Why eliminating in-game video access is the best way MLB can stop electronic sign-stealing


On Wednesday, commissioner Rob Manfred released his report detailing MLB’s sign-stealing investigation into the 2018 Boston Red Sox. The report comes exactly 100 days after Manfred issued a similar report regarding the 2017 Houston Astros. Houston’s scheme was more elaborate and the punishment more severe, but the fact remains: both teams cheated during their World Series season.

The Astros’ scheme and the Red Sox’s scheme were similar at their core. Each team used nearby video equipment to monitor and decode the opposing team’s signs in real time. How they relayed that information to the hitter differed, but, ultimately, the video replay room made it all possible. The same video replay room every team has near their dugout in every ballpark, home or away.

MLB first adopted instant replay in 2008 and expanded the system in 2014. The expanded system not only allows teams to challenge individual plays, it allows them to watch the play before challenging. That necessitated a nearby video room and put the wheels in motion for real-time sign-stealing. The video rooms were not policed enough early on and here we are.

The Red Sox first got caught stealing signs electronically in 2017, when the team used Apple Watches to receive sign sequences from the video room. After that, Manfred issued a series of memos informing teams of the penalties for stealing signs, and last season MLB implemented a series of new rules to combat high-tech cheating. A security official now monitors all video room activity.

MLB was expected to implement additional rule changes to police the video room this season, though no plans had been finalized prior to the novel coronavirus shutdown in March. Reports indicated the video room could be isolated during games and that video feeds could be provided to teams with the catcher’s signs blurred out, among other things.

To date, MLB’s video room security measures have all been reactive. The Red Sox getting caught using Apple Watches in 2017 spurred a series of memos from Manfred. An Astros employee getting caught recording the other team’s dugout during the 2018 postseason led to the security official being installed. The sign-stealing scandals were going to lead to more changes this year.

Given the prevalence of technology in today’s world, high-tech cheating will be an ongoing concern moving forward, and it’s time for MLB to get proactive rather than reactive. My proposal: eliminate in-game video availability entirely. No video room, no iPads in the dugout (the iPads are preloaded with video and scouting reports and are not connected to the internet, but why risk it?), no television broadcast on the dugout monitor, nothing. During the game, all video access (live and archived) is cut off.

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Video during batting practice is fine, just don’t do it during the game.
USATSI

Eliminating in-game video would have many ramifications. For starters, teams could not consult video before deciding whether to challenge a play. Instant replay decisions would be gut calls, essentially, and I suspect that would lead to fewer challenges overall. It also means there would be no waiting around for teams to call down to their replay person, which would improve pace of play, and we all know how much MLB is concerned about that. 

(Let’s be real, no one enjoys the instant replay process. Getting the call right is necessary and a good thing for baseball, but the process is painstaking and a drag on the game.)

Also, no in-game video means players could not review their at-bats between innings or scout the incoming reliever, things like that. The players would hate it. Absolutely hate it. I don’t think it would be detrimental to the game overall, however. I don’t believe taking away the ability to watch at-bats or scouting reports in-game would lead to a dramatic league-wide performance shift.

To be clear, players and teams could still have unlimited access to video before and after games. Do as much prep and review work as you want outside the game. Try to decode the signs then. It’s all fair game. But, once the home team takes the field, the lights go out. No video room or handheld devices. Nothing. The players and coaches are on their own. That’s how it should be, no?

Players will of course try to sneak looks at video during games. Not even for something nefarious, necessarily. They may want to see whether the pitch they just got rung up on was actually a strike. That sort of thing. The solution to that is making everyone stay in the dugout during the game. If there’s an injury, the player can go into the clubhouse with the trainer. Otherwise everyone has to remain in the dugout.

The 2020 season would be the ideal time to experiment with no in-game video. The season is likely to be shortened and it’s very possible games will be played in spring training stadiums or even minor league ballparks. Shutting down in-game video will speed things up and also maintain competitive balance because some games will be played in lesser facilities. It wouldn’t be fair to play some games with full in-game video at an MLB park and some with a bare bones operation elsewhere.

As long as teams have access to technology, they’ll try to use it to their advantage, and inevitably some will cross the line. The Astros and Red Sox circa 2017-18 are not the only teams to use the video room to steal signs — Sports Illustrated‘s Tom Verducci reported “various Astros personnel told MLB investigators about eight other teams who used technology to steal signs in 2017 or 2018” back in January — but they got caught, so they have to wear it. If MLB waits long enough, more cheaters will be outed.

The best way to prevent high-tech cheating is to take away the technology. It eliminates the gray area. No debating whether a video room was used properly or improperly. Use video in-game in any way, and it’s a violation. Very cut and dried. Cheating has always been part of the game, whether it’s spitballs or corked bats or PEDS or sign-stealing, and teams have shown they can’t be trusted with technology. Want to combat high-tech cheating? Take away in-game video access, the tool that makes it all possible.





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