Sign-Stealing and Stupid Rules

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.





Filed under baseball, Cheating, rule-violations

5 responses to “Sign-Stealing and Stupid Rules

  1. Aaron

    I agree with much of what you say, but isn’t an additional factor that (some) technology use is going to advantage the home team? Let’s say we allow sign stealing using cameras, dugout monitors, team staffers, etc. The home team will be able to set up use for themselves while precluding the visiting team from doing so. We usually try to prevent that sort of inequality setting up the rules of the game. In contrast, stealing signs by runners at second base remains possible for either team no matter the location of the game. So it seems reasonable to me to try to limit the use of the off-the-field technology when it’s going to give an inherent advantage to one team in a game (though I agree that the advantage gained is probably insignificant), even if the attempt to do so was a bit sloppy in implementation. Of course, we do we allow that the home team will already have some built-in advantages, but the technological one strikes me as a place to use caution.

    Now, if both teams were allowed to set up their own sign stealing technologies, that might resolve this concern. But that seems overly complicated. We have to draw the line somewhere, and there’s never going be a perfectly consistent place to do so.

    • Hi Aaron! Thanks for your comment. If it was too cumbersome or just not feasible for the visiting team then that would be a reason to prevent the home team. But it doesn’t strike me that it would be all that hard. Both teams have access to the replay feed in order to check for replay, for instance. And maybe the league dictates that visiting teams get access in their dugout to any feeds the home team is getting.

  2. RG

    You question whether knowing what pitch is coming is advantageous to the batter. Yes, there are variables after the pitcher releases the ball, but knowing what pitch is coming allows the batter to prepare phyiscally and mentally for that specific pitch. You can question whether this is a real advantage but the fact that the batter would like to know what pitch is coming and the pitcher would like the batter not to know, suggests that this is indeed a real effect. Baseball is a game involving rules, players and a ball and bat. It does not include technology, instant replay aside. The rules allow for players to see and report catcher’s signs because they can see it with their eyes. That is what the rules allow for, not binoculars, telephoto lenses, apple watches, listening devices, etc., because they are not in the spirit of sportsmenship and honest competition. Essentially, you are agruing for cheating and that is not a good look for a philospher.

    Play ball!

    • Thanks for your comment.

      Of course there is some advantage to the batter; my point is that the magnitude is debatable. Knowing it is a fast ball or curve would allow the batter to prepare for that — but location and actual speed are significant enough that the knowledge might not be all the helpful. That is an empirical point–but it doesn’t decide the question. Lots of things provide advantages and part of constructing good rules is trying to figure out the appropriate balance of those advantages. It is not at all clear that sign surveillance tips the balance in significant way; it might even level the advantages between pitcher and batter. Furthermore, if sign surveillance was allowed, the supposed advantages would be minimized by increased countermeasures by the defense.

      A second point you make is that baseball doesn’t have technology. That’s false. Besides the obvious idea that a ball and a bat (and cleats and protective gear) are forms of technology, teams make use of technology all the time. I see managers and players with iPads in the dugouts. I presume they are not playing solitaire but accessing scouting information, pitch counts, and other stats. Furthermore, it seems arbitrary to allow eye balls but not cameras or binoculars. If the identification of signs is so advantageous for the batter that it needs to be prohibited, why does it matter that this advantage came from someone’s eyes? If the concern is the advantage, we shouldn’t care about its source.

      Lastly, you accuse me of arguing for cheating. I assume you were been somewhat playful there, but it is important point–maybe the key point of the post. Cheating is wrong; always and without exception. That’s not the question here _at all_. The question is what counts as cheating and what should actually be against the rules. These are the questions as a philosopher I am most interested in. To argue that sign surveillance should not be against the rules, I am not arguing for cheating. I am arguing for what I think would be a better set of rules.

      • RG

        I’d agree that the advantages of knowing what pitch is coming might be debateable, but having followed the game for over 50 years, it is clear that even small errors in pitch location or speed are the type of errors that good hitters routinely take advantage of, so knowing what actual pitch is coming would have to be considered very useful information to a batter while they are batting.

        Regarding “techology”, the equipment used on the field is essentially that same that it has been for over 100 years. Of course, there have been changes to that equipmement, but the basic components remains basically the same; a wood bat, a hardball, fielder’s glovers and protective euqipment for the catcher. That is one of the reasons that players and fans from long ago would instantaly recognize the game as it is played today as the same game they enjoyed a long time ago. Gleening information from an ipad doesn’t tell you what pitch is coming in the next split second and thus does not affect the on the field game play.

        As you noted, sign stealing IS part of the game and always has been. But the understood agreement regarding this activity is that it acceptable when executed by players using their anatomy, not techology. I think most folks would recognize this as an effort to level the playing field and again, in the interest of true sportsmanship and honest effort. Stealing signs electronically, corking bats, spit balls, etc… are all recognized by fans as not in keeping with the spirit of the game and as a result, we are assured that the game played to today is the same game played by our heroes from long ago. You can say the rule on this artibiary, but no more so than it’s three strikes and you’re out, not four.


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