Boston sign stealing in '18 found limited in scope

April 23rd, 2020

Major League Baseball’s report regarding sign-stealing allegations against the Red Sox was released on Wednesday, with Commissioner Rob Manfred finding that Boston’s conduct was far more limited in nature than that of the Astros, who received significant discipline for sign-stealing activities earlier this year.

Alex Cora, who was dismissed as manager by the Red Sox in January after MLB found him to be one of the instigators of the Astros’ illegal sign stealing, will be suspended through the conclusion of the 2020 postseason, but the report notes that Cora’s suspension is for his conduct as bench coach with the Astros in 2017, not his actions as Red Sox manager in 2018-19. However, Manfred noted in his ruling that Cora “did not effectively communicate to Red Sox players the sign-stealing rules that were put in place for the 2018 season.”

In addition to Cora’s suspension, MLB has suspended J.T. Watkins, Boston's video replay system operator, for the 2020 season and postseason. Upon his return from suspension, Watkins will be prohibited from serving as the replay room operator for any game during the 2021 season, including the postseason.

Red Sox principal owner John Henry and chairman Tom Werner addressed the owners of the other 29 clubs on a call after the findings were released.

“John and Tom took full responsibility and apologized to those guys for what happened,” Red Sox president/CEO Sam Kennedy said. “Tonight, I want to join them and apologize to the other clubs around the league and to our fans.

“We have to earn back trust and we’re prepared to do that.”

The Red Sox will also forfeit their second-round selection in the 2020 Draft. Because this year’s Draft could be as few as five rounds, Manfred noted that the penalty may have a “more significant impact” than it might in a normal year.

“The potential limitations on the Draft this year just make that punishment loom larger,” Red Sox chief baseball officer Chaim Bloom said. “It’s significant.”

No other Red Sox personnel will be disciplined. Manfred noted that although the Commissioner’s Office agreed not to discipline players who were truthful in their interviews, “this is not a case in which I would have otherwise considered imposing discipline on players” based on the findings.

“I do feel a sense of relief, but to be clear, we’re not taking any victory laps or anything like that,” Kennedy said. “A violation was uncovered; that’s wrong and not acceptable, and we’re being punished for it. But I am relieved that the report got to the truth, got to the bottom of what actually happened. People will draw their own conclusions.”

Per the investigation, Watkins “on at least some occasions during the 2018 regular season, utilized the game feeds in the replay room, in violation of MLB regulations, to revise sign sequence information that he had permissibly provided to players prior to the game.” The investigation found that Watkins took part in such activity during the 2018 regular season only, and the evidence uncovered was “insufficient” to conclude it occurred during either the 2018 postseason or the 2019 season. All teams had video room monitors in the 2018 postseason.

Asked whether the findings should taint the Red Sox’s 2018 World Series championship, Kennedy did not hesitate to answer.

“No. Not at all,” Kennedy said. “In no way do I think it’s appropriate to invalidate the accomplishments of the 2018 team based upon this infraction.

“I believe that the 2018 team was one of the most truly talented baseball teams ever constructed. I’ve been around the Red Sox for 19 years now, and it was by far the most talented team I’ve ever been a part of or witnessed in person. Just a special, special team. I realize it’s on us that we’re answering a question like this because we were not, as the report pointed out, 100 percent compliant with the rules. That’s on us and we open ourselves up to a question like that when you fall short. That’s on us. We own that, we apologize for that and we need to commit to doing better as we go forward.”

Manfred wrote in his ruling that Watkins’ conduct “by its very nature, was far more limited in scope and impact” than the system utilized by the Astros, which included banging a trash can to communicate signs to batters at the plate in real time.

“The information was only relevant when the Red Sox had a runner on second base (which was 19.7% of plate appearances league-wide in 2018), and Watkins communicated sign sequences in a manner that indicated that he had decoded them from the in-game feed in only a small percentage of those occurrences,” Manfred wrote.

Watkins remains employed by the Red Sox according to Bloom, who indicated Wednesday night that MLB’s suspension will be the only repercussion for Watkins.

“Right now at this time, we don’t plan to take any additional action against J.T.,” Bloom said. “We think the penalty obviously speaks for itself.”

According to the ruling, Manfred found that neither “Cora, his coaching staff, the Red Sox front office, nor most of the players on the 2018 Red Sox knew or should have known that Watkins was utilizing in-game video to update the information that he had learned from his pregame analysis.” Communication of the violations “was episodic and isolated to Watkins and a limited number of Red Sox players only,” Manfred wrote.

Manfred also found that the team’s front office “consistently communicated MLB’s sign-stealing rules to non-player staff and made commendable efforts toward instilling a culture of compliance” within the organization.

“The efforts of our baseball ops group were clearly spelled out in the report, but ultimately, we fell short,” Kennedy said. “We need to do better.”

The investigation, which commenced in January, was completed by late March, but Manfred said at the time he hadn’t been able to produce a written report while the league dealt with the fallout from the closure of Spring Training and the delay of the regular season due to the coronavirus pandemic.

MLB’s Department of Investigations interviewed 65 witnesses, including 34 current and former Red Sox players, some of them multiple times. The DOI also reviewed tens of thousands of e-mails, text messages, video clips and photographs, per the report.

Manfred wrote that the Red Sox “fully cooperated with the investigation,” producing all requested electronic communications and making all requested employees available for interviews. Some team employees provided their cell phones to be imaged and searched, as well.

Watkins’ actions proved to be the key issue in the investigation. He “vehemently denies” using the replay system during games to decode signs, while “more than 30” of the 44 players who provided information said they had no knowledge as to whether he did or not.

A “smaller number of players,” however, said that “at least on 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.”

Decoding sign sequences before or after games is legal, but doing so with the aid of live feeds during a game violates MLB rules.

The allegations that the Red Sox had used their video-replay room to study sign sequences in real time were first levied in an early-January story in The Athletic.

The Red Sox followed the Astros as the second team to be investigated for sign-stealing allegations this offseason. In Manfred’s report on the Houston investigation, the Commissioner suspended both GM Jeff Luhnow and manager AJ Hinch for a year apiece, after which owner Jim Crane dismissed both of them.

The Astros were also fined $5 million and forfeited first- and second-round Draft picks in both 2020 and ’21.

Cora, who served as Hinch’s bench coach during the 2017 season before managing the Red Sox in 2018-19, was identified in MLB’s report as a key player in Houston’s sign-stealing system. Manfred did not impose any penalties against Cora at the time, choosing to wait until the Boston investigation was completed. The Red Sox dismissed Cora on Jan. 14, one day after MLB’s Astros report was released.

Boston was fined an undisclosed amount in September 2017 after an MLB investigation found the club had used electronic equipment to relay signs from the video room to the dugout, though the ruling said the violation occurred without the knowledge of Red Sox ownership or front office personnel.

In that ruling, Manfred noted that he had “received absolute assurances from the Red Sox that there will be no future violations of this type.”

Manfred went on to write, “Moreover, all 30 Clubs have been notified that future violations of this type will be subject to more serious sanctions, including the possible loss of Draft picks.”

When MLB announced in January that it would investigate the latest allegations against the Red Sox, the league pointed to a memo Manfred had sent to all 30 clubs in September 2017 that noted how seriously the Commissioner would take future violations associated with electronic equipment or improper use of the video room.

A similar memo was sent to all 30 teams prior to the start of the 2018 season.