Major League Baseball is investigating claims that the Boston Red Sox used electronic communication to steal opponents' signs and relay them to players during games. The Red Sox reportedly have admitted to such activity, though the investigation is ongoing, and commissioner Rob Manfred expects it will be completed before the end of the season.
What is sign stealing, and how does it help?
Sign stealing is the act of decoding an opponents' signs -- either the catcher's signaling which pitch to throw or the third-base coach's signs to the batter. A runner on second base will often attempt to figure out the catcher's signs to gain a tactical advantage by relaying the signs to the batter. Although it is a long baseball tradition and usually viewed as "part of the game," sometimes it is viewed as a breach of etiquette.
How were the Red Sox stealing signs?
According to the report in the New York Times, a Red Sox video replay personnel member would pick up the catcher's signs from the video feed, determine the sequencing when a runner was on second base and relay that information to a team trainer, who was wearing an Apple Watch. The trainer could then alert a player in the dugout or signal to the runner on second, who would relay the signs to the batter.
The New York Yankees filed a complaint to the commissioner's office about two weeks ago, and the Times report said the Red Sox admitted that the operation had been in place for several weeks, though the Red Sox told investigators that neither manager John Farrell nor general manager Dave Dombrowski were aware of the sign stealing.
Is it illegal to steal signs?
It is not illegal to steal signs. There is no rule against it, and certain players and coaches excel at the art. There is, however, a directive dating to 2001 that prohibits the use of electronic devices in the dugout or the use of binoculars. The use of the Apple Watch would clearly violate this directive.
How were the Red Sox caught?
Apparently, the Yankees have long suspected the Red Sox of stealing signs. Video evidence showed the trainer looking at his watch and then relaying information to players -- Dustin Pedroia in one instance and Brock Holt in another.
Did it help the Red Sox?
It's hard to know. The Times report said the Red Sox used the operation in games against the Yankees and other teams, and the Yankees specifically complained about a series at Fenway Park in August.
Through the first three series between the teams this season, the Red Sox struggled mightily against the Yankees whenever there was a runner on second base:
Nine games against the Yankees through July 16: 2-for-43
Aug. 11-13 series at Yankee Stadium: 5-for-23
Aug. 18-20 series at Fenway Park: 9-for-24
Aug. 31-Sept. 3 series at Yankee Stadium: 0-for-22
Basically, there's no logical pattern here. It seems odd that the Yankees would file a protest when the Red Sox had been doing no damage against them -- with or without runners on base. In those first nine games, the Red Sox scored just 16 runs and were shut out three times. If they were stealing signs at that time, it sure wasn't helping, at least not against the Yankees. Of course, the Yankees could have been concerned that stealing signs was helping the Red Sox against other teams.
We can look at data before and after July 18.
Through July 18:
With a runner on second: .253/.360/.381
No runner on second: .266/.329/.417
If the Red Sox were stealing signs before July 18, the evidence suggests again that it wasn't really helping.
After July 18:
With a runner on second: .272/.360/.463
No runner on second: .244/.314/.389
The one game at Fenway in August remains the outlier in head-to-head contests against the Yankees. In a 9-6 win on Aug. 18, Rafael Devers slammed a home run off Jordan Montgomery with a runner on second in the second inning, and the Red Sox went 5-for-8 in that game when a runner was on second base.
How common is electronic sign stealing?
Many in the game believe it to be fairly common. Yankees manager Joe Girardi said Tuesday that the Yankees basically assume everyone is doing it. Just last October, Red Sox pitching coach Carl Willis accused the Indians of stealing Rick Porcello's signs during the playoffs, which led to Terry Francona's great quip: "We barely know our own signs."
In recent years, there have been accusations levied against the Blue Jays and their legendary "man in white" in center field. In the 2015 ALCS between the Royals and Blue Jays, Edinson Volquez said teammate Johnny Cueto told him the Jays had been stealing signs in Game 3. "He said, 'They got a guy in center field.'"
In 2010, MLB reprimanded the Phillies when bullpen coach Mick Billmeyer used binoculars to steal signs against the Rockies. In 1997, teams accused the Mets of stealing signs by using cameras. The Mets admitted that cameras were used to tape opposing coaches and managers, but the team wasn't punished. Don Baylor told the Times that year that he was aware of the Orioles' using video in the 1980s to steal signs.
The most famous example of sign stealing was the 1951 New York Giants, who used a sophisticated buzzer system to relay signs as they made one of the greatest pennant-race comebacks in major league history.
Will the Red Sox be punished?
Manfred wouldn't comment on that on Tuesday, saying that he wasn't "going to give interim reports on an ongoing investigation. What I can tell you is this: I take any issue that affects the play of the game on the field extremely seriously. I do believe that this is a charged situation from a competitive perspective."
No team or player has been punished for stealing signs, so it seems very unlikely that, for example, the Red Sox would have victories taken away. If Manfred deems this a serious violation of a league directive, he could punish the Red Sox similarly to how the Cardinals were punished when scouting director Chris Correa hacked into the Astros' computer system. The Cardinals were docked two draft picks and fined $2 million (Correa ended up in prison).
Wait, now the Red Sox are accusing the Yankees of stealing signs, too? How strange is this?
Well, what did you expect? Here's the sad part of all this: The Red Sox and Yankees don't play each other again in the regular season. How can the schedule-makers not have them playing each other late in September?
Can you think of any other cheating scandals with Boston-area sports teams?
Nothing pops to mind. Anything you can recall?