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Opinion: MLB misses the mark with Astros’ punishments

The conclusion of the league’s investigation into the Astros’ sign stealing scandal saw punishments handed out to all but those most responsible.

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League Championship Series - Houston Astros v Boston Red Sox - Game One (G) Photo by Billie Weiss/Boston Red Sox/Getty Images

It is funny how big things can start so small.

In an interview with Ken Rosenthal of The Athletic in 2019, pitcher Mike Fiers alleged that his former team, the Houston Astros, had engaged in a sign-stealing campaign that violated the rules of Major League Baseball. With those words, Fiers balled up a tiny little snowball and ever so gently pushed it down a very steep hill.

Following the Fiers interview, Commissioner Robert Manfred ordered an investigation from MLB’s Department of Investigations. The investigation covered the period of 2016 up to the present day, and involved interviews with 68 total witnesses, 23 of which are current or former Astros players. The Astros were said to have been cooperative and produced any documentation the league requested.

On January 13 of this year, the results of that investigation were published in a nine page report, finding that illegal sign-stealing had occurred during the 2017 and 2018 seasons. The resulting action was a suspension of general manager Jeff Luhnow and manager A.J. Hinch for the 2020 season, a $5 million fine, and the loss of four draft picks over the next two years.

Later that day, the Astros announced that they had terminated both Hinch and Luhnow.

These are harsh punishments on behalf of both the league and the Astros that affected all parties except those most responsible for the whole thing: the players.

What Rule Was Broken?

Sign stealing in itself is not an illegal activity in professional baseball. If you have spent any time following the game, there are repeated instances where announcers will speculate that the opposing team may have figured out the other team’s signs. You will see signs switched up mid-game, or when runners are on base to avoid tipping what is coming. On occasion you may even be fortunate enough to see Ian Kinsler taunt Chris Sale by pantomiming the use of binoculars, because Sale would rather believe the Tigers are stealing signs than admit he had a bad day on the mound. It is an openly discussed and practiced activity.

The type of sign-stealing I am talking about above is not illegal. However, what the Astros were doing during the 2017 and 2018 seasons was definitely illegal. MLB’s rules are pretty clear that electronic equipment may not be used for the “purpose of stealing signs or conveying information designed to give a Club an advantage.”

Without getting too far into the weeds, here’s a relatively simple timeline of the evolution of the Astros’ cheating strategy, beginning in 2017. When an Astros runner would reach second base, low-level employees in the video review room watched, in game, for the opposing team’s signs. When they figured them out, they initially sent runners to the dugout to relay that information, which would then be passed along to the runner on second and he would then tip the batter. That being a cumbersome, though time-honored method, the players — Carlos Beltran, specifically — and one manager, quickly improved upon the process.

Alex Cora, the Astros bench coach at the time who would soon leave to take over as the manager of the Boston Red Sox, started using the replay phone in the dugout to communicate with the review room. Other times they used texts or a smart watch. Eventually they improved through simplification. Cora had a monitor installed directly outside the dugout and one or more players would watch that feed. This is where the infamous trash can communication method was born. They would bang on the can to indicate to the batter what type of pitch was coming. This practice was carried into, at least a portion, of the 2018 season.

The Punishment

Following the exposure of a similar sort of scheme employed by the Red Sox during August of the 2017 season, Manfred issued a memorandum to all clubs stating that use of electronic equipment to steal signs was a clear violation and would be treated seriously by the league. He went on to state that a team’s general manager and field manager would be held accountable for any violations. This particular language in the memorandum is what sealed the fates of A.J. Hinch and Jeff Lunhow when the Astros activities were discovered.

Suspending Lunhow and Hinch for the year could be argued as both justified and light-handed. There is email evidence that Lunhow was, at the very least, made aware of the efforts to steal signs using the staff from the video review room, although in a letter written after his firing he continued to maintain he had no knowledge of the scheme. The September 15, 2017 memorandum from the Commisioner’s office to all 30 general managers was intended as a final stand down warning from the league. Luhnow either ignored the warning, or simply didn’t realize the extent of the problem in his own house. However, his full knowledge, according to the report, is unclear.

Hinch, having flat out lied about the scheme in prior interviews, was shown to be quite aware of what was going on, and although he purported to making at least two attempts to damage the video monitor so it would not be usable, he never outright told the players to stop doing it. They say the would have stopped if told to. We are not ever going to know if that is true.

Having some level of knowledge of what was occurring, and doing absolutely nothing to either investigate it further on Luhnow’s behalf or to stop it on Hinch’s, combined with the leagues firm statement on responsibility from the prior Red Sox incident put Hinch and Luhnow in the crosshairs for the bulk of the punishment. Punishment that was well deserved based on the circumstances.

In light of the punishments doled out to Hinch and Luhnow, I can not believe it is all that much fun to be Alex Cora right now. Not only was he involved in this whole mess, he took the manager’s job in Boston in 2018 and — by all accounts — doubled down on the practice. His punishment has been postponed pending the results of that investigation. As of January 14, the Red Sox decided to part ways with Cora, terminating his contract. If the findings in the Boston investigation are similar to Houston, it is a safe bet that Alex Cora’s shadow never darkens the doorway of another Major League Baseball organization again. Another justifiable punishment.

Another name specifically mentioned in the report is that of former assistant general manager Brandon Taubman. Taubman was canned in October for inappropriate conduct toward female reporters during the ALCS post game celebration. That came only after the organization initially smeared Sports Illustrated reporter Stephanie Epstein calling her account of Taubman’s behavior a fabrication before being forced to confess it was perfectly accurate. The commissioner then placed Taubman on the ineligible list pending the outcome of the sign stealing investigation.

In meetings with investigators, Taubman denied knowledge of the scheme, and the league then made the bizarre decision to just drop the investigation with the commissioner saying in the report, “I find it unnecessary to determine Taubman’s culpability for the Astros’ rules violations because, as described below, I am imposing significant discipline on him for his inappropriate conduct in the clubhouse.” Manfred is basically saying let us just drop this because you are in enough trouble as it is. I do not know why already doing one terrible thing should somehow lessen the scrutiny on any subsequent terrible thing you do, but I am sure Alex Cora is hoping this standard is applied to him. It will not be, but he can hope.

Taubman, for his part, has been declared ineligible to perform services on behalf of any major league team, and is allowed to request reinstatement after the 2020 World Series. The commissioner closed by stating — as he did with Hinch and Lunhow — that if he is “found to engage in any future material violations of the major league rules, he would be placed on the permanently ineligible list.” It would seem to me that electronic sign stealing in clear violation of league rules would qualify here, but the league’s lack of interest in further determining Mr. Taubman’s culpability in that regard means he is in the clear. An inexplicable course of action for a very lucky guy.

The Astros organization is also suffering consequences here in that they have been forced to give up two first-round and two second-round draft picks. This is damaging to the future production of the organization. The team was also fined $5 million dollars. I am not going to pretend for a minute that that number is of any consequence to the team. The pain point here is the draft picks. How painful will not be known until several years from now, but no one is losing sleep over the money — the maximum allowable fine under the rules of the league constitution.

With punishments now handed out to ownership, management, and coaching staff, all that is left to talk about is the players. The report found that “most of the players on the 2017 team either received sign information from the banging scheme or participated in the scheme.” In addition, “many of the players who were interviewed admitted that they knew the scheme was wrong because it crossed the line from what the player believed was fair competition and/or violated MLB rules.”

With that knowledge in hand, the commissioner came to the following conclusion on punishment.

I will not assess discipline against individual Astros players. I made the decision in September 2017 that I would hold a Club’s General Manager and Field Manager accountable for misconduct of this kind, and I will not depart from that decision. Assessing discipline of players for this type of conduct is both difficult and impractical. It is difficult because virtually all of the Astros’ players had some involvement or knowledge of the scheme, and I am not in a position based on the investigative record to determine with any degree of certainty every player who should be held accountable, or their relative degree of culpability. It is impractical given the large number of players involved, and the fact that many of those players now play for other Clubs.

To borrow words from the great Jim Leyland, this is horseshit. It is true that Manfred clearly stated that he would hold the general manager and field manager responsible. I do not know that there is anything that ever required punishment to be limited to that group, and the punishment handed out to date has not been.

Punishment was handed down to owner Jim Crane and the organization generally through the fine and elimination of draft picks, and when we see what happens with Alex Cora, it will likely extend to him. If those are acceptable extensions of culpability, why do the players get a pass? What it boils down to, based on the language in the report, is that the commissioner determined that it was going to be too hard. Not that it was not possible, but that for whatever reason, the league would prefer not putting in the work.

Maybe some of this has to do with reports that players were promised immunity for cooperating with the investigation. If that is the case, it would have been a fair reason and one worth mentioning in the official report, which it was not. Instead, the crutches of difficulty and impracticality are leaned upon.

Perhaps another justification is that, with CBA negotiations looming in the not-too-distant future, the league does not want to ruffle the feathers of the MLB Players Association. Based on how the league has conducted its business with regards to the players up to this point, however, that’s not a convincing line of reasoning.

Sure, it is impractical to dole out suspensions, with the possible exception of Carlos Beltran, who is the only specifically named player in the report and could rightfully be suspended. But part of the rationale, aside from the immunity bit, is that we would not want to punish any former players’ new teams — in Beltran’s instance the Mets — for these transgressions. Again, I wonder if Alex Cora is hoping that one could work for him. Again, it will not, and it probably should not for Beltran either.

Suspensions would be problematic, but why should that be the only option for punishment the league has? According to reports, Astros players received just shy of $500,000 each as a World Series bonus. Taking that money back seems like it might be a good start, and if certain players figured more prominently in the scheme, then additional fines would be acceptable. Money does not negatively affect their current teams or their playing time, and would certainly send a message. I am sure it would hurt some players more than others, but it would get a point across about consequences for breaking rules.

The only message the current result is sending players is that if they all work together to cheat as a team, there will be zero consequences for their actions.

Indeed, the one player who may likely suffer more than any other as a result of this debacle is Mike Fiers. Fiers, in the second year of a two year deal with the Oakland Athletics, is being openly questioned by a variety of folks around the league for his outing of the Astros, wondering if it was worse than the cheating itself. Some, like former manager Phil Garner, are going as far as calling Fiers a rat. With that kind of perception, it might be hard for a guy like Fiers to find a home after 2020.

The commissioner and the league sent multiple messages with this report, but it is unfortunate how mixed they are. What is clear is that this behavior will not be tolerated, and that there are consequences for breaking the rules. That is good. What is also clear is that those consequences do not apply to the players. In an instance where the players were among the most culpable in the whole messy situation, that is most unfortunate.