How does MLB move forward after the damning investigation of the Houston Astros’ sign-stealing scandal? Commissioner Rob Manfred already told our own Tom Verducci that new protocols will “absolutely” be in place by Opening Day to curb the misuse of technology around baseball.
There may not be a solution to fully prevent cheating—those that want to will always find a way—but SI’s MLB staff presents what it thinks the best answers might be for the sport.
The Houston Astros (and the many other clubs that weren’t outed by an old teammate) proved you cannot trust teams to deploy rapidly emerging technology only through responsible means.
The answer: once the first pitch is thrown, all electronics must be turned off—with one exception: the replay monitor that is monitored by MLB security personnel. That means all video rooms are shut and locked. Those are for your homework, not the actual test.
And no, you don’t need to go back and look at your last at-bat, nor go back and see that pitch the umpire called a strike so you can come back and bark at him.
How about we actually keep the players on the bench during games? If you can see a pitcher tipping pitches with your own eyes, great. More power to you. And how about we let players decide games on their own, and not the growing legions of computer-savvy analysts who can break down video (and sign sequencing) in the course of a game?
Just play baseball on your own. Unplugged. And faster. Like American Legion ball.
I think this season will tell us a lot. My instinct is that the suspensions and subsequent firings will do a lot to dissuade people from trying this stuff again. (Although I still think a lifetime ban—perhaps with a chance to reapply after a few years—would have been more effective.) Precedent suggests that players will escape punishment, so there’s still a risk that someone goes rogue, but it seems likely that the organization-wide electronic cheating is over. We will have a better sense once the games start, though: Are pitchers and catchers still running through multiple signs with no one on base? If so, they don’t believe the league has done enough.
I think the penalties so far have been decent(-ish) deterrents, but that’s not enough to put a full stop to anything, and the structure of replay review still makes it entirely too easy to use it inappropriately. So the easiest answer is probably in an overhaul of that system—more comprehensive monitoring of the room, at least, with limits on who can be present. Another way of doing this would be to just remove managerial challenges. Add a fifth umpire to the crew to do reviews automatically, and there’s no need for the replay rooms as we know them, plus reviews would likely be more fairly distributed, coming whenever they’re merited rather than whenever a team has enough challenges.
Similar to Michael’s opinion below, teams will likely always find an edge the league office does not want them to. Tom’s idea for Unplugged Baseball is great, and I’m all for the eradication of instant replay (or a severe adjustment to it). But I think the best deterrent of all is punishment, threatening every participant’s place in the game. Avoiding player punishment in the recent Astros investigation makes sense given the violations occurred years ago, but going forward any real-time investigation should subject players to punishment ranging from one-year suspensions to a lifetime ban with the opportunity for reinstatement. If players and coaches want to flirt with that possibility, so be it.
No replay room. Instant replay is still allowed with all the same rules in place, except now there are no calls to the video replay room to decide whether to use a challenge.
Managers must trust their eyes and challenge plays in real time. This would eliminate the possibility of teams using the video replay challenge system to steal signs. What’s more, it would speed up the game. Think about all the times managers hold their hands up to the umpire, wait for their bench coach to call the replay room to decide whether they want to challenge a play. If they do challenge, umpires have to wait for the official in New York to make the decision, a process that brings on-field action a halt. If there’s no video room for replay review, there’s no way to steal signs using it.
I’m of the mind that teams will always be able to outpace the league office in gaining an edge, so deterrents like the MLB’s punishment for the Astros seem to be the best and only path forward for Rob Manfred and Co. Instant replay still has a place in our game, and the technology available to teams is greater than ever. We could very well have a slow trickle of sign-stealing scandals for the next year-plus. Major League Baseball can’t police every team in real time. It can only dole out punishment when appropriate.