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Jan. 13, 2020 — An unprecedented punishment, but was it really necessary?

With one month until pitchers and catchers report for spring training, Major League Baseball is in a state of chaos.

Baseball Commissioner Rob Manfred slapped an extremely heavy punishment on the Houston Astros, winners of two of the last three American League pennants, for an alleged cheating scandal that involved the stealing of catcher signals for individual pitches, then relaying information to the dugout so that an audible signal could be sent to the batsman.

The punishments for the scheme have been costly: manager A.J. Hinch and general manager Jeff Luhnow were suspended for a year, the team’s former assistant general manager Brandon Taubman is going on baseball’s ineligible list, the club fined $5 million, and the top two draft picks in the next two entry drafts were revoked.

(The Astros later in the day fired both Hinch and Luhnow).

There has been every indication that Alex Cora, the current manager of the Boston Red Sox, may also be disciplined in this matter. As a bench coach in 2017, it is alleged that he was the mastermind behind the scheme.

Despite the heavy-handed punishments, no game results were overturned, no championships were vacated.

Cheating scandals have been part of baseball lore for a century and a half. Bribes were allowed in townball games. When the curveball was developed at Harvard, the university president, Charles Eliot, thought it necessary to address the issue of deception.

Sign-stealing is its own form of artistry, whether it is a man on second relaying signals to the batter (since he gets a front-row view of the signals), or number-crunchers trying to gain tendencies from the movement of the catcher to predict a certain pitch.

Heck, it was alleged in a newspaper story a few years ago that the 50s-era New York Giants would steal opposing signals in the Polo Grounds and relay information to the batter in the form of a series of lights.

Now, I’m not justifying the Astros in their cheating. I just want to point out a couple of things.

One, any cheating scheme like this would only affect 1/4 of a baseball team’s effort over the course of a season. The Astros only did this during home games, and only when they were at bat. The scheme is, of course, useless whenever the Astros were pitching, and (so far as we know) was never done in road ballparks.

Two, (and most important) the batter still had to try to hit the ball, something which is still pretty hard to do even in the best of circumstances. Indeed, there are many players regarded as one of the best to ever play the game, but have a failure rate of 70 percent in terms of putting the ball into play safely.

I get the fact that technology is threatening to upend a number of athletic competitions, everything from motorsports to the simple 100-yard dash.

But I’d like more information as to the edge that Houston got in being able to steal signs, and how batters were able to take advantage of the system.

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