Sign Stealing

It just won’t go away. In 2017, the Houston Astros came up with a scheme to tip their batters off as to what sort of pitch was on the way. Major League Baseball found out about it, and then everything went bonkers.

The team was heavily fined, people lost their jobs, other teams are implicated in similar schemes, no one knows what or who to believe. Commissioner Manfred fumbled the PR response; so did the Astros. Fans are outraged; some even calling for the team to have its World Series win that year vacated (whether the Dodgers get to be called World Champions is not mentioned). Many players are openly expressing their anger. There’s been talk of some sort of on-field retribution against certain suspect players.

But there’s one big question that very few people are asking.

Just how much does it help you to know what type of pitch is coming?

Yes, in theory, it does help. But how much? How many points does it add to your batting average? How many more runs per game does it get for your team? How many more games are you likely to win?

People have dug up enough evidence to at least start looking into the matter. Ben Lindberg at The Ringer is one.

One big problem is that all the analyses compare the 2017 Astros to the 2016 Astros – and they were two very different teams. Lindberg points out that the 2017 team had six new players who were much less likely to strike out than the players they replaced on the roster – so when the team’s overall strikeout rate dropped, it could have just as easily been from them rather than sign stealing. Home and Road splits don’t tell us much, either. Any differences are within reasonable variances on what is expected.

We’re dealing with the “post hoc, ergo propter hoc” fallacy (“After the fact, therefore because of it”). We probably won’t ever be able to tell how much of the Astros’ (or Red Sox in 2018, for that matter) success was due to sign stealing.

But I’d love to see an experiment.

Get some low minor league or college teams. Have them play a bunch of games. In some games, tell one team what pitches are coming. What effect does that have? We might even find out that it doesn’t matter at all.

There’s one other matter that comes up here; it’s related to the motive for stealing signs in the first place.

One of the issues occupying MLB’s collective mind before the scandal broke was the matter of “pace of play”. This season will see some new rules regarding pitching changes in an effort to keep games from getting longer and longer (though still not as long as an NFL game). Games are becoming boring, it seems.

But if you study what goes on in games, it’s not necessarily pitching changes that’s responsible. It’s more that there’s less action on the field.

It’s no secret that that overall strikeout rate has increased steadily over the past several years. Include walks and hit batters, and something like one in three plate appearances end without the ball being put in play. That is very abnormal when compared to the historical rates.

Pitchers are throwing smarter and faster, and more relief pitchers means that batters are seeing fresh arms more often. Perhaps teams are more inclined to try and steal signs just as a simple matter of their survival at the plate. If MLB doesn’t come down hard on it, expect to see more interesting and unusual ways of decoding and transmitting pitch information to batters.…

In any case, what harm can there be to do the experiment? If stealing signs doesn’t really help, then why all the fuss? And if it does offer a significant advantage, that will justify any and all rules MLB wants to impose.

Either way, we’ll know for certain, and can move on to other matters.

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