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Red Sox escape punishment for sign stealing

Two of the last three World Series champions have been caught cheating, and the punishments do nothing to deter it.

2020 Grape Fruit League Media Availability Photo by Mary DeCicco/MLB Photos via Getty Images

After three months, MLB finally concluded its investigation of sign stealing perpetrated by the 2018 World Champion Boston Red Sox. The finding was that the Red Sox did, in fact, steal signs, but not to the degree of the 2017 World Champion Houston Astros. As such, the penalty fell short of what was levied to the Astros, and that punishment was widely criticized for being light. The Red Sox’ punishment failed to impact leadership while tacitly admitting the Astros got off easy.

The Red Sox will forfeit their second-round pick in the 2020 draft, and J.T. Watkins, Boston’s replay system operator, will be suspended for entirety of the 2020 season and postseason as well as prohibited from operating any replay systems in 2021. Alex Cora, who received a one-year suspension for his involvement in the Astros’ banging scheme, did not receive further punishment.

It’s a bad look for MLB to have two of the last three World Champions found guilty of some form of cheating. It’s a worse look for those two teams to escape with a slap on the wrist. The Red Sox were repeat offenders having already been busted for using Apple watches to steal signs in 2017, and after cheating their way to a World Series title, the team will suffer a lesser consequence than if it had signed a free agent with a qualifying offer attached.

By not coming down harder on the Astros, Rob Manfred barred himself from enacting any sort of justice in Boston. Manfred had to come short of taking away the Red Sox first and second round picks for 2020 and 2021, and he couldn’t fine the team anything more than $5 million. The transgressions committed by Boston were less egregious than those committed by Houston, so it would have been unfair for the penalties to match. It’s impossible to say whether the Red Sox were helped by their sign stealing and if they were, by how much. In the Astros’ case, most agree that they were helped, but it’s tough to point to real results. With the Astros, it’s easy to see (or hear) exactly when they were stealing signs—Tony Adams chronicled every bang—but the outcome of a baseball event is dependent on myriad variables beyond the batter knowing what pitch is coming.

The Red Sox didn’t leave their fingerprints all over the archives in the way the Astros did. Their method of relay was more discreet and less direct than a dude banging on a trash can. J.T. Watkins updated his permissible sign-decoding in-game using camera feeds in the replay room and passed that information along to players. Unlike the banging scheme, to relay this information to the player in the batter’s box, someone needed to be on second base.

According to Manfred’s statement, which can be read in its entirety here, Watkins acted on his own, and Alex Cora, the Red Sox coaching staff, and the front office were unaware of his actions. Manfred even took the time to commend the Red Sox front office for doing such a great job of ensuring the coaching staff knew precisely what the rules were regarding replay room technology.

No one took the time to ensure the players knew what the rules were, however. Most players apparently didn’t know that using technology to decode signs during the game was against the rules which is strange because the casual fan knows that and it’s exactly what the team got in trouble for a year prior.

After the Apple Watch incident, Manfred warned that sign stealing would be viewed “with a particular level of seriousness,” but in Wednesday’s decision, he assigned no responsibility to anyone except J.T. Watkins. The Red Sox front office reportedly made it clear to the coaching staff that what Watkins did was against the rules, but no one bothered to ensure the rules were actually being followed.

So we’re left with the Red Sox losing a second-round pick in a shortened draft when there’s no college or high school baseball happening and the scapegoating of a replay operator. Manfred swore he would come down hard on the Red Sox if they ever stole signs again, but these punishments levied at the Astros and Red Sox are less “heads on pikes” and more “pretending to scold your kid for cussing in public so no one thinks you’re a bad parent.” That shouldn’t be surprising. That same cold apathy is how Manfred has regarded the game all along.

Kenny Kelly is the managing editor of Beyond the Box Score. You can follow him on Twitter @KennyKellyWords.