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Stealing signs in Major League Baseball is nothing new – there’s a long tradition of teams stealing pitcher-catcher signs dating back nearly 100 years. However, what is new is the ability of technology to catch teams in the act. And that’s exactly what happened recently with the Houston Astros – they might have been better than any other team in Major League Baseball in 2017 (the year they won a World Series championship), but they weren’t better than the entire Internet, which went on a massive sleuthing expedition to catch the Astros red-handed stealing signs.
Garbage cans and the bang-bang noises
Based on a three-month investigation by Major League Baseball, it now appears that the Houston Astros were using a high-tech approach to stealing signs in real-time and then conveying those signs with a very low-tech approach: banging on a clubhouse garbage can. Basically the plot went like this: a secret camera in center field could detect the sign being flashed from the catcher to the pitcher. Via a relay system, these signs were then shown to someone working closely with (or perhaps inside) the Astros clubhouse. That’s where a player or manager would bang on a trash can if a pitch was going to be any sort of off-speed pitch (basically, anything other than a fastball).
Crowdsourcing via social media
And that’s where social media jumped into action. As soon as reports began circulating that Major League Baseball was investigating the Astros, baseball fans began examining hundreds of hours of video coverage, looking for evidence of sign stealing. Since MLB now includes ambient sounds from every game as part of video coverage available online, it was possible for certain industrious sleuths (such as @Jomboy) to track down all the occasions when the Astros were literally banging on garbage cans during home games.
Social media was able to figure out the entire system. No bang meant a fastball was coming, while any sort of loud bang meant a changeup or other off-speed pitch was coming. And once these events were tracked down, a little clever video editing enabled viewers to watch an entire sequence of pitches to see how the bang-bang-no bang-bang approach helped Astros hitters square up pitches and send them flying over the outfield fence for home runs.
Once baseball fans got into the action, beat writers and even pro MLB players got into the game of tracking down the Astros cheating. It got to the point where one MLB pitcher who saw exactly how the Astros figured out his pitches retweeted one of these clips with three simple words: “This is crazy.” It’s understandable, then, how some of the most egregious examples of trashcan banging got tens of thousands of retweets and more than 100,000 likes.
By tracking down all these examples of cheating, the social media “crowd” saved MLB a lot of man-hours (and woman-hours) in documenting the extent of the sign stealing. Each video clip showed exactly who was at bat, and how a simple bang-bang noise could alert them to a certain type of pitch on the way.
The big question, of course, is whether all these high-tech shenanigans actually helped the Astros win their World Series championship in 2017. Just like the NFL’s New England Patriots were capable of winning any football game over the past decade despite all their well-documented cases of cheating (anyone still remember “Deflategate” from a few years ago?), were the Astros also capable of winning their games without cheating? After all, the Astros couldn’t use their system during road games (or could they???), and during loud playoff games, banging on a trashcan would not be noticeable in the same way it would be during a lazy summer day mid-season.
But still, the way that social media caught the Houston Astros red-handed is the real story here – in an era where so much video and audio content is now available to the casual fan, how did the Astros really think they could get away with this?