Episode 607: The Banging Scheme

On the Overthinking It Podcast, we tackle cheating in sports (no, seriously).

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Peter Fenzel and Matthew Wrather discuss the Houston Astros’ sign stealing scandal, the role of cheating in sports, rewards, punishments, and incentives, and why you’re safe to light up anywhere you visit in Italy.

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14 Comments on “Episode 607: The Banging Scheme”

  1. Adam K #

    I’m really glad you guys ran with this idea; great podcast!

    One interesting nuance to this within the baseball world is that this sort of sign-stealing is actually perfectly legal – provided you do it without the aid of technology. For example, if there’s a runner on second base, he’s able to stare directly at the catcher’s signs, and then get the batter’s attention somehow (hand-gesture, jumping up and down, doing the macarena, etc.) to convey his illicit knowledge. This is well-known, so catchers and pitchers, when a runner’s on base, will break out elaborate codes in an attempt to confuse everyone else (e.g., they’ll agree that the catcher will display several signs before each pitch, with the one that he’s actually calling for being determined by some outside constant like how many outs there are, how many balls or strikes there are in the count, etc.). Alternately, since different pitches involve the pitcher having different sorts of grips on the baseball, batters (as well as coaches in the dugout and scouts) will watch the pitcher like a hawk to see if they can detect his glove trembling or wiggling as he moves the ball around while he’s preparing.

    What the Astros did only broke the rules because they used technology – telephoto lenses in the outfield hooked up to CCTVs in the hallway behind the dugout, algorithms written up in Excel to help them break opposing team’s codes, and (allegedly) buzzing faux-bandages or other stickers). And this procedural error is apparently so bad that the LA City Council has passed a resolution demanding that Major League Baseball strip the title from the 2017 Astros (who started “the banging scheme” and possibly used other methods of cheating as well), and articles are flying around sports journalism that this year the Astro’s batters better look out, because pitchers mad about the cheating scandal are going to be intentionally throwing at their batters.

    While it’s clear that the Astro’s cheating had *some* effect on gameplay, and certainly makes them look really bad, in some cases it can get hard to disentangle from the slightly lesser, “legal” forms of the same activity. For example, in the 2017 World Series (wherein my beloved Dodgers of Los Angeles lost in magnificent style to the Astros), the Astros really pummeled one of the Dodger’s star pitchers, Yu Darvish; in the two starts Darvish had in that 7-game series, he didn’t get out of the second inning in either of them. Given that he’s one of the better pitchers in all of Major League Baseball, suspicion immediately descended on the Astros, once their videotaping system was revealed. However, Darvish had been known to have problems with pitch-tipping in the past, and the Astros have always claimed that they could tell based on Darvish’s body language what he was going to throw. So now we have legions of internetizens pouring over every frame of Darvish’s starts against the Astros like it’s the Zapruder film, and it’s eminently possible that the Astros both were using illicit tech AND long-accepted methods to gain the same knowledge.

    I can’t tell where this puts the Astros on the Romantic/Teutonic sin scale, since here we have an “offense” – seeking to gain knowledge about what the pitcher’s going to throw next – that’s routinely performed in a perfectly licit manner, but which, if procedurally imperfect, can be sufficient to bring down all manners of sturm und drang on a franchise. But I can say I’m really glad that the Astros are going to be a bona fide MLB heel this year.


  2. Three Act Destructure #

    As to definitions between sports and sports entertainment, a topic mired in much larger discussions on both capitalism and social class, I am compelled to raise the specter of one of the great questions of our time:

    Is cheerleading a sport and can you cheat at it?


    • Mike #

      If the sport has judges, then it’s not a sport but “performance art”.


      • Three Act Destructure #

        I refuse to accept any definition of sport which does not allow for monster truck events.


      • Adam K #

        American football has “line judges.” I gleefully anticipate informing the NFL that they’re all just engaged in very violent performance art.


        • Matthew Wrather OTI Staff #

          Let’s be real: It’s moderately violent performance art.


        • John C Member #

          I mean, if they’re OK with being a non-profit despite having enough money to waste on the gaudiest headquarters I’m aware of, they’re probably OK with being performance art, too…


    • Matthew Wrather OTI Staff #

      Let me try to boil down that question a little. Is every competition (potentially) a sport?


      • Peter Fenzel OTI Staff #

        I would say no. There is a distinction between sports and games – and there is some overlap, but at least in how I participate in the tradition of how they are used in American English by native speakers, they don’t feel the same to me.

        “Sporting” refers to things you do that have constraints on them to make them fun or pastime activities that might otherwise not be fun pastimes, but would have some dimension of utility, and have embellishments on them to make them competitively interesting where they might not be. “Sport hunting” is distinct from “hunting” – it is hunting just for fun, and with added challenge. “Sport fishing” is similarly distinct from “fishing” – it is more for fun (not for eating or commerce), but also more constrained to be fair, and upped in difficulty to be more competitive.

        So, an “eSport” while still debatable, I think, can be thought of as video games, but constrained in what they are for (they’re not edutainment), and embellished to be more competitive.

        I would also suggest that one dimension of “sporting” is that the competitiveness involves the imposition an expectation of what the competitiveness means – rules, points, scores – and that art that is judged subjectively does not feel sporting. But art when it is judged more objectively feels more sporting. For example – a marching band competition where speed and precision are strictly judged and prioritized versus one where artistry is more prioritized feels more like a sport.

        Also sports have to be iterated (ostensibly so performance in them can be compared across instances in the interest of ongoing competition) – something you only do once is never a sport. But it might be a game.

        So baseball is a game. But league baseball is more of a sport. Bowling is a game. But pro bowling is more of a sport. Hitting each other in the face can be a game, but American Football is a sport.

        When somebody asks “Do you play a sport?” they are not asking if you engage in a competitive activity. They are asking you if you are engaged in an iterated, constrained, embellished competitive activity where it is implied you are trying to get better at it relative to your peers or other players along some sort of knowable axis. Not in so many words, but that’s my best take at the moment as to what is underlying it.


        • Three Act Destructure #

          That’s an interesting answer and one that I think accurately sums up most people’s given assumptions about how sport operates compared to games or other competitions, whether or not they’re consciously aware of that distinction.

          However, having seen similar explanations over the years, I still find them lacking in accurately predicting what people will and won’t accept as “sport”, which tells me that some bit of our intuitively maintained social definitions is being left out.

          I submit, in contrast, that our actual lived experience of the boundaries of sporting is created by the “locus of sport pageantry”.

          For example, let’s say you’re playing a game of Donkey Kong at your local arcade (let’s assume you also have access to a time machine and have traveled back to the 1980s). A passerby would reasonably assume that you’re only playing a game. Even if it is a naturally constrained and iterative experience with rigidly enforced rules within the game system and you’re currently playing to beat the local high score. Now let’s change the example to add a crowd, some cheerleaders, an announcer and someone selling hot dogs. Regardless of what you’re doing, that passerby can now reasonably assume that you’re engaged in some kind of sport.

          This gets even more apparent when you look at footage from the old Twin Galaxies competitions vs. current eSports events. One of these “feels” more like a sport and it has everything to do with presentation.

          But this is complicated by the fact that Donkey Kong, like cheerleading, contains its own form of pageantry. A giant monkey jumping up and down on steel girders and a woman being tossed several feet in the air are both, after all, highly amusing. That’s why location is so important.

          The pageantry which makes the sport must also be separate from the sport and done in deference to its importance. Like the volcano gods of old adventure serials, American football is a beast which must be soothed by dance.

          And under this definition, cheerleading can only be a sport when it has its own cheerleaders.


  3. John C Member #

    Maybe interestingly, baseball was once described to me as seeming like it wants to simulate clandestine war activity in the same way that football (and chess) are overt battle simulations. So, it’s kind of funny (if that’s true) to think that actual espionage is off the table. Though the Astros scheme reminds me of an old computer security story about someone stealing data from a secure facility by having one of those enormous line printers (the green-bar paper kind) print blank lines of varying lengths to smack the printer against the wall, where a confederate could listen on the other side and decipher the knocking.

    I generally avoid professional sports, but when I’m strong-armed, the thing I focus on is the performance of people in their prime pushing themselves to their limits. Where I feel like that falls apart is, in fact, when the game goes outside of the rules and exposes how artificial it all is.

    A while ago, I was talking about this as an analogy for music when talking to my landlord, explaining that jazz is really a kind of spectator sport. Pre-recorded jazz is mostly lame and it’s also not really fun to have a band that stops to explain what they’re doing. At its best, you have musicians building on each other’s work to create an interesting performance.

    The big difference, and probably a factor of why people prefer one passtime over the other might be that sports are completely adversarial. It’s not just that the teams oppose each other, but the arbiters are also set against the teams. And this seems like a problem in that conflict resolution between the parties is handled by stopping the game. One team scores, stop the game. A player’s progress is stopped, stop the game. A player is caught violating the rules, stop the game.

    And that kind of makes me wonder if there’s a way of structuring a sport so that these incidents (scoring or rule violations) could be part of the game’s flow, rather than something that disrupts the flow. Baseball comes the closest by (sort of) layering mini-games on top of each other, so that one player crossing home or getting tagged out doesn’t need to affect the other players. But even then, baseball deliberately comes to a screeching halt seventeen times over the course of every game.


    • Three Act Destructure #

      What you’re describing sounds like a video game-style morality system and I would love to see that implemented into a live sporting event.


      • John C Member #

        That’s definitely one possibility. What I was trying (and failing) to envision is a rule change for a few seconds that tries to redress the grievance or rebalance the game. For a very weak example, instead of any of the penalty shots (stop the game, give the MacGuffin to the opposing team, let them set up, throw, and then get the game back up and running), the controlling player could be forced to immediately stop moving and their team required to back out of a part of the field. So, the game continues and there’s potentially a viable strategy for both teams.


  4. Jay #

    Listening to this episode brought to mind Michael Lewis’ podcast about referees. Then you mentioned Moneyball right at the end, so I have to make this recommendation for further reading: Against the Rules podcast from Michael Lewis, about cultural attitudes towards refs in basketball, finance, grammar, and more, and how they reflect on our notions of fairness. Definitely check out the first episode at least, which highlights how the calls in basketball have become objectively more fair with the advent of extensive video review, even as players and fans complain loudly about bad calls (against their team, of course).


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