To stop sign steal­ing, MLB could fight tech with more tech

Antelope Valley Press - - SPORTS - By DAVID BRANDT

PHOENIX — If Ma­jor League Base­ball really wants to stop its teams from elec­tron­i­cally steal­ing signs, it might con­sider fight­ing tech­nol­ogy with more tech­nol­ogy.

In a sport that’s in­creas­ingly driven by an­a­lyt­ics and ad­vance­ments, the ma­jor­ity of signs be­tween play­ers and coaches are still trans­mit­ted by low-tech hand sig­nals that have been used for decades. Those hand sig­nals are eas­ily cap­tured by the loads of video equip­ment around MLB sta­di­ums that are used for tele­vi­sion, re­plays and all kinds of stat track­ing.

All that tech­nol­ogy can be — and ob­vi­ously has been — used for cheat­ing. The Hous­ton Astros were hit with stiff pun­ish­ment on Mon­day af­ter an MLB in­ves­ti­ga­tion found the team used elec­tron­ics to steal signs dur­ing the fran­chise’s run to the 2017 World Series ti­tle and again in the 2018 sea­son. Man­ager AJ Hinch and gen­eral man­ager Jeff Luh­now were sus­pended for a sea­son and then fired by Astros owner Jim Crane.

Boston man­ager Alex Cora was fired on Tues­day for his in­volve­ment with the Astros’ scheme and a sep­a­rate on­go­ing in­ves­ti­ga­tion that in­volves the Red Sox. Con­sid­er­ing those de­vel­op­ments, it might be wise to save play­ers and

coaches from them­selves.

A par­tial model is al­ready in place: The NCAA’s South­east­ern Con­fer­ence has used elec­tronic com­mu­ni­ca­tion be­tween coaches and catch­ers dur­ing league games for the past two sea­sons, which al­lows the coach to talk strat­egy with the catcher through an ear­piece. It’s much like the NFL, where an of­fen­sive coach tells plays to a quar­ter­back. No hand sig­nals needed. “I don’t know why ev­ery­one isn’t do­ing it — it’s fan­tas­tic,” LSU coach Paul Mainieri said. “It al­lows the coach to speak di­rectly to the catcher and speeds up the game.”

In the SEC’s sys­tem, the catcher still has to re­lay signs to the pitcher the old-fash­ioned way with hand sig­nals, but Mainieri said there’s no rea­son why pitch­ers couldn’t even­tu­ally be in­cluded in the con­ver­sa­tion. It’s more com­mon for coaches to call pitches in col­lege, while catch­ers usu­ally han­dle those re­spon­si­bil­i­ties in the big leagues.

MLB ex­pects to show play­ers some pro­to­types of pitcher-catcher com­mu­ni­ca­tion de­vices at spring train­ing camps this year, but there are no plans to put any of them in place.

It would be un­re­al­is­tic for a big league catcher to talk with the pitcher with a bat­ter stand­ing right next to him. Ole Miss coach Mike Bianco said there could be ways to work around that problem, sug­gest­ing that a clicker or some other de­vice could be em­ployed.

For­mer MLB catcher Buck Martinez, who played 17 sea­sons, said the tech­nol­ogy is avail­able and to­day’s gen­er­a­tion of play­ers would adapt to ear­pieces quickly if that’s the route the sport wanted to take.

“I think most of these younger gen­er­a­tion kids have ear­pieces in their ears most of the time any­way,” Martinez said laugh­ing, ref­er­enc­ing the ubiq­ui­tous AirPods. “It’s just nor­mal. It would just be lis­ten­ing to base­ball in­stead of mu­sic.”

Un­der MLB’s cur­rent setup, the sport has tried to draw a dis­tinct line about what’s al­lowed and what’s not when it comes to sign steal­ing. It’s a le­gal and time-hon­ored part of base­ball as long as it is done with the naked eye. Us­ing tech­nol­ogy is pro­hib­ited.

There’s a wide va­ri­ety of opin­ion about how much tech­no­log­i­cal cheat­ing is ac­tu­ally hap­pen­ing and how ef­fec­tive it can be. Ari­zona Di­a­mond­backs gen­eral man­ager Mike Hazen said in Novem­ber that he didn’t think it was a wide­spread problem.

“I think MLB has done a really good job of clean­ing up all of that stuff. It’s been a topic for a few years,” Hazen said shortly af­ter the news broke that the Astros were be­ing in­ves­ti­gated by MLB. “There’s a lot of re­stric­tions in place, there’s a lot of guid­ance in the club­house, over­sight, in a good way.”

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