Major League Baseball's investigation into the Boston Red Sox's electronic sign-stealing scheme has concluded with something like a shrug.
More than three months after a January report from Ken Rosenthal and Evan Drellich of The Athletic got the ball rolling, MLB announced Wednesday that the Red Sox will not be punished as harshly as the Houston Astros were for their own sign-stealing scheme.
The only real blow to Boston is a forfeited pick from the second round of the 2020 draft. Meanwhile, Commissioner Rob Manfred suspended already-ousted manager Alex Cora and replay operator J.T. Watkins through the 2020 postseason.
For their part, the Red Sox have accepted Manfred's ruling and apologized:
The obligatory question, of course, is why the Red Sox got off so light compared to the Astros.
Upon concluding its investigation into Houston in January, the league revealed that it had found a "banging scheme" that functioned in real time throughout the regular season and postseason in 2017. For this, it issued one-year suspensions for general manager Jeff Luhnow and manager AJ Hinch and dinged the organization with a $5 million fine and stripped draft picks for 2020 and 2021.
However, no players were punished even though Manfred's report concluded that the banging scheme was "player-driven." Moreover, the Astros got to keep the World Series title they won in '17.
As such, the general reaction both inside and outside the baseball world was that Manfred didn't hit the Astros hard enough. So had the circumstances allowed for it, he might have been able to save face by throwing the proverbial book at the Red Sox.
But in this case, the circumstances ultimately didn't allow for that.
All told, MLB's investigation into the Red Sox came down to what one guy may or may not have done wrong.
That would be Watkins. As a member of the Red Sox's advance scouting staff during the 2018 season, in which they won 108 games and the World Series, part of his job included decoding sign sequences before and after games. And to be clear, that much was perfectly legal.
But since Watkins also served as the Red Sox's video replay monitor, the league questioned whether his access to in-game video allowed him to decode signs during games. Manfred's report states that Watkins denied doing so. Likewise, "more than 30" of the players interviewed for the investigation denied having any knowledge of Watkins decoding signs during games.
Other players, however, "suspected or had indications that Watkins may have revised the sign sequence information that he had provided to players prior to the game through his review of the game feed in the replay room." Coupled with how Watkins was also a "key participant" in the "Apple Watch Incident" that earned the Red Sox a fine in 2017, MLB had enough on him to allow for punishment.
Otherwise, absolution is the main theme of Manfred's report.
He noted that, unlike the Astros' scheme, the one used by the Red Sox would have worked only when they had a runner on second base. And while he found that said scheme was in use during the 2018 regular season, there was "insufficient" evidence that it lasted into the '18 postseason or 2019 regular season.
While some Red Sox players obviously suspected that Watkins was up to something, Manfred noted that the league rules which prohibit using replay stations to steal signs were "not effectively communicated" to them. Yet he didn't find fault with Cora or the Red Sox's front office as he couldn't prove that they "either knew or should have known" about Watkins.
Indeed, Cora was only suspended retroactively for his role in the Astros scheme. As noted by ESPN's Buster Olney on Twitter, the door now seems wide open for the Red Sox to re-hire him in 2021:
This is not to say, however, that Manfred's findings are completely question-proof.
His report on the Astros fingered Cora as a key figure in developing the club's banging scheme in 2017, yet his report on the Red Sox would have everyone believe that he left his sign-stealing expertise behind when Boston hired him as its manager for 2018. That seems implausible in light of what the '18 Red Sox achieved.
Further, not many people are going to buy that the Red Sox weren't bending rules to steal signs during the 2018 postseason. Even if their scheme only worked when they had a runner at second base, that would help explain why they crushed it in those situations that October:
But fair as it is to ask questions, Manfred's report contains the only concrete answers for the time being. And there's no faulting it for a lack of thoroughness as the league interviewed 65 witnesses and reviewed "tens of thousands" of emails, texts, photos and video clips.
To boot, it's not exactly surprising that the Red Sox weren't punished as harshly as the Astros.
Rosenthal's and Drellich's initial report made it clear that what they were alleged to have done in 2018 was "less egregious" than what the Astros had done in 2017. The commissioner's report bears that out, so he had little choice but to stay under the precedent he had set with Houston's penalties.
Manfred might have justified harsher treatment for the Red Sox by treating them as repeat offenders, with their first offense being the Apple Watch Incident. But had he done that, the general picture would have been that the Red Sox's two relatively minor offenses were worse than one that provably helped the Astros win a championship.
If it's a question of when Manfred could have sent a proper message about electronic sign-stealing, September 2017 is one solution. In retrospect, that month's drama between the Red Sox and New York Yankees should have resulted in a harsher warning against future sign-stealing tomfoolery.
Even better, though, would have been January 2020. Though Manfred didn't exactly go easy on the Astros, he definitely stopped short of establishing a zero-tolerance policy.
From here, the best way forward is to make it impossible for other teams to replicate the Astros' and Red Sox's schemes even if they wanted to. At the very least, that will require more closely monitoring replay stations and other sources of in-game video. To their credit, MLB and the Players Association "were on the two-yard line" in discussions about isolating the replay review room before the coronavirus pandemic shut baseball down, per Sports Illustrated's Tom Verducci.
It's either that or Manfred can hope that Houston's and Boston's penalties will spook other teams into submission. But of that, there's a fat chance.