Major League Baseball handed down their decision on the sign-stealing scandal that rocked the sport on November 12th of last year. The Astros were found guilty of employing a real-time electronic surveillance system of catcher signs and relaying them to players on the field so the batter could anticipate what pitch to expect. Sign stealing is a time-honored baseball tradition but only if done by human observation, not through electronic spying.
Hinch, Luhnow in happier times
(c) Fox Sports
The quick recap is that General Manager Jeff Luhnow and Field Manager A.J. Hinch were suspended without pay for the 2020 season, the club will forfeit a first-round and second-round draft choice in the 2020 and 2021 June amateur drafts and the club was fined $5 million dollars. An hour after the announcement, Astros owner Jim Crane fired both Luhnow and Hinch.
The full nine-page report is available on .pdf form.
A directive was sent by Commissioner Rob Manfred in mid-September of 2017 warning teams there would be harsh punishment for any team using electronic surveillance after the Boston Red Sox were caught using Apple watches to relay signals. General managers and managers were instructed that they would specifically be held accountable for any violations and to explicitly caution the players and clubhouse against any such violations. The report claimed Hinch and Luhnow did not do so.
2017 Houston Bench Coach Alex Cora and player Carlos Beltran, both no longer with the team after that season, convinced Minute Maid Park technicians to wire a system to monitor the centerfield camera in real time that was originally kept in the replay room for video replay challenges. Team personnel found ways to relay this information to a runner on second base to signal the batter what was coming. Eventually, this system was streamlined to have personnel banging on a trash can near the dugout to notify the hitter.
By 2018, fewer players were interested in participating because they felt it was not effective (the Astros were a better team on the road than at home both in 2017 and 2018) and, while MLB approved of moving the replay room closer to the dugout for 2018, the league eventually placed their own representative in the replay room to monitor what took place, essentially killing the plot.
Cora became manager of the Red Sox in 2018 and his team won the World Series after beating the Astros in the LCS. After yet another espionage charge was levied against Boston, the Commissioner launched a second investigation and is withholding punishment of Cora until that report is complete. Beltran was hired to be manager of the New York Mets for 2020.
The report concluded there was no evidence of misconduct during the 2019 season. By claiming they could not substantiate the actual effect this spying had on individual games, it would seem they then have no justification to strip the Astros of any titles won in 2017 or 2018.
Hinch, on two occasions, took a bat to the offending monitoring system but did not explicitly state his disapproval of it to the satisfaction of the Commissioner's Office. Luhnow claimed he was unaware of the entire operation but emails indicated that might not have been true. Commissioner Manfred took the occasion to take numerous swipes at Luhnow's baseball operations culture. This included the incident involving Assistant GM Brandon Taubman and a female reporter. Taubman was fired last October and must also serve a year's suspension.
Manfred stressed that the scandal threatened the integrity of the game. Not to deflect the blame, but I must question why MLB thought a monitor with the real-time replay was needed instead of one with an eight-second delay as exists in the dugout already? Why did they not hire a rep to monitor the replay room earlier if they knew the temptation existed?
Similar scandals involving the National Football League were handled much differently. The New England Patriots were punished with fines and the forfeiting of draft picks, once for filming the practices of opponents and once for deflating footballs to benefit their quarterback. The head coach was never suspended. The New Orleans Saints had their head coach suspended for one year for overseeing the placing of bounties to encourage injuring opponents. That coach served his suspension, returned the next year and is still coaching them today.
Crane said he holds his organization to a higher standard in justifying the firing of Hinch and Luhnow. If so, to be consistent, he should fire other team personnel who took part in arranging or participating in the scandal. To not do so looks like face-saving for PR purposes instead of an actual desire to sweep the house clean.
Current Bench Coach Joe Espada is reportedly named for either an interim or permanent managerial position. Espada was sought by other teams during the off-season. I think it would be a wise move to also hire a veteran manager as a bench coach to replace Espada and give him a baseball lifer to help him run the game like Hal Lanier had Yogi Berra or Larry Dierker had Bill Virdon.
The firings and loss of draft picks will certainly be a setback for the organization but the on-field product is still very talented and would be considered the favorite to win the AL West and return to the playoffs this October. However, fans and players will likely get razzed as "cheaters" for several years to come and that is unfortunate and mostly unfair.