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Technology Changing the Cheating Landscape in Baseball

Technology Changing the Cheating Landscape in Baseball Boston Red SoxTechnology has become more prominent in Major League Baseball over the last few seasons. QuesTec has allowed balls and strikes to be determined by machine, although umpires are still the cornerstone of officiating. PITCHf/x has allowed tracking the movement of pitches thrown and balls put in play. Statcast from MLB has given fans remarkable numbers that don’t mean much to the average viewer.

The Boston Red Sox have found a way to use technology to exploit the slow and time-consuming process of stealing signs. A runner on 2nd base would normally have to see a catcher’s sequence of signs, figure out the pattern, and then relay the sign to the hitter. Boston supposedly used camera footage to track the signs called, decipher the most likely pitch actually called for, sent the message to a trainer in the dugout who then relayed the sign to a player to passed along onto the field of play.

It sounds a little complicated, but it happens very fast in real time when you consider how much time there is in-between a catcher giving a sign and the pitch being thrown. Electronic devices are supposed to be banned from dugouts, but that hasn’t stopped the Red Sox from using electronic jewelry to give their hitters an upper hand in at-bats.

Stealing signs has been a part of the game since it was invented. There are no rules against tradition sign stealing; the pitcher can’t make a runner close his eyes while the catcher gives signs. This is part of the unwritten rules that lurk amongst the rules of baseball. While some players and coaches view sign stealing as crafty and a way to gain an edge, others view it as bush league and an insult to the integrity of the game.

No matter which side you are on, there will always be sign stealing. For younger players, there are some teams who speak only Spanish that play teams that speak no Spanish. Rather than give signs, some coaches merely tell their players what to do in Spanish. All it takes is one player on the opposing team knowing what is being said and secretly relay it to his teammates. This wouldn’t happen at the Major League level, but the concept is the same.

Technology Changing the Cheating Landscape in Baseball Boston Red SoxCatchers have normally been the person to give a pitcher signs. They choose to give signs even with a runner on 2nd base. If the runner can decipher the sequence and give the hitter a sign of his own on what pitch is coming, that is pure gamesmanship. When a team uses binoculars or TV cameras to spy on the signs and relay them to the dugout, then that is cheating.

One way for Rob Manfred to keep the game as traditional as possible is to strictly enforce the no electronic devices in the dugout policy. Teams are permitted to use them in tunnels that are steps away from the dugout. There are phones in the dugout, and on the other end are personnel with endless screens and camera angles in front of them. Apple watches are allowed.

The commissioner needs to limit allowable devices to stop watches. That’s it. No screens from the clubhouse to the field. One phone to the bullpen, and one red light signaled by the press box if they want to initiate a challenge. This would help with speed of play as well as limiting the number of eyes and ears that are interacting with the field of play.

There are enough cameras and angles and TV coverage that teams can watch replays of video if they need to after the game. During the game, there should be as limited an amount of technology as possible on the field.

As far as any punishment for the Red Sox for what has already occurred, there is no precedent for this kind of cheating. It is difficult to impose suspensions on players; fines might be acceptable with sufficient evidence. Vacating wins is completely out of the question. Even if a player knows what pitch is coming, there is still a competitive balance that plays out and keeps competition in play. Hitters have known what pitch is coming before, and they will know again. Punishment would have to come off the field and not on it.

The last point I’ll make is that baseball has heavily evolved over the years. From the size and speed of players, to the quality of materials used, to the technology teams and the league use to track and analyze statistics. Baseball is no longer Knickerbocker pants and daytime World Series games played in front of polite fans in a shirt and tie. Things get bigger and better and so has baseball. But coherent and blatant cheating is both unethical and bad for the game. For the rest of the season, cameras will follow every trainer in a dugout who checks his heart rate on a watch. Hopefully Manfred takes this matter seriously and imposes strict and specific updated policies in the offseason.

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