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Sign-stealing allegations against the Yankees, explained

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MLB: ALCS-New York Yankees at Houston Astros Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports

When I said I wanted to write about something other than baseball’s labor fight, I should have been more specific. In the early morning hours, Evan Drellich of The Athletic (subscription required) reported that Judge Jed Rakoff, of the United States District Court for the Southern District of New York, moved to release a letter allegedly further implicating the Yankees in baseball’s sign-stealing scandal.

The news sent fans from a number of teams scrambling, with supporters of the Astros and Red Sox taking a victory lap, and the Yankees Universe on the defensive. It’s a confusing situation, with a number of moving pieces, which makes this a good occasion to break it down, Vox Explainer style.

Background on the sign-stealing scandal

If you want to zoom all the way out, sign stealing refers to the practice by which teams attempt to pick up the signs used by opposing pitchers and catchers to communicate pitch sequences. This knowledge removes asymmetric informational advantage the battery has over batters. If you know what type of pitch is coming, you eliminate the element of surprise and have a better chance of hitting.

Conventional sign stealing is not prohibited by baseball. It may be against the unwritten rules—teams don’t like it, and they often get into disputes about it—but there are no penalties the league can levy against stealing signs.

Today’s scandal involves the use of electronic devices, which are expressly prohibited by Major League Baseball, to steal signs. The first prominent incident occurred in the summer of 2017, when the Yankees complained that Red Sox used an Apple Watch to track New York’s signs. Boston admitted to violating the rules, but not before alleging the Yankees used the YES Network feeds to pick up their signs.

In a memo released in September 2017, Commissioner of Baseball Rob Manfred announced fines for both teams, citing the Red Sox’ use of Apple Watches, and the Yankees’ misuse of a bullpen phone. “Future violations of this type will be subject to more serious sanctions, including the possible loss of draft picks,” Manfred wrote in the notice delivered to all 30 teams.

This threat did not serve as an effective deterrent, as the Houston Astros went on to orchestrate an elaborate sign-stealing scandal, one involving illegal video feeds and trash-can banging, en route to a World Series victory in 2017. The Red Sox employed a similar scheme in 2018, which also culminated in a World Series title. Ken Rosenthal of The Athletic exposed the scandal in November 2019, and since then, the league has handed down punishments of varying degrees of severity. The fallout includes:

  • Astros general manager Jeff Luhnow and manager A.J. Hinch received one-year suspensions
  • Assistant Astros GM Brandon Taubman received a lifetime ban
  • The Astros subsequently fired both Luhnow and Hinch
  • The Red Sox and manager Alex Cora parted ways
  • Cora received a one-year suspension
  • Carlos Beltran resigned as Mets manager
  • Red Sox replay operator J.T. Watkins also received a one-year suspension
  • The Red Sox forfeited their second-round pick in the 2020 MLB Draft
  • MLB removed the Astros’ first and second round picks in the 2020 and 2021 MLB Drafts
  • Houston received a $5 million fine

Why are the Yankees involved now?

The timeline of the issue follows as such: Kristopher Olson, a DraftKings contestant, initiated a class-action lawsuit against Major League Baseball, MLB Advanced Media, the Houston Astros, and the Boston Red Sox. The complaint, filed on January 23, 2020, alleged that the sign-stealing operations of the Astros and Red Sox compromised the fair play of games, on which Olson and his partners wagered, thus “corrupting” fantasy baseball activities. Olson sought to recover wagers, fees (both for DraftKings and for attorneys), as well as to reap punitive and statutory damages.

On April 3, 2020, Rakoff dismissed Olson’s complaint, citing insufficient “...connection between the alleged harm plaintiffs suffered and defendants’ conduct.” In other words, teams cheating did not make fantasy baseball contests fraudulent or impossible to win. By rendering his decision with prejudice, Rakoff prevented Olson and his partners from bringing the suit back to court.

Dismissal with prejudice, however, did not stop the plaintiffs from petitioning Rakoff to reconsider, which they did. In this petition, they alleged that during discovery, they found evidence which illustrated the Yankees engaged in a far more serious pattern of sign-stealing than their 2017 warning addressed. Rakoff once again dismissed this motion, but he granted the unsealing of the letter, at the plaintiff’s request. The Yankees and MLB have until noon on Monday to “submit a minimally redacted version of the letter”, reports Drellich.

Why the Yankees are reluctant to cooperate

The Yankees, citing reputational harm, have moved slowly to cooperate with the release of Manfred’s letter. Jonathan Schiller, an attorney for the Yankees, told Drellich and The Athletic, “There is no justification for public disclosure of the letter. The plaintiff has no case anymore, and the court held that what MLB wrote in confidence was irrelevant to the court’s dismissal of the plaintiff’s case. Under established law, this supports the Yankees’ right to confidentiality required by the Commissioner of Baseball.”

Brendan Kuty of further reports on Schiller’s comments. The attorney notes that MLB designated the correspondence “highly confidential”, and he cites the precedent that disciplinary letters delivered to the Red Sox and the Astros have not been made public.

The court, however, does not find this argument convincing. “Embarrassment on the part of MLB or the Yankees about the precise contents of the letter is not particularly weighty,” said Rakoff, according to Kuty.

It’s also worth noting that members of the Yankees’ organization, from the front office to the on-field players, criticized the Astros and Red Sox for their cheating operations. Among the most vocal have been Brian Cashman, Aaron Boone, CC Sabathia, Aaron Judge, Giancarlo Stanton, and Aroldis Chapman. It makes sense that the team would not want to release any information that makes those statements appear hypocritical.

What comes next?

The Yankees have asked the court to hold off on unsealing the letter until next Friday, so they can have time to file an appeal. It is expected that they will do so, which means the letter likely won’t be made public in the immediate future.

The content of the letter remains unclear, but multiple reports indicate that it contains no bombshells. “Much of the letter’s contents have already been revealed in the 2017 Press Release,” Rakoff wrote in his decision, as noted by Drellich.

In a series of tweets on Saturday afternoon, Andy Martino of SNY reported that the letter did not reveal a cheating operation that rose to the level of the Astros or the Red Sox.

Given the timeline of the decisions against the Astros and the Red Sox, as well as the Yankees’ desire to appeal Rakoff’s motion, don’t expect a swift and satisfactory ending to this saga. This will likely take a while to sort through, and will feature no shortage of sniping between fanbases. When more information becomes available, we’ll present it to you.