UPDATE: Alex Cora out as Red Sox manager
Now that Major League Baseball has dropped a hammer on the Astros for sign stealing in the 2017 and 2018 seasons, the spotlight shines on the Red Sox as the league investigates a report by The Athletic that the 2018 World Series title team violated rules by using replay to steal opponents’ sign sequences.
If the Red Sox did engage in such a scheme, the organization could be subject to the same sort of steep penalties as the Astros, particularly given that a) now former manager Alex Cora was portrayed as a mastermind behind the scheme by MLB and b) the Red Sox already had been fined in 2017 for a sign-sequence stealing scheme.
So for what, exactly, are the Red Sox being investigated, and how does that tie into what the Astros did?
Sign stealing is legal when done by players, coaches, and managers through on-field or in-dugout firsthand observation. But the use of technology — particularly electronic equipment — to steal signs and/or sign sequences is prohibited, a point driven home in a March 2018 memo from MLB chief baseball officer Joe Torre to all 30 teams, which reads in part:
“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.”
2017 RED SOX
In some ways, that memo served as an outgrowth of an incident involving the Red Sox the previous year. In September 2017, the commissioner’s office fined the Red Sox for stealing sign sequences via video replay feed and using electronic devices to communicate those sequences to the dugout. In that instance, the Red Sox were found to have:
■ Used a live game feed — intended to determine whether and when to levy video replay challenges to on-field calls — to decipher the signal sequence being used by an opposing team (i.e., a catcher’s first, second or third sign being used to call a pitch);
■ Conveyed that sign sequence to a trainer in the dugout via smart watch (like the use of replay itself, an illegal act based on the use of electronic equipment);
■ Had the trainer or someone else in the dugout signal to runners on second base what sign sequence was being used (a legal act);
■ Had runners on second base signal to a hitter what pitch to expect (a legal act).
The 2017 Astros had a similar starting point before they took their sign stealing in a different direction.
2017 ASTROS, STAGE 1
According to the report MLB released on Monday, at the start of the 2017 season the Astros employed a system similar to the one that the Red Sox were busted for using in late 2017. Initially, according to the report, the team used the live center field feed in its video replay room to determine sign sequences. A player in the video replay room then served as a “runner” to the dugout to relay that sequence information, which was then conveyed to others in the dugout or signaled to a runner on second base.
Early in the 2017 season, according to the report, Cora — then Houston’s bench coach — used the dugout phone to call the replay phone to get sign information. At times, according to the report, the sign sequence was conveyed to the dugout via text to a smart watch or a cellphone near the dugout.
The use of the video replay system to steal sign sequences in its own right represented an illegal act — one that was amplified by the use of the replay phone and/or text messages to run information.
2017 ASTROS, STAGE 2
Like many teams — and with the permission of Major League Baseball — the Astros have a variety of cameras set up in their home park that offer helpful feedback on the mechanics and biomechanics of their players while swinging or pitching. Houston was, in fact, one of the most aggressive adopters of such technology.
However, such cameras are supposed to be used solely for player instruction outside of games, rather than offering in-game feeds. About two months into the 2017 season, according to the MLB report, the Astros started to employ one of those cameras — located in center field — during games.
■ The report says that “Cora arranged” for the installation of a monitor just outside of the Astros’ dugout to offer a live feed of a team camera in center field at Minute Maid Park, which could be used to see a catcher’s signs. Players used the monitor’s live video feed not just to steal sign sequences but to steal the signs.
■ Instead of relaying the signs to the dugout or a runner on base, once the signs had been stolen from the video monitor, Astros players signaled the upcoming pitch type to a hitter by banging a trash can located near the video monitor (usually with a bat). If there was no bang, it usually signaled a fastball. One or two bangs usually identified off-speed pitches. This essentially cut out the middle man and any on-field element involved in sign stealing.
■ In addition to the trash-can-banging system, replay review employees continued their “Stage 1” sign-stealing efforts, conveying sequence information to the dugout. According to the report, both methods of sign stealing were used “in parallel throughout the 2017 season.”
2018 RED SOX PRACTICES IN QUESTION
MLB is currently investigating a report from The Athletic in which three unidentified members of the 2018 Red Sox described efforts by that team during the regular season to use the live feed in the video replay room to steal sign sequences.
That report portrayed the Red Sox as using a system similar to the Astros’ 2017 “Stage 1” efforts, where the live feed was used to steal sign sequences and players then ran that information to the dugout. The article did not suggest that electronic communication devices were employed, and described a system in which the actual sign stealing was accomplished from the field, typically by a runner at second.
If MLB finds evidence that the Red Sox used the replay game feed or any other in-game video feed to steal signals, then it will be up to the discretion of commissioner Rob Manfred to levy penalties.
Alex Speier can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter at @alexspeier.