Impending fallout from the Houston Astros sign-stealing investigation has loomed like a cloud over the offseason, and today, a hard rain fell on some of the major players in the scheme. Major league baseball announced year-long suspensions for both manager A.J. Hinch and general manager Jeff Luhnow. Even more painful is the loss of both the Astros first and second round picks in the 2020 and 2021 drafts. The league also fined the organization $5 million dollars, the maximum financial penalty allowed.
In response, Astros owner Jim Crane has announced the firing of both Hinch and Luhnow.
ESPN’s Jeff Passan was first with the news as punishments were handed down, and it sounds as though Boston Red Sox manager, Alex Cora, is still on the chopping block due to his central role in the scheme as bench coach during the Astros’ 2017 World Series championship season. New York Mets manager Carlos Beltran, also considered central to the case, appears to have escaped punishment due to the fact that he was still a player at the time of the offenses.
The story first broke via reporting by Ken Rosenthal and Evan Drellich of The Athletic on November 11th after former Astros pitcher Mike Fiers admitted that the club had used technology to steal signs during the 2017 season. The methodology involved the use of a centerfield camera directly fed to a monitor in the tunnel leading from the Astros clubhouse to the dugout. Team personnel watched the monitor during Astros plate appearances in order to get opposing teams’ signs and then signaled the batter by beating on a trash can to indicate breaking balls or changeups, while silence indicated a fastball was coming.
Jomboy Media has a pretty good breakdown of the illegal practice if the story has flown under your radar to this point.
Past denials by Hinch and others in the Astros organization look particularly bad in retrospect. Hinch has claimed that he twice destroyed the monitor used in the hallway to prevent the practice, while other Astros players claim in MLB’s report that they didn’t want to participate but felt powerless to speak out against the practice. Luhnow as general manager bears the ultimate responsibility, regardless of how directly involved he was. For many, the findings are going to put an asterisk on the Astros World Series title, and stain the reputation of many players and coaches.
An excerpt from MLB’s report outlines the scheme and makes it plain that anyone in the immediate vicinity couldn’t help but be aware of the sign-stealing.
Witnesses consistently describe this new scheme as player-driven, and with the exception of Cora, non-player staff, including individuals in the video replay review room, had no involvement in the banging scheme. However, witnesses made clear that everyone proximate to the Astros’ dugout presumptively heard or saw the banging. In addition to players using the monitor installed near the dugout to decode signs, employees in the Astros’ replay review room continued to decode sign sequences using the monitors in the room and communicate those sequences to the dugout for use when a runner was on second base. Both methods of sign stealing were used by the team in parallel throughout the 2017 season.
Today’s penalties are among the harshest ever given out by major league baseball. The Boston Red Sox were merely fined for using Apple watches to steal and communicate signs during the 2017 season. Stealing signs is, of course, perfectly legal as long as you don’t use technology in any part of the process. The Astros scheme was so blatant as to indict anyone within hearing distance of their dugout, and coming in the wake of the Red Sox punishments, the league was expected to really bring the hammer down here. So the stiff penalties aren’t too surprising. They fall in line with some of the other major penalties the league has issued in recent years.
Former St. Louis Cardinals employee Chris Correa served prison time and was banned from baseball for life as part of a 2016 scandal involving hacking and data theft from the Astros. The Cardinals were forced to pay a fine and surrender two draft picks to Houston as restitution. Meanwhile former Atlanta Braves general manager John Coppolella was also banned for life, while the Braves surrendered players, picks, and cash for corruption in the international free agent market back in 2017.
In that light, Hinch and Luhnow may consider themselves fortunate that the penalties weren’t any worse. Of course, they’ll also be looking for work again in 2021 and it will be interesting to see how much interest they attract.
So what do you think Tigers fans? Was the punishment strong enough? Will it deter teams from using technology to cheat? Or just make them more careful how they do it?