On Monday night, MLB commissioner Rob Manfred reached out to Red Sox principal owner (and Globe owner) John Henry to let him know that the league planned to launch an investigation into the Red Sox’ reported sign-stealing practices — including the use of live game feeds in the video replay room — during the 2018 season. So what does that mean?
■ The alleged infraction
The report in The Athletic describes a steady traffic flow of uniformed Red Sox personnel from the dugout to the video review area (a short walk) to identify which sign in a sequence was being used by the opposing pitcher and catcher. The information was then relayed by foot from the replay area to the dugout. A player who reached base (particularly second base) would then be able to indicate to a hitter what pitch to anticipate.
Sign-stealing that relies on nothing but human discernment and communication is legal. However, if the Red Sox used electronic devices — including the video replay feed — that would be illegal, and subject to league punishment.
In September 2017, MLB fined the Red Sox for using an Apple Watch to communicate sign sequences from the video replay room to the dugout. Manfred sent a memo to the owners, CEOs, presidents, and general managers of all 30 teams making clear the prohibition on electronic equipment and noting that future violations could result in more severe punishment “including, but not limited to, the forfeiture of selections in the draft.”
On March 27, 2018, MLB chief baseball officer Joe Torre issued a follow-up memo:
“Electronic equipment, including game feeds in the Club replay room and/or video room, may never be used during a game for the purpose of stealing the opposing team’s signs. . . . To be clear, the use of any equipment in the clubhouse or in a Club’s replay or video rooms to decode an opposing Club’s signs during the game violates this Regulation.”
“Clubs (and Club employees) who are found to have utilized equipment in the replay or video rooms for such purposes during a game will be subject to discipline by the Commissioner’s Office.”
At least initially, the focus of MLB’s investigation is on the Red Sox’ behavior during the 2018 regular season — the period identified by the Athletic article. While the March 27, 2018, memo announced that resident security agents would periodically enter the video replay area to conduct spot inspections, at the start of the 2018 postseason and throughout 2019, MLB stationed RSAs in the video replay areas on a full-time basis.
■ The investigation
MLB’s Department of Investigations is responsible for fact-finding. The league will conduct interviews with current and former members of the organization and seek correspondence (e-mail, texts, Slack, etc.) as part of its information-gathering.
It’s difficult to say how long the investigation will take. In 2017, MLB’s investigation into the Red Sox lasted roughly three weeks from the time the Yankees filed their complaint. In the 2018 postseason, when an Astros employee was caught taking video of the Red Sox dugout at Fenway Park, MLB’s investigation lasted just a few days.
The current MLB investigation into Houston’s 2017 sign-stealing, which reportedly involved the use of live video feeds to steal signs and then the use of a metal trash can as a gong to communicate pitch types to batters, is nearing its conclusion after roughly two months.
In other words, there’s no template for the duration of an investigation.
■ Degrees of wrongdoing
One could view the reported Red Sox sign-stealing of 2018 as less egregious than the 2017 infractions, given that the alleged 2018 communiques occurred from person to person rather than via electronic messages, though the video replay system was the original source of the information.
That same person-to-person system likewise would be distinct from the Astros’ trash-can banging.
That said, the Red Sox had been duly warned by the Commissioner’s Office that any further use of electronic devices to steal signs would be subject to greater punishment. In an MLB news release in September 2017, Manfred said he received assurances from the Red Sox that they would comply with the rules.
■ Who could be penalized?
Red Sox manager Alex Cora inevitably will be a focal point of the investigation, given that he was also bench coach for the 2017 Astros. MLB interviewed Cora as part of its investigation into Houston’s sign-stealing system, and even setting aside the question of what happened with the 2018 Red Sox, it’s possible that he could be suspended as a result of Houston’s practices.
As Red Sox manager in 2018, Cora could be held in an even greater position of accountability — particularly if his awareness of and involvement in any infractions can be demonstrated. Of course, it’s worth noting that when MLB fined the Sox in 2017, neither the manager (John Farrell) nor the front office was determined to have been aware of the scheme.
That said, according to the subsequent memos circulated to teams, GMs (or their equivalents) and field managers were responsible for ensuring compliance — meaning that direct involvement by Cora or members of the front office might not be needed to issue a punishment.
MLB seems inclined to consider punishment at the organizational level (fines, draft-pick penalties, international bonus money) as well as at the individual level for front-office members, managers, and/or coaches. However, players are not being considered for potential punishment in connection with the 2017 Astros, and likely wouldn’t be subject to punishment in the case of the Red Sox.
■ What are the precedents for punishment?
There are none — or, at least, none that are directly relevant. The September 2017 statement by Manfred and the MLB memos suggested that the fines employed in the past would not define the range of future penalties. MLB’s concern about sign-stealing has grown, both because the avenues for doing so are becoming ever more sophisticated and because paranoia about the behavior is having an ever-greater impact on the field.
Against that backdrop, if MLB wants to deter the use of electronic devices for sign-stealing, it probably will have to start levying more significant punishments — hence the possibility of suspensions for uniformed personnel.