A couple of weeks ago, I was having a conversation with a baseball scout who had been watching the Los Angeles Dodgers quite a bit recently. This was before the Dodgers dropped 10 of 11 entering Wednesday, back when they were on pace to win 115 games. The scout was blown away. The Dodgers, he said, do so many things right each and every night to win games, and he started ticking off traits, including . . .
“They’re the best I’ve seen at stealing signs and relaying them to the hitter,” he said. “They’ve got it down.”
That same day, I was asking Sean Doolittle, the Nationals’ closer, about his preparations for entering games: what inning he begins stretching out, how he predicts when he might be used, what sort of mental and physical checklist he goes through. Another long list came forth. And then . . .
“I like to see who’s coming up,” Doolittle said, “and I may go back to the iPad and go over the scouting reports one more time as a refresher.”
One day in a baseball season. Two separate, unrelated conversations. And a potentially toxic mix: the time-tested art of pushing the envelope combined with most modern technology.
On Tuesday, the New York Times reported what, on the face of it, is an explosive story: Major League Baseball is investigating the Boston Red Sox for stealing signs from the New York Yankees and relaying them to players using an Apple Watch affixed to the wrist of one of their athletic trainers. The Yankees, the Times said, responded by training one of the cameras from their YES Network on the Boston dugout, trying to swipe signs back.
The story has everything you’d want: the sport’s most bitter rivals, embroiled in a pennant race, engaging in espionage, and counterespionage, in hopes of getting an edge.
But really, these two forces — the competitive urge to gain an advantage, and modern sports’ inevitable embrace of technology — have long been intertwined. It’s an awkward marriage.
Those two conversations in one day show how ingrained each is in the day-to-day life of a Major League Baseball team: Players and coaches spend hours studying tendencies not just from the dugout but on video as well — because MLB’s use of video replay to challenge umpiring calls means each club has a monitor not far from its dugout. And tablets are a regular part of preparation and analysis, a part of baseball life just as they’re . . . well, a part of nearly everyone’s life.
So at one level, it’s not surprising that technology and sign stealing merged. It’s actually kind of surprising we haven’t seen more similar situations. If sign stealing — standing on second base, figuring out what pitch the catcher is calling for, and relaying that to the batter — is an accepted part of the game (and it is), and baseball teams are incorporating new technologies in their preparation and scouting more and more every day (and they are), they were on a collision course.
“Electronics makes things easier, more accessible — and more dangerous,” Yankees Manager Joe Girardi told reporters Tuesday in Baltimore.
Any “dangers,” though, would be minimized if MLB could articulate and implement strong policies about what’s permitted and what’s not. Right now — and the Red Sox-Yankees imbroglio highlights this — there’s too much gray area. That in-between territory isn’t terribly different from other forms of envelope pushing in baseball. The use of pine tar or other sticky substances by pitchers — to gain a better grip on the ball — is both illegal and generally accepted. How much more gray can you get?
The use of advanced analytics and other modern means of evaluation and preparation are accepted and even celebrated in baseball. Implementing the conclusions baseball research departments come to, however, can be clunky. Early in the 2016 season, the cutting-edge Dodgers took defensive placement to a previously unseen level by painting dots in the outfield so their defenders would have a baseline idea of where to stand — and would shift based on the dots, which were positioned by a laser system not unlike a GPS. When the Dodgers wanted to do this for games at CitiField, the host New York Mets balked.
So what’s cheating? Teams have altered defensive positioning based on who’s up and who’s pitching for generations, long before modern over-shifts came into vogue. The line that was crossed then — both by the Dodgers with outfield alignment and by the Red Sox with sign stealing — was electronic.
“It’s the electronic equipment that creates the violation,” Commissioner Rob Manfred told reporters Tuesday in Boston.
So the question becomes: What kind of punishment do the Red Sox deserve for mixing these two elements together?
They deserve to be punished, sure. But in a sport in which stealing signs is a part of history — indeed, a part of history that can be romanticized in folklore and even admired as a craft — and in which technology is playing an increasing role, is it clear that the punishment must be harsh?
Taking away a draft pick would be harsh, because it impedes the development of a franchise. Suspending a player would be harsh. The Times reported that Dustin Pedroia and Brock Holt were two Red Sox players seen on video submitted by the Yankees taking interest in information supplied by the trainer. Take one or both out of September games, and the playoff picture could be altered.
Such punishments seem like a stretch. What’s more appropriate is a fine. Fine the franchise. Fine President of Baseball Operations Dave Dombrowski for allowing this to happen on his watch. Fine the individuals involved.
But let’s be honest: If sign stealing is part of baseball’s culture, and technology is in bullpens and dugouts every single night, this was bound to happen. The result we want here isn’t one that alters Boston’s path to the playoffs. What we want is another wrinkle should the two franchises meet again in October. We want tension. We want animosity. If it took an Apple Watch to create it, that’s great.
For more by Barry Svrluga, visit washingtonpost.com/svrluga.