The sign-stealing scandal in Major League Baseball is going to go beyond the 2017 Astros, as ESPN reported on Thursday that the use of technology to find out what pitches are coming has “brought into question the methods used by people involved in at least the past three World Series.”
On Wednesday, former Padres catcher Cody Decker, who retired this year after hitting 204 minor league home runs, detailed on his show “Swings & Mrs.” just how pervasive tech-based sign stealing is, not just in terms of how many teams are doing it, but how it’s done: not only with cameras capturing catchers’ signals, but algorithms being used to decode them. That assertion logically tracks with the Jomboy Media video breakdown of what the Astros did against Danny Farquhar of the White Sox in 2017, in which the tell-tale trash can bangs could be heard to tip off Houston hitters even after Chicago went to a multi-sign sequence.
But… what to do about it? It might sound nice to throw the book at anyone who’s been involved in breaking the rules, but the Astros are still going to have their World Series rings from two years ago – and even if MLB were to follow the lead of the NCAA, which stripped Louisville of its 2013 men’s basketball title, it doesn’t mean it didn’t happen. If the Astros are fined a couple million dollars and docked a couple of draft picks, the cheating still would have been worth it: They won that 2017 World Series.
In many cases, cheating in sports is discouraged with penalties that make the downside of the risk of getting caught greater than the upside of the reward of getting away with it. But when it comes to sign-stealing operations that are difficult, if not impossible, to catch in the act, that doesn’t make sense.
Last week, the high-frequency trading firm Tower Research Capital was hit with a $67.4 million fine over allegations that three of its former traders engaged in spoofing – two pleaded guilty to commodities fraud last year. But that does not mean that every trader who does something similar gets caught, or that necessary safeguards are in place. Tower was credited with making “significant investments in sophisticated trade surveillance tools,” but also got away without having to admit to the allegations.
While firms might like market “circuit breakers” as a way to stave off bans on high-frequency trading, so long as it’s possible, there will be people who look to get around the rules for their own benefit. While HFT can generously be termed “morally grey,” with some benefit to the market and investors in general, the same cannot be said of stealing signs.
MLB already outlaws teams’ use of private cameras between the foul poles, but allows waivers for such cameras to be used to monitor teams’ own pitchers, which can then be repurposed during the other halves of innings to look in at opposing catchers. It should be pretty simple to get rid of those cameras and insist that if teams want to look at their own pitchers’ mechanics, they can set up cameras behind home plate.
Unlike the SEC, however, which can’t exactly ban all electronic trading, MLB can do something to sop the abuses: It can take technology fully out of teams’ hands during games, saying that once you’re playing, it’s just up to the people out there to win or lose. While there are valid uses of technology – players often go into the clubhouse to watch videos of themselves and make in-game adjustments – such benefits do not outweigh the damage done by cheating scandals that only figure to get more severe as machine learning continues to advance. It also would benefit the replay system to make managers decide based on their eyes whether a play is worth reviewing, rather than waiting until someone inside sees a replay and relays to the dugout that it’s time for a challenge.
Baseball is not going to get ahead of technology to stop the gnawing at the integrity of the game. Seeing that teams can’t be trusted to use it responsibly, the answer is to cut it off. Otherwise, MLB is just leaving a dog in a room with a box of steaks with strict instructions not to eat more than one.