Baseball Espionage

Spies, secret cameras, stolen messages. This has all of the makings of a James Bond movie, but it was just the latest controversy in the Red Sox and Yankees rivalry.

This is one of the oldest and most intense rivalries in all of sports. Divisional foes, the “curse of the Bambino” and numerous fights, including Jimmy Piersall and Billy Martin under the stands in Boston, and the infamous fight in the 2003 ALCS, where we saw Don Zimmer charge at Pedro Martinez, and subsequently get thrown to the ground.

The rivalry took another bizarre turn when the Yankees accused the Red Sox of stealing signs and tipping off their hitters to what pitches were being thrown via videos sent to an Apple Watch worn by a trainer. A formal complaint was filed, with video evidence and ultimately the Red Sox organization admitted to it. Boston also accused the Yankees of using a television feed to do the same. So what does that mean?

Well stealing signs has been a controversial way of trying to gain a competitive edge in baseball for, well, forever. Stealing signs is not officially against the rules, but it’s one of baseballs glorious unwritten rules. If a hitter knows what type of pitch is coming, they will have the advantage of not having to adjust in the fraction of a second while the pitch is in mid air, en route to the plate. If you think about it, knowing a breaking ball is coming at around 80mph, a hitter can sit on that, wait back and look for the spin on the ball. In some cases, catchers will also give the desired location of the pitch through the same sequence of signs. So imagine you’re a hitter and just found out that the next pitch will be a curveball, on the outside corner. You as the hitter will see the ball, know it’s not a 95mph fastball, which you may have been expecting otherwise, and wait for it to make the bend, and attack it. That doesn’t necessarily mean the hitter will be successful, but it sure does give them a far better chance. So what happens next?

Major League Baseball will have video evidence, and an admission of guilt from the Red Sox while making their determination. That’s pretty damning to the Boston organization. But how does it stack up against other incidents?In the technology age of baseball, when the Cardinals were caught hacking into the Astros database, their Scouting Director was issued a lifetime ban, and a 46 month prison sentence. The organization was fined $2 million (paid to the Astros), and forfeit two draft picks. That’s not that bad unless you are Chris Correa, the aforementioned former Scouting Director.

The Dodgers were the focus of an investigation last year when they were caught using laser range finders to position their defenders in the outfield as well as painting markers on the field. MLB did not punish the Dodgers for using the devices, but starting this year, they added “a prohibition of the use of any markers on the field that can create a tangible reference system for fielders”.

What we have in this case is probably somewhere in between the two instances mentioned above. While stealing signs is frowned upon, it isn’t illegal. The use of the watch however, is illegal. This was definitely an organized effort, and I’d imagine a punishment of some sort. I don’t expect it to be very severe unless commissioner, Rob Manfred uses this to set a precedent. The infraction is minor, and shouldn’t be more than a slap on the wrist.

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