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Rob Manfred drops MLB’s hammer on the Astros

Here’s what we learned from the league’s unprecedented suspensions

World Series - Washington Nationals v Houston Astros - Game Seven Photo by Bob Levey/Getty Images

On Monday, the long-awaited hammer finally dropped on the Houston Astros after months of scandal. The American League pennant winners were already engulfed in scandal when then-assistant General Manager Brandon Taubman yelled “Thank f******g God we got Osuna” at Alyson Footer, which the Astros initially denied for several days before finally firing Taubman.

Days later, news broke that the Astros had allegedly been using a high-speed camera in center field to steal signs. It wasn’t the first time the team had been caught skirting the rules, but the scope and breadth of the allegations were almost unprecedented.

In a nine-page report, MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred set forth in detail the results of the investigation into the sign-stealing saga. What captured the headlines was the unprecedented discipline he meted out.

Major League Baseball commissioner Rob Manfred announced an unprecedented level of discipline against the Astros organization Monday in the wake of the sign-stealing scandal that many feel has called into question the legitimacy of their 2017 World Series victory. President of baseball operations/general manager Jeff Luhnow and manager A.J. Hinch will both be suspended, without pay, for one year — beginning today and running through Jan. 13, 2021.

The Astros will also lose their first- and second-round picks in each of the next two seasons and be fined the maximum $5MM that is allowable under the league’s constitution. If the team does not have a first- or second-round selection in either draft — due to draft forfeitures for signing a free agent, for instance — they’ll lose that pick in the subsequent year’s draft. Per Manfred’s report on the investigation, the Astros “will forfeit two regular first round selections and two regular second round selections in total,” whether they come in 2020-21 or in later seasons.

Within minutes, both Luhnow and Hinch were fired by the Astros. But Manfred’s report goes well beyond this discipline. Let’s talk about some key takeaways - and what to expect moving forward.

  • The Astros’ sign-stealing was absolutely against the rules. The report makes clear that the Astros aren’t being punished for stealing signs, but rather for the illegal way they went about doing it.

Approximately two months into the 2017 season, a group of players, including Carlos Beltrán, discussed that the team could improve on decoding opposing teams’ signs and communicating the signs to the batter. Cora arranged for a video room technician to install a monitor displaying the center field camera feed immediately outside of the Astros’ dugout. (The center field camera was primarily used for player development purposes and was allowed under MLB rules at the time when used for that purpose.) Witnesses have provided largely consistent accounts of how the monitor was utilized. One or more players watched the live feed of the center field camera on the monitor, and after decoding the sign, a player would bang a nearby trash can with a bat to communicate the upcoming pitch type to the batter. (Witnesses explained that they initially experimented with communicating sign information by clapping, whistling, or yelling, but that they eventually determined that banging a trash can was the preferred method of communication.) Players occasionally also used a massage gun to bang the trash can. Generally, one or two bangs corresponded to certain off-speed pitches, while no bang corresponded to a fastball.

The use of technology to steal signs was explicitly against the rules as of March 2018. Manfred notes that a memorandum sent to all teams that month stated that “[e]lectronic equipment, including game feeds in the club replay room and/or video room, may never be used during a game for the purpose of stealing the opposing team’s signs.”

The Astros, however, continued to use their camera and monitors throughout the 2018 season, discontinuing it only when they felt it was no longer working. In other words, there is little doubt that the team had actual knowledge of the regulations, and decided to violate them anyway so long as they felt they were gaining an advantage by doing so.

  • Manfred didn’t punish the actual architects of the sign-stealing scheme. Although Manfred writes that Luhnow and Hinch were aware of the sign-stealing operation (although there is some dispute as to how much knowledge Luhnow actually had), Manfred was clear that the plan was conceived of and implemented largely by players.

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. Rather, the 2017 scheme in which players banged on a trash can was, with the exception of [Alex] Cora, player-driven and player-executed. The attempt by the Astros’ replay review room staff to decode signs using the center field camera was originated and executed by lower-level baseball operations employees working in conjunction with Astros players and Cora.

Alex Cora, now the manager of the Boston Red Sox, served as bench coach for the Astros in 2017, and the report consistently indicates that he was the non-player chiefly responsible for the plan.

At the same time, Manfred adds that “witnesses made clear that everyone proximate to the Astros’ dugout presumptively heard or saw the banging.” In short, team officials, at the very least, assented to the use of the sign-stealing plan. In particular, A.J. Hinch testified that he thought the scheme was wrong, but did nothing really to stop it.

Hinch told my investigators that he did not support his players decoding signs using the monitor installed near the dugout and banging the trash can, and he believed that the conduct was both wrong and distracting. Hinch attempted to signal his disapproval of the scheme by physically damaging the monitor on two occasions, necessitating its replacement. However, Hinch admits he did not stop it and he did not notify players or Cora that he disapproved of it, even after the Red Sox were disciplined in September 2017. Similarly, he knew of and did not stop the communication of sign information from the replay review room, although he disagreed with this practice as well and specifically voiced his concerns on at least one occasion about the use of the replay phone for this purpose. As the person with responsibility for managing his players and coaches, there simply is no justification for Hinch’s failure to act.

  • Manfred isn’t finished yet — and the Red Sox could be next. Notably, the report makes clear that Manfred isn’t finished meting out discipline. In the report, Manfred discloses that MLB is investigating whether Cora took his sign-stealing plans with him to Boston during a series which culminated in a World Series title.

[Alex] Cora was involved in developing both the banging scheme and utilizing the replay review room to decode and transmit signs. Cora participated in both schemes, and through his active participation, implicitly condoned the players’ conduct. 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.

The repercussions of this are potentially extraordinarily significant. That both the 2017 and 2018 world champions were evidently aided, at least in part, by an advantage obtained illegally is arguably the sport’s biggest scandal since the Mitchell Report. Cora’s discipline is likely to be harsher than either Hinch or Luhnow, because he apparently devised the illegal scheme for two separate organizations.

  • Manfred isn’t punishing the players. Interestingly, Manfred says in the report that he elected to not punish the players involved.

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. Assessing discipline of players for this type of conduct is both 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. Here, because the Club’s Bench Coach was an active participant in the scheme, and the Club’s Manager was aware of the scheme and did nothing to stop it, I recognize that some players may have understood that their conduct was not only condoned by the Club, but encouraged by it. This was misconduct committed by the team, and with the exception of the individuals whom I will hold personally accountable, my disciplinary action will be directed at the team.

This decision and reasoning rings somewhat false. First, the idea that a player wouldn’t be punished for illegal conduct simply because the team assented is in derogation of the precedent set by performance enhancing drugs, when teams were very much aware that players were using banned substances. The practicality argument makes somewhat more sense - after all, Manfred answers to the owners, and it seems rather against that position to punish other teams for the Astros’ conduct.

What isn’t stated here is the most likely reason, however: the Collective Bargaining Agreement contains no reference to “sign-stealing” at all. There’s also no reference to sign-stealing in the Major League Rules. It’s true that Manfred has plenary power to punish certain actions for the good of baseball, as he did with Pete Rose. At the same time, though, Pete Rose’s conduct was expressly covered by the “gambling” prohibition of Major League Rule 21. So if Manfred were to suspend or discipline Astros players for the sign-stealing fiasco, he would be acting under his catch-all authority under Rule 21(f):

(f) OTHER MISCONDUCT. Nothing herein contained shall be construed as exclusively defining or otherwise limiting acts, transactions, practices or conduct not to be in the best interests of Baseball; and any and all other acts, transactions, practices or conduct not to be in the best interests of Baseball are prohibited and shall be subject to such penalties, including permanent ineligibility, as the facts in the particular case may warrant.

The MLBPA, on the other hand, would have a good case that disciplined players had no prior notice that the rule against sign stealing would be enforced against them, especially when the team was aware of their actions and expressly assented. Remember, that memorandum was sent to the teams, not to the players. In the absence of an express rule admonishing players that the use of technology was grounds for discipline as to the players themselves, I would expect an appeal of such discipline to likely be in large part successful — and that’s why, I suspect, Manfred elected to not pursue player discipline in the first place.

It’s highly likely that Cora’s days as skipper in Boston are numbered; it seems unlikely that the team will retain him if his suspension is longer than a full season, and it’s possible, considering the report, that he garners a harsher penalty than Hinch.

As for Beltran, questions have already begun to swirl about how the Mets will handle the issue, with some already calling for him to be fired. That the Mets’ front office is already dealing with questions of conflicts of interest won’t decrease that pressure. At the same time, having both of MLB’s Spanish-speaking managers losing their jobs essentially simultaneously would be a disaster for the sport, and deservedly so.

One worst-case scenario is that teams effectively use this scandal as a reason to not hire Latino managers, deepening MLB’s diversity crisis further. Even if Beltran retains his job, if both Cora and Hinch are replaced by white managers, the sport should face hard questions about its hiring practices for managerial positions.

  • This punishment wasn’t just about stealing signs. Manfred finally took the needed step of calling out toxic cultures in MLB front offices, and how that leads to incidents like what Taubman did to Alyson Footer.

Finally, I will make some general observations regarding the Astros’ baseball operations department that were gleaned from the 68 interviews my investigators conducted in addition to the nine interviews conducted regarding a separate investigation into former Assistant General Manager Brandon Taubman’s conduct during a clubhouse celebration. . . . 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. 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.

This acknowledgement is a major breakthrough; criticism of a front office culture for what amounts to toxic masculinity - though Manfred doesn’t use those words - is essentially unprecedented and long overdue. Manfred correctly links Taubman’s conduct to the sign-stealing scandal, noting that both are an expected result of the team’s toxic culture. The report also included Taubman’s punishment for his actions towards Footer: “I find it unnecessary to determine Taubman’s culpability for the Astros’ rules violations because, as described below, I am imposing significant discipline on him for his inappropriate conduct in the clubhouse.”

Like Hinch and Luhnow, Taubman was suspended through the end of the 2020 World Series. Unlike Hinch and Luhnow, Taubman will have to apply for reinstatement, meaning his suspension could be significantly longer.

  • The investigation was a needed victory for MLB’s long-beleaguered Department of Investigations. Long a punchline after its misadventures with the Biogenesis investigation and Eddie Dominguez’s tell-all book, the Department of Investigations was facing a credibility crisis. In this matter, however, the DOI conducted by all accounts a thorough and professional investigation, with none of the suspended parties challenging its findings or methods, and no leaks about alleged misconduct. Manfred also felt comfortable enough to name the lead investigators and the evidence reviewed.

The investigation was led by Bryan Seeley and Moira Weinberg of the DOI, who both have substantial experience investigating baseball operations matters. The investigation covered the period from 2016 through the present. During the investigation, the DOI interviewed 68 witnesses, including 23 current and former Astros players. Some witnesses were interviewed multiple times. The DOI also reviewed tens of thousands of emails, Slack communications, text messages, video clips, and photographs. The Astros fully cooperated with the investigation, producing all requested electronic communications and making all requested employees available for interviews. Upon request, certain Astros employees provided their cellular telephones to be imaged and searched. I afforded the Astros and their employees the opportunity to submit evidence relevant to this matter and present any arguments to me and my staff.

It would be too much to say that DOI’s reputation has been cleansed; after all, absence of evidence isn’t evidence of absence, and ergo we cannot assume that everything DOI did in this investigation was above-board. At the same time, this was a needed win for the Department in its highest-profile moment since Biogenesis, and it mattered to emerge looking as an umpire should - essentially unnoticed by fans.

  • Jose Altuve’s Hall of Fame case has become a question mark. For some time now, Houston’s diminutive second baseman has been on a Cooperstown trajectory, but now there’s a question mark. Between 2011, when he broke into the league, and 2016, the last season before Cora came on board as bench coach, Altuve hit .311/.354/.437, good for a 119 OPS+. Between 2017 and 2019, Altuve hit .321/.385/.517, a 142 OPS+.

Altuve’s breakout came in 2016, so it’s entirely possible that his transformation from solidly above-average contact hitter to power-hitting monster was legitimate, and in 2019 - when the Astros apparently weren’t stealing signs - he hit a still-hefty .298/.353/.550. Still, there’s no question that he was a better hitter in the sign-stealing years. Will this be an asterisk on his Cooperstown case, as PED use has been for candidates in this decade?

  • And, for that matter, how good are the Astros hitters, really? Alex Bregman hit .264/.313/.478 (116 OPS+) in 2016, and .285/.374/.504 (139 OPS+) across 2017 and 2018.

Carlos Correa hit .274/.361/.451 (124 OPS+) in 2016, and .315/.391/.550 (155 OPS+) in 2017 before an injury-ruined 2018.

George Springer hit .261/.359/.457 (125 OPS+) in 2016, and .283/.367/.522 (141 OPS+) in 2017, before falling back in 2018. Every major Astro made a significant leap in performance at the plate between 2016 and 2017, when Cora joined the team and the sign-stealing began. It’s possible these breakouts were real; after all, this team did just go to the World Series on the backs of performances fairly close to their established norms. But at the same time, we really don’t know how much of their performance has been due to an added advantage.

  • But what if everyone is doing it? In the wake of Manfred’s decision, multiple players made social media posts recounting incidents of sign stealing with technology.

It seems likely that this is just the tip of the iceberg — and that’s a dangerous thing for a sport caught between the shadow of the steroid era in its recent past, and potential labor unrest in its cloudy future. The 2010s, it seems, might soon be known as the “Sign-Stealing Era.”