Everything you need to know about sign-stealing
Sign-stealing represents a baseball practice as old as the original act of giving signs, with information warfare serving as a baseball practice so standard that it’s reached the hallowed status of “tradition.” The effort by teams to decode information relayed from coaches to their players and from pitchers to catchers is a practice that spans baseball generations.
“I’ve been in the game for 40 years. I’ve known of it for 40 years,” said Red Sox president of baseball operations Dave Dombrowski. “People I’ve talked to that played back in the ’50s talk to me about sign-stealing. So I do think sign-stealing has been taking place for a long time. I will acknowledge that.”
WHAT IS IT? Sign-stealing relates to individual or team efforts to decode the information relayed among members of an opposing team. Most frequently, teams have tried to crack the proverbial code related to the signs conveyed by:
■ a catcher to his pitcher regarding pitch type (fastball, curveball, changeup, etc.) and location (in, away, up, down);
■ a third-base coach to a batter and/or baserunner regarding a play (bunt, steal, hit-and-run, etc.);
■ an individual in the dugout (usually a manager or coach) to either the third base coach or players in the field regarding the aforementioned plays as well as defensive strategies such as pitchouts. The most common efforts relate to the game’s most common event, pitches thrown to a hitter. It’s worth noting that sign-stealing is distinct from efforts by one team to identify an opposing pitcher who tips his pitches through some sort of physical tell such as how he holds his glove or the position of his head.
HOW IS IT DONE? The most straightforward practice involves a runner on second base watching what sign a catcher puts down and flashing some kind of signal to the hitter. There have been more sophisticated techniques, perhaps most famously the 1951 Giants’ use of a telescope from their center-field clubhouse to detect signs, with the information (fastball or breaking ball) relayed to a member of the team in the bullpen, who in turn offered a signal to the hitter of whether a fastball or breaking ball was coming. The Giants went on a historic season-ending run, beating the crosstown Brooklyn Dodgers in a one-game playoff to advance to the World Series.
Tim Kurkjian of ESPN once detailed a 1980s White Sox scheme that involved flashing a refrigerator light on the scoreboard to indicate whether a fastball or breaking ball was coming; current Red Sox president of baseball operations Dave Dombrowski was a young executive for the White Sox at the time.
Over time, with the advance of technology, espionage techniques have become more sophisticated. With cameras and screens — not to mention pitch-tracking technology — now all over the park, the mechanisms for sign-stealing have increased.
The current controversy involving the Red Sox and Yankees, first reported by the New York Times, represents the new potential wrinkles of the undertaking. According to the report, a member of the team’s staff who watches the games on a monitor to decide whether to challenge rulings on the field relayed pitch information to a trainer wearing an Apple Watch. That information was then ultimately relayed to a player.
WHAT DOES IT ACCOMPLISH? In theory, a hitter can achieve a considerable advantage if he has information about the pitch type or intended location. That said, hitters are divided on the benefit of sign-stealing. Some eschew feedback for fear of cluttering their minds — or out of terror that they might get bad information, rendering them vulnerable not just to a bad at-bat but the possibility of getting hit by a pitch.
It is worth noting that the Red Sox have been terrible against Yankees pitchers with runners in scoring position this year, posting a .143/.241/.236 line. Overall against the Yankees, the Sox have the worst average (.196) and OPS (.578) of any single team against any single opponent in the majors this year (minimum of 10 games played against each other).
IS IT ILLEGAL? Nope.
“Sign-stealing is not an uncommon practice and there in fact is not a rule against it,” MLB commissioner Rob Manfred said at Fenway Park Tuesday.
Umpires leave it up to players to police themselves on the matter. There are instances where accusations of sign-stealing have prompted brushback pitches, threats of brushback pitches, and even physical confrontations.
But those disputes reflect interpretations of the game’s unwritten rules as opposed to codified breaches of baseball law.
IS IT WRONG? That’s an eye-of-the-beholder question. Dombrowski said he had no beef with the practice.
“Do I think sign-stealing is wrong? No, I don’t,” he said. “I guess it depends how you do it. But no I never thought it was wrong. I guess everybody in the game has been involved with it throughout the years. People are trying to win however they can. It’s an edge they are trying to gain. Sometimes your sophistication of signs can make a difference.
“So no, I never felt like it’s wrong. Put it this way, I was never brought up that it was wrong.”
SO WHY IS THIS A BIG DEAL? While sign-stealing is not prohibited, the use of electronic devices in dugouts (save for a couple of specific exceptions that do not involve sign-stealing) is a breach of baseball’s rules. Major League Baseball clarified that stance in a preseason bulletin to teams, which defined the restricted use of electronic equipment thusly:
“The use of electronic equipment during a game is restricted. No Club shall use electronic equipment, including but not limited to walkie-talkies, cellular telephones, laptop computers or tablets, to communicate to or with any on-field personnel, including those in the dugout, bullpen, field and, during the game, the clubhouse.
“No equipment may be used for the purpose of stealing signs or conveying information designed to give a Club an advantage. Laptop computers and hand held devices are not permitted on the bench or in the dugout.
“The only exceptions to this prohibition are the use of a mobile phone for communication between the dugout and the bullpen, and the use of tablets in the dugout or bullpen running uniform programs, so long as such devices and programs have been approved by the Office of the Commissioner.”
The behavior in the Times report — which was reported by the Yankees to the Commissioner’s Office — would represent a breach of that electronic equipment prohibition.
That said, the Red Sox filed a counter claim suggesting that the Yankees had used electronic equipment for their own benefit, employing cameras for the YES Network in an effort to steal signs for their hitters.
DID THE COMMISSIONER’S OFFICE HAVE TO GET INVOLVED? Dombrowski suggested that, over the years, there have been a number of occasions where he’s had direct contact with peers on other clubs to resolve sign-stealing disputes without the participation of the Commissioner’s Office. He seemed miffed that the matter wasn’t handled according to that practice.
Manfred said that this is not the first time that MLB has investigated a complaint regarding electronic sign-stealing, but it is the first time in his tenure as commissioner (which started in January 2015) that the league office has been asked to do so.
WHAT ARE THE POTENTIAL REPERCUSSIONS? That’s not clear. Manfred noted that, based on precedent, there’s virtually no chance that he would overturn any Red Sox victories.
“Could it happen? You know, is there the authority to do that? I think the answer to that under the majorleague constitution is yes,” said Manfred. “Has it ever happened with this type of allegation? I think the answer is — I know the answer is — no. And the reason for that is it’s just very hard to know what the actual impact in any particular game was of an alleged violation like this.”
Manfred praised the Red Sox for their cooperation with the investigation, but such a compliment shouldn’t be taken as a sign of forthcoming leniency. After all, the Commissioner’s Office praised the Sox for their cooperation with a 2016 investigation into alleged circumvention of international bonus pool restrictions; despite such praise, MLB dropped a hammer on the Sox, declaring five of their prospects free agents and banning the team from signing any international amateurs in 2016-17.
The Commissioner’s Office felt it had to punish the Red Sox in that instance given what it viewed as a clear violation of policy — even in a commonly accepted practice.
That punishment, however, affected the Sox directly in the area of their alleged rules violation — the signing of international players. In this case, MLB could choose a more indirect means of punishing the Sox — including fines, suspensions, and draft-pick or international bonus pool penalties. There’s no track record to offer a clear path forward.
So how will this matter end? That remains up to the discretion of the Commissioner’s Office as it tries to wade into what are, under Manfred, untested waters.