The recent MLB sign-stealing cases raise some important questions and I’ve been getting a lot of questions about it. Here are some of my thoughts.
I am not all that interested, from a philosophical perspective, in whether the Astros or Alex Cora/Red Sox are facing appropriate consequences. (As a Red Sox fan, I have some worries for sure.) The investigation has concluded that there were violations of the rules regarding sign-stealing and the league has doled out what seems to me to be serious penalties. MLB wants to signal that it won’t tolerate such activities in the future and I think these penalties do that. Break rules, get punished. Nothing philosophical interesting with that.
What is far more interesting, philosophically, are the questions this raises about the rules. Why have rules against sign-stealing via technology? And this pushes us to consider the nature of rules in general and how they are meant to govern the activity. It also raises important questions about what kinds of rules we should have and what the appropriate scope of the rules should be.
In the case of sign-stealing, it is not clear to me what the rule is trying to prevent. When I think about rules against pass interference in football or the balk rule in baseball, I can understand the point of the rule. These may be difficult rules to apply at times, but the importance of prohibiting the activities these rules prohibit is clear enough. But sign-stealing is allowed in baseball—it’s always been an aspect of the game. The problem here is that teams employed cameras and other technologies to help them steal the signs and it’s this use of technology that is against the rules.
But why? Sure the tech makes it easier and faster to identify the signs (or at least seems to). But does it change the game? Does it undermine the skills of baseball? The pitcher still has to make the pitch. The batter still has to hit the ball. The latter might be easier if you know the pitch that is coming (though even knowing it is curveball doesn’t tell you the actual speed and location), and that seems to be the concern. (Though it is not clear any advantage was gained ).
But this concern strikes me as somewhat myopic. If sign-stealing, even with cameras and replays or whatnot is allowed, the pitching side is going to devise ways to hide their signs better and also to fool those trying to steal them. If you know someone is watching (and you are on TV, millions are watching), you’ll figure out a better way to hide it or misdirect the watchers trying to decode. So why should we assume that the sign-stealing with cameras is going to make it any easier to guess the pitch. (This is an empirical question—but when we look at the history of sport (and almost any institution) it is evident that each new development is met with a counter-development).
One legitimate concern is that technology could get out of hand. Do we want teams bugging dugouts, hacking into communication devices, and other kinds of technological surveillance? Probably not. But a few things to say in response to this. First, sign stealing has always been a part of baseball—bugging the dugouts has, to be my knowledge, not been. Second, we can draw a principled line between surveilling those things that are out in the open (like pitch signs) and things that are not (like a dugout conversation). This might be parallel to the expectation of privacy doctrine in law. The signs for the pitch are on national TV, so there is little reason to expect privacy. The conversation or communication between the dugout and the bullpen are not broadcast, and so there seems to be an expectation of privacy.
Nevertheless, it is against the rules and the teams that knowingly and intentionally engaged in these activities were wrong to do so and it looks like most of those involved are facing serious consequences for this. But punishments and punitive measures only go so far. It would be better if we took a step back to think about what the rules are trying to do, whether they accomplish that, and whether those goals are good ones, and whether the rules are good rules.
And I don’t think sign-stealing with technology passes that consideration. To be even more blunt: I think it is a stupid rule.
I think it fails to be a good rule in at least three ways. Good rules should be (this is not an exhaustive list):
- Clear and not ambiguous
- Reasonably enforceable
- Reasonably justified or make sense for the game.
How are these cases unclear or ambiguous? Don’t use cameras or other technology to steal signs. That seems clear enough. But the problem is that the activity being made impermissible is something that is allowed in some situations but not others. You can steal signs if you are a base runner on second. But you can’t do it if you are in the bullpen. You can make use of video to study pitching signs during the preparation for the game, but not during the game. Also what counts as technology? In the past teams, like the 1951 World Series winning NY Giants, apparently used binoculars. I just don’t see a clear, non-arbitrary set of principles to justify why doing it with cameras/tech is prohibited while without such tech it is allowed and this makes it ambiguous.
Enforceability: The fundamental problem with these cases is that we are trying to prohibit the team from looking at things that everyone can already see. To be effective, these rules would necessitate massive and expensive policing of teams, crowds, and broadcasts to truly combat it. And it would still likely fail to be effective.
Justification: As I wrote above, it’s just not clear why we should prohibit these activities. The advantages seem minimal – especially if the surveillance is transparent (that is, allowed and understood to be going on). Allowing the teams to look at what everyone can see anyway and what they can look at outside of the particular competition doesn’t seem likely to upend the nature of the game.
None of this is meant to justify or excuse the activities of those involved. I would like to hope, however, that these cases push us to think more about the nature of the rules of our games. Having good rules to govern our activities will make those activities better.