MLB punishes Red Sox for 2018 sign-stealing deemed ‘more limited’ than Astros’ scandal

Major League Baseball, terming the Boston Red Sox’s 2018 sign-stealing violations “far more limited in scope and impact” than the Houston Astros’ malfeasance, suspended a video replay monitor for the 2020 season and barred him from serving in that role in 2021 and docked the club a 2020 second-round draft pick. 

In his report released Wednesday, Commissioner Rob Manfred also suspended Alex Cora through the 2020 postseason, but only for his actions as Astros bench coach and not Red Sox manager. The Red Sox fired Cora in January, two days after Manfred imposed similar one-year bans on Astros general manager Jeff Luhnow and manager A.J. Hinch, who were subsequently fired by the Astros. 

Alex Cora was suspended through the 2020 season on Wednesday by Commissioner Rob Manfred, but only for his actions as Astros bench coach and not Red Sox manager.

The Astros won the World Series title in 2017, and Manfred’s report indicated their sign-stealing system – involving the banned use of a camera, video monitor and trash cans to signal pitches to their batters – continued through the postseason. 

In 2018, the Red Sox won 108 games and eventually the World Series, but MLB’s report indicated the rules-breaking ceased after the regular season. 

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And so, as many anticipated, the far less elaborate Red Sox rules-flouting resulted in much lighter punishment.

The target: J.T. Watkins, who according to MLB’s investigations used his perch in the replay room to update teammates on opposing teams’ sign sequences in real time. 

Watkins, also a member of the club’s advance scouting staff, provided players with pregame sign sequences based on video scouting, which is permissible under the rules, but the in-game updates ran afoul of strongly worded memos and rules changed imparted by Manfred and MLB chief baseball officer Joe Torre in 2017 and 2018. 

In another significant break from the Astros scandal, Manfred ruled that Red Sox management – most notably current GM Brian O’Halloran – consistently communicated to on-field staff Manfred’s directives against using electronics for stealing signs.

“No other member of the 2018 Red Sox staff will be disciplined,” Manfred wrote, “because I do not find that anyone was aware of or should have been aware of Watkins’s conduct. The Club’s front office took more than reasonable steps to ensure that its employees, including Watkins, adhered to the rules. Notwithstanding these good faith efforts to comply with the rules, however, the Red Sox organization ultimately is responsible for the conduct of a member of its advance scouting staff.”

In a statement issued Wednesday, Red Sox president and CEO Sam Kennedy said: “As an organization, we strive for 100% compliance with the rules. MLB’s investigation concluded that in isolated instances during the 2018 regular season, sign sequences were decoded through the use of live game video rather than through permissible means.

“MLB acknowledged the front office’s extensive efforts to communicate and enforce the rules and concluded that Alex Cora, the coaching staff, and most of the players did not engage in, nor were they aware of, any violations. Regardless, these rule violations are unacceptable. We apologize to our fans and Major League Baseball, and accept the Commissioner’s ruling.”

Unlike the Astros’ system, which conceivably could relay information on any pitch to a batter, the gains enjoyed by the Red Sox came only come when a runner reached second base, and thus could pass along a catcher’s signs to the batter. 

MLB’s Department of Investigations interviewed 65 witnesses, including 34 current and former Red Sox players. The report indicated Watkins “vehemently denies utilizing the replay system during the game to decode signs,” though at least some witnesses contradicted that. 

“Of the 44 players who provided information, more than 30 stated that they had no

knowledge regarding whether Watkins used in-game video feeds to revise his advance

sign decoding work,” the report reads. “However, a smaller number of players said that on at least some occasions, they suspected or had indications that Watkins may have revised the sign sequence information that he had provided to players prior to the game through his review of the game feed in the replay room. They largely based their belief on the fact that Watkins on occasion provided different sign sequence information during the game than he had offered prior to the game, and, based on the circumstances of the

communication, they assumed that the revised information came from his review of in-game video.

“One player described that he observed Watkins write down sign sequence

information during the game while he appeared to be watching the game feed in the

replay room, circling the correct sign in the sequence after the pitch was thrown.”

Manfred also noted Watkins was involved in the 2017 “Apple Watch incident,” in which he sent text messages with sign information from the video room to an athletic trainer in the dugout. In the wake of that episode, Manfred issued a September 2017 memorandum that laid the groundwork for the eventually strong penalties against the Astros when he found Luhnow and Hinch largely ignored or did not share the information with players and staff.

Following the 2018 regular season, MLB placed monitors in video replay rooms, greatly diminishing the likelihood that signs could be passed on during that postseason. The monitors were in place during the 2019 season as well, though the levels of vigilance reportedly varied.

Manfred credits O’Halloran with ensuring all relevant parties, including then-chief baseball officer Dave Dombrowski, Cora and Watkins, were well aware of MLB’s rules changes regarding use of electronics, a policy that evolved multiple times between 2017 and 2019. 

“Witnesses consistently described that, as a general practice, either Dombrowski or

O’Halloran would circulate MLB’s rules memoranda among Red Sox personnel,” he wrote. “The day after receiving Torre’s March 28, 2018 memorandum, O’Halloran forwarded it to relevant staff, including Cora and Watkins, asking recipients to read this ‘important memo’ and noting that there were ‘key changes’ from the previous year. O’Halloran added, ‘obviously it is critical that we adhere to the rules outlined in this memo.’

“Following what he described as his standard practice, O’Halloran told my investigators that he followed his email by circulating the memorandum in hard copy to all coaches and clubhouse staff, including replay room personnel. O’Halloran explained to my investigators that he wanted to ensure that there were no excuses, that everybody knows the rules, [and] that there are severe consequences especially in light of” the Apple Watch Incident.”

Even still, interviews with Red Sox players indicated that “many … were unaware that in-game sign decoding had been prohibited in 2018 and 2019.”  

Some players interviewed indicated Watkins attempted to pass them notes or use hand signals to pass along information when a replay room monitor was present. Ultimately, Manfred found their accounts more credulous than Watkins’ assertions he only utilized information gleaned before games.

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