Two major league baseball teams – first, the Houston Astros, and then, the Boston Red Sox – have been recently accused of stealing signs during their World Series campaigns in 2017 and 2018, respectively.
As reported by CBS, the Astros received discipline in the form of:
- A $5 million fine, the maximum allowed under MLB’s constitution.
- GM Jeff Luhnow suspended for one year. Luhnow was then fired by the Astros.
- Manager A.J. Hinch suspended for one year. Hinch was then fired by the Astros.
- Former assistant GM Brandon Taubman suspended one year.
- Astros forfeit their first and second round draft picks the next two years.
The investigation into the Red Sox is currently underway and pending an outcome.
The bigger question amidst this sign-stealing controversy is how the role of technology will impact the integrity of the game going forward.
This is not the first time technology has directly or indirectly disrupted the sport, or sports in general.
Recently, we’ve entered the “reply” era, where instant replay is a tool umpires can use to enforce or correct calls made in real time. I remember being at games in 2013 when this was not yet protocol, and fans would be craning their necks to get a look at the live broadcast footage on TVs on the concourses – the only available form of “replay” then.
I would also argue that the use of analytics – backed and augmented by technology – has changed how players and personnel prepare for the game. Billy Beane, the “Moneyball” maverick and father of sabermetrics, started collecting different types of data and (at the time) untraditional analytics measures to help make his A’s staff more informed about player profiles and the many variables that impact player performance. This data and analysis directly affected his trades, his scouting techniques, his budget. In a way, Beane was an early advocate of player evaluation tools that preceded many of the resources in use today: a prime example of the application of statistics and mathematical analytics in the modern world.
Is that considered cheating? Having access to information other teams or personnel don’t collect (or find value in)? There are clear differences, the most obvious one being the ethics at play (pun intended). Beane did not hide his strategy – in fact, he was cajoled for it at times. (His main motivation were his payroll limitations.) And there was never a league-wide memo about this approach, like the one Commissioner Ron Manfred issued in 2017 warning against the misuse of technology to steal signs.
When I left baseball in 2015, our front office had two full-time employees dedicated to baseball systems and software. Now, merely five years later, that number is closer to 15. Technology is very much a part of modern day baseball. But are we clear on in what capacity and to what extent?
It’s up to the League, the teams, and the players to inform these decisions – and in everyone’s best interest to have clear principles to follow, for the sake of protecting themselves and each other.
We know technology evolves and changes at a rapid pace – cue Apple watches, drones, Alexa and Google Home. The key will be to anticipate tech’s impact as best we can, as it relates to the integrity of the sport and how we would like for it to look going forward into the future.