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