Suggestions of scandal once again consume baseball, urgency injected into conversation about how to regulate behavior now widely and loudly decried. Yet while the baseball industry is enmeshed in conversations about foreign substances, the return of games between the Astros and Red Sox in many ways has been noteworthy for what no longer seems to be a cause of angst in the game.
The Astros were, of course, pilloried by the fans at Fenway for their 2017 sign-stealing cheating scandal en route to the title. The Red Sox have been penalized twice by MLB (fined in 2017, then hit with a loss of a draft pick last year) for using live video feeds to crack sign sequences.
Yet in the seven games between the two clubs, the concerns that surrounded both teams — from 2017-19, games between the two teams were exhausting exercises in real and perceived espionage and counter-espionage — no longer seemed to serve as the backdrop to the competition.
With the bases empty, catchers on the clubs once again feel comfortable at times putting down a single sign instead of complicated multi-sign sequences that, in the words of Astros reliever Ryne Stanek, “require a calculator.” Suspicions about the illegal use of live video feeds have waned.
MLB turned what had been treated by at least some parts of the industry as a gray area into something far clearer. The penalties dropped on the two teams made clear that any in-game use of electronic devices to affect the competition would not be tolerated.
The league established measures to make unwanted practices difficult, such as a time delay of any dugout feed of games, limitations on the camera angles available inside the clubhouse, and personnel dedicated to making sure that no one was violating those rules.
Meanwhile, teams moved to address the behavior by their own clubs — with executives and managers being charged with communicating the illegality of in-game espionage using electronic devices — while also changing sign sequences with increased frequency, using cards stowed in hats to avoid giving teams identifiable patterns.
“My overall sense is that [concern about teams illegally stealing signs is] less of a discussion point,” said one NL executive. “Would I be surprised if some teams were doing it? No, I really wouldn’t. Do we actively suspect and spend a lot of time talking about whether or not they are? No, we haven’t.”
“Now, there’s no paranoia,” said Red Sox manager Alex Cora, who was ultimately suspended for the 2020 season because of his role in the Astros’ sign-stealing in 2017.
That characterization represents a significant contrast to Cora’s time in Houston in 2017 and his first Red Sox tenure in 2018-19. Some members of the Red Sox in 2019 — before the Astros scandal came to light — felt that Cora had become obsessed to a degree with other teams’ efforts to steal pitch signs from Red Sox. He doesn’t dismiss the characterization.
“From ’17, when I was [in Houston], through ’19, there was a lot of paranoia,” said Cora. “It was another layer that you had to be prepared for. It didn’t matter who you were playing, you had to be prepared. It affected catchers. It affected pitchers. I think it affected players more than anything else. Some great catchers struggled. It was another layer you had to worry about.”
Suspicions were rampant — and, in some ways, validated — throughout the industry about both the Astros and Red Sox. Yet the concerns extended well beyond those two clubs, with many others seen as potential perpetrators of sign-stealing espionage.
“When there was stealing signs from the catchers and using video, at least from afar, it felt like there was nothing you could do about it,” said Red Sox pitching coach Dave Bush, who noted that he only spent a limited time with the big league club in 2019 (when he served chiefly as a minor league pitching coordinator). “That’s a very helpless feeling when you think you’re being taken advantage of and can’t stop it.
“[But] as far as I can tell, it’s cleaned up a lot. Video access is very limited,” he added. “I’d like to think that sign-stealing is being done the way it’s been done for a long time, which is that if you have good eyes and you’re on the field, it gives you an advantage.”
Increased penalties for rules violations not only created a deterrent but also offered clarity to players and officials about what will and will not be tolerated. What had been treated by at least some in the industry as an ethical gray area became black and white. As a result, the obsessive concern about sign stealing has waned.
Teams still engage in extensive searches for pitchers’ physical tips in their advance scouting work. But now, sources from a half-dozen clubs suggested that they believe any sign-stealing and work to identify tips is happening between the lines and legally.
“The changes that have been brought about by the league give me complete confidence that that kind of thing can’t happen again,” said Astros GM James Click, who replaced Jeff Luhnow in the wake of MLB’s investigation into the Astros last year. “It is difficult in a lot of ways to almost cast yourself back to the mind-set that you had in 2019, especially going into those playoffs [when the Rays played the Astros in the Division Series], where there were so many rumors throughout baseball about [a lot of teams].
“There was a lot of paranoia. There was a lot of suspicion. But it’s an interesting question, because now I find myself really not remembering what that paranoia felt like because I have a lot of confidence in the protocols that the league has put in place, and I can certainly say with 100 percent confidence that nothing like that is going on here with the Astros. That’s my focus and we trust the league when it comes to the other 29 teams.”
That outlook, in turn, looms large as the league turns its attention to pitchers’ use of foreign substances to increase spin rates and movement. There is precedent that suggests it’s possible to rein in rule-bending behavior that creates unwanted competitive advantages.
“We’re not concerned about sign-stealing,” said Red Sox catcher Christian Vázquez, who noted that the Red Sox devoted ample attention to the subject throughout the 2018 playoffs and 2019 season. “I’m not worried about it at all. I think that helps a lot.”