Blue Jays-Rays data card scandal a new case study for sportsmanship in MLB

Arash Madani and Shi Davidi break down the fallout from the data card incident and whether Kevin Kiermaier was within his right to take the card and not return it to the Blue Jays.

ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. — Among the office equipment the Toronto Blue Jays travel with is a paper shredder, and every document they print off with any sort of data is run through it before ending up in a trash bin.

That’s not a new practice, as different coaching staffs have been doing it for about a decade now. A newer habit for one of the team’s pitchers is to double-check that all info cards have been removed from his hats before they get packed up, lest someone find one of the cheat sheets and feed it to a rival front office.

Such is the degree of caution, bordering on paranoia, big-league clubs have around their proprietary information and it helps explain, in part, why the Blue Jays are so upset that Kevin Kiermaier grabbed the catcher’s card jarred loose during a play at the plate Monday.

What matters is not so much the specific game-plan information that the Tampa Bay Rays outfielder carried back to the dugout and clandestinely passed to field co-ordinator Paul Hoover, but the window into the Blue Jays’ thinking it provides.

Breaking down the card allows the Rays to see what kind of information the Blue Jays give their players, how they present it and extrapolate how they process data for dissemination. The cards used by their catchers contain far more data than those used by pitchers and outfielders, and is the one they most wouldn’t want another team to see, said one person with the club.

So, it is suboptimal that a division rival the Blue Jays face 19 times a season and could meet in the post-season this year has it then.

What some Blue Jays found especially irksome is the way Kiermaier scooped it up after making the third out of the inning at home plate, and then slipped it to Hoover. Once Kirk realized it was missing, manager Charlie Montoyo sent a batboy over to the Rays dugout to ask for it back, and he returned with a message making light of the situation, something along the lines of, “we can’t hit Robbie Ray anyway.”

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Blue Jays GM Ross Atkins spoke with Rays counterpart Erik Neander on the field before the game Tuesday and later, manager Kevin Cash came out to chat with Montoyo. Cash ended up apologizing to him, Atkins, pitching coach Pete Walker “and if I needed to speak to Robbie Ray, I’d have no problem doing that,” he said. “Charlie and I go back and forth a lot during the course of a game, I actually thought he was joking. Regardless, not ideal, and I’m sorry for that.”

Montoyo called it “agua under the bridge,” and with the apologies in place, Cash replied “I do not,” when asked if he expected any further fallout.

For the moment, perhaps, and while it wasn’t immediately clear if Major League Baseball is involved, it’s an interesting case study for a sport long tied to the adage, “if you ain’t cheating, you ain’t trying.”

There’s certainly some grey area in how off-side Kiermaier was, if at all, and given the scandals in recent years around the Houston Astros’ systemic sign-stealing and the Boston Red Sox’s illicit use of smartwatches, there’s room to see this in a sportsmanship-vs-gamesmanship vein.

Shown video of the matter, a veteran scout with a rival club took a harsher outlook on the matter, shaking his head and saying, “that’s bullshit — what’s Kiermaier doing picking that up? I want to beat a guy fair and square. If you’re going to look at that, what’s the difference between banging on a trash can?”

On the other hand, a longtime coach with another organization took no issue with Kiermaier’s actions, saying, “I always play by the finders-keepers, losers-weepers principle… (having the other team get the card) is the chance you take.”

Former Blue Jays centre-fielder Vernon Wells, meanwhile, made a point echoed by others, that the simplest way to avoid losing proprietary information was to not use cheat sheets on the field in the first place.

“This whole thing is ridiculous. Here’s an idea… TEACH THE GAME BETTER AND STUDY THE GAME BETTER! You shouldn’t need cards if you are a student of the game. Stop being robots and play the game!” he posted on Twitter.

Cash defended his player, saying “the card’s on the ground,” and after watching the video, “it looked like he was considering giving back and he just said, forget it, whatever, it’s sitting here, I’m going to pick it up and take it in.”

Kiermaier, when approached by Sportsnet colleague Arash Madani, said initially he wasn’t sure if the card was the one he carries with outfield positioning, as, “they’re all pretty similar.”

“Then as I picked it up, I realized it was that. I never even looked at it, I’ll say that,” he said. “But at the same time I’m not going to drop it or hand it back. I don’t know what their thoughts were about it or whatnot. At the time though, I saw it on the ground and I picked it up nonchalantly, not thinking anything of it and haven’t heard anything of it since.”

“Everything was so quick and after I did it, I was like dang, their scouting reports or whatever was on the ground and I grabbed it,” he continued. “It got to the point that I’m not going to return it or do that. It’s September, whatever. I didn’t know what was going on.”

Maybe, or maybe he saw an opportunity to gain an edge in the heat of the moment and took it. Either way, Kiermaier’s act of subterfuge caused a stir around an industry already paranoid about protecting data and offered up a reason to be all the more cautious.

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