Tuesday, July 23, 2024
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Seasons in the Abyss: How the Houston Astros Ruined a Championship Legacy

Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports

There was a version of this article that existed last week in which I detailed how the admittedly shameful sign-stealing scandal should not impact the HOF candidacy of several key Astros players involved in the 2017 World Series season. I discussed how it related to the Black Sox scandal, Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens’ final years on the ballot as well as Alex Rodriguez’s upcoming HOF consideration. These would be useful barometers for the possibility of Jose Altuve, Carlos Correa, Alex Bregman, and Carlos Beltran among others to reach Cooperstown one day. Much of this work was predicated on the fantastic amount of time and energy Tony Adams put into his website breaking down the sign-stealing system in more depth than any other venue had done before.

That article reached its expiration date before its publication date due to some intrepid reporting by Jared Diamond of the Wall Street Journal. Diamond exposed internal correspondence between Robert Manfred and Astros’ front office personnel, which revealed the scope of the sign-stealing extended far beyond the 2017 regular season and the players who supposedly acted with autonomy in devising the system.

Details of the Commissioner’s Report

Manfred’s report was released on January 13th, 2020, in which he explained that two separate plans were in use to decode and communicate signs illegally in the 2017 season. First, players would relay information from the video review room to intermediaries in the dugout, who would in turn signal runners on 2nd base where they could relay the coming pitch to the batter. Later in the season, this method was embellished to include Alex Cora calling the video review room and players sending texts to smartwatches and phones hidden in the dugout.

This process is essentially a more advanced version of runners trying to tip pitches while on the basepaths. This is an accepted form of gamesmanship at all levels of baseball, though from personal experience I can state it is much easier in high school/college than the MLB based on the frequency of this occurring. The reason that this scheme crosses the line is that it enlarges the data set players are working with. Teams generally switch to a second, more complex set of signs with runners on base. With the advantage of knowing the signs from the rest of the game, it meant that the Astros players were able to decipher the signs used much quicker.

The second scheme to steal signs was concocted by the Astros players, in particular Carlos Beltran, in the early months of the 2017 season, though its usage spiked towards the end of May. Players installed a monitor just behind the dugout with a live feed from the center field camera. Once the sign sequence was decoded in the video room (or by the player watching the monitor), the players would bang on a trash can with a bat (or a massage-gun, on occasion) to indicate off-speed pitches, while no bang meant a fastball was coming.

Incidence Rate of Bangs at Astros Home Games, 2017 Regular Season

This was the more infamous of the two schemes, as it was the one Mike Fiers exposed in a bombshell article published by the Athletic in November of 2019. This confirmed the rumors that had been swirling turbulently through the majors for some time, like finally seeing the spirit haunting a house after hearing moans and whispers through the walls for months on end. This system was simpler, more efficient, and more ubiquitous than the video review room method. It could operate without the constraint of a runner in scoring position (though those are higher leverage at-bats) and provide quicker feedback.

The commissioner’s report described both methods, but the banging in particular, as player instigated and driven, “Witnesses consistently describe this new scheme as player-driven, and with the exception of Cora, non-player staff, including individuals in the video replay review room, had no involvement in the banging scheme.” However, the MLB investigation was unable to determine (or Manfred was unwilling to reveal) how many players participated, to what extent they were involved, and who the ringleaders were. Thus, they chose to follow the precedent set when disciplining the Red Sox for use of Smartwatches in the 2017 season by banning both the manager and general manager of the franchise, AJ Hinch and Jeff Luhnow for a single year. Within hours, the Astros would fire both men.

Carlos Correa walks past workstation with laptop and trash can used to communicate stolen signs.

Of note, there was no mention of buzzers or other methods to silently communicate information to batters or baserunners at any point in time. The DOI interviewed 68 witnesses, 23 of whom were current or former players of the Astros, and obtained employees’ phones during the course of the investigation. If the players were using buzzers, it would have been revealed.

Defense Against the Dark Arts

The Commissioner’s version of events was the final word for almost a month, and the baseball world entered the first stages of recovery after supposedly exorcising all of its demons. As the dust began to settle and punishments were meted out, the aftershocks started in the form of a Jared Diamond article entitled “‘Dark Arts’ and ‘Codebreaker’: The Origins of the Houston Astros Cheating Scheme.” In it, he brings to light correspondence between the commissioner and Luhnow as well as information obtained during interviews with people close to the investigation that conflicts with the official commissioner’s report.

Contrary to the player-driven narrative of Manfred’s report, an intern from the Astros’ analytics department proposed a sign-stealing system called Codebreaker directly to GM Luhnow in September of 2016. It was referred to as the “Dark Arts” in internal e-mails and even used by the Astros director of advanced information, Koch Wesser, as a reason to give him a contract extension in 2018. Wesser also stated that he brought the system up in “one to three meetings” over the course of the 2016 season. Luhnow denied most of this and states that he did not read the e-mails that mentioned the sign-stealing system in their entirety, and thus was ignorant of its illicit use.

Luhnow asserts that he assumed that Codebreaker would be used to deconstruct sign sequences from previous games, which would be legal as part of advance scouting. The intern who devised the scheme, Derek Vigoa, was promoted up to senior manager for team operations. He stated to investigators “That he presumed Luhnow knew it would be used in games because that was ‘where the value would be,’ according to the letter. But he said he didn’t recall whether he explicitly told Luhnow that Codebreaker would be used during games.”

A generous application of credulity on Luhnow’s behalf may allow one to surmise he didn’t know his team was using the Dark Arts. Weser imperils this assumption by claiming that Luhnow would walk into the video room on road games (Oh yea, they were cheating on the road too) and casually remark “You guys Codebreaking,” indicating that Luhnow did, in fact, understand exactly how his team was flagrantly violating the MLB’s rules.

With this new information, the decision to not punish any individual Astros player makes much more sense. The plot was hatched within the front office and likely implemented with management’s blessing. In a culture such as that, it’s hardly surprising the players (most of whom aren’t even 30) embellished the scheme halfway through the season. In for a penny, in for a pound.

Diamond’s article also raises the possibility that the cheating extended into the 2019 season, rather than at some point in 2018 when the players deemed it no longer effective as was stated in the commissioner’s report. This is pure speculation, but the term “Dark Arts” appeared in a budget meeting for the 2019 Advanced Scouting Department. This could mean that it was still being used in some way, or that the budget could be adjusted since the team was no longer dedicating resources to Codebreaking.

The Only Victim

Well, besides the Dodger’s hopes and dreams. AJ Hinch is the only person involved in this symphony of suckitude that has a real claim to innocence. His disapproval of both systems is well documented, in interviews and the commissioner’s report. He has been far from reticent since his firing, airing his disdain for both forms of cheating at every available opportunity. In a quasi-confessional interview on MLB Network, Hinch lamented that he did not take enough responsibility in curtailing his wayward players.

AJ Hinch at a press conference during 2019 World Series

In light of the commissioner’s report, this repentant attitude would make sense. If you take the insider information from the WSJ article into account, however, one begins to feel for Hinch. How could he instill discipline on his team if management had endorsed the cheating? Players state that if Hinch had said he disapproved, they all would have stopped. In a world where the players were entirely culpable for the scheme, it would have been easy enough to do. If the front office has implemented the scheme, however, Hinch may feel pressure to tow the company line. Instead of holding a team meeting, he could do something subtle, under the radar, like maybe… destroy the TV used to cheat. By beating it with a bat. Twice.

Player Culpability

There was a tidal wave of bitter fans when the commissioner’s report came out. People wanted heads on sticks. I saw aggrieved Dodger’s fans saying that several Astros players should follow in the wake of Pete Rose and be banned for life. Instead, only Hinch and Luhnow were punished. This seemed odd considering the players were supposedly responsible for planning and implementing both systems. The new information from the WSJ begs the question: is it better for the players that they embellished a pre-existing system rather than conceiving and implementing an original one.

This is an ethics question that I am severely unqualified to answer (I dropped ethics my freshman year). Everyone will have to draw their own conclusions. Personally, I think it’s less damning for the players to have iterated upon an existing system rather than conceiving and implementing it themselves. Based on the WSJ article, the front office was the origin of it all, and the GM may have been explicitly involved. In those circumstances, it is easier to understand how they went so far astray.

The Houston Asterisks

Much like the British royalty, the Astros now possess an empty title. Everything about the 2017 season is now in doubt. The World Series trophy is now a symbol of shame instead of triumph. Altuve’s immaculate MVP campaign, much of which was based on his ludicrous batting average and OBP, now appears fraudulent. Everything this team accomplished from September 22, 2016 to “some point in the 2018 season” has an asterisk in the history books next to it now. Was this really an all-time great team?

That is the most frustrating part for me as a fan of the team. This roster was loaded. The team won 101 games for crying out loud. WHY WERE THEY CHEATING?!?! Some players interviewed by the DOI during the MLB investigation said they believed the sign-stealing systems were more distracting than useful to hitters. Obviously not everyone thought this, but there was a wide variance in who used the banging scheme. It’s impossible to say for certain if this selective participation also occurred with Codebreaker.

Variance in bangs detected during player at-bats, 2017 regular season

A Fan’s Perspective

Admittedly, my opinion has surfaced in this article a couple of times before now. I’ve spent the past three months thinking about this debacle, and I’ve been unpacking it all while writing. I probably have a harsher opinion of my team now than many other Astros fans. I’ve watched the narrative shift from explaining the cheating away with home/road splits to pointing out Game 7 was in L.A. to deflecting blame by saying other teams around the league are probably doing it too. I’m tired of it. The other players in the league have a right to feel wronged, and the Astros should feel guilty.

Two Astros, in particular, should deliver an astonishing mea culpa. Luhnow for either initiating the system or allowing the soul of his organization to become corrupted and Beltran for leading a young locker room so far astray. In my opinion, Luhnow knew what was going on and tacitly encouraged it. It stretches even a healthy suspension of disbelief that this was never brought up in a meeting, mentioned by a player, or discussed at all between Hinch and Luhnow. If I am charitable and assume that Luhnow was ignorant of the whole thing, then I think that is even more damning. Personally, I’m glad Luhnow is gone. He either was the impetus for all the cheating or too incompetent to notice it was happening.

Personally, I don’t want that World Series trophy anymore. The victory is hollow now. The team was probably good enough to win the title with no cheating, but now we’ll never know. Many players and coaches will suffer the ramifications of this the rest of their careers, like a slovenly spirit tracing their path. For some, like Beltran, it will haunt their footsteps as they appear on the ballot for Cooperstown in a few short years. Will he and others be able to exorcise their demons, or will a single tragic mistake relegate their careers to the abyss of contemptible history, along with the Astros 2017 championship?

Jacob Hubbard

Jake is a lifelong baseball fan and grew up watching the Round Rock Express MiLB games. He played baseball from ages 2-19, but a 20 graded power tool forced him to retire. Now he spends his days yelling at Fangraphs and Baseball Savant. You can find him on Twitter @FeelSurgical

2 thoughts on “Seasons in the Abyss: How the Houston Astros Ruined a Championship Legacy

  • Ron Hubbard

    Well written and thoughtfully presented. I have a suspicion there are many more scandals of this nature lurking in the shadows. Lots of fodder for future articles. Keep ’em coming Bud!

  • Nerisa

    Great article! Interesting perspective and enjoyable read

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