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MIT Technology Review

Baseball’s ban on sign-stealing technology doesn’t make sense

Red Sox and Astros managers should not have been fired for seeking a competitive advantage

photograph of Alex Coraphotograph of Alex Cora
photograph of Alex CoraGetty Images

Some sporting rules are moral: don’t throw at a batter’s head. Others are arbitrary: you can overrun first base, but not third. Some of these arbitrary rules are crucial to the games they structure: games, after all, are nothing but a collection of arbitrary rules. But some rules are arbitrary and silly: they are not instrumental to the grammar or spirit of a game. When players and coaches search for a competitive advantage, it is inevitable that rules of this latter sort should be bent, or even broken. This is not proof of some moral failing, but rather evidence that the rules are flawed, and should be changed.

Boston Red Sox manager Alex Cora was fired last night for having helped organize a signal-stealing conspiracy while he was bench coach of the Houston Astros, who had fired their manager and general manager, AJ Hinch and Jeff Luhnow, the day before. A league investigation had found that the Astros were using cameras to observe signs given by opposing teams’ catchers. (The Red Sox are also under investigation.) The intercepted signs were then relayed to players on the Astros bench via text message or phone call, or—on occasion—by banging on a trash can. This would have been perfectly legal except for the use of cameras and phones. Stealing signs is permitted; using technology to do so is not. 

A similar prohibition also applies in football. The New England Patriots, who were punished for filming the New York Jets’ defensive signals in a 2007 game, are again being investigated by the league, this time for filming the Cincinnati Bengals during a game.

Baseball and football are both big businesses in which technology has come to play a fundamental role. Baseball scouts use radar guns to size up pitching prospects. Football coaches endlessly go over game film to craft sophisticated schemes. Teams in both sports employ legions of data analysts who use statistics and even machine learning to devise novel tactics and strategies, and to appraise talent.

In both sports, players and coaches use a variety of signs to communicate with one another. Catchers tell pitchers what pitch to throw by using sequences of hand signals, and football coaches tell their players what play to run using cryptic sequences of images on posters. (This is more common in college football.) The NFL allows coaches to speak with their quarterback and a designated defensive player using radios; this is a solution, though not a very elegant one. Baseball, though, does not allow radios. Though catchers try to hide their signs, in the end they are transmitted in open view: an opponent on second base can often see the sign, and then signal it to the teammate at bat.

There is a long tradition of encoding the messages these signs convey. Τhat way, even if an opposing team sees a sign, it will be without meaning. This has always been a battle of wits: if you can see and decipher your opponents’ messages, you can anticipate what they are going to do, and gain a tactical advantage. A large part of the aesthetic virtue of both sports lies in the way they combine a physical contest with a mental one.

Both leagues extensively use technology to adjudicate games and to analyze tactics and strategy. As the Associated Press reported in December, a computerized system called ABS will be used to call balls and strikes in Major League Baseball games sometime in the next five years. The only reason it isn’t being used already, the AP reports, is resistance from organized labor (the umpires’ union). Baseball pitchers parse recordings made using high-speed cameras, which shoot 1,000 frames per second, to deconstruct the mechanics of their throwing motion in ultra-slow motion.

Rob Manfred, the MLB commissioner, has said that he thinks advanced statistics “will draw people deeper into the game.” Since the 2014 World Series, MLB has used Amazon Web Services (AWS) to run a system called Statcast that analyzes granular data about games, compiled from a Doppler radar system and two stereoscopic cameras, to give near real-time analyses. Some seven terabytes of data are generated per game. All that is scrutinized not only to present fans with information about what did happen, but to enable speculation about what might have happened had players or coaches made different decisions. The NFL runs almost nonstop advertisements promoting its AWS partnership: “Behind every incredible play are thousands of data points you might otherwise miss, such as player’s speed, field location, and movement patterns. The NFL uses AWS to track the scale, speed, and complexity of that data.”

Elaborate technology has become integral to both sports and is enthusiastically promoted by the leagues, which dictate the rules of their respective games. It is ludicrous for the leagues to breathlessly trumpet cloud computing partnerships with Amazon but cry foul when regular old cameras are used to film signals that are given in plain sight.

If sports teams want to communicate among themselves in secret while transmitting in plain view, they should come up with more subtle signaling schemes. Dissembling and misdirection are necessary and crucial to both football and baseball. Alex Cora, AJ Hinch, Jeff Luhnow, and Bill Belichick were doing what all good coaches do: trying to find an edge. Given the ready availability of digital cameras, it is highly unlikely that they are the only ones to have done so.

The Astros and Red Sox were wrong to fire their employees for seeking tactical advantage. The New England Patriots were right not to fire Belichik in 2007. Should an investigation find that his team was indeed surreptitiously filming the Bengals at his behest, the team should not fire him as a consequence.

Rather, football and baseball should change their rules to reflect the ubiquity of imaging and communications devices. Both sports will be better off without spurious constraints on technologically aided attempts to decrypt opponents’ communications. Sporting contests, after all, are decided not only by luck and strength, but also by skill.