Bernstein: MLB Needs Tech To Combat Cheating

The only way to end the practice of sign-stealing is to remove the opportunity.

Dan Bernstein
November 14, 2019 - 2:19 pm

(670 The Score) Whenever the next story pops about an MLB team stealing opposing signs, the reaction runs the predictable gamut from pearl-clutching outrage to shrugs of whaddaya-gonna-do.

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But this time around feels a bit different, considering the team involved and the video and audio evidence right in front of our faces. It might be enough to move Major League Baseball at something other than its usual glacial pace to attempt to curtail the practice of using video to see what pitch the catcher calls for and then relaying the information to the hitter in the box.

Ken Rosenthal and Evan Drellich did the reporting for The Athletic, getting pitcher Mike Fiers on the record and three other MLB sources to confirm anonymously that the Houston Astros regularly stole the signals with a camera in center field in 2017 and would bang a trash can in the dugout tunnel to alert the batter to something other than a fastball. Twitter sleuths took it from there, isolating specific and obvious moments that synced up perfectly and making it available for all of us to see.

The Astros are fun to dunk on too, especially after their behavior throughout the ugly Brandon Taubman locker room incident and their ensuing series of public pratfalls in handling it. Inside the industry, that front office has made few friends as well, with executives around the league resenting Houston's level of open self-congratulation. But what's clear from the initial response is that the Astros' hubris was just enough to get them caught at it, and other offenders are hard at work doing all of that and more, abetted by apps and algorithms decoding the sequencing in real time.

So what to do?  

MLB can't really punish it, not without true investigative power to figure some fair way of assigning blame and knowing who knew what and when. The league can't vacate the World Series win like the NCAA does, making things un-happen and pulling championship banners from the rafters. Nor can MLB police it effectively, even if its had the resources to scour every park for any hidden camera before and during every game, including all the phones in the hands of thousands of fans. Picture Joe Torre bumbling around in a trench coat and tweed trilby like Inspector Clouseau or frisking people between innings like Frank Drebin.

The best move might be to get rid of catchers' signals entirely, using an electronic indication of some kind. Instead of the bench sending the pitch to the catcher and having him do the wiggly-finger bit, the manager can tap a button that alerts the battery members simultaneously via an implanted speaker or some palpable taps or vibrations. Should the catcher have pitch-calling autonomy, he could have the menu on the inside of the wrist on his glove hand, easily shielded from prying eyes. Any fielders needing to know the pitch for positioning purposes could be similarly outfitted for reception. MLB would maintain the integrity of a standardized system in all parks, much in the way the NFL keeps tabs on its closed-loop speaker systems to ensure no wiretaps or hacking.

It's not perfect, but it's the way baseball should start thinking. The only way to end the practice is to remove the opportunity.

Dan Bernstein is a co-host of 670 The Score’s Bernstein & McKnight Show in midday. You can follow him on Twitter @Dan_Bernstein.