Houston Astros: Is the Legacy of the 2017 Sign Stealing Scandal Still a Problem in 2022?

Alice S. Zheng

This past weekend, the Houston Astros beat the Philadelphia Phillies to win the 2022 World Series. The unexpected matchup saw elite pitching, come-from-behind victories, and Yordan Alvarez’s 450-foot moonshot in Game 6, which may have finally found its forever home amongst the millions of pieces of space debris orbiting the planet.[1] But amidst the revelries, the specter of 2017 looms large. To many outside of the Houston Metropolitan Area, this marks the team’s first legitimate franchise victory, or at least the only win that isn’t qualified with an asterisk.[2]

To recap, in 2019 news broke that throughout the 2017 season, the Astros utilized an electronic sign stealing scheme to provide their players with an unfair advantage during home games. Specifically, the team used the centerfield camera pointed at home plate to capture the signs laid down by opposing teams’ catchers to their pitchers, which they would transmit to the video replay room to decode. A player would then bang on trashcans to let the hitter know what type of pitch was coming—one or two bangs to signal certain off-speed pitches, and no bangs to signal a fastball.[3]

After an investigation by MLB, the team was disciplined with loss of draft picks and a $5M fine, the maximum allowed by the MLB Constitution. General Manager Jeff Luhnow and Field Manager A.J. Hinch were both suspended by MLB for one year and fired by the team on the same day. Additionally, former assistant General Manager Brandon Taubman was placed on baseball’s ineligible list. Not a single player was disciplined, despite Commissioner Rob Manfred’s assertion that the scheme was mainly “player-driven and player-executed.”[4]  

This type of technology assisted cheating was not an isolated incident. Since the advent of instant video replay in 2014, the Red Sox were found to have transmitted signs via Apple Watch in 2017, and the Yankees were fined for illicit usage of the dugout phone to relay information about signs during the 2015 and parts of the 2016 seasons. However, since then no team has been officially disciplined for sign stealing.[5]

Cheating in baseball enjoys a long and storied history—from pitchers using doctored balls since the earliest days of the sport to widespread steroid use in the 2000s—and is treated differently than in many other sports. Part of it has to do with the fact that some measure of “stealing” is not just allowed but encouraged as a feature, not a bug, of the game. MLB recognizes each season’s stolen base leader in both the National and American leagues. The “20/20” club, and even more exclusive variation the “30/30” club, which denotes the number of home runs and stolen bases a player collects during a season, remains a celebrated feat.

Even sign stealing itself is not inherently against the rules of the game, but rather rewards the most observant players and coaches who have a deep understanding of how baseball is played and are able to decode signs.[6] The problem lies in the use of technology to attempt to gain an unfair competitive advantage, which has always evolved alongside the advent of new technologies, prompting the league to attempt to get ahead of new methods to regulate them. In practice, this means taking a somewhat whack-a-mole approach.[7]

Five years after 2017, many of the core players of that Astros team are gone, by way of trade or retirement. And the three main staff architects of the trashcan scheme have been ousted from the organization. But several elements remain, including five key players:  Jose Altuve (2B), Alex Bregman (3B), Yuli Gurriel (1B), Justin Verlander (SP) and Lance McCullers Jr. (SP).

Undoubtedly, the revelations about the 2017 season caused a fundamental loss of trust that impacted other players, fans, and baseball as a whole, and even spawned a number of lawsuits with little in the way of results. Fantasy sports contestants unsuccessfully argued unlawful business practices by the MLB,[8] former pitcher Mike Bolsinger’s claims that the sign stealing irreparably damaged his career were dismissed,[9] an Astros season ticket holder’s suit alleging that the team overcharged for tickets was dismissed,[10] and even former General Manager Jeff Luhnow’s wrongful termination suit was dismissed.[11] But this was unsurprising. With the MLB’s insular approach to dealing with controversy, it was always going to be an uphill battle for any lawsuit to succeed.

The question of how one squares 2022 with the enduring legacy of 2017 is, I think, a personal one. But here’s what it doesn’t do; the 2022 victory does not absolve the Astros of the events of 2017. Nothing short of turning back the clock can do that. The team’s desire to move forward, to put the past behind them is an understandable sentiment, especially with new blood contributing to this latest win. But it will be a long time before people don’t automatically associate “Astros” and “trashcans” in the same breath, especially since none of the players on that 2017 team were ever disciplined or faced anything worse than jeering and boos at away games.

Is five years enough to firmly establish a team as a dynasty? In my view, no. Two victories in five years would be an impressive feat if one of those wins not come in 2017. And if one sets aside 2017, one ring in the entire 60 years since the franchise was first established does not a dynasty make.[12]

The more important question is whether two years is enough to turn around the culture of a team that not just condoned but encouraged a scheme which they knew to be crossing a line. After all, one win is only a singular point. Two wins make a line, and three sketch out the beginnings of a pattern.

It remains to be seen if the 2023 Astros can pull off a repeat performance; another ring in the next five years could merit the reopening of the dynasty conversation. But one thing is for sure. Turn off the countdown, because this rocket is not yet ready for liftoff.




[1] R.J. Anderson, WATCH:  Yordan Alvarez Crushes Go-Ahead World Series Game 6 Home Run, CBS Sports (Nov. 5, 2022), https://www.cbssports.com/mlb/news/watch-yordan-alvarez-crushes-go-ahead-world-series-game-6-home-run/ [https://perma.cc/2TWG-BBKB] [https://www.cbssports.com/mlb/news/mlb-trade-candidates-rafael-devers-corbin-burnes-among-20-players-who-could-move-shohei-ohtani-staying-put/%E2%80%99%20style%3D].

[2] Jill Martin, Houston Astros Win World Series for First Time in Franchise History, CNN (Nov. 2, 2017), https://www.cnn.com/2017/11/01/sport/world-series-game-7. [https://perma.cc/8J3X-RWT2] [https://web.archive.org/web/20221109233102/https://www.cnn.com/2017/11/01/sport/world-series-game-7]

[3] Robert D. Manfred, Jr., Statement of the Commissioner, MLB Static (Jan. 13, 2020), https://img.mlbstatic.com/mlb-images/image/upload/mlb/cglrhmlrwwbkacty27l7.pdf [https://perma.cc/QGD2-SJQK] [https://web.archive.org/web/20221101024505/https://img.mlbstatic.com/mlb-images/image/upload/mlb/cglrhmlrwwbkacty27l7.pdf].

[4] Id.

[5] Robert D. Manfred, Jr., Commissioner's Statement Regarding Red Sox-Yankees Violations, MLB (Sept. 15, 2017), https://www.mlb.com/press-release/commissioner-s-statement-regarding-red-sox-yankees-violations-254435818 [https://perma.cc/AV7M-7VWW] [https://web.archive.org/web/20221109233523/https://www.mlb.com/press-release/commissioner-s-statement-regarding-red-sox-yankees-violations-254435818].

[6] Cliff Corcoran, ‘Everybody tries to cheat a little’:  The Weird and Wild History of MLB Sign-Stealing, Athletic (Oct. 18, 2018), https://theathletic.com/598405/2018/10/18/everybody-tries-to-cheat-a-little-the-weird-and-wild-history-of-mlb-sign-stealing/ [https://perma.cc/3487-NV8G] [https://web.archive.org/web/20221109233627/https://theathletic.com/598405/2018/10/18/everybody-tries-to-cheat-a-little-the-weird-and-wild-history-of-mlb-sign-stealing/].

[7] Robert D. Manfred, Jr., Statement of the Commissioner, MLB Static (Jan. 13, 2020), https://img.mlbstatic.com/mlb-images/image/upload/mlb/cglrhmlrwwbkacty27l7.pdf [https://perma.cc/QGD2-SJQK] [https://web.archive.org/web/20221101024505/https://img.mlbstatic.com/mlb-images/image/upload/mlb/cglrhmlrwwbkacty27l7.pdf].

[8] Olson v. Major League Baseball, 29 F.4th 59 (2d Cir. 2022).

[9] Nancy Armour, Pitcher Mike Bolsinger says Cheating Houston Astros Changed Course of His Career, USA Today (Feb. 10, 2020), https://www.usatoday.com/story/sports/columnist/nancy-armour/2020/02/10/mike-bolsinger-sues-houston-astros-says-cheating-changed-his-career/4712164002/ [https://perma.cc/H44N-BW95] [https://web.archive.org/web/20221109233917/https://www.usatoday.com/story/sports/columnist/nancy-armour/2020/02/10/mike-bolsinger-sues-houston-astros-says-cheating-changed-his-career/4712164002/].

[10] Amy Tennery, Angry Astros Ticket Holder Sues Team After Sign Stealing Scandal, Reuters (Feb. 18, 2020), https://www.reuters.com/article/us-baseball-hou-lawsuit/angry-astros-ticket-holder-sues-team-after-sign-stealing-scandal-idUSKBN20C2MJ [https://perma.cc/K4A8-AT9U] [https://web.archive.org/web/20221109234028/https://www.reuters.com/article/us-baseball-hou-lawsuit/angry-astros-ticket-holder-sues-team-after-sign-stealing-scandal-idUSKBN20C2MJ].

[11] Tim Daniels, Ex-Astros GM Jeff Luhnow's Lawsuit Against Team Dismissed with Prejudice, Bleacher Report (Feb. 5, 2021), https://bleacherreport.com/articles/2930014-ex-astros-gm-jeff-luhnows-lawsuit-against-team-dismissed-with-prejudice [https://perma.cc/7492-VE43] [https://web.archive.org/web/20221109234234/https://bleacherreport.com/articles/2930014-ex-astros-gm-jeff-luhnows-lawsuit-against-team-dismissed-with-prejudice].

[12] MLB, Astros:  Our History, https://www.mlb.com/astros/team/jobs/our-history [https://perma.cc/9EN6-7P52] [https://web.archive.org/web/20221109234604/https://www.mlb.com/astros/team/jobs/our-history] (last visited Nov. 9, 2022).