In the end, Major League Baseball determined that the 2018 Red Sox had violated the letter of the law on using live video replay feeds to steal sign-sequence information — but it drew a significant distinction between them and the practices of the 2017 Astros, with significant differences in the resulting penalties.
Investigators interviewed 65 witnesses, including 34 current and former Red Sox players, and reviewed “tens of thousands of emails, text messages, video clips, and photographs” and, in some cases, employees’ cell phone data, and found that the team’s involvement was less far-reaching than that of the Astros.
The key findings:
▪ Video room operator J.T. Watkins sometimes used the in-game live replay feed to identify pitcher-catcher sign sequences, which can be helpful in allowing runners on second to steal signs and relay them to hitters (a finding that Watkins “vehemently disputed,” according to the report).
▪ Such information was of limited impact, given that its use required not only the presence of a runner on second but also a) changes to the sign sequences from pregame reports; b) Watkins to have observed those changes and relayed them to members of the team; and c) the successful use of that new information by players on second.
▪ The Red Sox used information from live in-game feeds only occasionally during the regular season, and not during the 2018 postseason.
▪ Manager Alex Cora, the coaching staff, and most of the players were unaware of any in-game use of the replay system to gain information.
▪ The Red Sox made efforts to create a culture of compliance with the league’s regulations.
▪ The suspension without pay of Watkins for the 2020 season, and a prohibition on him working as replay room operator during the 2021 season.
Cora also was suspended for the 2020 season, but Manfred specified that that was for his actions with the Astros, not the Red Sox.
No Red Sox personnel aside from Watkins were disciplined, and the report suggested that even if there hadn’t been a pre-investigation agreement preventing player discipline in exchange for testimony, none of the Red Sox players engaged in activities that would have resulted in discipline.
Manfred’s report suggested that Watkins — who was responsible for watching the live game feeds to determine whether to challenge umpiring calls — at times used the feeds to identify changes to the sign sequences.
According to the report, the Red Sox legally tried to crack the sign-sequence codes prior to games. That information, acquired by advanced scouting efforts, could be used — again, legally — by a runner on second to signal to a hitter.
However, the report suggests that on occasion, Watkins recognized changes to the sign-sequence pattern from the pregame report and would relay those to players. The players, in turn, could communicate the alterations with a runner on second base.
Such an act would violate the league’s March 2018 prohibition on using live feeds to steal information.
Right after outlining the nature of that violation, however, Manfred’s report distinguishes it from the sign-stealing of the 2017 Astros, which resulted in one-year suspensions for both general manager Jeff Luhnow and manager A.J. Hinch (both of whom were subsequently fired), along with the loss of first- and second-round picks in the 2020 draft and a $5 million fine.
“I find that unlike the Houston Astros’ 2017 conduct, in which players communicated to the batter from the dugout area in real time the precise type of pitch about to be thrown, Watkins’s conduct, by its very nature, was far more limited in scope and impact,” the report said.
“The information was only relevant when the Red Sox had a runner on second base (which was 19.7% of plate appearances league-wide in 2018), and Watkins communicated sign sequences in a manner that indicated that he had decoded them from the in-game feed in only a small percentage of those occurrences.”
There is no proclamation of a systematic smoking gun, no evidence of a far-reaching effort to steal sign sequences.
The report states that the Red Sox coaches and most of their players (30 of 44 interviewed) were unaware of the possibility that Watkins was updating pregame sign-sequence information.
The report also praises the Red Sox because they “consistently communicated MLB’s sign-stealing rules to non-player staff and made commendable efforts toward instilling a culture of compliance in their organization.”
The report also notes that Watkins — a former Red Sox minor leaguer who was drafted out of West Point and served in the Army for two years — “vehemently denied” using live feeds to decode information. It’s also worth noting that some players “suspected or had indications that Watkins may have revised the sign sequence information that he had provided to players prior to the game through his review of the game feed in the replay room.”
The report acknowledged that MLB did not glean “direct evidence” of Watkins violating rules, and instead noted that some players arrived at that conclusion based “primarily on inferences that they drew from the way the information was communicated during the game.”
From the report:
“Watkins conveyed the sign sequence information he learned from his pregame work to players in a meeting prior to the game, or sometimes during the game. The issue in this case stems from the fact that Watkins — the employee responsible for decoding an opponent’s signs prior to and following the game — also was the person stationed in the replay room during the game to advise the Manager on whether to challenge a play on the field. (It was not uncommon for those two roles to be combined in this manner by Clubs in 2018). Therefore, Watkins, who was an expert at decoding sign sequences from video, had access to a live feed during the game that he could have — if he so chose — used to supplement or update the work he had performed prior to the game to decode an opponent’s signs.
“Watkins vehemently denies utilizing the replay system during the game to decode signs. Of the 44 players who provided information, more than 30 stated that they had no knowledge regarding whether Watkins used in-game video feeds to revise his advance sign decoding work. However, a smaller number of players said that on at least some occasions, they suspected or had indications that Watkins may have revised the sign sequence information that he had provided to players prior to the game through his review of the game feed in the replay room.
"They largely based their belief on the fact that Watkins on occasion provided different sign sequence information during the game than he had offered prior to the game, and, based on the circumstances of the communication, they assumed that the revised information came from his review of in-game video. One player described that he observed Watkins write down sign sequence information during the game while he appeared to be watching the game feed in the replay room, circling the correct sign in the sequence after the pitch was thrown.”
On one hand, MLB limited the scope of the penalties based on its finding that the sign-sequence stealing “was episodic and was done without the knowledge of the Manager, the coaching staff, and most of the players.” The report suggests the impact was limited.
On the other hand, because Watkins had been involved when the Red Sox were fined for using a smartwatch in 2017 to text sign-sequence information gleaned from video replay to the dugout and because it’s possible that the Red Sox — who led the majors with a .292 average with runners on second base in 2018, had the lowest strikeout rate (17.9 percent) in such situations, and ranked second in slugging (.484) — benefited from illegal practices, MLB felt some punishment was warranted.