As spring training began, rumors swirled in some corners of the industry about a relatively unpublished addition. Dodgers did it over the winter.
How could they hire the engine of a sign-stealing operation that could lead to them losing the 2018 World Series?
How could they hire an ex Boston Red Sox video replay coordinator JT Watkins?
On Sunday, when asked about Watkins, the Dodgers’ most important voice did not raise such questions.
Clayton Kershaw said he had no problem bringing in a 33-year-old former minor league catcher to help Dodgers players put together a game plan.
“No matter what the advances in technology were back then, there should be a clear distinction between what the Astros were doing and what everyone else was doing,” Kershaw said.
In other words: who cares?
Not every rule violation is the same.
The Houston Astros, who defeated the Dodgers in the 2017 World Series, used live video feed to steal the plates in real time and relayed this information to the attackers.
The Red Sox scheme “by its very nature was far more limited in scope and impact,” according to an investigation by the commissioner’s office released in 2020.
Before and after games, Watkins was tasked with deciphering opposing signs, which was legal. However, as the team’s replay coordinator, he also used his access to live game streams to “complete or update” his work, according to the commissioner’s office. Such in-game use of video to decipher signs was illegal.
Parts collected by Watkins were passed to the bench and used by runners who reached second base, who in turn stole the catcher’s sign and signaled to the hitter what pitch was about to be pitched. Thus, the commissioner’s office concluded, “The information was only relevant when the Red Sox had a runner at second base.”
Watkins has been suspended for the 2020 season. He was the only member of the Red Sox to be punished.
Dodgers outfielder Mookie Bettswho was at the 2018 Red Sox admitted he knew his team was using live video feeds to steal signs.
“Yes,” Betts said on Sunday, “everyone was.”
However, Betts said that the Red Sox did not use the sign-stealing system in the World Series against the Dodgers. The Red Sox batted .353 with runners in scoring position in the series they won, four games to one.
The commissioner’s office found that the Red Sox only used the illegal sign stealing program in the 2018 regular season as the investigation found insufficient evidence to conclude that they also cheated in the 2018 playoffs or the 2019 regular season.
According to Betts, this scheme was used infrequently during that 2018 regular season.
“From time to time and…” began Betts. “It’s kind of hard to remember.”
So it wasn’t a daily practice?
“No!” Betts said with a smile. “That’s what I’m trying to say. People are trying to make it look like a scam. Give us credit. We had a good team. Give us some credit. We had Cy Young winners. We had MVPs. We had Golden Gloves winners. We had been the Silver Sluggers. We had it all. Take that into account.”
Betts confirmed a detail in Evan Drellich’s recently published book about baseball sign theft, Winning Is All About how Red Sox players donated money to Watkins while he was in an unpaid suspension. Watkins later returned to the organization as a scout.
“We all chipped in because he did so much for us,” Betts said. “The perception is, ‘Oh, we gave him money because…’ No. He is very good at his job. He was the one who got up at 3am and did reconnaissance and checked everything we needed to do.”
Betts described Watkins as “a very good pal of mine”. Betts and Watkins were minor league teammates. Betts was drafted by Watkins’ father, a Red Sox scout. And when the Dodgers were looking for another hitting coach, Betts recommended Watkins. Designated forward JD Martinez, who moved from the Red Sox to the Dodgers during the off-season, also backed him up.
“He’s very good at his job,” Betts said. “He played, so he understood. He knows the information we need to know and he provides it.”
Watkins was not available for comment from the Dodgers.
General Manager Brandon Gomez said that when the Dodgers interviewed Watkins, they asked him about the illegal theft of Red Sox signs and now have a good idea of what happened. Asked if his understanding of the situation was similar to what Betts described, Gomes said yes.
Gomez also said that Watkins was “repentant”.
Watkins “categorically” denied using the replay system to use signs in the Red Sox investigation, the commissioner’s office said in the findings. The same investigation also concluded that Watkins was a “key participant” in an incident in late 2017 in which the Red Sox used an Apple Watch to relay signals decoded in the video room to the bench.
“We had the opportunity to read the report and speak with the commissioner’s office and we felt comfortable that after serving his sentence, he would make a positive contribution to our organization,” Gomez said.
Watkins will not have access to live coverage of games in his role with the Dodgers.
Manager Dave Roberts said of Watkins’ responsibilities, “I think it’s just to give us any competitive advantage we can get in terms of preparation, potential opposing pitchers, trends, and working closely with our hitters.”
Asked if he knew what it sounded like, Roberts replied, “I know. But I don’t want to say, “Within the rules.” This should be, of course, within the rules.
Roberts said he had nothing against Watkins because an employee in his position would have to do what he was told if he wanted to keep his job.
Roberts went on to offer an opinion similar to Kershaw’s that it was unfair that every team from that period was now merged with the Astros.
The Dodgers found themselves in that position again earlier this month with the publication of Winning Is Everything. The book includes a number of allegations of illegal sign theft against the Dodgers made by anonymous sources.
Roberts said last week The Dodgers were one of the teams investigated league after the 2018 season, but the investigation turned up “nothing”.
The manager said he wasn’t bothered by the accusations because “I don’t think people should put their name on anything.”, I just think it is [expletive]. To prevent them from doing this and making these random accusations, I just don’t think too much about it.”
Not all accusations are the same. Not every crime either.
Watkins deserves another chance. The Dodgers offered him one.