Explaining Astros sign-stealing scandal, punishment after MLB drops hammer on Houston

Sporting News

The hammer has fallen on the Houston Astros.

Manager A.J. Hinch and GM Jeff Luhnow won't see the field — or the office — until after the 2020 World Series has wrapped, as part of punishment from MLB for their role in the illegal sign-stealing scandal that was brought to light this offseason. Then news broke that neither man would return to work as a Houston Astro, as owner Jim Crane fired both on Monday afternoon.

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But that's not all: The Astros are also going to be stripped of $5 million — the most allowed under the Major League Constituon — and first- and second-round picks in the 2020 and 2021 MLB Drafts.

The report on MLB's investigation and its suspensions is just over nine pages long and has a bevy of interesting information. Here are some of the biggest takeaways from the report and a short explanation of MLB's findings:

Astros stopped trash-can banging in 2018

The Astros' replay room, which was used to relay signs via a center field camera, was relocated in 2018 to be closer to the dugout, a request that MLB approved.

While the replay room staff continued to try to decode signs using a "live center field camera," players didn't engage in the trash-can banging in 2018 and felt that using the technology to steal signs grew ineffective as the year wore on.

Along with that, the report says the Astros didn't use any form of sign-stealing or trash-can banging in the 2018 postseason or the 2019 season.

Cora's punishment could be coming soon

The report explicity states that the trash-can banging method that the Astros used to relay signs to hitters was "with the exception of (former bench coach Alex) Cora, player-driven and player-executed."

While MLB hadn't levied punishment against Cora, now the Red Sox's manager, along with the Astros' punishments, his day of reckoning may be coming. The MLB Department of Investigations (DOI) is looking into allegations the Red Sox had stolen signs illegally in 2018, and once that probe wraps, Cora will be handed his punishment.

The report states that because Cora was involved in — and supported — both the trash-bin banging and the use of the replay room to decode and transmit signs, he's more guilty than the manager. That means the severity of the punishment could be much, much worse than for Hinch. That's a scary thought. And with Hinch now out of a job, what could that mean for Cora's Red Sox tenure?

"I will withhold determining the appropriate level of discipline for Cora until after the DOI completes its investigation of the allegations that the Red Sox engaged in impermissible electronic sign stealing in 2018 while Cora was the manager," Manfred says in the release.

Manfred makes good on a promise

After the Red Sox/Apple Watch scandal of 2017 (which will surely be made into a feature-length film, or at the very least, a Netflix documentary), MLB commissioner Rob Manfred made it very clear that the next team to get caught would be punished harshly.

I specifically stated in the memorandum that the General Manager and Field Manager of Clubs would be held accountable for any violations of the rules in the future. Thus, all Clubs were put on notice as of September 15, 2017 that any use of electronic equipment to steal signs would be dealt with more severely by my office.

Severely, indeed. After the initial report of sign-stealing came out earlier in the offseason, Manfred said in an interview that he was going to make sure the punishment is so severe that the improper behavior won't happen again:

"And when we discipline in a situation like this, we discipline with a view towards it having a prophylactic effect on the behavior going forward, so that we maintain the trust of our fans," Manfred said.

Mission accomplished? We'll have to wait and see.

No discipline for Houston players

Interestingly, who didn't get suspended is one of the most interesting points.

"I will not assess discipline against individual Astros players," Manfred said in the report. "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."

The report also states that Astros players individually would not be disciplined, for a few reasons:

  1. Some Astros players admitted to its unfairness. The report says that "many of the players" who were interviewed in the process 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." That seems to have earned a bit of brownie points with the commissioner.

  2. Pretty much everyone knew about it. Investigators found that "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."

  3. Lots of those players play elsewhere now. The report deems that it would be difficult to suspend players, and that it would be impractical to do so, considering a fair amount of those interviewed now play for other teams.

So this means that Carlos Beltran, who was a player for Houston in 2017 and is now the manager of the Mets, looks like he's going to escape a suspension.

Ignorance is not an excuse

Luhnow doesn't spend any time in a dugout during the game, so why suspend him for a season?

Well, similar to the NCAA's "lack of institutional control" punishment, the investigation found that Luhnow had knowledge of the scheme, but chose not to address it appropriately.

"It is the job of the General Manager to be aware of the activities of his staff and players, and to ensure that those activities comport with both standards of conduct set by Club ownership and MLB rules," Manfred says in the report.

Luhnow responded in a statement to The Wall Street Journal that he "did not know rules were being broken" and that he "wasn't informed of any misconduct because I would have stopped it." He also said he is "not a cheater."

The report states that because of the fallout from Boston's Apple Watch scandal (again, Netflix-worthy doc), teams were aware of the potential punishments that could be levied by MLB in the event a franchise is caught illegally stealing signs again. Because of this, Luhnow didn't do enough to make sure the team was aware of punishments, proper guidelines and so forth, which means he earned that suspension.

The same is said of Hinch. The report says Hinch is genuinely remorseful for his actions, but even though he destroyed the monitor Astros players used to steal the signs, he doesn't get off easy. Manfred said Hinch should have gone to his superiors (kind of like an "I'm telling Mom!" situation) to get the sign-stealing stuff snuffed out. That wasn't good enough to skirt a suspension, though.

Manfred questions the Houston culture

One of the most surprising parts of the report was Manfred hitting the hot-button sports topic of "culture," specifically in relation to the Houston organization. He was careful to separate the business side of the franchise (led by team owner Jim Crane), while attributing all the baseball things to Luhnow, and he sounded skeptical that that strong "culture" is actually, well, that strong.

But while no one can dispute that Luhnow’s baseball operations department is an industry leader in its analytics, it is very clear to me that the culture of the baseball operations department, manifesting itself in the way its employees are treated, its relations with other Clubs, and its relations with the media and external stakeholders, has been very problematic.

Some of that culture stuff related to Brandon Taubman, the former assistant GM who acted like a huge jerk to female reporters inside the Astros' clubhouse after Houston won the AL pennant. Taubman's name was mentioned several times in the report, but mostly for that incident, and he won't be able to sniff a major league field in 2020. The report also throws in the fact that, like Hinch and Luhnow, Taubman is one violation away from being permanently banned from the game.

The firings — oh, the firings

Crane announced that both Hinch and Luhnow were relieved of their duties, effective immediately. Out. Gone. Fired.

If this is how an owner is to react to suspensions, then what's next for Cora or anyone else who gets caught in the future?

It's a knee-jerk reaction, but when you consider the insane punishment placed on the Astros, maybe moving on was the way to go.

But, man, that's something else: firing a World Series manager and a man who helped rebuild the roster — but, as stated before, "lack of institutional control" is a pretty big thing, and this was a pretty big price to pay.

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