Consider the book thrown at the Astros. On Monday, commissioner Rob Manfred announced the results of MLB’s investigation into allegations pertaining to the Astros’ electronic sign-stealing efforts in 2017, the year they won the World Series, and handed down a set of sanctions that together form the most severe punishment administered to a single team since Judge Landis banned eight White Sox players for life in 1921. In this instance, no players were banned or even suspended; instead, Manfred took aim at the Astros’ braintrust, suspending both president of baseball operations Jeff Luhnow and manager AJ Hinch for the 2020 season but deferring punishment for bench coach Alex Cora, the most directly involved non-player, pending the results of a similar investigation into the 2018 Red Sox’s actions. Additionally, the team was stripped of four high draft picks and fined $5 million, the maximum amount allowed under MLB’s constitution. Finally, former Astros assistant general manager Brandon Taubman was placed on baseball’s ineligible list.
In announcing his decision via a 10-page report (PDF here), Manfred confirmed and elaborated upon a November report by The Athletic’s Ken Rosenthal and Evan Drellich that the Astros systematically used their video replay system in an attempt to decode opposing teams’ signs and relay them to the team’s hitters via a trash can-based system of signals. The report was based on interviews with 68 individuals as part of this investigation plus an additional nine interviews related to Taubman’s inappropriate conduct towards female reporters during the team’s ALCS victory celebration.
As I wrote last week, MLB’s failure to anticipate the consequences introduced by the creation of video replay rooms in connection with the adoption of the instant replay review system in 2014 has echoes of the league falling behind in addressing the influx of performance-enhancing drugs in the 1990s. Both issues centered around highly competitive players crossing into gray areas while looking for that extra edge, but because of the key differences in the two issues — mainly the protection of the players’ union and the need for a collectively bargained system of testing and suspensions when it came to PED usage — commissioner Bud Selig never had the chance to bring the hammer down on PED users with the force that Manfred applied here. This is a hefty and impactful set of punishments that asserts the commissioner’s authority and is designed to deter other teams from similar behavior, but it won’t be the last set of them given the investigation into the Red Sox and the possibility of further inquiries. Various decisions within Manfred’s purview on this won’t please everyone, but since when has any commissioner managed to do so?
In the report, Manfred laid out a timeline for the Astros’ gradually more elaborate efforts to steal signs using electronic equipment, a practice broadly prohibited by MLB rules but not strictly enforced at the time, and one that arose with the introduction of reviewable replays. The Astros’ efforts “with the exception of Cora [were] player-driven and player-executed,” and began early in the 2017 season, with a simple system where employees in the team’s video replay room viewed live footage from the center field camera, then decoded and relayed the sign sequence to the dugout. From there it was signaled to a runner on second base, who would transmit the signal to the batter. Soon Cora began calling the replay review room to obtain the signals, and on some occasions the information was delivered via text messages on smart watches or cell phones.
Approximately two months into the 2017 season, a group of players, including designated hitter/outfielder Carlos Beltrán, suggested improvements to the system, and Cora arranged for a 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.” The practice continued through the end of the regular season and the postseason, and into 2018, even after Manfred issued a stern warning to all 30 teams on September 15, 2017, in the wake of separate allegations regarding the Red Sox engaging in their own abuse of the system. At that time, Manfred also issued a memorandum to all teams specifically stating that any future use of electronic equipment to steal signs would be taken “extremely seriously,” with general managers and field managers held accountable for any violations of the rules.
In 2018, the Astros relocated their video replay review system closer to the dugout with MLB’s approval. The trash-can system fell by the wayside but the center field feed was still used to decode signs, with the information transmitted to the dugout via in-person communication. At some point during the 2018 season, the Astros stopped using the system because the players believed it was no longer effective. The investigation revealed no additional violations by the Astros since the introduction of on-site personnel to monitor team replay rooms during games, which began with the 2018 postseason and continued through 2019.
The full menu of discipline for the Astros is this:
- “One-year” suspensions for both Luhnow and Hinch, beginning on January 13, 2020 and running until the day after the conclusion of the 2020 World Series. Both were subsequently dismissed by owner Jim Crane in a press conference about an hour after Manfred issued his report.
- The loss of regular first- and second-round draft picks in both 2020 and ’21.
- A fine of $5 million, the maximum allowed under MLB’s constitution.
- The placement of Taubman on baseball’s ineligible list until the day after the completion of the 2020 World Series, when he will be eligible to apply for reinstatement.
Crane himself was not disciplined, except to the extent that the team took a substantial financial hit (more on which below). Nor were Beltrán, the lone position player mentioned in the report and now the manager of the Mets, or Cora, whose discipline will almost certainly be at least as severe as that of Hinch, and perhaps worse given his involvement with multiple teams after the 2017 warning. Manfred is leaving any disciplining of lower-level Astros employees to the team’s discretion. Crane told reporters that the team is still reviewing such actions; a larger housecleaning may be in store. Current bench coach Joe Espada, who replaced Cora after the 2017 season and who has been a candidate for several managerial openings in recent years, is the favorite to succeed Hinch, but it remains to be seen whether he’s viewed as having been tainted by the team’s 2018 sign-stealing efforts.
It’s all a lot to digest. What follows here is a breakdown of the punishments (and non-punishments) mentioned above, and excerpts of what Manfred said about the various parties in the report.
The Suspensions of Luhnow and Hinch
Per the report, Luhnow — who was the teams’ general manager until being promoted to president of baseball operations in June 2018 — “adamantly denie[d] knowledge” of the electronic sign-stealing efforts, and the investigation “revealed no evidence to suggest that Luhnow was aware of the banging scheme.” However, “The efforts involving the replay review room staff were mentioned in at least two emails sent to Luhnow, and there is conflicting evidence about conversations with Luhnow on the topic,” wrote Manfred. Regardless of his level of knowledge, Luhnow “failed to take any adequate steps to ensure that his Club was in compliance with the rules.”
“The Astros’ violation of rules in 2017 and 2018 is attributable, in my view, to a failure by the leaders of the baseball operations department and the Field Manager to adequately manage the employees under their supervision, to establish a culture in which adherence to the rules is ingrained in the fabric of the organization, and to stop bad behavior as soon as it occurred.”
While Hinch didn’t create the trash can system or participate in it, and while he told investigators he did not support it, and even twice physically damaged monitors to the point that they needed replacement, he also didn’t tell his players or Cora to stop, nor did he bring the issue to Luhnow’s attention. Wrote Manfred, “As the person with responsibility for managing his players and coaches, there simply is no justification for Hinch’s failure to act.” While the commissioner noted that Hinch indicated “remorsefulness,” he was being held accountable “particularly since he had full knowledge of the conduct and chose to allow it to continue throughout the 2017 Postseason.”
Ouch. As The Athletic’s Jayson Stark noted, only twice in baseball history has a sitting major league manager been suspended for at least a year. In April 1947, Dodgers manager Leo Durocher was suspended for a year by commissioner Happy Chandler for an “accumulation of unpleasant incidents” including associating with known gamblers and a scandalous extramarital affair. In August 1989, Pete Rose was banned for life in connection with his having gambled on Reds’ games.
Similarly, disciplining of executives is rare in the annals. In 1912, Phillies owner/president Horace Fogel was banned for life by the league for publicly blasting the integrity of NL president Thomas Lynch and the league’s umpiring, and declaring that the pennant race was “fixed.” In 1943, Phillies owner William Cox was banned for life for betting on his own team. More recently, Yankees owner George Steinbrenner was suspended twice, in 1974 (in connection with his conviction for illegal campaign contributions) and 1990 (for hiring Howard Spira to dig up dirt on Dave Winfield), and Reds owner Marge Schott once in 1993 (for offensive comments about Blacks and Jews); both were eventually reinstated. On Manfred’s watch, in 2017 he handed down lifetime bans to Cardinals scouting director Chris Correa (for hacking the Astros’ scouting database, a crime for which he was additionally sentenced to 46 months in federal prison) and Braves general manager John Coppolella (for infractions pertaining to the signing of amateur international players). Braves special assistant Gordon Blakeley was suspended from a year at that time as well. Last summer, Giants CEO and managing partner Larry Baer was suspended for about four months for violating the league’s domestic violence policy.
In a press conference shortly after the release of the report, Crane cited “higher standards for the city and the franchise” and fired both men, each of whom was under contract for multiple years beyond the suspension. Luhnow, hired by the Astros in December 2011, was signed through ’23, while Hinch, who was hired in September ’14, was signed through ’22. Together they had led the Astros to four postseason appearances, including not only the 2017 championship but also the 2019 AL pennant. That didn’t stop Crane. “Neither one of those guys implemented this or pushed it through the system, it really came from the bottom up,” said the owner. “But neither one did anything about it. That’s unfortunate and the consequences are severe.”
By the terms of their suspension, Luhnow and Hinch were already prohibited from doing any kind of work for the Astros or any other team during their suspensions, or from attending any major league, minor league, or spring training facility, so it’s not like they’re free to take other baseball jobs now. As to whether either will ever work in the game again, it’s far too early to say, but it’s worth noting that suspension was hardly a career-killer for Durocher. He returned to managing in 1948 (first with the Dodgers, then with the rival Giants), did so on and off through 1973, and was posthumously elected to the Hall of Fame in 1994.
Lost Draft Picks
From a financial standpoint, this is the most impactful aspect of Manfred’s punishment. Building on previous research and using a figure of $9 million per Win Above Replacement, last April Craig Edwards estimated the present day dollar valuation of the top 70 picks. For a team finishing with the best record in baseball and therefore picking 30th, as the Astros were slated to do, the present value of that pick is $10.1 million, while for the 70th pick — where such a team might draft again after the compensation and competitive balance picks are tacked on at end of the first round — that figure is $3.8 million. Double that (for two years) and that’s nearly $28 million in lost future value from those four picks alone, and perhaps more. A team finishing with, say, the sixth-best record in 2020 could receive picks 25 ($12.0 million) and 65 ($4.3 million) in 2021.
The report notes that if the Astros lose their first- or second-round pick by signing a free agent who was given a qualifying offer, they will forfeit said pick in the next draft in which they have one: “For the purpose of clarity, the Club will forfeit two regular first round selections and two regular second round selections in total.” This might actually be a very small lifeline for the Astros in terms of spreading out the impact of the punishment over a longer time period.
Manfred had included draft pick penalties in the aforementioned disciplining of the Cardinals and Braves. Along with Correa’s ban, the Cardinals lost their top two picks in the 2017 draft, both of which were awarded to the Astros, as was their $2 million fine. In addition to the Coppolella ban and the Blakeley suspension, the Braves lost a third-round pick, a slap on the wrist relative to those bans as well as their loss of rights to 13 prospects; the team also lost international bonus pool money.
Taubman and the culture
One frustrating element of the report is that Manfred did not find it necessary “to determine Taubman’s culpability for the Astros’ rules violations” due to the discipline he received for his inappropriate clubhouse conduct; the ex-assistant GM denied knowledge of the trash can and other schemes to transmit signs, though he was at the center of minor sign stealing-related confrontations with the Yankees and Red Sox. Even so, he’s out of baseball right now, and the game is better for it, and while he can apply for reinstatement, there’s nothing preventing Manfred from tossing it in the circular file.
Beyond that, Manfred did take aim at the culture within the team’s baseball operations department, calling the way it had manifested itself internally (regarding the way employees are treated) and externally (in relations with the media) “problematic,” adding:
“At least in my view, the baseball operations department’s insular culture – one that valued and rewarded results over other considerations, combined with a staff of individuals who often lacked direction or sufficient oversight, led, at least in part, to the Brandon Taubman incident, the Club’s admittedly inappropriate and inaccurate response to that incident, and finally, to an environment that allowed the conduct described in this report to have occurred.”
None of this may have been a major factor in either Manfred’s or Crane’s decision with regards to Luhnow given the severity of the sign-stealing issue. Nonetheless, the commissioner’s words are a welcome rebuke. Nobody should lament the breakup of this particular band.
Crane and the Players
Crane is certainly no saint, but Manfred reported that there was “absolutely no evidence” that the owner was aware of any of the conduct described in the report, adding that he was “extraordinarily troubled and upset” by his employees’ conduct, and fully supported the investigation. Manfred also noted that “Crane told Luhnow after the Red Sox discipline was announced [in 2017] that Luhnow should make sure that the Astros did not engage in similar conduct.”
Manfred found the Astros’ system to be mainly player-driven and executed, and wrote, “Most of the position players on the 2017 team either received sign information from the banging scheme or participated in the scheme by helping to decode signs or bang on the trash can.” Nonetheless, he did not assess discipline against individuals, calling it “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.
But more importantly, the Club’s General Manager and Field Manager are responsible for ensuring that the players both understand the rules and adhere to them. Our office issues a substantial number of detailed rules and procedures to Clubs – many of which, including the sign stealing rules, are not sent directly to players. It is the obligation of the Club, and, in this case, the General Manager and Field Manager, to educate and instruct their players on the rules governing play on the field.
Manfred’s avoidance of player discipline may rankle some, but he’s not Judge Landis, with the ability to act unilaterally. Any attempt he made to suspend or ban players would have been challenged by the union and subject to appeal, whereas the parties he did discipline have no such recourse. Here it’s also worth remembering the likelihood that other teams were engaging in various attempts to steal signs, too; in their report on the Red Sox, Rosenthal and Drellich wrote, “As far back as 2015, the Yankees used the video replay room to learn other teams’ sign sequences, multiple sources told The Athletic. Other teams likely were doing the same.” As with the Mitchell Report, where an incomplete list of PED users was mentioned but not punished, this is an attempt to explain and expose what happened, and turn the page on this particular saga, for better or worse.
For those wanting Manfred to strip the Astros (and eventually the Red Sox) of their championships: please, this isn’t the NCAA or the Olympics, where results are vacated as if to pretend, “that never happened.” Yes, this is a regrettable mess, and it’s likely that many will refer to the Astros’ 2017 championship as tainted, and regard the players involved as cheaters — not unlike the way that the likes of Mark McGwire, Sammy Sosa, and Barry Bonds are treated when it comes to their home run exploits around the turn of the millennium. But as with the PED era, this mess is larger than a few individuals. It owes to an institutional failure, and aside from the fine levied, nobody is giving any of the money that the Astros and the league raked in while all of that was going on back, just as nobody from the Selig era gave back the windfall from the McGwire-Sosa home run chase of 1998. It’s an imperfect solution, but baseball goes on.
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.