An Update on MLB Sign-Stealing and Why Alex Cora (and Fans) Should Be Worried

The Houston Astros may have become the poster children for illegal sign-stealing, but they definitely weren’t the first or only perpetrators. When official news broke about their illegal use of a center field camera and a garbage can, we already also knew about a previous scheme that the Boston Red Sox ran using an Apple Watch and live footage from news reports during the 2017 season.

What we only partially knew at that time though was that it was the rival New York Yankees that turned the Red Sox in to the league. We also knew that, in retaliation, the Red Sox went back to MLB and claimed the Yankees were doing the same, as well as using their bullpen phone illegally. Both teams faced fines for their activity with the Red Sox being penalized a larger sum than the Yankees.

What we didn’t know until now, was that the illegal use of that bullpen phone was essentially harmless. In a game in 2017 one member of the Yankees’ coaching staff picked up the phone and used it to contact the replay room and ask if they thought a particular pitch was a strike or not. That was it. Technically illegal, but really, no advantage came of it. They could have literally done the same thing themselves on the delayed television feed in the clubhouse. However, we also know that that illegal phone use is what the Yankees were punished for. We know this because after MLB investigated in 2017, they found no evidence that the Yankees were using a live feed to steal signs like the Red Sox suggested.

We now know that to be false as the Athletic has reported that the Yankees did indeed use their video room to decode signs from 2015 thru 2017. Now to be clear, MLB didn’t really even start making any type of stink about this type of activity until 2017. Any time before that it is practically certain that what the Yankees were doing was unethical, but not directly illegal by official rule. For all we know, they may have stopped after paying their respective fine in 2017.

This first interaction between the Commissioner’s office, the Yankees and the Red Sox would be the impetus for statements from the League directly saying that any future wrongdoing would be punished more severely. From the moment of the Apple Watch and bullpen phone, this became a big deal. It should also be noted that the Red Sox fine was announced on September 15th, 2017. The now famous video showing White Sox pitcher Danny Farquhar changing signs due to the Astros banging a dugout trash can occurred on September 21st, a mere 6 days later, but indeed after the announcement of a crackdown on this type of activity.

And that is why we wait today for Commissioner Rob Manfred and his staff to levy punishment upon the Astros. Claims are that this is the most thorough investigation that MLB has ever performed and that up to 75,000 pieces of electronic correspondence have been reviewed as well as the interview of countless team personnel. Meanwhile, sources claim that the looming punishment for Houston and its staff members is likely to not only be brought down in the next two weeks, but to also be “severe”.

Beyond all this, the Athletic has now reported that the 2018 World Series Champion Red Sox also were using cameras and their instantly replay room in order to steal signs. A staff member viewing this screen would decipher the opposing catcher’s signs for that day and then tell a passerby player what the sign system was. That information was then likely disseminated through either each player in the lineup or one of the base coaches, with the goal being that base-runners would then relay signs to the batter.

I will say, this is still a dirty system that made illegal use of the camera tech provided to each team, but it was at least a mere speed up of a process that could have been done by the players themselves. The monitor created a steady, consistent ability to get opposing signs down pat, something that would have been possible through getting a runner on second base, just less efficiently. Think of the Red Sox as using a calculator on an elementary school math test where you are supposed to show your work. Its not nearly as blatant, swift or comprehensive as what the Astros were doing. You can kinda squint your eyes and convince yourself it isn’t as big of a deal. Still, we now have World Series champions implicated in this type of cheating for consecutive years.

And now, this opens up a whole extra round of investigations for MLB. Once they are done with the Astros, the Red Sox are sure to be next to become scrutinized. The one common thread between both teams is current Astros manager Alex Cora. Cora was the Astros bench coach in 2016 and 2017 before being named skipper of the Red Sox in 2018. That means he was in the dugout when the Astros were doing their best garage band impression in 2017 and again when the Red Sox were playing telephone in 2018. I would not be surprised at all if in due time Manfred makes Cora a scapegoat for a lot of this wrongdoing. Yes, people like Astros Manager AJ Hinch and General Manager Jeff Luhnow with face punishment. However, I fear it will all be too easy for MLB to link the circumstantial evidence together, point their collective finger directly at Cora and levy the steepest punishment of all on him, followed by patting themselves on the back and going back to distracting us with ideas of a pitch clock and universal designated hitter.

When I last wrote about this subject, I specifically highlighted that the fine people at the Athletic stated that the Astros were only a part of a larger, wide-spread problem. I continue to believe that to be the case, and will continue to, even after Cora will be made the sacrificial lamb (to be clear, I really am speculating here, it just really wouldn’t surprise me at this point). The easiest way for baseball to get rid of this scandal is to find someone to blame and move on, and I fear that is exactly what they will do.

It says a lot about this situation as well that back in 2017 when the Red Sox got accused of cheating by the Yankees they were able to come out and say “yeah… but they were doing it too!!!” and be absolutely right. For one, it presents a situation where teams can weaponize allegations against each other. Its a system of “don’t tattle on us, because we will do it right back”. Now, with the promise of stricter penalties against team personnel it even becomes a bit of a nuclear option, a way to the get staff of one of your rivals potentially removed. Secondly, it becomes clear that teams confidently know that other teams are even operating this way in the first place. That should be enough in itself to suggest that this goes deeper than just the Red Sox, Yankees and Astros.

It makes me wonder where this ends? Is every team that isn’t tanking doing this (because if you’re tanking why the heck would you look for an advantage)? If that is the case, and we vacate the 2017 and 2018 World Series for anyone who cheated, does that leave say… the 2017 Atlanta Braves and a tie between the 2018 Cincinnati Reds and Texas Rangers as World Champions? I know I’m getting carried away, but I am trying to make a point on how deep this could go. It just seems all too easy for MLB to chalk this controversy up to a couple of bad apples and then move on. If they really want to eradicate this problem, whether it is to make the game ethically better or to cease the effect it has on pace of play, then they will have to do better.

They probably won’t.

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