When something bizarre, scandalous, or just plain ridiculous happens in sports, my first thought is, “Can I re-create that in a video game?” And at the outset of this cheating scandal with baseball’s Houston Astros, which you may have heard about, the answer was no: You can’t literally steal the other team’s pitching signals in MLB The Show 19 so that you, as the batter, know what kind of pitch is coming next.
Then came “Buzzergate.”
To recap: This week, a Major League Baseball investigation found that the Astros — who won the World Series in 2017 — deployed an elaborate system of stealing opposing teams’ signs, in this case the hand signals the catcher gives to tell a pitcher what to throw next. Stealing signs on the field, when done by a baserunner watching the pitcher-catcher interaction, for instance, doesn’t break any rule. But what the Astros did sure does.
The Astros sign-stealing and cheating scandal, explained
Their players would watch a video monitor, showing the pitcher from the center-field TV camera, and therefore the catcher’s signs. After decoding them, the Astros would alert their batter if a curveball was coming by whacking a 55-gallon garbage can in the dugout with a baseball bat. Like I said, bizarre, scandalous, and hilarious.
This scheme got Astros manager A.J. Hinch and general manager Jeff Luhnow suspended for a year by the league, until the team’s owner went ahead and fired them outright. The Astros bench coach who engineered the scheme, Alex Cora, apparently took some of these methods with him to Boston when he managed the Red Sox to a title in 2018. He is now unemployed, and may never manage again. Carlos Beltran, who was a player on the Astros in 2017 and was to manage the New York Mets in the coming season, also lost his job for his role in the cheating.
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No active player had been tied up in the cheating until one of those just-quite-believable Twitter conspiracy theories caught fire on Thursday. And that is the “Buzzergate” accusation that Astros players like Jose Altuve and Josh Reddick wore some kind of device underneath their uniform shirts, which someone in the dugout would allegedly activate to tell them what type of pitch was on the way next.
This is where it intersects with MLB The Show 19.
The Show has (and has had, for years) an option that can tip off to the player what pitch is on the way. It’s supposed to emulate the ability of a professional hitter to recognize and react to pitches in ways civilians can’t. The video game player still has to make a correct guess before the pitch, but the feature illustrates, to the layperson, just how devastating it is when a batter knows what’s coming.
A couple of at-bats with my minor leaguer last spring highlight these points. In the method I use — one of several available to a player — I can guess location, I can guess pitch, or I can guess location and pitch. Whatever I try, though, I have to get it exactly right. So if I guess, say, a fastball low and away, and the pitcher is giving me a fastball inside, I won’t get any tipoff.
How a video game helped me get a base hit in Cooperstown
If I’m guessing just location and get that right, the batting reticle locks to the region of the strike zone in which I guessed. If I guess just the pitch and am correct, the batting reticle expands slightly, giving me a better chance of making solid contact.
Even if I guess wrong, I can still use it to rule out certain things. Guessing outside and get that wrong? OK, don’t look outside. Guess a fastball and the reticle shrinks? Good chance it’s something off-speed, especially if a fastball is the opposing pitcher’s only hard pitch. If it shrinks a lot, it’s probably a big breaking ball.
You see it in the first home run of the video above (30 seconds in). I think I guessed fastball, and he gave me another off-speed pitch. It helped that the Indianapolis pitcher left it nice and fat in the zone, but because I ruled out the straight heat, I was able to wait just long enough to kill it.
This is kind of what the Astros were doing. After their code-talkers in the dugout saw the catcher put down the digits for a curveball, WHAM-WHAM went the trash can: off-speed pitch coming. No whamming, then it’s a fastball. It sounds silly, but it works.
Here’s where the buzzer comes in. In MLB The Show 19, if you guess both location and pitch correctly, an alert sounds and your controller vibrates. Assuming you don’t get too excited and swing early, your chance to hit the ball a long way goes way up. See the second home run of that video (timestamp 1:57):
The reticle locks to the low part of the zone, the bell goes off, and I park it on the lawn. Again, I hit another breaking ball/off-speed pitch, which usually give me fits in MLB The Show, where I tend to swing early at everything. But they give big league hitters fits in real life, too. As Hall-of-Fame pitcher Warren Spahn famously observed, “Hitting is timing. Pitching is destroying timing.” Well, this is what it looks like when you destroy the pitcher’s ability to destroy timing.
Thursday’s Twitter rumor (started by someone claiming to be Beltran’s niece, extra LOL) said some players wore buzzers that could give more sophisticated signals than just beating up a Rubbermaid. Though MLB investigators told the New York Post’s Joel Sherman that they ruled this out (and that they also looked into the 2019 season), it’s hard to make this delicious piece of skulduggery go away so easily.
Hitting a garbage can is silly and funny, but wearing a wire is right out of a movie, so, like many, I Want To Believe. And never forget that this is baseball, where cheating has always had an air of grade-school mischief, whether it’s Gaylord Perry with Crisco all over his uniform or Graig Nettles’ corked bat scattering rubber Super Balls all over the infield.
Players getting all but a text message alert that a curveball is coming, though? That’s still cheating. Except in MLB The Show 19.
Roster File is Polygon’s news and opinion column on the intersection of sports and video games.
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