-million qualifying offer for 2020. Ozuna has fielded interest at the meetings from at last a half-dozen teams and is likely to receive multi-year offers, leading his agent to say Ozuna plans to reject the offer. He has until Thursday evening to do so, officially.

UPDATE: Ozuna now has as of 4 p.m. St. Louis time. Ozuna is one of seven players to reject the qualifying offers. He is now a free agent, and the Cardinals have secured compensation should he sign elsewhere.

• Carlos Martinez has returned to the Dominican Republic as he rests and recovers from the procedure he had done for his right shoulder immediately after the end of the season. Martinez had a platelet-rich plasma injection into an area that has caused him soreness and fatigue. The Cardinals have him scheduled for monthly visits with medical officials. He’ll go to the Jupiter, Fla., complex in a few weeks to meet with officials there. He has another planned visit to Jupiter or St. Louis in December.

The Cardinals want to keep close watch on Martinez’s recovery from treatment and his progress through an offseason program so that they know whether or not they need to add a starting pitcher for 2020. Martinez has stated his intentions to return to the rotation next season, and he has acknowledged to the team how he needed to change his offseason regimen to build up stamina, strength, and health for that role.

• Alex Reyes is spending some of the offseason in the Dominican Republic as well as he goes through a normal offseason progression. Reyes, once one of the top pitching prospects in all of baseball, has had three seasons complicated by a series of injuries. He is working out with a personal trainer in the Dominican. His agent said he’s also using the Cardinals’ academy in the Dominican as part of his training and to stay connected to the team.


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