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On MLB, sign-stealing, and technology

If the league wants to stop technological cheating, it needs to embrace technology.

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2019 Major League Baseball Winter Meetings Photo by Billie Weiss/Boston Red Sox/Getty Images

The Houston Astros (and now, Boston Red Sox) sign-stealing scandal has shaken the baseball world. Not surprisingly, ever since Ken Rosenthal and Evan Drellich’s bombshell piece for The Athletic back in November, the story of this scandal has dominated the offseason, only briefly overshadowed by the turbulent three days of the Winter Meetings.

Much of the attention, however, has been misplaced. With everybody focusing on either the Astros’ punishments or the numerous accusations against other teams (at this point, a good chunk of the league has been accused, including the Yankees and Dodgers), the real issue has been ignored: how to prevent this from happening again.

And, perhaps paradoxically, the way to stop teams from cheating using technology may just be embracing technology more.

At the moment, Major League Baseball restricts the use of technology in many ways, with the most notable example being the absence of a live feed in the stadium to prevent teams from communicating signs in real time, as the Astros had done (all video feeds, with the exception of the replay booth, are on an eight-second delay). But clearly, the regulations as currently written do not work, leaving a lot of grey area for teams to push the boundaries of the rules. Something must change.

That something might just need to be the attitude about technology. Compared to other professional sports, baseball has always adapted at a glacier-like pace; teams were only given the ability to challenge calls via replay in 2014, for example — a full fifteen years after its adoption in the NFL. Much like with bat flips and showing emotion, the league has dragged its feet in entering the 21st century.

Doing so, however, could be the key to making sure this does not happen again.

Let’s use the sign-stealing example as a starting point. The way to view the opposing team’s signs intentionally would be via a camera in center field, the same camera angle used on commercial TV broadcasts. Should this view be provided to teams live during the game, it would be impossible to ensure that they weren’t using the film to steal signs, rather than using it for more benign causes, such as analyzing a hitter’s swing or a pitcher’s mechanics.

Instead of trying to regulate film, Major League Baseball could simply set up their own cameras and provide in-game video feeds to teams in the dugout — but from only a handful of select angles. Looking to analyze a batter’s stance? Choose from one of three camera angles, none of which show you the catcher’s signs.

New York Yankees vs New York Mets Photo by Paul Bereswill/Getty Images

This angle, combined with a view from the opposite batter’s box and one from behind the plate, would give a batter a large body of evidence to analyze his swing without giving the hitter a look at the catcher’s signs. By setting up its own, independently-operated cameras that directly feed into tablets given to each team and which are disconnected from the Internet, MLB can both provide and control the information available to teams during the game.

In a similar vein, the league can even make the use of signs a thing of the past anyway, should they find a good solution that is easily usable, difficult to steal, and does not slow down the game. This is something that the league is already exploring, and a good sign that MLB has seriously begun to reconsider the role of technology in the game.

With the way that MLB tends to go about massive changes such as this, it remains unlikely that we will see too many drastic moves in the near-future, especially with other pressing concerns, such as the expiring CBA, on the horizon. That said, if the league does not act to make technological cheating more difficult, we will continue to find examples of teams pushing the boundaries of the rulebook to gain a competitive advantage.