The Boston Red Sox on Wednesday avoided sweeping penalties in baseball’s second sign-stealing investigation this year.
They will lose their second-round pick in the 2020 draft after Commissioner Rob Manfred determined that they had cheated in 2018 but that their conduct was “far more limited in scope and impact” than that of the 2017 Houston Astros, whose sign-stealing scandal roiled the sport early this year.
Manfred disciplined only one person involved in the Red Sox scheme, J.T. Watkins, the team’s video replay operator, who was suspended without pay for this season and forbidden to run the replay room in 2021. Manfred also suspended Alex Cora, who managed the Red Sox to the World Series title in 2018 and coached for Houston before that, for a year for his role in the Astros’ cheating — but the commissioner did not punish Cora for anything related to the Red Sox, who fired him in January.
Cora, in his first public comment on either investigation, released a statement through ESPN’s Marly Rivera saying he was glad to be exonerated in the Red Sox saga. But he said he took “full responsibility” for his role in the Houston scheme.
“The collective conduct of the Astros’ organization in 2017 was unacceptable,” he added, “and I respect and accept the commissioner’s discipline for my past actions.”
M.L.B. said that it had reviewed thousands of emails, text messages, photographs and video clips and interviewed 65 people — including 34 current and former Red Sox players — in the investigation, which was prompted by a report in The Athletic on Jan. 7. The Athletic also broke the news of the Astros’ more elaborate scheme in their championship season of 2017, including an on-the-record account from the former Houston pitcher Mike Fiers. The Athletic article on the Red Sox did not cite a player by name, and neither did Manfred’s report.
Manfred said that the players had been granted immunity in exchange for cooperating with the investigation, but also that “this is not a case in which I would have otherwise considered imposing discipline on players.”
He said that Watkins had decoded signs by reviewing video of prior games and conveying that information in scouting meetings before games. A runner from second base could then communicate those signs to the hitter via body movements. All of that is legal and widely accepted throughout baseball, but Watkins was found to have sometimes updated players during games based on signs he had decoded while watching live video, which is prohibited.
Watkins was said to have “vehemently denied” the accusations, but some players said they suspected him of doing it. Manfred said there was no indication that the activity took place during the 2018 postseason, when opponents’ sequences were too difficult to decode.
“Watkins said that he sometimes took in-game notes of sign information that base runners obtained when they were on second base and reported to him,” the report said. “He insisted that any notes that he provided to players were based on his pregame advance work or information provided to him by players during the game.”
But one player said that Watkins had decoded a sign sequence while he watched the monitor in the replay room, then conveyed the information to players. Another said he believed that 10 percent of Watkins’ sign-sequence hints were “obviously” based on in-game video.
The Red Sox first prompted an M.L.B. investigation in 2017 — the so-called Apple Watch Incident — when Watkins illicitly communicated signs via text message to a trainer in the dugout, who would then relay those signals to a runner on base. Manfred warned then that all future infractions would mean serious penalties, and in the investigation report he told the Red Sox that he expected “strict adherence” to the rules.
Manfred said he factored Watkins’s role in the 2017 incident into the punishment announced on Wednesday but absolved other Red Sox personnel despite finding that Watkins had continued to cheat. The commissioner praised the team for a “pattern of diligence” and cited several instances in which the front office communicated Manfred’s warnings and directives to Cora, the coaching staff and Watkins.
Sam Kennedy, the team president, said that John Henry, the principal owner, and Tom Werner, the team chairman, spoke with fellow major league owners on a conference call Wednesday.
“John and Tom took full responsibility and apologized to those guys for what happened,” Kennedy said in a conference call with reporters. “Tonight, I want to join them and apologize to the other clubs across the league and also to our fans.”
The loss of a second-round pick — and the $1.4 million in bonus money that accompanied its slot value — may have greater meaning than usual this year, because M.L.B. could limit the draft to five or 10 rounds, instead of the usual 40, because of the circumstances caused by the industry shutdown in response to the coronavirus pandemic.
The Red Sox will never know exactly whom they lost with the pick, but several current stars were chosen in the second round, including Pete Alonso, Nolan Arenado, Freddie Freeman, D.J. LeMahieu, Giancarlo Stanton and Joey Votto. The Red Sox have drafted Jon Lester and Dustin Pedroia in the second round, and they helped the team win two championships.
“That’s significant,” said Chaim Bloom, Boston’s chief baseball officer. “There have been some really, really outstanding second-round picks in the history of this organization.”
For Houston’s wider, more elaborate cheating — in which signs were relayed to hitters by banging a trash can near the dugout, with essentially everyone in uniform aware — the penalties included the loss of first- and second-round picks in the 2020 and 2021 drafts.
Manfred also fined the Astros $5 million — the maximum permitted under M.L.B. rules — and gave one-year suspensions to General Manager Jeff Luhnow and Manager A.J. Hinch, who were both then fired. An Astros player named in the scheme, Carlos Beltran, also lost his job when the Mets fired him as their new manager.
The Astros were not stripped of their title, but the scandal clearly taints it. As for Wednesday’s report on the Red Sox, Kennedy said it should not change perceptions of the 2018 championship — despite the official finding of a rules violation.
“I don’t think it would be appropriate to invalidate the accomplishments of the ’18 team,” Kennedy said. “But obviously when a rule is violated, rules are there for a reason, and when an individual or an organization crosses the line and breaks a rule, they’re to be held accountable. And we are being held accountable.”