Major League Baseball will launch an investigation into whether the 2018 Red Sox illegally used video replay feeds to steal signs during games.
The plan to investigate comes in the wake of a report by The Athletic in which three unidentified members of that team described in-game visits by players to the replay room — which at Fenway Park is located inside the batting cage area off the tunnel leading from the clubhouse to the dugout — to pick up the sign sequences of opposing teams. Armed with that knowledge, according to the report, the players shared the information among teammates, thus allowing base
runners to relay pitches to hitters.
“It’s cheating,” a member of the team, which won the World Series in 2018, told The Athletic. “If you’re using a camera to zoom in on the crotch of the catcher, to break down the sign system, and then take that information and give it out to the runner, then he doesn’t have to steal it.”
The timing of the alleged infractions is significant, since the Red Sox were fined an undisclosed amount by MLB in September 2017 for using an Apple Watch to convey sign sequences from the replay room to the dugout.
While sign-stealing is not prohibited, the use of electronic devices to do so is. When MLB fined the Red Sox in 2017, it noted that a) the commissioner’s office “had received absolute assurances from the Red Sox that there will be no future violations of this type,” and b) future violations could result in greater discipline.
MLB, which also is investigating whether the Houston Astros stole signs in 2017 (communicating them to batters by banging on a can), cited that September 2017 memo in announcing that it would commence this investigation of the Red Sox.
“The Commissioner made clear in a September 15, 2017 memorandum to clubs how seriously he would take any future violation of the regulations regarding use of electronic equipment or the inappropriate use of the video replay room,” MLB said in a statement Tuesday. “Given these allegations, MLB will commence an investigation into this matter.”
The Red Sox issued their own statement, vowing cooperation.
“We were recently made aware of allegations suggesting the inappropriate use of our video replay room,” the statement said. “We take these allegations seriously and will fully cooperate with MLB as they investigate the matter.”
Reached via text, Red Sox manager Alex Cora — who was interviewed by MLB regarding the Astros’ sign-stealing practices in 2017, when he was Houston’s bench coach — declined to comment. Former Red Sox president of baseball operations Dave Dombrowski said via text that he did not know of any such sign-stealing behavior, and that MLB has not contacted him regarding the matter.
“I never have had any knowledge of this,” Dombrowski wrote.
One member of the team confirmed to the Globe that there was constant traffic in 2018 to and from the area where the real-time feed used for determining whether to challenge on-field calls was broadcast. However, that source noted that the real-time video replay system was located next to the BATS video consoles that players use to review in-game at-bats.
According to that team member, Red Sox player traffic around those systems was constant — in no small part because players were constantly reviewing their swings and pitch selections from previous at-bats. Indeed, that same team member noted that it could have been possible for sign sequences to be stolen via the BATS system, albeit in a fashion that was slightly (at least one batter) behind real time.
That said, the proximity of the BATS system to the real-time feed also would have created what was characterized as an almost unavoidable temptation to crack teams’ sign sequences, something that could be used to relay pitch types and/or locations via traditional means.
The Athletic story suggested that once another team’s sign sequence was identified, Red Sox players could walk to the dugout to relay the information to teammates. From there, a runner on base (usually second base, sometimes first) could read a catcher’s sign sequence, identify the pitch type, and signal it to the batter. None of those player-to-player actions is prohibited by MLB; the only issue is the use of the real-time replay feed, which would have run afoul of a clearly outlined MLB policy from the spring of 2018 prohibiting the practice.
Assuming that the Red Sox did use the real-time replay feed to their benefit, it is possible, perhaps even likely, that they weren’t alone in doing so. During the 2018 postseason, several baseball sources expressed concern that sign-stealing via replay (and other electronic means) had become widespread, particularly among playoff teams.
As a result, the pace of play in the postseason sputtered as teams employed multi-sign sequences with the bases empty in acts of counterespionage. Several members of the baseball community expressed concern about a proliferating spy-versus-spy dynamic taking hold in the sport — even as MLB moved during the 2018 postseason to station league officials in replay rooms to curtail the behavior.
Last season, the Red Sox were among the teams that had pitchers keep sign-sequence cheat sheets in their hats out of concern for sign-stealing.
“Major League Baseball is limiting mound visits because there are too many mound visits because we’re worried about guys stealing signs,” said former Red Sox pitcher Rick Porcello during the season. “When you start altering rules in the game because of espionage, you start realizing this is pretty real, and it’s not just the AL East doing it. It’s everyone.
“But it’s part of the game now. There’s so much technology, so much video, 30 different camera angles where a coach can watch a flex in the forearm. You’ve got first base coaches standing on the foul lines trying to stare at catchers’ signs. It’s real. But it’s part of the game.”
While it’s entirely possible that sign-stealing — even via replay — was widespread in 2018, the Red Sox could still face discipline if MLB finds that they ran afoul of the regulations, particularly after the warning shots fired in 2017.