There are many pieces detailing how the Astros appear to have cheated by using video to steal signs in real-time. Ken Rosenthal and Evan Drellich wrote a lengthy piece for The Athletic with quotes from former Astros’ pitcher Mike Fiers detailing the team’s practices in 2017. The basics are in that piece, but there are a several more that discuss what the team was reportedly doing and how they did it. We don’t yet know all the facts; it is still unclear precisely how long the team engaged in this practice, and who all of the responsible parties are. But what the evidence makes pretty clear is that the Astros stole signs with the aid of advanced technology and relayed those signs to hitters during games. That’s cheating.
What the Astros and their employees might receive in terms of punishment for engaging in that practice is less clear, though multiple precedents have been set to guide the league’s possible enforcement. Perhaps you’re of the mind that the consequences Astros deserve to suffer is to have won fewer games, including their 2017 World Series. But such an extreme result is unlikely. Astros wins and championship banners probably won’t be taken away or vacated like a farcical college athletics penalty. Even when players are caught cheating in the middle of games, the results aren’t vacated. So what might we expect? In looking to past scandals, we can get a glimpse at MLB and Rob Manfred’s approach. There are multiple factors that play into potential punishment, both for individuals and the franchise, but here are a few of the major ones:
- Is this the first time a team has been penalized for breaking the rules?
- Was the organization cooperative with MLB’s investigation?
- How high up the organizational chain does the knowledge and activity go?
For the first factor, let’s consider the Boston Red Sox’s penalty for breaking the rules surrounding signing international free agents. After the club exceeded the allowable pool amount to sign Yoán Moncada, it were restricted from signing any amateur international free agents for more than $300,000. To get around those restrictions, the Red Sox signed less well-regarded players for $300,000 with the expectation that money from some of those lesser players would go to the better players who should have received higher bonuses and were represented by the same agents. When the Red Sox penalty for circumventing the rules came down in 2016, they were prohibited from signing any international free agents for a year, and the players involved were declared free agents, with Boston unable to recoup their signing bonuses, which remained with the players. It was the first time a team had been penalized in this fashion.
Fast forward to the penalties handed down in the Braves case in November 2017. The Braves engaged in a similar scheme as the Red Sox’s, except they did so the year before they spent big on international amateurs. By breaking the rules to stay under their pool level in the 2015-2016 signing period, they were able to spend more in the next period and give multiple players million dollar bonuses, including Kevin Maitan. As a result, the players who were part of the scheme in the 2015-2016 signing period were declared free agents. In addition, the players who the Braves were able to sign in the next period only because of the previous scheme were also declared free agents. The Braves were also unable to recoup the bonuses handed out to these players. This was essentially the same penalty as the Red Sox, except that, because of the way the Braves broke the rules, they lost about ten times more in bonus money. The Braves were prevented from giving out a bonus of more than $10,000 for a year, similar to the Red Sox, but they also received further penalties in the form of a smaller bonus pool in 2020-2021. On top of the organizational penalties, former general manager John Coppolella was permanently banned from working in baseball, while special assistant Gordon Blakely was suspended for a year.
When differentiating the penalties the Braves and the Red Sox received for essentially the same infraction, we can think of the Red Sox’s transgression acting as a warning for the rest of the league. While the Braves’ penalties look a lot more severe, the organizational impact was similar — the difference in severity came in the punishments for individuals. And a cooperative front office matters. When Rob Manfred was asked about potential Cardinals’ penalties for the hacking scandal and how the Red Sox situation compared, he specifically mentioned the Red Sox cooperation as a factor in determining their sanctions:
“I do not see a great parallel between the Red Sox situation and the St. Louis situation, principally for these reasons: The Red Sox, to their credit, accepted organization responsibility for what went on,” Manfred said.
“We don’t have all of the facts in the St. Louis-Houston situation. To date, there has been no implication that this was an organizational problem but there has been an indication that it was one employee, (who) did something inappropriate, the organization found out about it, and fired the employee. Those are very, very different things.”
When discussing the Braves’ international violations, Manfred indicated the Braves were cooperative, but that Coppolella was not. That likely played a role in the severity of the punishment Coppolella received. The Braves hired a new general manager in Alex Anthopolous, while former President of Baseball Operations John Hart also left the organization. Cleaning house helped shift some penalties from the organization to individuals; Manfred cited new leadership in Atlanta as a positive:
“The senior Baseball Operations officials responsible for the misconduct are no longer employed by the Braves,” Commissioner Rob Manfred said in a statement. “I am confident that Terry McGuirk, John Schuerholz, Alex Anthopoulos and their staffs have and will put in place procedures to ensure that this type of conduct never occurs again and which will allow the Club to emerge from this difficult period as the strong and respected franchise that it has always been.”
Similarly, Chris Correa was uncooperative with MLB and received a lifetime ban, though Manfred indicated the organization should still be held responsible:
“Although Mr Correa’s conduct was not authorized by the Cardinals, as a matter of MLB policy, I am holding the Cardinals responsible for his conduct,” Manfred wrote. “A club suffers material harm when an employee of another club illegally accesses its confidential and propriety information, particularly intrusions of the nature and scope present here. In addition, as a result of Mr Correa’s conduct, the Astros suffered substantial negative publicity and had to endure the time, expense and distraction of both a lengthy government investigation and an MLB investigation.”
MLB opted for restitution in that case, awarding the Astros two Cardinals’ draft picks and $2 million; the league presumably believed that Correa going to prison would serve as a sufficient deterrent to future misconduct. That MLB’s investigation didn’t go any higher than Correa likely prevented a front-office shakeup or more severe penalties. That leads to the final factor from above. The last time penalties were meted out for sign-stealing, the lack of organizational knowledge was deemed a plus by Manfred. When the league set down a fine for the Red Sox in 2017, he noted the following:
“In assessing the significance of this violation, the investigation established three relevant points. First, the violation in question occurred without the knowledge of ownership or front office personnel. Second, when the Red Sox learned of the Yankees’ complaint, they immediately halted the conduct in question and then cooperated completely in my investigation. I have received absolute assurances from the Red Sox that there will be no future violations of this type. Third, our investigation revealed that Clubs have employed various strategies to decode signs that do not violate our rules. The Red Sox’ strategy violated our rules because of the use of an electronic device.
“Taking all of these factors as well as past precedent into account, I have decided to fine the Red Sox an undisclosed amount which in turn will be donated by my office to hurricane relief efforts in Florida. Moreover, all 30 Clubs have been notified that future violations of this type will be subject to more serious sanctions, including the possible loss of draft picks.
When we consider the precedent and statements from above, things don’t look especially great for Houston. Manfred issued his statement concerning the Red Sox’s sign-stealing about a week before the Danny Farquhar incident described in the Rosenthal/Drellich piece, so even if the cheating didn’t extend into the playoffs (and the television monitor being removed after a World Series game makes that claim seem dubious), there’s still evidence of the Astros cheating after Manfred announced that more severe penalties would follow future incidents. Emails from special assistant to the general manager Kevin Goldstein to scouts about stealing signs with cameras further would seem to indicate an organizational problem. And an incident involving the Astros in the 2018 postseason, which Jeff Luhnow’s attributed to the team being on the lookout for illegal sign-stealing, would make it difficult for Luhnow to claim he was unaware that his own organization might be engaging in their own sign-stealing when he was constantly watching other teams for the same behavior. MLB solidifying other rules around the practice heading into the 2019 season shows further efforts by the Commissioner to clean up electronic sign-stealing, efforts of which the Astros were surely aware.
As for the current scope of the investigation, Manfred took a position ahead of the owner’s meetings yesterday, indicating that the investigation is currently focused on the Astros and issuing some strong statements on potential penalties:
Manfred on the gravity of the allegations against the Astros: “Any allegations that relate to a rule violation that could affect the outcome of a game or games is the most serious matter. … We have … what is going to be a really, really thorough investigation ongoing."
— Jeff Passan (@JeffPassan) November 19, 2019
While the investigation could eventually cover others teams and players, that will probably be of little help to Houston. Much of the coverage of the scandal hints at other teams engaging in sign-stealing themselves, and Ken Rosenthal has advocated for a very broad investigation based on what he’s heard, but has not yet been able to confirm. How pervasive the practice is, and how closely the behavior of other teams resembles that of the Astros is still unknown, and is likely important context through which to consider possible punishment. The Commissioner will need to exact penalties that are consistent and repeatable for other teams, players, and executives, but likely won’t be eager to mete out penalties without significant testimony and evidence. If MLB isn’t looking beyond Houston, the Commissioner is unlikely to find much that contextualizes the Astros’ actions unless the Astros themselves turn over what they’ve found about other teams’ behavior.
With the Astros, we have obvious cheating with prior precedent for penalties, repeated efforts by baseball to prevent this behavior, and the entire organization, at a minimum, cognizant of potential sign-stealing issues. Ultimately, even if the Astros organization tells the truth about what happened, they are going to be hit hard. If individual employees don’t cooperate, or are found to be lying, they are going to be hit harder. The Astros’ reputation as an organization willing to do anything to win is going to hurt them publicly, but looking solely at the actual evidence will probably be plenty to bring about significant penalties. While some forms of stealing signs are largely accepted as part of baseball, there’s too much in the way of bright-line rules, clear precedent, and brazen disregard for the same to think the Astros’ behavior isn’t going to be easily seen as cheating when the Commissioner’s office conducts their analysis. If the investigation reveals continued illegal efforts to steal signs in 2018 and 2019, harsh penalties are warranted. An excuse of “everyone is doing it” isn’t going to hold water when teams were put on notice of the risk of getting caught. When commenting on Chris Correa’s behavior, Manfred said:
“I am intolerant with respect to the violation of our rules.”
When the investigation concludes, we’ll find out more than just the Astros sign-stealing scheme. We’ll find out if that statement is true.
Craig Edwards can be found on twitter @craigjedwards.