To limit cheating, MLB will reportedly start listening to dugout phone calls

MLB will reportedly be listening to conversations on dugout phones in 2018. (AP)
MLB will reportedly be listening to conversations on dugout phones in 2018. (AP)

The last couple years, baseball’s clandestine nature has moved out of the shadows and into the spotlight. First, there was the St. Louis Cardinals executive who hacked into a Houston Astros database. Then there was the scandal last season where the Boston Red Sox were penalized for using an Apple Watch to help in sign-stealing.

This season, Major League Baseball will reportedly start listening to conversations on dugout phones across the league — only they won’t be doing their own spying, they’ll be making sure teams aren’t using outlawed technology to steal signs.

As Ken Rosenthal reports over at The Athletic, MLB plans to install new dugout phones across the leagues, phones that will allow league officials to listen to what’s happening on those phones. Specifically, they’re looking for sign-stealing schemes that involve the league’s replay technology. Rosenthal writes:

Sign stealing, an act of gamesmanship that long has existed in the sport, is but one element in the larger pace-of-play conversation. Baseball does not prohibit players to steal signs as long as they use only their eyes, without electronic assistance. But the increasing reliance on technology attracted national attention last season when baseball fined the Boston Red Sox an undisclosed amount after a member of their training staff used an Apple Watch in their dugout as part of an elaborate sign-stealing operation.

The Red Sox could have used the dugout phone to receive messages from the replay room, but then-manager John Farrell likely would have witnessed such communication, and baseball ruled that the players acted without the knowledge of Farrell, the team’s front office and ownership. Teams will act at their own risk if they convey signs by phone this season; as I reported last week, baseball is installing new phones in every dugout and recording and monitoring all discussions with the goal of eliminating sign-stealing conversations.

To avoid detection in the new climate, a player who steals signs by watching video in the replay room will need to walk to the dugout and relay the sign to the runner on the second base, who then would signal to the hitter at home plate — a much more laborious process than simply conveying sign-stealing information by phone.

A baseball official said the sport would take additional measures if its phone surveillance proves inadequate.

Major League Baseball turning into “The Wire” is a product of replay, because as you know, the thing that always follows a new technology is finding a way to exploit it. In MLB clubhouses, that’s meant using the replay cameras to figure out the opposing team’s signs.

As Rosenthal writes, this is a tricky spot for MLB because the league doesn’t have a problem with sign-stealing, so long as it’s not done using technology. Figure out the signs using good ol’ baseball intuition and paying attention? No worries there.

But pace-of-play is another side of this. Since teams are more aware than ever of opponents trying to steal signs, that means they’re changing them constantly. And that’s one of the things that slows down the game — because it takes time for a coach to visit the mound and change signs or for a catcher to visit the mound to fill in the pitcher.

It’s one of the reasons Astros pitcher Lance McCullers Jr. isn’t thrilled with MLB’s reported pace-of-play changes for 2018. He’s not mad about the pitch clock, he’s mad about limiting mound visits.

The toughest part about all of this is that it’s all connected — it’s like detective Lester Freamon on “The Wire” would say: “All the pieces matter” — video replay means it’s easier to steal signs, which means teams will slow down the game to change their signs.

Phone suvelliance might be enough to end these worries. Or it might just be enough for now — until someone figures out a new way to game the system.

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Mike Oz is the editor of Big League Stew on Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Email him at or follow him on Twitter!