Major League Baseball on Wednesday suspended Boston Red Sox video replay system operator J.T. Watkins without pay through the 2020 postseason and stripped the team of its second-round draft pick this year after completing its investigation into allegations that the team stole signs during the 2018 season.
Former Red Sox manager Alex Cora, who mutually parted ways with the team in January as part of the fallout from the Astros sign-stealing scandal, is suspended through the 2020 postseason as well — but only for his previous conduct as Houston’s bench coach. Cora and former Astros player Carlos Beltran were the key individuals in a scheme to place a camera near Houston’s dugout and have players bang on a trash can to signal breaking pitches. Cora left Houston after the 2017 season and managed the Red Sox to the 2018 title.
Baseball commissioner Rob Manfred wrote in his report that he does not believe Cora was aware of Watkins’ actions and will not impose additional discipline.
Baseball’s season is on hold because of the coronavirus pandemic, and this year’s draft might be cut to as few as five rounds. Manfred said he was aware that “this penalty may have a more significant impact on the Red Sox than in a normal year.”
As with the Astros investigation, Red Sox players were promised immunity in MLB’s investigation. But Manfred said that even if players had been subject to discipline, none would have been punished.
Manfred wrote in his report that Watkins, who denied the allegations, “on at least some occasions during the 2018 regular season, utilized the game feeds in the replay room, in violation of MLB regulations, to revise sign sequence information that he had permissibly provided to players prior to the game.”
Manfred found Boston’s conduct far less egregious than that of the Astros, noting, “Unlike the Houston Astros’ 2017 conduct, in which players communicated to the batter from the dugout area in real time the precise type of pitch about to be thrown, Watkins’ conduct, by its very nature, was far more limited in scope and impact.
“The information was only relevant when the Red Sox had a runner on second base (which was 19.7% of plate appearances league-wide in 2018), and Watkins communicated sign sequences in a manner that indicated that he had decoded them from the in-game feed in only a small percentage of those occurrences.”
Manfred wrote that he did not find that Cora, his coaching staff, the front office or most of the players on the team “knew or should have known that Watkins was utilizing in-game video to update the information that he had learned from his pregame analysis.
“Communication of these violations was episodic and isolated to Watkins and a limited number of Red Sox players only.”
Watkins declined comment, the Red Sox said.
A 30-year-old from Tuscaloosa, Alabama, Watkins is a 2012 graduate of the U.S. Military Academy. The catcher was selected by Boston in the 10th round of that year’s amateur draft and played in the Red Sox system until 2015.
Manfred called Watkins a “key participant” in the 2017 Apple Watch incident, saying that he relayed decoded signs from Boston’s replay room to the dugout, at first with a runner and then with the watch to an athletic trainer.
Watkins compiled advance scouting information in recent years, and part of his job was to decode opposing pitchers’ sequences ahead of series. His replay room was moved from a remote location to adjacent to the dugout in 2018.
Manfred said the latest misconduct occurred during the 2018 regular season but not in the postseason, when MLB began to place staff in video rooms to monitor conduct.
Besides his suspension, Watkins is barred from serving as a replay-room operator for the 2021 season and postseason.
Manfred wrote, “11 witnesses identified features of Watkins’ in-game communications that indicated to them that Watkins had at times acquired the sign sequence information from the replay room during the game.”
Manfred said six witnesses claimed that they observed Watkins writing signs during games, and four said they saw him use gestures or notes to communicate signs when a video monitor was present, which made them think he was trying to conceal prohibited conduct.
Watkins told MLB that any information he provided during games was obtained from advance scouting. He admitted to attempting to conceal his communications with players from the video room monitor but characterized the conduct as innocuous, saying he passed notes or used gestures when a monitor was present so as to not “give the impression that we were doing something that we should not be doing.” He also suggested that players might have been confused by his providing information during games, might not have understood his preparatory work or might have accused him in a competitive move after moving on to other teams.
“Watkins did not provide a persuasive explanation for why the information he provided to players during the game differed from information provided prior to the game,” Manfred wrote. “I am significantly troubled by Watkins’ admissions that he knowingly attempted to conceal his communications with players from the video room monitor.”
Although Cora was not punished for the Red Sox’s scheme because Manfred found that he was not aware of it, the commissioner did note in his report that Cora did not effectively communicate to his players the sign-stealing rules that were in place for the 2018 season.
“As an organization, we strive for 100% compliance with the rules. MLB’s investigation concluded that in isolated instances during the 2018 regular season, sign sequences were decoded through the use of live game video rather than through permissible means,” Red Sox president and CEO Sam Kennedy said in a statement.
“MLB acknowledged the front office’s extensive efforts to communicate and enforce the rules and concluded that Alex Cora, the coaching staff, and most of the players did not engage in, nor were they aware of, any violations. Regardless, these rule violations are unacceptable. We apologize to our fans and Major League Baseball, and accept the Commissioner’s ruling.”
The Red Sox on Wednesday also officially named Ron Roenicke their manager, removing the interim tag.