MLB Should Fight Technology with Technology

Earlier in the week, it came out that the Red Sox had been using an Apple Watch in their dugout to relay information about the Yankees’ signs from their video replay staff. While sign stealing isn’t illegal, the use of electronic communication in the dugout definitely is, and for violating that rule, MLB will now have to punish the organization in some way. And if they want to use this punishment as a deterrent to keep other teams from following in Boston’s footsteps, they’ll have to go beyond a slap on the wrist.

But realistically, given where technology currently is, trying to use punishments as deterrents could easily turn into a game of whack-a-mole. As Jeff Passan notes, every team does stuff like this, but they just hide it better.

Boston’s greatest crime was the obviousness with which it employed the scheme. Generally speaking, according to sources, if someone on a team’s video staff cracks an opponent’s signals, they are run from the video room to an intermediary in the dugout and forwarded to players on the field. The Red Sox’s crime, according to sources, was sending the decoded material via Wi-Fi rather than vocal cords.

This was particularly stupid because while no rule outlaws sign stealing, the no-technology-in-the-dugout statute is well-known. Nonetheless, sources familiar with the investigation do not expect the penalties on the Red Sox to be harsh. The suggestion they will vacate victories against the Yankees is nonsensical, and the likelihood MLB will dock them draft picks is minimal. The most likely upshot is a fine for the organization, with possible suspensions for those involved in the actual scheme, according to sources.

Video replay isn’t going anywhere. Communications devices are only going to get easier to hide, and if teams think they can get a significant advantage by relaying signs in real-time, they’re going to keep doing it. And unfortunately for everyone involved, the best counter to sign stealing is for the pitcher and catcher to just chat on the mound more often. No one should want more mound visits, so this is a path MLB should want to avoid.

So, instead of placing stricter limits on the use of wearable technology, perhaps the best counter to this development is to fight technology with technology. One of our commenters put this pretty succinctly yesterday.

In today’s world of wearables, the pitcher and catcher don’t really need signs at all. Give the pitcher an embedded microphone on his glove — one that is only sensitive enough to capture words spoken when he holds it near his face, thus allowing pitchers some microphone-free time when they want to be off the record — and the catcher an ear piece to hear what the pitcher says. The pitcher can then tell the catcher what he wants to throw, and the catcher can shake him off until they settle on a pitch and location. With no more signs to be stolen, the problem goes away.

Now, this would be a pretty substantial change to the game, and I’m sure there would be some initial resistance to having the pitcher be the one to initiate the call, instead of shaking off the catcher’s calls. With a batter standing close to the catcher, it would be more difficult to give the catcher the microphone, since the opposing batter might just overhear the call. But since the pitcher is the one who has final say on what gets thrown anyway, having him be the one to dictate the original signal might be a bit of a time-saver, which MLB is always looking for.

Of course, some pitchers almost never shake their catchers off, and perhaps it would be too drastic a change for those who are used to just following their backstop’s orders to be the one making the decision. If the pitchers now have to think about what they want to throw, rather than just confirm the catcher’s request, maybe it would actually slow things down as they process their options.

If switching to pitchers calling the pitches was a bridge too far, there are still technology options that could make signs obsolete. Perhaps the catcher and pitcher get modified Apple Watches, since MLB and Apple like their official partnerships, where the catcher simply tapped on a modified user interface to indicate to the pitcher what he wants next. Sure, it wouldn’t be as fun to watch pitchers and catchers staring down at small screens on their wrist as they negotiate pitch calls, but it would likely take less time than the current way of doing things.

Those are just two ideas. Given more time and access to a host of developers, I’m sure even more elegant solutions could be conceived.

Trying to put limits on technology’s uses will inevitably lead to teams finding new ways to get around whatever rules MLB drafts. If they really want to eliminate teams using current technology to try to poach each other’s signs, then the best path might be to use technology to eliminate the need for signs to begin with.

Dave is the Managing Editor of FanGraphs.

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Danny Middaugh
4 years ago

Just give catchers the mic and make batters wear noise cancelling headphones.

4 years ago
Reply to  Danny Middaugh

Minor issue is that the batter would have to remember to look back at the ump every time since he can’t hear called strikes.

4 years ago
Reply to  szakyl

Or if Dave Cameron is on the mound. Don’t blink for fastball. Blink for…oh wait. Damnit