Finally, Someone Agrees With Me

Intense sports image: catcher makes hand signal to the pitcher (viewer), with direct eye contact. This is a crucial pitch and the catcher wants the K. Umpire in standard position looks over shoulder.

If you are a baseball fan, you have probably heard about the sign-stealing controversy that has led to the firing of some high-profile managers (if you are not a fan of baseball and have not heard about the controversy, you can skip to the end of this post. Just hit the Like button and leave a brief comment along the lines of “Wonderful post, thanks for your brilliant insight.”)

From the first time I heard about the sign-stealing situation, I didn’t see what the problem was. Sign-stealing has been a part of baseball since its beginning. I always thought of it as something quaint and unique to the sport. As far as I can tell, there was never a problem with sign-stealing until recently.

The alleged problem today is that some teams/managers were using technology such as cameras to steal the sign and cell phones as part of the process to relay the stolen sign to the batter.

But I don’t see the use of technology as a problem, it’s just a “sign” that the game is evolving and adapting to these new technologies. If you don’t want the other team to steal your sign, come up with a more creative way to communicate with your players that the other team can’t hack.

But I also felt like I was the only one who felt this way; every article I read talked about what a terrible thing this was for baseball and calling into question the ethics of those involved.

Until finally, about two weeks ago, Konstantin Kakaes, an editor at MIT Technology Review and currently the journalist-in-residence at the Simons Institute for the Theory of Computing at the University of California, Berkeley, wrote an article in the MIT Technology Review stating that he did not believe there was a problem with the way signs were being stolen.

Kakaes offers a much more reasoned argument than one I could provide as to why he thinks baseball’s ban on sign-stealing technology does not make any sense. He writes:

  • 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.
  • a computerized system called ABS will be used to call balls and strikes in Major League Baseball games sometime in the next five years.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • football coaches speak with their quarterback and a designated defensive player during a game using radio, but baseball does not allow radios.

In sum, elaborate technology has become integral to both football and baseball, and many other sports. Kakaes concludes by stating that football and baseball should change their rules to reflect the ubiquity of imaging and communications devices, and not ban such devices that are so widely accepted everywhere.

As I noted, I could not have said it any better.

So now I feel more confident stating my opinion about the sign-stealing controversy. And if anyone starts to argue with me, I’ll just respond,

“Well, Kakaes says…”

*image from engadget

28 thoughts on “Finally, Someone Agrees With Me

  1. Wonderful post, thanks for your brilliant insight. 😁 All kidding aside, I am with you here, Jim! Signs were stolen in baseball well before technology played its inevitable evolutionary role. Regardless of how signs are stolen, the simple fact that they can be shows a major flaw in the system for communicating between coaches, catchers, and pitchers. I shouldn’t be able to decode your system, no matter how much I get to see.

    1. thanks, Brad. those are my thoughts exactly, it just took me 500 words to say it! Teams need to come up with a better way to communicate if they don’t want their signals stolen.

  2. “Do onto others as you would have them do onto you.”

    I don’t like your reasoning Jim, because I think opposing teams in sports should play under the same ethics even when the “ethics” are not explicit in writing — much like the way ethics kicks in when the laws are not explicit in writing.  Hence I feel that opposing teams should also play under the same set of unwritten ethics. It was not sportsmanlike when the Houston Astros played under different ethics than the LA Dodgers in the 2017 World Series —
    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/2017_Houston_Astros_season

    We expect business firms to behave under the equal ethics. Why shouldn’t sports teams play under equal ethics of baseball?
    It’s not at all fair when a team wins a competition because looser ethics constraints.

    Taken to an extreme should a boxer with a stun gun in his gloves be allowed to win when his opponents who did not have hidden stun guns?
    This is fair only if both fighters have an option to use stun guns in their gloves.

    My favorite example of ethical performance is our hometown hero Bode Miller who grew up close to our Cannon Mountain Ski Resort.
    Bode Miller — http://faculty.trinity.edu/rjensen/tidbits/WinterSports/Set01/WinterSportsSet01.htm

    According to the Time Magazine story Bode invented a ski boot modification that would’ve given him an edge in his racing competitions. But Bode did not want a one-sided win aided by his technology modification. Therefore, he made his invention known to his competitors. Whether or not they chose to use it was then up to them. The important point is that all racing competitors were competing under the same ethics.

    Ethics is all about the unwritten “rules” above and beyond the written rules of fair competition.
    Is there a difference between wars and athletic competitions and business behavior. War entails real lives and enormous stakes. The classic dilemma that relates to the recent sign stealing scandal in baseball is England’s cracking of the code of the German Enigma Machine in World War II—
    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Enigma_machine

    Of course there are exceptions that entail human lives.

    Breaking of the Enigma Machine encryption code was really sign stealing. If the Germans realized that Alan Turing’s team had cracked the code the Germans would no longer have relied on the same encryption system just like the LA Dodgers would have changed the signaling between the catcher and pitcher when they played the Houston Astros if the Dodgers had known that the Astros discovered how to read pitches in advance. But only trophies and money were at stake — not lives and victory in world war.

    What’s interesting is the degree to which England went to keep Turning’s discovery secret. If England always saved its ships from the German U-Boats the Germans would soon suspect that the Enigma Machine had been compromised. So England actually let some some of its ships be sunk (and lives lost) to continue to protect some other ships and some other lives. What a cat and mouse dilemma?

    Then there’s the ultimate question to be addressed in most any ethics course.
    Should Harry Truman have invited the Japanese to witness an atomic bomb drop for demonstration on a desert island near Japan before he decided to drop an atomic bomb on Hiroshima?
    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hiroshima
    The problem with this is that the demonstration might’ve led to only a conditional surrender by Japan. The U.S. and Japan may have then entered a cold war until Japan got its on atomic bomb. I think dropping of two atomic bombs in Japan led to unconditional surrender of Japan plus a sentiment in Japan that there should not be a cold war with development of any atomic bomb in Japan.

    We can erase the official records of the Astros’ winning of the 2017 World Series, but we can’t erase the official record of the loss of World War II in the pacific.

    1. Hi, Bob. Thanks for your thoughtful comments, as always. In fact, it was one of your original posts that led me to the MIT article. I agree that there needs to be a level/fair playing field. As long as that is in place, then I think teams can decide whether to take advantage of tools, techniques, an tricks that are available to everyone. Should the Athletics have been penalized because they started using analytics before everyone? It gave the an advantage, but anyone could have been doing the same thing.

      In football, the defense may line up a certain way, and the quarterback realizes that such a lineup means a blitz is coming (as a result of having studied film and tendencies), then the quarterback, armed with that knowledge, may change the play at the line of scrimmage. Is that an unfair advantage, or gain, just superior preparation.

      In baseball, as long as the home team has no unfair advantage over the visiting team, then I see no problem with teams using technology to gain an advantage, again, as long as both teams have equal access to the technology.

      Your Bode Miller story is s great example; that was quite generous of him to share that technology. But as long as anyone else could have done the same thing, and such technologies were not banned, then I would not have had a problem if Bode used such a device to his advantage without telling someone.

      In swimming, there are many examples as well; a new way to start a race and do turns in backstroke (staying underwater for a significant part of the race); using high-tech swimming suits (which were later banned).

      As you point out, however, in the grand scheme of things, these issues are not life and death.

      As much as I want a level playing field in sports, I’m much more concerned about having a level playing field when it comes to issues such as education and opportunity.

      1. Hi Jim,

        I don’t agree that just because some other ski racers “might have” invented the same ski boot innovation as Bode Miller that this justifies winning on the basis of technology rather than skiing skill. If some players have seriously better equipment (ski boot, golf ball, golf club, racing engine, tires, etc.) and win on the basis of secret technology then the playing field was not at all level.

        The thing to teach when we teach ethics is
        “Do onto others as you would have them do onto you.”

        This is what makes the Bode Miller example such a great teaching example in an ethics case.

        In the age of rapidly changing technology we cannot have a rule for every possible secret innovation.

        Now if the technology is widely known then the playing field is more level. I read yesterday that speed traders took advantage of other traders in 2019 to the tune of over $6 billion. But since speed trading is a widely known technology it is not the same ethics issue as a secret ski boot or a secret additive added to the fuel of a racing car.

      2. Bob, it seems like a fine line to draw between what is technology and not. Is studying film, technology? Is using analytics, technology? Is designing a better ski boot, technology? Is speed trading technology? Is adapting a new technique for launching out of the starting blocks, technology? How do you decide which one is OK to use an as advantage, and which ones not to? Of the top of my head (and after a couple of beers) could it be compared to the efficient markets hypothesis? As long as you are using publicly available tools and techniques, then you shouldn’t be accused of insider trading. It’s only once you start using info/technology that only you would have had access to that creates a problem. I guess it all comes back to how you define a level playing field…

  3. Ahem. Sorry to be a contrarian on this but seems to me we should start by noting that the key word here is STOLEN as in taking someone else’s property (information in this case) without permission. If the theft is easy or hard or the value of the property is high or low matters not. Theft is wrong. Your recent wonderful and brilliantly inciteful post on the bar in Singapore comes to mind.

    I’m just a baseball fan with almost no experience playing the game having just one year of Little League and a few years as a cannon-armed shortstop in the local softball beer leagues under my belt. As I understand it, historically baseball has not outlawed stealing signs by a runner from second base who can see the signs the catcher is giving. Both teams know this and the team in the field takes precautions when a runner is on second. Still in that instance it is true the batter may get information about what the runner on second thinks the next pitch will be.

    The problem with the latest version of sign theft is that every batter may know every pitch that is coming. If the sophisticated schemes are allowed, teams might as well post the upcoming pitch and location on the scoreboard and the pitcher might as well tell the batter what is coming. That would be the only way to make the game fair and if the game is not fair… end of game.

    But this is America. Of more importance than following the rules and being honest when caught violating them would be the impact on betting. How could Las Vegas give odds without knowing which teams were cheating the best.

    Wonderful post as always!

    1. thanks for your thoughts, and you are being far from a contrarian. My guess is that the vast majority of people agree with you, and I understand where you are coming from. I guess it’s a fine line. If Amazon knows that every time a customer buys To Kill a Mockingbird that there is an 80% chance the customer will also buy Pride and Prejudice, then Amazon will likely start sending that customer emails suggesting Pride and Prejudice. In baseball, if a player notices that every time a catcher flashes two fingers to the pitcher that the next pitch will likely be a curve ball, then it seems ok to share that info with the batter. In football, if the defense lines up a certain way, and the quarterback realizes that such a lineup means a blitz (as a result of having studied film), then the quarterback, armed with that knowledge, may change the play at the line of scrimmage.

      In one way, stealing signs could be interpreted as acting on available information, just like Amazon and quarterbacks do.

      I think what is needed, as Brad suggests, is a more secure way of communicating. And a more secure way does not necessarily mean that it needs to be a high tech solution. I always liked watching the baseball coaches send in a signal; such signals purposely had many distractors as a way to throw off anyone who was trying to steal the sign.

      I am all for a level playing field, the home team cannot have tech advantages that the visiting team does not have access to. But if one team invests the effort to come up with a unique way to steal signs, that any other team could have come up with as well, then I do not see much of a problem.

      By the way, your comparison to Singapore is a good one; I wonder if there anything like sign stealing in cricket?

      Thanks for making me think about the issue!

      1. Baseball players have ways of policing behavior. Major League Baseball’s season and playoffs is a high-stakes game with lots of money, prestige, and pride riding on individual stats and the outcome of games. If I was a pitcher, I’d be especially POed about sign stealing. As in any high-stakes game, if a cheater is caught, there is a price to pay. This season, it will be interesting to see how other teams and players treat those who they think cheated them.

        Stealing a sign and telling a batter what the next pitch is can be dangerous, too, if you are wrong. Many major league pitchers are throwing at speeds approaching and even exceeding 100 mph. Telling a batter it will be a slider on the outside corner and the pitch is a fastball up and in could result in serious injury of even death.

        Sorry for the long-winded comments. This post was very thought provoking as usual.

      2. I wonder if pitchers will start throwing high and inside against players they think are stealing signs. I think that is worse behavior than stealing signs, as you note, serious injury could result. No need to apologize; I enjoy your thoughtful comments. By the way, we are thinking of traveling to Bangkok next weekend. Do you think it is safe to do so, because of the coronavirus?

  4. P.S. There is also the problem of comparing players if sign stealing becomes prevalent. Among other problems, Hall of Fame committees would penalize players who’s stats they would assume bear no relation to their skill level.

    Baseball is called America’s game, and lover’s of the game proclaim and seek to preserve its purity. These days let’s just say to hell with it. Let teams do what they want and if they get caught applaud them for creativity.

    1. I didn’t have a problem with players taking steroids, per se. However, if it is decided that such drugs are illegal, then yes, such a ban needs to be enforced. The other option is to simply let the players decide if they want to take steroids or not. I think records are meant to be broken, and it’s quite difficult to compare players from different generations as it is, even if the rules of the game never change; players do because of advanced training techniques.

  5. Brad stole my opening line, so I won’t use it again.😎

    It would be one thing if the sign stealing occurred through human observation in which both teams had an equal chance of “cracking the code.” A home field advantage is typical in most sports, but those edges have to do with familiarity of the court/field and the cheering of the fans. In this case, the home team was using a hidden camera to relay the signs to the dugout, who in turn devised a system (see explanation below*) to indicate to the player what pitch was coming. I would say this crosses the line of fair play, especially since the visiting team did not have access to the hidden camera.

    I guess I see this as messing too much with the integrity of the game. I don’t view this differently than say letting one team use aluminum bats while the other team has to use wood. (aluminum bats hit the ball farther and harder) How about if in tennis on player was allowed to hit into the doubles alley while the other was not? It’s an unfair advantage in my eyes.

    *The funny part of this story to me (check it out on youtube).is that the way the dugout was letting the batter know what pitch was coming was a banging number of sounds (I think no bangs meant fastball) on a garbage can. Some of the bangs are muffled, but others are quite loud. I suspect that somebody became alerted to their low-tech system. That part of the plan wasn’t exactly rocket science.

    Where does it end? Does the pitcher text the catcher what’s coming? Does the other team try to find a way to intercept or scramble the text?

    1. I would have been fine if you used the same opening line! 🙂 I agree that there needs to be a level playing field. The home team cannot have access to technologies that the visiting team does not have access to; the same thing with the type of bat used. But if you give players the choice of what kind of bat they want to use, then it is up to the players to decide what bat to use; everyone has an equal chance at using the aluminum bat.

      I’ll have to look for the video; I had heard about the use of drums, but I wasn’t quite sure how it worked.

      Analytics has become such a big part of sports, and as long as all teams have access to the same techniques and data, then I see no problem with using such data. Some teams may opt to use it, others may not.

      Thanks as always for your insights, Pete!

  6. I love baseball. Go Dodgers! Yeah, like any controversy, there are many opinions on the matter. I don’t really understand a lot of what is going on. After all, it’s hockey season and so I have things to do. Ha. But if it boils down to cheating and getting the unfair advantage, I’m against it obviously but if not, then, well, people blow a lot of things out of proportion which should not come as a shock. Great post, though. I love any post about baseball!

  7. I’m a baseball fan as well, but for the Phillies. Unfortunately, we don’t have the rich history of the Dodgers! I think they key words you sued were unfair advantage. I certainly agree that gaining an unfair advantage should not be permitted. As long as every player and team has equal access to the same tools and tricks, then I say, go for it. Go Flyers! 🙂

    1. Yes, upon reading your post more thoroughly, I realize what you’re saying and it has nothing to do with justifying cheating. You may be right. This is just another stage in baseball’s development. And I hate to say this in a way, but ha. I’m a Penguins fan. However, I do like the Flyers a lot. I like Vorachek and Farabee and in their last game against the Pens, they were pretty damn awesome. I’ll put it to you this way, I’ll root for the Flyers against most teams. Pens is number one for me but I love rooting for the Flyers and Rangers any day. Sometimes, to be honest, I really root for the underdogs if I don’t have a dog in the fight. Haha. I really enjoy watching hockey and can honestly watch anybody play. If I have a top five favorite teams, the Flyers is in it. I’m very grateful to know a fellow hockey and baseball fan, though. This is very much a pleasure! And as always, great post!

      1. thanks, Parker. I’m glad to hear you are a Flyers fan. But I have to admit, I tend to only get interested if the Flyers are in the playoffs. Of the four major U.S. pro sports, it’s probably my least favorite. But when I do watch, I notice how easy it is to get up in the excitement.

      2. Sure thing. Yeah, I’m the opposite. I get more excited over hockey than the other big three. It’s so fast-paced that I really can’t look away. I don’t want to miss one second but baseball would be second of course. As for football and basketball, they’re fine sports but I’ve never been able to get into watching them much. I love boxing too, but it’s a joke at this point as far as organization. Way too many guys claiming to be a champion and way too few good fights being made. All that said, if nothing else is going on, I can watch any of them. I like the thrill of not knowing what’s going to happen. I watched a Blues and Flames game earlier and it was so back and forth. I couldn’t be sure of anything until tha final shot. You’ve got a great post here and a great blog. I’m very impressed!

      3. thanks, Parker. I just read one of your stories today Metal Memento, and thoroughly enjoyed it. A bit of humor, a bit of suspense, and a nice twist at the end. Great job!

  8. Re the high inside fastball: I wouldn’t be surprised. Players will try to enforce their “ethics.” Batters have been thrown at and hit for stuff like bat flipping and running slowly around the bases. Hockey has its goons who are on the team solely to beat the crap out of players who are gaining some advantage by not conforming to accepted standards of conduct.

    1. I do like the idea of self-enforcement, as long as it does not go too far and cause someone significant harm. Giving somebody a busted jaw or a concussion for stealing a sign seems a little overboard.

  9. First, I will admit not being a true blue baseball fan. Growing up, baseball was a part of my life . . . playing, collecting baseball cards, following players stats. Baseball is built around its traditions, much like other sports. Sign stealing has been part of the game for as long as the game has been played, but the underlying principle was not to be caught. Players and managers have been tossed from a game when one of the umpires discovers espionage is afoot. Baseball’s traditions of fair play and integrity have been hacked in the past, and others will do so in the future.

  10. Spring training is soon starting and the Astros sign stealing is the number one topic on baseball shows. Some players have been very vocal about their displeasure with what occurred and how it was handled by MLB. The Astros had a press conference that was a disaster. I view stealing a sign about a pitchout that occurs in full view as similar to but different than potentially knowing every pitch that is coming. You can’t have a fair game in the latter situation. It will be an interesting season. Cheating in baseball, presidential elections, on college exams is wrong for many reasons. Our society dismisses and even admires too much of it. End of rant.

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