The age of sign-stealing paranoia in the MLB playoffs, it turns out, is not over.
In an indication of the lasting impact of the Houston Astros’ cheating scandal, the Tampa Bay Rays have used multiple sign sequences -- including with no runners on base -- during the first two games of the American League Championship Series. This was confirmed by three people with direct knowledge of the situation.
Sign sequences are a series of fingers the catcher shows the pitcher to tell him what pitch to throw. In the simplest form, catchers only use one sequence or sign.
But teams rotate through multiple sign sequences to protect against sign stealing, legal and otherwise. This has long been common practice with a runner on second base to prevent him from peering in at the catcher, figuring out the sign and relaying it to the batter.
Changing signs with no runners on indicates a suspicion that teams are using more elaborate methods. Some of these methods, like noticing when a catcher’s setup tips pitches, are legal as long as they’re not conveyed by real-time audio cues. The Astros are known to be skilled at this, and they’re allowed to continue.
In addition to using multiple signs sequences, the Rays have asked personnel to be extra vigilant for any evidence of rule-breaking. This is not unique to Tampa Bay, but a common approach taken by Astros opponents this year.
Of course, the Astros famously crossed the line in 2017 by using a camera in center field to steal signs in real time. The ensuing scandal resulted in the firings of three managers who were implicated, Houston’s A.J. Hinch, Boston’s Alex Cora and the Mets’ Carlos Beltran, and Houston’s general manager, Jeff Luhnow.
Long before MLB disciplined the Astros, suspicions about the team’s behavior caused many teams to complicate their sign sequences. Two years ago, the Yankees gave pitchers and catchers a laminated card with four or five sign sequences. The Rays use a similar method.
Sources characterized the Rays’ actions against the Astros over the past two days as intended to be extra careful against a team with a known reputation for sign stealing. The Rays have not made a specific complaint to MLB about the Astros this postseason ( the Yankees did so last year regarding Houston’s whistling to convert stolen signs), and their actions are in line with how much of the rest of the league has behaved around this issue in recent seasons.
Indeed, electronic sign stealing in a neutral site with no player access to real-time video would seem impossible. The Astros are skilled at picking up on pitch tipping and sign sequences in legal ways, too.
The Yankees are known to be good at this as well, which led the Rays to use multiple sequences during last week’s division series. MLB’s department of investigations does not believe the Yankees have participated in real-time electronic sign stealing.
The Rays’ extra level of caution against Houston underscores several areas in which the Astros scandal has changed the game in enduring ways:
- The sign stealing era adversely impacted pace of play, because of the extra time that pitchers and catchers take to change sign sequences. That’s why there has been some discussion among league executives of replacing the current sign system with earpieces for pitchers and/or catchers, although this is unlikely to happen soon.
- The distrust and distaste among opponents for the Astros will not fade easily. Other teams have observed players’ defiant comments about the scandal, and perceived a lack of remorse. That naturally leads to a continued deficit of trust, fair or not.
- The dislike also manifests in gamesmanship. According to sources, part of the Rays’ motivation in changing sign sequences was to simply let the Astros know that they were doing it. People in this game don’t forget, or let opponents off the hook easily on an issue this serious.
Taken together, it’s perhaps the most concrete evidence yet that teams around the league are not close to forgetting the Astros’ past misdeeds.