Did the Red Sox violate MLB rules in 2018? The months-long investigation into their use of video to steal sign sequences answered that question affirmatively, a finding the Red Sox accepted.
Give the belief of many teams that such behavior was common throughout the game in 2018, some around the organization undoubtedly consider the violation akin to keeping pace with traffic at 65 m.p.h. in a 55 m.p.h. zone. Nonetheless, if one car gets pulled over for going 65, it’s still subject to a ticket.
So now that the Red Sox have been pulled over and ticketed, what does that do to the legacy of a team that zoomed to a franchise-record 108 regular-season wins and then rolled its opponents in the postseason?
Some will view the matter as black-and-white, deeming any violation of MLB rules for the sake of gaining a strategic edge a form of cheating that forever clouds the title. But others will judge the violations according to their frequency and impact. And those who engage in that far more complicated exercise will encounter statistical information that is subject to considerable interpretation.
Undoubtedly, the Red Sox were an absolute force with runners in scoring position in 2018, and more specifically, with runners on second base — the position from which a runner can see the catcher’s signals and, with knowledge of the sign sequence, relay information to the batter.
The 2018 Red Sox hit a league-leading .292 with runners on second base, the highest average in such situations since the 2013 Cardinals hit .326. (The 2019 Yankees surpassed the Sox’ mark, hitting .303.) The team’s .484 slugging percentage in such moments was second-best in baseball.
Without a runner on second, the Sox were still very good but not exceptional: .262 average, .446 slugging, both top-five marks in baseball.
That disparity can be viewed as evidence of the impact of sign stealing. So, too, can the team’s dropoff in 2019, when the report said there were no rules violations. Last year, the Sox saw their average with runners on second drop to .281 and their slugging mark fall to .464. Good, not great.
Yet the success in 2018 and slight falloff in 2019 come with caveats and questions.
Was the superior performance with runners on second as opposed to without runners on second in 2018 aberrational? The Sox saw their batting average jump by 30 points with runners on second, tied with the Astros for second-best in the majors that year. (The Twins led with a 41-point bump.) Their slugging percentage went up 38 points, behind both the Astros (95 points) and Twins (55).
Other teams saw similar splits with and without runners on second in 2019. The Yankees went from a .260 average and .482 slugging mark with no runners on second to marks of .303 and .526 with runners on second. The Nationals had a modest 14-point bump in batting average but a 67-point boost in slugging with men on second in 2019.
In other words, the Sox saw significant improvement, but of a scale that has been seen with other standout offenses of recent seasons.
In spring training, Red Sox hitting coach Tim Hyers took stock of the diminished efficiency of his very-good-not-great offense with runners on second base in 2019, and whether that could be seen as evidence of the effectiveness of the team’s espionage.
“During the playoffs, we had almost [every game] three MLB supervisors in our clubhouse, sitting next to [video review coordinator J.T. Watkins], and we hit almost .400 with runners in scoring position in the World Series and I think almost all through the playoffs,” Hyers said in February.
Indeed, MLB found no evidence of in-game sign-sequence stealing during the 2018 postseason, when (a) the league stationed officials in every team’s video replay review areas and (b) there was so much paranoia throughout the game about sign-stealing that pitchers and catchers constantly scrambled sequences.
Yet in a relatively small sample (14 games), the Sox performed at an extraordinary level with runners on second base, hitting .369 with a .643 slugging mark in the 2018 postseason.
Of course, that brilliant postseason performance very well could have reflected the fact that the 2018 team was extremely adept at stealing and relaying signs from second base, as well as for more conventional batter/pitcher game-planning.
Sign stealing and identification of tipped pitches by players on the field is legal. So is advance scouting to crack sign sequences (i.e. which catcher signal in a sequence signifies the actual pitch). And, of course, good game-planning — identifying frequently used pitches in certain counts (especially with runners on base), anticipating the exact kind of movement of specific pitches — is likewise legal, and something at which the 2018 Red Sox excelled.
All of those elements, along with signals from runners on second base, were part of the team’s detailed daily pregame hitters meetings. The team took pride in mining the details of the game for any advantage. (Multiple members of the organization noted that the same attention to detail didn’t exist in 2019, and that players in 2019 were more focused on their ideal swing paths than on situational- and count-driven adjustments.)
Where does the impact of those legal activities end and the benefit of what MLB identified as isolated instances of in-game sequence stealing begin? It’s almost impossible to say.
There’s neither clear evidence of a benefit nor an ability to dismiss the possibility of an advantage. Outside of absolutists who conclude that any finding of a rules violation taints a title, it’s in the eye of the beholder how to interpret the gray-tinted residue left by the report.
|RUNNER ON SECOND|
|2018||.292 (1)||.484 (2)||17.9 (1)|
|2018 Playoffs||.369 (1)||.643 (1)||20.0 (1)*|
|2019||.281 (2)||.464 (8)||20.8 (8)|
|NO RUNNER ON SECOND|
|2018||.262 (3)||.446 (3)||20.6 (5)|
|2018 playoffs||.216 (4)||.348 (5)||21.6 (3)*|
|2019||.267 (3)||.466 (5)||21.6 (7)|