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The Dodgers’ 2017-18 sign-stealing allegations, explained

Details from Evan Drellich’s new book, ‘Winning Fixes Everything’

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World Series - Boston Red Sox v Los Angeles Dodgers - Game Three

Evan Drellich’s new book, ‘Winning Fixes Everything,’ details the Astros cheating scandal and his reporting process in uncovering it. But there’s also more than just Houston in the book, with Drellich writing about how MLB has changed and other teams that were investigated by the league for flouting the rules.

There are two excerpts in the book relevant to the Dodgers, and not just for losing to the Astros in the 2017 World Series. Up first is a reference to that year’s Fall Classic matchup:

On the sign-stealing front, the Astros and Dodgers were suspicious of one another. One member of the Dodgers said during the 2017 season, they indeed did use a baserunner scheme, determining sign sequences with the help of their video room, an analog to what the Red Sox and Yankees had done in recent years, and to what the Astros were doing on the road. Another member of the Dodgers said that everyone was doing that until MLB cracked down on it in 2018. But there is no known evidence that the Dodgers were doing something as flagrant as the Astros’ trash-can system.

When asked about this particular excerpt on Wednesday at Camelback Ranch, Dodgers manager Dave Roberts said (quipped, as it was described), “I want to know who that anonymous person is,” per Bill Plunkett at the Orange County Register.

In a Q&A with Jen McCaffrey at The Athletic about his new book, Drellich on Wednesday explained the “baserunner scheme,” in relation to what the Astros were doing:

A base runner system is what the Yankees and Red Sox were fined for in 2017. It’s what the Astros did on the road in 2017, and it’s what the 2018 Red Sox were punished for as well. How does it work? Someone in the video room decodes signs, that information gets to the dugout, and eventually to runners on base. Generally in the industry, the base runner system is not considered as offensive as what the Astros did at home in 2017, which didn’t involve the pretense of a base runner at all.

Another Dodgers reference in Drellich’s book comes from the 2018 World Series against the Red Sox, managed by Alex Cora, who was Houston’s bench coach the year before. The Red Sox were punished by Major League Baseball for improper use of the video room and were docked a second-round pick in the 2020 draft. In addition, video room operator J.T. Watkins was suspended for the 2020 season and prohibited from working in the video room for 2021.

Watkins is mentioned in this excerpt from Drellich’s book:

“The Dodgers have always been the thing that bothers me the most,” a member of the Red Sox said. “Because they’re the biggest cheaters in the whole fucking industry. ... They were doing it against us in the ’18 World Series. They got caught by Major League Baseball and Major League Baseball did nothing.”

The story goes that Dodgers hitter Joc Pederson ran into the visiting video area at Fenway Park where teammate Chase Utley was, as well as one of MLB’s officials.

“Hey, did you get his signs yet?” Pederson is said to have asked.

“And they’re just like, ‘Fuck—fucking idiot,’” a Red Sox source said of the league official’s response. “Apparently, nothing is done by MLB except they say, ‘Stop doing that shit, don’t do that shit.’ Then they go over to the Red Sox clubhouse to [video operator J. T. Watkins], and they’re like proactively scolding him, making sure he doesn’t do that.

“And he turns to the guy and says, ‘Oh, you caught Chase Utley doing shit?’”

Roberts was asked about this as well on Wednesday. Let’s stroll through the beat reports on this one. First, from Jack Harris at the Los Angeles Times:

Roberts did confirm the Dodgers were one of several teams investigated by the league after the 2018 season for sign-stealing accusations — which were common around baseball at the time as teams grew more suspicious of one another — but that the probe “came up with nothing.”

Roberts also said that since MLB issued stricter rules banning the use of electronic sign stealing in 2018, the Dodgers have adhered to the new standards.

More Roberts, from Plunkett:

“Our guys did do a great job of relaying signs and looking at sequences when the catcher gave them. That’s the school of baseball. That’s gamesmanship. There was never anything illegal about that. … That’s part of having smart baseball players and looking for every advantage. If you can’t give good sequences then that’s your problem. If you can’t disguise them well enough, that’s on you.”

Another Roberts quote, from Fabian Ardaya at The Athletic:

“I think that sometimes people can’t differentiate between a competitive advantage and using your baseball acumen – talking about sign stealing – within the scope of the nature of the way the game was created versus cheating.”

While Roberts saying MLB “came up with nothing” in its investigation of the Dodgers is technically true, Drellich explained why that might have been the case, at least generally.

Again, from Drellich’s Q&A Wednesday at The Athletic:

But for readers, it’s important to understand the distinction: the anecdote about the 2018 World Series is an allegation from another team. Why does the book include any outside allegations? Because in explaining what happened in the sport, particularly around 2017-19, it is important to illustrate the paranoia, or in some cases, justifiable fears, that these contending teams carried.

So that’s a long wind-up to bring us to a discussion of what MLB goes after and what it doesn’t.

MLB’s department of investigations is not a body devoted to righteousness and justice and fairness above all else. It exists to protect and serve MLB and its interests. If you were commissioner of a sports league, would you want to turn a scandal public if you could avoid it, or would you want to do everything in your power to make it go away as quietly as you could? MLB findings after investigating the 2018 Red Sox (it was one rogue employee) and punishment (one draft pick, no fine) appeared designed to quiet the issue.

Now, let’s take that alleged scenario from the 2018 World Series, where an MLB official is said to have witnessed a Dodgers player asking for the signs. If you think MLB is just going to announce in the middle of a World Series, “we’re conducting a major investigation,” unless it absolutely has to — well, I got a bridge to sell you.

Drellich further expanded on the Astros, what MLB investigated and what they didn’t, and fan reaction on Thursday’s episode of the Effectively Wild podcast at FanGraphs, with Ben Lindbergh and Meg Rowley.

“There’s certainly the kind of irrational fan devotion that becomes a part of it,” Drellich said. “You can go in circles with this. The whole thing is a mess, and therefore is kind of unsatisfying. Wherever you sit, it’s not really clear-cut, shut, slammed. I think that, with the shock value of ‘a World Series-winning team cheated’ melds together to make this topic that can just keep rolling.”