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MLB's War on Sign-Stealing Shifts to Alex Cora and the Boston Red Sox

Zachary D. Rymer@zachrymerMLB Lead WriterJanuary 8, 2020

Boston Red Sox manager Alex Cora walks to the dugout after batting practice before Game 2 of a baseball American League Championship Series against the Houston Astros on Sunday, Oct. 14, 2018, in Boston. (AP Photo/Charles Krupa)
Charles Krupa/Associated Press

The hot-stove aspect of Major League Baseball's 2019-20 offseason is cooling down. The aspect regarding investigations into cheating scandals, on the other hand, is heating up.

On Tuesday came two updates from the front of MLB's war on electronic sign-stealing. Per ESPN's Jeff Passan, the league's investigation into the Houston Astros, which opened in November, is "in its final stages." Commissioner Rob Manfred should settle on disciplinary measures within the next two weeks.

Less expected was a report from Ken Rosenthal and Evan Drellich of The Athletic that tied the Boston Red Sox to their own sign-stealing scandal.

Per the report, three people who were with the Red Sox during the 2018 season—in which they won 108 regular-season games and the World Series—said "at least some players visited the video replay room during games to learn the sign sequence opponents were using."

In a statement, MLB said this situation also warrants an investigation: "The Commissioner made clear in a September 15, 2017 memorandum to clubs how seriously he would take any future violation of the regulations regarding use of electronic equipment or the inappropriate use of the video replay room. Given these allegations, MLB will commence an investigation into this matter."

The reference to the 2017 memo is a less-than-subtle "we warned you" to the Red Sox. That memo was, after all, born out of an investigation into their use of an Apple watch to relay stolen signs from their video replay room to their dugout.

The New York Yankees, who triggered that 2017 investigation by filing a complaint to the league in August, got caught up in the fallout after the Red Sox accused them of spying by way of center field cameras. Yet MLB put its foot down more heavily on Boston by levying a larger fine.

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The twist this time around for Boston involves the presence of Alex Cora.

Elise Amendola/Associated Press

Before Cora became the Red Sox's manager ahead of the 2018 season, he was the Astros' bench coach under manager A.J. Hinch during their World Series-winning campaign in 2017. According to a different report from Rosenthal and Drellich, it was in this capacity that Cora "played a key role in devising the sign-stealing system" that landed the Astros in hot water.

The system, also per Rosenthal and Drellich, consisted of players and team employees watching live feeds of games, attempting to decode the opposing catcher's signs and, if successful, relaying the expected pitch in real time to Astros hitters using loud banging noises.

As illustrated by Jomboy, here's how it seemed to work in practice (warning: NSFW):

Jomboy @Jomboy_

Astros using cameras to steal signs, a breakdown https://t.co/rncm6qzXxw

The revelation casts doubt on how much of the Astros offense's historic success in 2017 was rooted in the talent of their hitters. Certainly, members of the 2017 Los Angeles Dodgers, who lost to the Astros in the seven-game World Series, have an especially valid right to gripe.

"If you find out some teams cheated and they have to pay a big fine or someone is banned forever or they lose their job ... they can't be in this game," Dodgers closer Kenley Jansen told Mike DiGiovanna of the Los Angeles Times.

Passan reported that though he is no longer with the Astros, Cora could nonetheless be disciplined for his actions with the team. If he is, the question then becomes whether he might be penalized again as a result of MLB's investigation into the Red Sox.

The difference in their case is that, though Red Sox players using the replay room as a means to decipher signs would be crossing the line, that's seemingly as far as it went. Unlike with Houston, there's no indication Boston used an elaborate system to broadcast incoming pitches to hitters while they were at the plate.

Moreover, the Red Sox's supposed sign-stealing measures were apparently not "effective or even viable" during the postseason, per Rosenthal and Drellich, in part because MLB had the bright idea to monitor the replay rooms.

If that's true, then the Red Sox's 11-3 romp through the Yankees, Astros and Dodgers was accomplished without any undue advantages. It's notable that they didn't exactly crush their way to their World Series victory, as they hit just .242 with a .724 OPS throughout the playoffs.

David J. Phillip/Associated Press

As for whether the Red Sox could have even gotten to the postseason without stealing signs, there's no ignoring the quantum leap their offense took from 2017 to 2018. Boston hitters boosted their OPS from .736 to .792 and their runs scored from 4.8 per game to 5.4.

An overall change in approach was perhaps the foundation for that improvement. These figures show Red Sox hitters generally got more aggressive inside the strike zone without also becoming more aggressive (excepting off-speed pitches) outside the zone:

Data courtesy of BaseballSavant.MLB.com

However, it's a reach to suggest all this derived from Boston's alleged sign-stealing system.

Cora's insistence on a more aggressive offensive approach before the 2018 season even began must be taken into account. The Red Sox also had some personnel turnover in their offense between 2017 and 2018, including the notable addition of eager-swinging slugger J.D. Martinez.

In other words, narrowing down how much the Red Sox may have benefited specifically from stealing signs is no easier than it is with the Astros. Despite the sophistication of the latter's apparent system, FanGraphs' Jake Mailhot couldn't pinpoint exactly how it may have impacted their offensive output.

Yet as far as MLB has to be concerned, the minutiae is beside the point.

The league simply can't have a playing field that's tilted toward one, two or several bad actors. And while the act of stealing signs within the lines is nothing new and essentially impossible to police, using technology to facilitate the process is a decidedly modern issue that can and should be policed.

As everyday policies go, continuing to monitor replay rooms is a no-brainer. And since merely fining the Red Sox in 2017 may not have worked as a deterrent, it seems like a given that MLB will get a clearer message out by hitting the Astros with fines, suspensions and possibly even draft penalties.

Despite the relatively petty nature of their alleged sign-stealing operation, the Red Sox might not necessarily get off lightly. As noted by Passan, Manfred could effectively treat them as a repeat offender:

Jeff Passan @JeffPassan

Rob Manfred on Sept. 15, 2017 regarding the investigation into Boston's illicit use of an Apple Watch: "I have received absolute assurances from the Red Sox that there will be no future violations of this type." This undoubtedly will factor into any potential discipline for Sox.

In short, those who would steal signs with the help of technology are about to be put on notice.

          

Stats courtesy of Baseball Reference, FanGraphs and Baseball Savant.

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