Drellich: What the ‘Yankees letter’ reveals about Rob Manfred’s decision-making

In public statements Tuesday, the Yankees and Major League Baseball both tried to remind fans that commissioner Rob Manfred did not find that the 2015-16 Yankees broke the sport’s sign-stealing rules.

This determination has been repeated over and over by the team and league — including in court, as they tried and failed to block the release of the “Yankees letter” — as though it was a decision handed down from heaven on high. As though it were so obvious that the commissioner could not have ruled otherwise.

In reality, the commissioner made a crucial choice in 2017. He chose to find that the Yankees (and the Red Sox, whom his office also investigated at the time) had not broken the sport’s rules by decoding signs in their video rooms. And as it was a choice, a different outcome was possible.

Players and staff used the video equipment in place for the sport’s new replay challenge system to figure out what opponent sign sequences were. Then, players would get that information to the dugout and to runners, who could then easily crack the catcher’s code and tell the hitter at the plate what was coming.

Yet, this behavior unto itself, Manfred decided, was not illegal.

The letter of the law in 2017 could and should have been more specific; Manfred and his people used in expanded replay in the sport, and should also have updated the rules prior to a problem arising. But he and his office did not anticipate the problem (and that lack of foresight in turn helped grow the issue).

Nonetheless, a rule was already on the books in 2017. It read: “The use of electronic equipment during a game is restricted. … No equipment may be used for the purpose of stealing signs or conveying information designed to give a Club an advantage.”

Video replay equipment, last we checked, draws electricity. It would not have been a stretch to say that the Yankees and Red Sox were using electronic equipment well beyond intended means and for illicit gain, and had done so in violation of the rule. It might even have been the obvious, correct evaluation.

What Manfred instead decided was that it would be a violation if the information learned in those rooms was communicated via electronics. If a wearable device got involved, such as the one the Red Sox used, or a dugout phone, such as the Yankees used.

“At that time, use of the replay room to decode signs was not expressly prohibited by MLB rules as long as the information was not communicated electronically to the dugout statement,” MLB said in its on Tuesday.

But that specificity wasn’t actually written in the rule then, either. These are all interpretations Manfred chose.

Now, Manfred could have thought it would be unfair to tell players some uses of replay video are legal, and others are not, without delineating them ahead of time. But most any device you imagine would have reasonable uses and illicit uses, and to think every single one would have to be so specifically spelled out ahead of time is a stretch. Just because a rule is broad, doesn’t mean it can’t be enforced.

Manfred’s concerns might have been more practical. This was September 2017, and the playoffs were approaching. Manfred would not have wanted to suspend players or personnel from not one, but two soon-to-be playoff teams. If he went after players, he’d be in a fight with the players’ union over punishments. And the Red Sox and Yankees have always been, let’s say, important franchises in the sport.

But don’t overlook the convenience of the decision, either. It avoids precedent. If other teams are caught doing the same thing up until September 2017, Manfred doesn’t have to punish them. And because Manfred determined that the video room was not grounds for punishment, he then didn’t have to detail publicly what was going on in those rooms. He could be vague.

So in his 2017 publicly released statement, Manfred wrote that “the prevalence of technology, the technology used in the play process, has made it difficult to appropriately monitor appropriate and in uses of electronic equipment.”

The commissioner said too that “our investigation revealed that Clubs have employed various strategies to decode signs that do not violate our rules.”

That hardly explained the extent of what was happening.

The Yankees letter did not reveal more than the public already knew about what the Yankees did. The Athletic reported on the Yankees’ video-room in 2020. But ask a different behavior: How did the letter line up with what Manfred and MLB had told the world?

The commissioner’s public statement in 2017, issued at the same time as the letter, does not make clear what was going on to nearly the same extent. It was a jumbled word soup that left the reader guessing about a dugout phone, and tried to suggest that the dugout phone was just some minor matter.

“In the course of our investigation, however,” said the statement, “we learned that during an earlier championship season (prior to 2017) the Yankees had violated a governing rule the use of the dugout phone. No Club complained about the conduct in question at the time and, without prompting from another Club or my Office, the Yankees halted the conduct in question. Moreover, the substance of the communications that took place on the dugout phone was not a violation of any rule or regulation in and of itself. Rather, the violation occurred because the dugout phone technically cannot be used for such a communication.”

Think about how different it would have sounded had Manfred stepped out back in 2017 and said something along the lines of, well, what he said privately in the Yankees Letter (read it in full here), which was sent to general manager Brian Cashman.

“The Yankees’ use of the dugout phone to relay information about an opposing Club’s signs during the 2015 season, and part of the 2016 season, constitutes a material violation of the Replay Review Regulations,” Manfred wrote in the letter that went public Tuesday. “By using the phone in the video review room to instantaneously transmit information regarding signs to the dugout in violation of the Regulations, the Yankees were able to provide real-time information to their players an opposing Club’s sign sequence — the same objective of the Red Sox’s scheme that was the subject of the Yankees’ complaint.”

Manfred’s goal when he fined the Red Sox and Yankees was to end the behavior, and at the end, that might be where his choice to clear the Red Sox and Yankees of using the video room improperly stings the most.

Players and teams did not take Manfred’s punishment of the Yankees and Red Sox seriously. The very next year, the Red Sox used the video room to decode signs again, after they hired a manager who had come over from the 2017 Houston Astros. Inside of 2017, those Astros kept stealing signs electronically, even after the Yankees and Red Sox were fined — and continued to do so in a way that was even more egregious than video-room decoding.

Manfred’s September 2017 decision-making was a major juncture in the sport’s history, and creates an interesting what-if: Had he found the Sox and Yankees guilty for using the video rooms, and punished them more aggressively, could he have scared off other teams ? Might even the Astros have knocked it off?

Above all, the Yankees letter is a reminder of a commissioner’s process. Manfred confronted a growing problem for the first time and found that two teams using their video rooms to decode signs had done so legally. That doesn’t mean the commissioner was right.

(Photo of Rob Manfred: Julio Aguilar / Getty Images)

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