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MLB’s statement on the Astros raises more questions than it answers

No higher-ups knew about the cheating scheme, apparently, and no players got punished for it. Should we feel weird about that? 

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MLB: ALDS-Cleveland Indians at Houston Astros Erik Williams-USA TODAY Sports

The news broke last November in an article by The Athletic’s Ken Rosenthal and Evan Drellich: on the way to being crowned World Series champions in 2017, the Houston Astros had been in the habit of stealing signs. The scheme, which was cooked up early in the 2017 season by a struggling Astros hitter and a coach, was pretty bald-faced. The Astros would use a feed from the center-field camera to decode opposing team signs, then pass these along to a player or coach sitting in the tunnel between the clubhouse and the dugout. That guy would bang on a trash can with a baseball bat, sometimes a massage gun. One or two bangs meant an off-speed pitch; no bangs, a fastball.

In retrospect, maybe the craziest thing about the scheme was how long it took for others to catch on. In September 2017, then-White Sox pitcher Danny Farquhar actually stepped off the mound because he thought he could hear banging each time he threw a changeup. He and his catcher switched signs, and the banging stopped. In one viral clip, you can hear it; a video the Astros themselves put out celebrating their championship might have inadvertently shown the whole trash-can setup, too.

At any rate, this week, after a several-month MLB investigation, the hammer finally dropped. The Astros would forfeit their first- and second-round picks in the 2020 and 2021 drafts, pay a $5 million fine, and GM Jeff Luhnow and manager A.J. Hinch would be suspended from all baseball-related activities for one year. Luhnow, Hinch, former Red Sox manager Alex Cora (then the Astros’ bench coach), and former Mets manager Carlos Beltrán (then a veteran outfielder), have all since been fired.

(Irony alert: Ben Reitman’s Astroball describes Beltrán as uniquely crafty when it came to picking up pitch tipping, a skill Reitman credits with two World Series game wins against the Dodgers’ Yu Darvish. This is just one of many glowing assessments in that book that haven’t aged well, to put it mildly.)

The penalties have been considered harsh, but if you read the nine-page report put out by Commissioner Manfred summarizing the investigation’s findings, you’d be forgiven for thinking that a lot of people are getting off easy here.

The Players

The report did just about everything it could to shield the Astros brass from guilt and to implicate the 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 Cora, player-driven and player-executed.

Yet not a single Astros player has been, or seemingly will be, punished. Why?

Manfred determined that doing so would be “difficult and impractical” given that many players are now with other teams or retired, making it tough to sort out who did what. Manfred also argued that only team leadership should bear the responsibility for sign-stealing misconduct.

Neither of these rationales makes much sense, especially if MLB believes the players cooked up the scheme under Luhnow’s nose. Baseball players and mafiosi may swear some similar oath of omertà, but there’s a simple way around that, as cops and prosecutors already know: you promise some people immunity for honest testimony (Manfred’s people already did this), and a few witnesses will crack. Guys like Mike Fiers already have, because he felt like it was the right thing to do. Ken Rosenthal points out there’s probably another reason for not investigating further: any harsh discipline would likely face a challenge from the players’ union.

The Staff

The report makes a point to state that “non-player staff, including individuals in the video replay review room, had no involvement.” Yet, as Rosenthal and Drellich pointed out back in November, the scheme started in the replay review room and required technical video knowledge to set up. That some members of the baseball operations staff were directly involved seems inevitable.

The Coach

According to the report, manager A.J. Hinch was against the plan from the start, on at least two occasions even trying to derail things by physically damaging the TV monitor in the dugout tunnel. That fact is interesting, but then again, wasn’t he sitting there in the dugout every night listening to one of his players bang on a trash can? Hinch’s contrition doesn’t fit well, either, with the fact that various Astros went on the record to say that if their manager had told them to, they would have stopped the whole thing. I guess that also means Hinch failed to tell the Astros brass about it? That alone would be a fireable offense. Which leads us to …

The Owner/GM

Leaving aside that Astros’ owner Jim Crane is a shrewd businessman who somehow missed several seasons of cheating going on under his nose, the report inexplicably treats the question of what GM Jeff Luhnow—whose job was literally to know what his staff and players are doing—knew or didn’t know as a matter of secondary interest.

This, too, is pretty crazy. One of the most brilliant baseball analytics minds of the generation ignorant of what’s happening in the replay room and in the dugout? Luhnow himself still denies knowledge of the banging scheme, even though Manfred’s investigators turned up at least a couple of emails to Luhnow mentioning sign-stealing in the replay room. The report concludes Luhnow “did not give it much attention” and leaves it there. (As for the Orioles’ fearless leader, Mike Elias, then-assistant general manager and Luhnow-right-hand man, the report doesn’t mention him at all.)

Now, a lot of people are describing Luhnow’s Astros—particularly in light of the Brandon Taubman fiasco—as a toxic organization with a “win-at-all costs culture,” and where the staff “lacked direction or sufficient oversight” due to “poor communication.”

Actually, I think this sounds like a lot of professional organizations: when the shit hit the fan, the Astros and the MLB made sure lower-level employees took the blame (though no punishment, in this case) and allowed the top brass to walk away with plausible deniability.

A culture problem, indeed.