“It feels like there’s still no closure and everything has been thrown into question — past outcomes are being second-guessed and even future games will be cast in doubt. There can be no redemption arc after an institutionalized scandal like this until there’s some accountability.” — Sean Doolittle, Nationals reliever
Sean Doolittle speaks for all of us. Four weeks after Commissioner Rob Manfred issued his report on the Astros’ illegal sign-stealing efforts and suspended both president of baseball operations Jeff Luhnow and manager AJ Hinch for the 2020 season, new revelations about the scheme continue to emerge, some of which challenge his findings or call his judgment into question. So long as such information keeps coming to light, Major League Baseball can’t make this scandal — or the justifiable outrage from players within the game and fans outside of it — go away. Not even a leaked report about a cockamamie 14-team playoff format will deflect attention from Houston’s various schemes.
Last Friday, the Wall Street Journal‘s Jared Diamond reported on an effort by the Astros’ baseball operations department to decode opponents’ signs and relay that information to hitters in real time, one that preceded the trash can banging scheme and that general manager Jeff Luhnow had awareness of, though it went unmentioned in the commissioner’s report. Later that day, MLB Network aired an exclusive interview with A.J. Hinch, one in which the Astros’ former manager expressed regret over his own role in failing to stop his players from participating in the sign-stealing scheme but gave a carefully parsed answer when it came to the possible use of wearable buzzers. On Monday, pitcher Mike Bolsinger, who retired just one of eight Astros hitters he faced in his final major league appearance on August 4, 2017, filed a civil lawsuit in Los Angeles Superior Court, “accusing the Astros of unfair business practices, negligence and intentional interference with contractual and economic relations,” according to USA Today’s Nancy Armour.
But wait, there’s more! On Tuesday, the Washington Post’s Barry Svrluga and Dave Sheinin reported on the “open secret” regarding suspicions about the Astros’ attempts to cheat during the 2016-19 window, and the counterespionage efforts against them, including those in the 2019 postseason (that article is the source of the Doolittle quote above). Within that article was an estimate from a rival executive that 10 to 12 teams complained to MLB about the Astros’ “cheating their asses off for three or four years,” one of whom was reportedly the Athletics, before pitcher-turned-whistleblower Mike Fiers went public with his allegations, the action that finally set off Manfred’s investigation.
Also on Tuesday, The Athletic’s Ken Rosenthal, Evan Drelich, and Marc Carig detailed the role of Carlos Beltrán, the only player besides Fiers who was mentioned individually within the Commissioner’s report. On Wednesday, Diamond reported additional details about Beltrán’s role as well the more minor role of Alex Bregman within the chain of events, and additional communications within the Astros’ front office. And on Thursday, current Astros players and owner Jim Crane finally met with the media at the team’s West Palm Beach spring training home.
The bangs simply keep coming.
Say, anybody want to talk about the race for that fourth Wild Card spot?
Of the various reports, the first Journal one is perhaps the most explosive given the amount of previously undisclosed information it contains, information that was obtained from a letter Manfred sent to Luhnow on January 2 that outlined the findings of the investigation, along with additional interviews of several people familiar with the investigation. Most notably, that article challenges the extent to which the team’s efforts were “player-driven,” to use the term from Manfred’s report, which was issued on January 13 (PDF here). Diamond’s second article sheds a bit more light on the genesis of the effort. It’s worth integrating the information from both articles, as well as that of The Athletic, together so as to paint as clear a picture as possible.
“The interplay between players and executives was inherent to the sign-stealing program from the start,” wrote Diamond on Wednesday. At some unspecified point in 2016, Bregman, then a rookie, “mentioned to video room staffers at one point that other teams were better at stealing signs when runners were on second base than the Astros… Bregman wasn’t telling the Astros to cheat, but rather suggesting that they could find a way to decode signs legally.”
That conversation led Derek Vioga, then a baseball operations intern and now the Astros’ senior manager for team operations, to create “Codebreaker,” an Excel-based application programmed with an algorithm to decode opposing catchers’ signs. An employee viewing the game would log the catcher’s signs in a spreadsheet as well as the type of pitch thrown. By itself, there was nothing against the rules about this; it was a permissible tool for advance scouting. On September 22, 2016, Vioga showed Luhnow a PowerPoint presentation featuring Codebreaker. Luhnow later told investigators that he recalled the presentation and asked questions about how it worked. “He said that he was under the impression that it would be used to legally decipher signs from previous game footage for runners on second base to disseminate, rather than live in games,” wrote Diamond.
Vioga told investigators that he presumed Luhnow knew it would be used in games because that was “where the value would be,” according to the letter. That would have crossed the line; the use of electronic equipment to steal signs during games was broadly prohibited under MLB rules, but that prohibition was not strictly enforced at the time. Vioga added that he didn’t recall whether he explicitly told Luhnow that Codebreaker would be used in games — but ultimately, it was.
This is how the Astros began their efforts. While the impetus came from Bregman, Codebreaker was a front office-driven scheme, not the player-driven one that Manfred reported. It wasn’t until June 2017 that Beltrán and other players suggested improvements to the system, at which point bench coach Alex Cora secured a video monitor showing the center field feed to be placed in the tunnel near the dugout. After decoding the sign from that monitor, “a player would bang a nearby trash can with a bat to communicate the upcoming pitch type to the batter,” according to Manfred’s report.
Luhnow continued to be informed about Codebreaker via Tom Koch-Weser, the team’s director of advance information. He discussed Codebreaker with Luhnow after the 2016 season, and told investigators that Luhnow would “giggle” at the title, appeared “excited” about the program, and even entered the video room during road games and asked, “You guys Codebreaking?” Another Astros employee, Matt Hogan (then the team’s coordinator of advance information, now their manager of pro scouting analysis) told investigators there was no effort to hide the use of Codebreaker in front of Luhnow. According to Diamond, Luhnow denied both Koch-Weser’s accounts and that he saw evidence of sign-stealing in those visits.
Koch-Weser sent two emails to Luhnow in 2017 referring to “the system” and “our dark arts, sign-stealing department.” In the first, sent on May 24, 2017, he highlighted the roles of Beltrán — apparently before the banging scheme was put into place — and Cora, while also mentioning Alex Cintrón, then the team’s Spanish translator, advance scout, and assistant coach:
“I don’t want to electronically correspond too much about ‘the system’ but Cora/Cintrón/Beltrán have been driving a culture initiated by Bregman/Vigoa last year and I think it’s working… I have no proof that it has worked, but we get real good dope on pitchers tipping and being lazy. That information, if it’s not already, will eventually yield major results in our favor once players get used to the implementation.”
Koch-Weser’s wariness of correspondence suggests that at the very least, he knew the Astros were engaging in questionable practices. Luhnow told investigators that he opened the emails from Koch-Weser but did not read to the end of them due to their length, something that can’t be proven one way or the other but that certainly tests one’s credulity, particularly given that the GM did respond to both emails. “How much of this stuff do you think [Hinch] is aware of?” he wrote on May 24. In an August 26, 2017 email, Koch-Wiser wrote that the sign-stealing department “has been less productive in the second half as the league has become aware of our reputation and now most clubs change their signs a dozen times per game.” Luhnow again replied, albeit two weeks later, writing, “Tom, this type of write up is very helpful,” before bemoaning the team’s recent performance.
The first email’s mention of Cintrón, now the team’s hitting coach, is notable, for his name had not previously appeared in this specific context. According to Diamond, he “was believed to be involved in transmitting information from the video room to the dugout” during the 2017 season. Last October, the Yankees voiced suspicions about Cintrón’s alleged whistling to batters during the 2019 ALCS against the Astros, a potential violation of the rules, as teams are prohibited from signaling to hitters from the dugout through whistling or other means. MLB investigated the allegations but could not substantiate them, as neither an MLB official in the camera well next to the Astros’ dugout nor the umpires heard the whistling.
Diamond reported that the Astros continued to use Codebreaker to steal signs “into 2018 — not just at home, but also on the road,” and that Koch-Weser and other Astros video room staffers told investigators that they weren’t aware of the banging scheme until the now-famous September 21, 2017 game in which White Sox pitcher Danny Farquhar noticed the noise. For a time, then, the two systems ran in parallel.
The Athletic reported that the Astros’ use of the trash can banging arose out of Beltrán and Cora’s dissatisfaction with Codebreaker’s efficiency:
What happened was Cora and Beltrán decided that this video room stuff Koch-Weser was doing (with Codebreaker) was just not working, inefficient, too slow,” a person with direct knowledge of the investigation said. “They just had some lower-level guy put up this monitor and did it themselves.”
“But it was two different things,” that person continued. “The real kind of crime here was they didn’t stop (in September) and the banging on the trash can was over the top compared to what happened before.”
Indeed, in Manfred’s letter to Luhnow, he wrote, “Most or all Astros players were active participants in the Banging Scheme by the conclusion of the 2017 World Series… The Banging Scheme was so prevalent that witnesses regularly describe that everyone in and around the Astros dugout was presumptively aware of it.”
Luhnow maintained during the investigation that he had no knowledge that the Astros’ efforts broke the rules. In his letter, Manfred expressed disbelief, writing, “there is more than sufficient evidence to support a conclusion that you knew — and overwhelming evidence that you should have known — that the Astros maintained a sign-stealing program that violated MLB’s rules.”
That was enough for the commissioner to suspend Luhnow, holding him accountable for his team’s violations as per his September 15, 2017 memo. Yet his report makes no specific mention of Codebreaker or the front office origins, which are significant in that they planted the seeds of the Astros’ corruption; instead he begins his timeline with, “At the beginning of the 2017 season, employees in the Astros’ video replay review room began using the live game feed from the center field camera to attempt to decode and transmit opposing teams’ sign sequences…” and then moves on to Cora calling the replay room for the signs, and the use of texting and smart watches before Beltrán’s intervention and the banging scheme’s deployment.
Furthermore, Manfred wrote in his conclusion, “The Astros’ methods in 2017 and 2018 to decode and communicate to the batter an opposing Club’s signs were not an initiative that was planned or directed by the Club’s top baseball operations officials,” again making no attempt to explain where the unnamed employees got the idea to decode signs, though as Diamond’s reporting suggests, he did have that information. Even if the efforts of Cora, Beltrán, and teammates were more effective than Codebreaker, the failure to acknowledge the front office’s role seems like a rather glaring omission, one that chips away at the credibility of the entire report.
Though Luhnow (and Hinch) were duly penalized with suspensions, and in short order fired by Astros owner Jim Crane, why was the rest of the team’s front office, aside from assistant GM Brandon Taubman — who was suspended for his conduct towards female reporters during the Astros’ ALCS clinching celebration — spared further scrutiny? Shouldn’t Vioga and Koch-Wiser, both of whom remain part of the team’s baseball operations department, be disciplined as well? “I will defer to the Astros whether the conduct of these more junior employees merits discipline or other remedial action,” wrote Manfred in his report. Both he and Crane need to answer questions as to those employees’ continued involvement with the team; Crane indicated during Thursday’s press conference that he and new general manager James Click would be reviewing the baseball operations department.
In the report, Manfred indicated that he did not find any evidence that the banging scheme continued into 2018, but that the replay room’s efforts to decode signs continued — which jibes with Diamond’s report of Codebreaker’s continued use. The closest Diamond’s first article comes to explaining the omission of the front office’s role in the report is that given the conflicting statements of Luhnow and Koch-Wiser with regards to the latter’s continued usage of the terms “dark arts” and “codebreaking” — in the context of making his case for a raise and in delivering a budget spreadsheet for the advance scouting department — “MLB couldn’t decipher whose account was truthful.” More:
[W]hile the league collected evidence that showed Luhnow was aware of Codebreaker’s existence and capabilities, it couldn’t prove that he knew how it was used. In response to Manfred’s letter, Luhnow presented investigators with a binder with more than 170 pages that cast at least some doubt on the contents of the initial letter, according to multiple familiar with the matter.”
What was in the binder? Who was counting pages? It’s not clear, and it didn’t save Luhnow from suspension, though the conflicting accounts might have shielded him from an even longer punishment. As this new information flows into public view, it hasn’t shielded either the executive or the commissioner from additional ire.
While the Journal‘s first report deflects some of the blame away from Beltrán and the players, both the second one and The Athletic’s story more fully detail Beltrán’s involvement. A veteran who had assembled a resumé worthy of Cooperstown over the course of his 20 major league seasons, Beltrán had an unrivaled stature within the Astros’ clubhouse and a store of knowledge accumulated from his travels around the league. In the August 26 email, Koch-Weser referred to his central role in the banging scheme while noting that the 40-year-old DH didn’t seem to be benefiting much. “Beltrán, who is the godfather of the whole program, ironically just swings at everything after taking a strike and probably does the worst with the info,” he wrote.
Per Rosenthal and Drelich’s January 7 report regarding the Red Sox’s illegal sign-stealing efforts, on which Manfred has yet to report, as early as early as 2015, Beltran’s second year with the Yankees, the team reportedly began using the video replay room to decode signs. Multiple sources told The Athletic that when Beltran came to the Astros in 2017, he told them that their sign-stealing methods were “behind the times.”
Once the banging scheme was deployed, some teammates expressed discomfort. Not only did Beltrán ignore the requests to stop, but even Hinch was apparently afraid to challenge him. Catcher Brian McCann, who was previously Beltrán’s teammate during his 2014-16 Bronx tenure, and widely respected as a clubhouse leader himself, was one player who confronted Beltrán, who according to one of the six unnamed 2017 Astros interviewed for the report, “disregarded it and steamrolled everybody.”
That player added: “Where do you go if you’re a young, impressionable player with the Astros and this guy says, ‘We’re doing this?’ What do you do?” said Joe Musgrove, then a rookie with the team. “I was in my first year, man. Along with Bregman and a lot of those guys, and in your first year in the big leagues you’re around guys like Beltrán and McCann, some big names. And I’m not going to be the pitcher to walk up and tell ‘em to knock it off.”
(On Thursday, after the team’s press conference in West Palm Beach, Carlos Correa pushed back on the notion that Beltrán was intimidating, more on which below.)
Not everybody remembers dissent. “No one ever said anything about how they didn’t agree with the system,” one anonymous player said. “They loved hitting with the system.”
In Diamond’s second report, he quoted Koch-Weser as noting that utilityman Marwin Gonzalez “does the best job with getting this info.” In the work of Astros fan Tony Adams, who logged the available video and audio of 58 of the team’s 2017 home games — over 8,200 pitches and over 1,100 bangs — Gonzalez led the team with bangs in 147 of his plate appearances, edging George Springer (139) and Beltrán himself (138).
For what it’s worth, on Tuesday, Gonzalez, who now plays for the Twins, became the first Astros position player to formally apologize for his role in the scheme, saying “I’m remorseful for everything that happened in 2017, for everything that we did as a group, and for the players that were affected directly by us doing this.” He confirmed that he participated in MLB’s investigation, and added, “I wish I could take it back and do it a different way, but there’s nothing we can do.” On Thursday, Bregman and José Altuve addressed the media at the team’s spring training base and offered their own apologies, which lasted a combined 90 seconds and sounded perfunctory at best; neither took questions from reporters, though they and other team members did meet with the media afterwards. Crane was even less convincing during his longer Q-and-A, while new manager Dusty Baker, who wasn’t even part of the organization until last month, was the only one of the four who sounded sincere — and yet he had nothing to apologize for.
As for dissent… while Hinch conveyed his disapproval of the banging scheme by twice destroying video monitors used to steal signs, he didn’t confront Beltrán or any other players, fearing that he would lose credibility in the clubhouse. In his interview with MLB Network’s Tom Verducci — his first public comment since the report was issued and he was fired, aside from a written statement — Hinch apologized and took responsibility for what “happened on my watch,” and expressed regret at not going far enough to stop the scheme. “I didn’t initiate or didn’t endorse it, but I was the manager, and I think there’s a responsibility when you’re in a position to end it,” he said.
“My mindset at that point was to demonstrate that I didn’t like it,” Hinch said of his times taking bats to the monitor. “In hindsight, I should have had a meeting, addressed it face-forward, and really ended it… I tolerated too much… It’s complicated when you’re talking about a team and all the inner workings of a team. But I just feel like I could have done more, looking back, especially the leader I feel like I am in 2019, versus where I was in 2017.”
Later in the interview, Verducci asked Hinch about the charge that players were using wearable buzzers to receive signals — allegations that lit up social media with conspiracy theories just days after Manfred’s report. Said Hinch, “We got investigated for three months. The commissioner’s office did as thorough of an investigation as anyone could imagine was possible. I knew you mentioned about the emails and the texts and the messages [examined during the investigation] and I believe it.”
That’s not as direct a “no” as some would like. Manfred told Verducci, “I will tell you this: we found no Band-Aid buzzer issues. There’s a lot of paranoia out there.” That paranoia seems less unreasonable as we come to understand the report’s omissions and shortcomings. Hinch later clarified his answer, saying in a statement, “To be clear, I have never seen any such device used in baseball. I am not aware of any such device existing or being utilized with the Astros, the players, or any other team.”
While Hinch sounded sincere in his regrets, his interview is also the beginning of his attempt to rehabilitate his image and work towards a future job in baseball. He wants to manage again: “I love managing. I love players. I love the competition. What I’ve learned about myself over the last few years of doing it is that player-manager relationship, that coach-manager relationship, the front office; I love being in that center hubcap of that wheel that makes it all go around.”
On the one hand, it’s fair to question Hinch’s leadership qualities if at that point — then in his third season with the Astros and fifth as a major league manager overall — he felt he couldn’t stand up to Beltrán, a newcomer to the team, as well as the scheme’s other participants. At the same time, it’s also worth wondering about The Athletic’s portrayal of a big, bad Beltrán running amok, with the assistance of Cora, particularly given the extent to which he had previously been lauded as a teammate and mentor — even by Hinch. Did his zeal for the championship that had previously eluded him corrupt him? Or is he just a convenient scapegoat given that he’s no longer with the team? It’s tough to square these portrayals with everything we thought we knew about his career up to the point that the Mets hired him to manage.
Correa, for his part, challenged the impression of Beltrán as an intimidator, and was unequivocal about the team’s shared responsibility for what happened:
We didn’t feel scared of Beltrán, we didn’t feel intimidated. He was the nicest guy that we’ve ever had, he was the best teammate we’ve ever had. Beltrán was a leader of the clubhouse but we all had a say in everything that we were doing. Whatever he said, and whatever we were doing, we had the chance to stop it as a team. Everybody. Everybody had a chance to say something, and we didn’t, so whoever the anonymous source is that’s saying that we felt intimidated or that we were too young to say something, that’s just straight up bullshit. Beltran intimidated nobody… Beltran is an unbelievable gentleman… I don’t see a person that’s your mentor and that’s there for you when your’e struggling as an intimidating person.
VIDEO: Amazing candor from Carlos Correa, calling ‘BS’ any anonymous report that Carlos Beltrán intimidated young players and that they were not allowed to speak up. pic.twitter.com/BWXzsbQvIa
— Marly Rivera (@MarlyRiveraESPN) February 13, 2020
There’s little question that Beltrán lied to reporters about his role in the scheme — the driving force behind his resignation before managing a single game — but as I noted just before he resigned, and as this flood of recent news illustrates, it’s going to take a lot more time before our impressions of what transpired within the Astros’ clubhouse and on the field are settled. Keeping up with the story, or stories, is no small task; as Doolittle said, we still don’t have closure. While Luhnow, Hinch, Cora, and Beltrán have been held accountable to a degree with the loss of their jobs, not everybody believes that they’ve been punished enough, and there’s still widespread dissatisfaction over Manfred’s inability to discipline the players involved, because their punishment would have to be collectively bargained.
Manfred traded immunity for information, but now that we know that the information he conveyed to the public wasn’t complete — and that the high volume of complaints lodged against the team prior to Fiers’ whistleblowing didn’t prompt vigorous investigation sooner — there’s a great deal of frustration over the commissioner’s own lack of accountability. Given his involvement in such disparate and unpopular plans as the aforementioned expanded playoff format, the institution of the three-batter rule, and the effort to reorganize and contract the minor leagues, fans aren’t exactly confident in the product they’re being presented with. As we await the arrival of Manfred’s report on the Red Sox’s actions, and continued reporting on how it all went down in Houston, it’s unlikely that view is going to change anytime soon.
Brooklyn-based Jay Jaffe is a senior writer for FanGraphs, the author of The Cooperstown Casebook (Thomas Dunne Books, 2017) and the creator of the JAWS (Jaffe WAR Score) metric for Hall of Fame analysis. He founded the Futility Infielder website (2001), was a columnist for Baseball Prospectus (2005-2012) and a contributing writer for Sports Illustrated (2012-2018). He has been a recurring guest on MLB Network and a member of the BBWAA since 2011. Follow him on Twitter @jay_jaffe.