A letter that Rob Manfred wrote to New York Yankees general manager Brian Cashman almost five years ago has finally been made public and it appears to be much ado about nothing. Yeah, the Yankees cheated, but then again almost every other team probably did, too.
There had been wide speculation about the contents of the two-page document from Major League Baseball’s commissioner since 2017. The Athletic previously reported the Yankees used their replay room to decode signs during the 2015 and 2016 seasons but the specifics weren’t entirely known until the letter was released to multiple media outlets Tuesday afternoon. There wasn’t much to it other than the illegal use of a dugout phone.
Any allegations of sign stealing might seem as egregious as what the Houston Astros and Boston Red Sox were previously accused of doing, but they’re not. There are different levels of severity, and the letter provided some much-needed context for why the Yankees escaped with a $100,000 (U.S.) fine instead of suspensions or the loss of draft picks.
The Astros were deemed to have used an elaborate cheating system from 2017 to 2018. An MLB investigation found evidence they placed a camera in centre field that was connected to their replay room via a live feed. They used video to decode opposing teams’ signs and someone in the tunnel banged on a trash can to identify pitch types as they were about to be thrown.
The Yankees didn’t go quite that far. Instead, they put a modern twist on something that has been happening for decades. During the 2015-16 seasons, MLB concluded the Yankees had runners relay signs to their hitters from second base. The act itself wasn’t illegal, but how the runners learned to do it was. The Yankees weren’t penalized for stealing signs, they were punished for receiving the sequencing codes via a dugout phone connected to their replay room.
Stealing signs from second base has always been fair game. It’s the pitcher and catcher’s responsibility to make sure the signs are complex enough when a runner is on second. If opponents figure them out, it’s their fault for not changing the sequences enough. The Yankees took the strategy one step further by having a staff member decode signs via video.
That is essentially the same thing the Red Sox initially were accused of doing in 2017, except instead of receiving the codes over a dugout phone they were sent through Apple Watches. Ironically enough, it was a formal complaint by the Yankees about those watches that led to an investigation that uncovered their own misdeeds.
MLB determined replay rooms had been used to decode signs across baseball from 2014 to 2017, which prompted Manfred to send a memo to all 30 clubs saying there would be a zero-tolerance policy for future violations. The Red Sox and Yankees were fined, others were let off the hook.
“At the time, use of the replay room to decode signs was not expressly prohibited by MLB rules as long as the information was not communicated electronically to their dugout,” MLB said in a statement Tuesday. “MLB clarified the rules regarding the use of electronic equipment on Sept. 15, 2017. MLB took further action on March 27, 2018, by drawing a clear line and making it explicit to all 30 clubs that any clubhouse or video room equipment could not be used to decode signs and that future violations of electronic sign stealing would be subject to serious sanctions, including the possible loss of draft picks.”
Except the Red Sox scandal didn’t stop there. Their actions continued during their 2018 World Series title season with players caught visiting the replay room mid-game. Following yet another investigation, the club’s video room operator was suspended, and the club forfeited a second-round pick. A small pittance to pay for a team that won it all.
What the Astros did was even worse. Their trash-can method, combined with a centre-field camera, meant they had the ability to predict any pitch, tarnishing just about every game they played.
The Yankees? Well, what they did might have been shady, but we’d be fools to believe there weren’t others who took advantage of a similar loophole.
Unless additional information comes to light that their tactics continued the same way that Boston’s did — and to date there is no such evidence — there really isn’t much to get upset about.
“The contents and details of the letter from Commissioner Manfred to Brian Cashman have been widely reported upon since 2017,” the Yankees wrote in a statement. “As the facts of the letter again show, the Yankees were not penalized for sign stealing but were penalized for improper use of the telephone in their replay room (which was only to be used for discussions regarding replay review challenges). At that time, sign stealing was utilized as a competitive tool by numerous teams throughout Major League Baseball and only became illegal after the Commissioner’s specific delineation of the rules on Sept. 15, 2017.”
MLB opened the door to this mess in 2014 by allowing replay rooms to be installed instead of forcing managers to issue challenges based on what they saw on the field in real time. If MLB really felt it was necessary to allow the managers to double-check with a staff member first, then it’s on Manfred and those around him for not having additional protocols in place to prevent teams from taking the technology too far.
The Yankees might be the Evil Empire, but in this case, they aren’t the biggest villains out there when it comes to stealing signs. Save that hate for the Astros and Red Sox.
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