As long as humans are competing against one another, someone is going to try to gain an advantage. In Major League Baseball, that advantage can come in several ways. Corked bats allow for quicker swings, and pine tar can help pitchers gain better control over their pitches, but sign-stealing has recently taken over public consciousness. In November 2019, the Houston Astros were implicated in a sign-stealing scandal; now, it seems like the Boston Red Sox were also pushing the boundaries of fair play.
While the Astros’ efforts were decidedly low-tech, the Red Sox relied on modern technology to gain an advantage.
The Houston Astros sign-stealing scandal
When modern baseball fans think of cheating, they’re more likely to remember the steroid era than throwing spitballs or stealing signs. While we might think of the latter practice as something confined to the history books—like tales of a New York Giants’ coach looking out a clubhouse window with a telescope—current teams are still looking to gain an edge at the plate.
In November 2019, The Athletic published an article explaining how the Houston Astros had reportedly been stolen signs during their 2017 run to the World Series title. The team had a camera in center field, provide a view of the opposing catcher’s signs; that feed was sent to a monitor in the clubhouse tunnel. A staff member kept tabs on the screen, then banged on a trash can to alert batters that a paticular pitch was coming.
Major League Baseball promptly started investigating the report, speaking to current and former members of the Astros organization. While we’re still waiting on a formal decision, punishment should be hande down “soon.”
The Boston Red Sox use the replay room to get ahead
The Houston Astros, however, aren’t the only team to reportedly steal signs. In January 2020, The Athletic also reported that the 2018 Boston Red Sox were cheating. While their technique was a little different, the results were the same.
According to the report, Red Sox players would dip into the replay room, where staffers analyze the game to prepare for potential challenges and check out the catcher’s signs. They would then carry that message to the dugout, where it was passed along to base runners. Those players would glance at the catcher and warn the batter what was coming. It’s a similar scheme to how the club used Apple Watches during 2017.
As with the Houston Astros’ sign-stealing, the main issue is the use of technology. While figuring out signals on your own if fair game, looking at a zoomed-in video is generally considered a bridge too far.
How can Major League Baseball stop-sign stealing?
Now that word has broken about a second sign-stealing scandal, Major League Baseball will presumably take action. According to Tom Verducci, the league is considering two options.
The first, which has previously been suggested by Joe Girardi, would allow pitchers and catchers to speak with headsets, similar to NFL coaches and quarterbacks. If there are no physical signals, there’s nothing for a camera to potentially see. The league is also reportedly considering cracking down on team video rooms, limiting their in-game technology to only replay monitors.
No matter what happens, teams will find new ways to push the envelope. When the World Series is on the line, it takes an honorable—and confident—man to turn down an advantage.