Tech-Enhanced Sports: Sign-Stealing and the Need for a New Frontier

By: Zach Birnbaum

On November 12, 2019, sports publication “The Athletic” launched a featured story about the Houston Astros electronically stealing signs being relayed from the opposing catcher to the pitcher. The stolen signs were then relayed to the Astros dugout where a staff member would bang a trashcan in a sequence corresponding to different pitches, i.e. one time for a fastball; two times for a curveball; etc... The alleged system helped propel the Houston franchise to winning the World Series in 2017 and to another appearance in 2019 against another franchise mired in their own sign-stealing scandal, the Boston Red Sox.

The fallout of the scandal is ongoing. In the last week, A.J. Hinch and Jeff Luhnow of the Astros were banned from baseball for one year and subsequently fired from the Astros; the Red Sox also fired manager Alex Cora (and ex-Astros bench coach) who is expecting an even lengthier ban than Hinch and Luhnow. Furthermore, Carlos Beltran of the Mets, who played a key role in the sign-stealing plot while with the Astros, decided to resign from his newly obtained Mets managerial position. The key question though is whether this electronic sign-stealing should be a punishable offense going forward.

The Astros and possibly additional teams knowingly violated the spirit and the literal wording of the Major League Baseball rules as currently constructed. Nevertheless, sign-stealing itself is an accepted phenomenon within baseball. Some players and managers are revered for the practice. For example, Giants manager Leo Durocher devised an elaborate, non-electronic sign-stealing system, which helped lead the team to victory over the Dodgers in the 1951 World Series. The focus then is on the electronic manner of the sign stealing. Then again, such artificial line-drawing may be devoid of meaning as the consequences of both remain the same.

Major League Baseball teams acknowledge that electronic sign-stealing is a widespread occurrence in most clubhouses. The Astros operation, however, in terms of technological advancement, is viewed as the most sophisticated in Major League Baseball since A.J. Hinch and Jeff Luhnow started working together in 2015. The anger of the baseball world may then be directed at unequal abilities among the field. The anger may also be due to the need for data certainty in this new world of legalized sports gambling to fix odds, obtain revenue as a league, and be able to fight the corruption stain that can be associated with the betting community’s interaction with sports. Notwithstanding the exact reason for the outrage surrounding this latest scandal, technology is becoming more and more central to society. Sports are, and will be no different, and a new path forward likely needs to be forged.

As the impact of technology increases as society moves forward in all industries, including organized sports, and as legalized sports gambling takes a central place in rulemaking surrounding sports, ways to minimize technology’s impact will have to be scrutinized. The current rules as written, read more like an attempt to ignore the future role of technology and pose more of a Band-Aid on an issue soon to be at the forefront of baseball and other sports. Perhaps, if Major League Baseball removes the outright ban on electronic stealing, the league can encourage the use of electronics to relay pitch signs from the catcher or manager to the pitcher or batter respectively and find a better way to incorporate technology into the sport while minimizing the cheating and corruption aspect that has permeated the sport with this latest electronic sign-stealing scandal.

Major League Baseball, unlike other North American sports currently dealing with the ramifications of gambling, is bound by a rigid adherence to tradition. This adherence and the conflict between modern analytics and traditional scouting may help explain, in part, the electronic distinction to this latest scandal. Baseball’s traditional power players see a marked difference between the skill required to operate a “Durocher scheme” versus the ease of operating an electronic sign-stealing system like that of the Houston Astros. Policy-wise, this is an area that is difficult to pierce and take leadership on regardless of whether the actions are undertaken by Commissioner Rob Manfred and the League or whether done by the government, as it did during the Steroid era. There are two distinct ways in which the electronic issue may be resolved conclusively:

  1. A controversial use of Major League Baseball’s “best interests” clause by Rob Manfred. Under this clause, the Commissioner has plenary authority to take any measure deemed in the best interests of the sports and the league. Use of the clause is only reviewable under an arbitrary or capricious standard. However, due to the controversial nature of sign-stealing, and particularly electronic sign-stealing, such a position taken by Rob Manfred may be fraught with negative consequences and the retention of his power as head of Major League Baseball.
  2. A negotiated provision in the next Collaborative Bargaining Agreement (“CBA”) between the Major League Baseball Players Association (“MLBPA”) and the League. This option may ultimately be the most desirable as both entities can negotiate for mutually beneficial options surrounding an electronic shift of the game. Nevertheless, traditionally labor negotiations in baseball are some of the most tense in professional sports and the new negotiations may follow that pattern.

Consequently, a shift by other sports regarding the use of in-game electronics may be needed to sway public, sponsor, and investor opinion enough to induce Major League Baseball to act on this electronic paradigm shift that promises to arrive in the near-future.