Major League Baseball’s sign-stealing saga is the biggest scandal in the sport since the steroid era.
As the fallout continues from the league’s investigation and subsequent punishment of the Houston Astros — along with its ongoing investigation of the Boston Red Sox — ESPN.com breaks down the latest penalties and revelations, and what they mean for the game going forward.
• MLB’s full report on the Astros (PDF)
What’s the latest with the Astros?
On Thursday, the Astros opened spring training in West Palm Beach, Florida, with a news conference featuring statements from owner Jim Crane, new manager Dusty Baker and players Alex Bregman and Jose Altuve. During the news conference, but more substantially later in the clubhouse, Astros players apologized for the first time for their roles in the 2017 sign-stealing operation.
Still, Crane did himself, his team, and MLB no favors when questioned by reporters, making contradictory statements about whether the sign stealing impacted the game on the field. When asked by ESPN’s Marly Rivera what he was apologizing for if the cheating might not have helped hitters, Crane said he was apologizing “because we broke the rules.”
What are others around MLB saying as spring training begins?
Strong reactions continue to come in from across baseball as other teams report to camp, ranging from Aroldis Chapman calling Altuve’s 2019 ALCS actions suspicious to Andrew Heaney unloading on the Astros.
We showed Thursday’s apology to players in the Cubs clubhouse and Daniel Descalso had this to say: “It’s hard to judge the sincerity. I don’t know them and don’t know what’s going on in their head but it felt a little scripted. At the end of the day the way they used the live video and the trash can signals, it’s crossing a line. They are going to have to live with that.”
While Kyle Schwarber added: “From an outsider’s standpoint, everyone else is very upset with what happened. Think about all those other teams they played. Having an unfair advantage doesn’t sit well. I’d be pissed if it directly affected us. I’m pissed as just a person of the game seeing an unfair advantage going one team’s way.”
What else has happened recently?
Every day is like a box of … well, chocolates might not be the best analogy here. Last Friday, minutes before an interview with deposed Astros manager AJ Hinch aired on MLB Network, The Wall Street Journal put out a report detailing the possible front-office origins of the sign schemes. The report wasn’t too flattering for recently suspended and fired Astros GM Jeff Luhnow, who was described as having enough access to the strategy it seems virtually impossible he wouldn’t have understood what was going on. At the very least, it describes the head of a department operating in willful ignorance of the group he’s supposed to be in charge of. (Luhnow’s brother, by the way, is the Latin American editor at the Journal.) That, of course, is the primary reason MLB commissioner Rob Manfred suspended Luhnow after his investigation — for a lack of organizational control.
The Journal report called into question whether the findings of Manfred’s investigators — that the banging scheme was driven and executed by players — could possibly be accurate. There is probably more to find out about this, but a report in The Athletic on Monday suggested the link: The intel the code-reading system yielded wasn’t being delivered fast enough to do the hitters any good in real time. Thus the monitor outside of the dugout, the trash can and the whole clunky plan was hatched. The report also suggests then-Astros DH Carlos Beltran was such a towering figure that his will to put the plan into place and keep it going trumped the concerns anyone else might have had about doing it. In the modern parlance, we refer to this as throwing one under the bus.
What are some key dates and events leading up to where we are now?
Jan. 13: MLB investigation confirms Astros cheated; Houston fires GM Jeff Luhnow, manager AJ Hinch
Jan. 14: Red Sox, skipper Alex Cora part ways after he’s named in MLB report
Jan. 16: Before he manages a single game for the team, Carlos Beltran and Mets part ways
Jan. 29: Astros hire Dusty Baker to short-term deal as new manager
Feb. 11: Red Sox promote Ron Roenicke to interim manager amid pending investigation
We’ve now heard the terms “Dark Arts” and “Codebreaker” — what exactly do those mean?
According to the Journal, Astros employee Tom Koch-Weser oversaw at least some portion of the sign-swapping operation, with help from colleague Derek Vigoa. Koch-Weser, who was in charge of providing advance information to the baseball operations staff, referred to this aspect of his efforts as “Dark Arts” and even had a tab in an Excel file that was circulated called just that. Vigoa supposedly developed the Excel-based algorithm used to decode catcher signals. Baseball ops folks not being particularly creative, this algorithm was called “Codebreaker.” A key takeaway is that Excel really does have a lot of utility as an everyday office tool.
What are past Astros on other teams saying?
That they are very, very sorry. Pitchers Dallas Keuchel, Joe Musgrove and Charlie Morton all apologized for not doing more to confront their teammates. Keuchel and Musgrove both hinted, in a vague way, that such practices were far more widespread than what the Astros were doing. Marwin Gonzalez, one of the hitters whom data suggests was one of the most willing participants in Trashcangate, said from spring training with the Twins, “I’m remorseful for everything that happened in 2017, for everything that we did as a group, and for the players that were affected directly by us by doing this and some other things. I wish that we could take it back, but there’s nothing we can do now.”
Is anyone getting litigious about this?
Why, yes, they are. Former big-league pitcher Mike Bolsinger filed suit in California. Bolsinger’s last MLB appearance came against those sign-swiping Astros on Aug. 4, 2017. He gave up four runs, four hits and three walks in that game on just 29 pitches. According to the signstealingscandal.com data, trash can banging was detected on 12 of those pitches. Bolsinger was subsequently released by the Blue Jays and hasn’t pitched in the majors since. We’ll see what happens, and one possible benefit of the suit could be that some of the players involved would have to be deposed about the scheme. However, it doesn’t help Bolsinger’s case that, per Statcast, the expected batting average of his pitches in that game was .560.
The Red Sox hired Ron Roenicke with an interim title. Is that because of the sign-stealing probe?
Yes. Red Sox GM Chaim Bloom said as much. Roenicke was Alex Cora’s bench coach in 2018, the season MLB is currently investigating for evidence of illegal sign stealing. Given the limbo and Roenicke’s presence in the dugout, it makes sense to hang the interim tag on him. It also wouldn’t be fair to import a new manager with no connections to the 2018 team when the fallout of the investigation, if any, remains unknown. But spring training is here and someone has to be in charge. Obviously if Bloom felt that Roenicke was going to be reprimanded after the investigation is complete, he probably wouldn’t have given him the job. Still, everyone has to let this thing play out.
Just how harsh was the Astros’ punishment compared with what was expected?
There was an awfully large range in the speculation, but unless you felt Luhnow and/or Hinch might be subject to a permanent ban, the penalties were borderline shocking. That’s true even when you factor in that part of Manfred’s thinking was related to the Brandon Taubman incident. A suspension of several weeks seemed likely, but a full year for the two most important members of a team’s baseball operations group was stunning, almost unprecedented. (Leo Durocher, when he was a manager, was suspended for a year, but there was a gambling element to his situation.) You had to expect a loss of draft picks, but the top two picks for two years is stunning. The $5 million fine seems inconsequential by comparison to those penalties. It’s clear Manfred wanted to send a clear message to teams and fans alike. He certainly did so. For that matter, so did Crane, who quickly moved to terminate Hinch and Luhnow. — Doolittle
I don’t think it was shocking it all. To steal from the NCAA, you can call it a loss of institutional control, and Luhnow, Hinch and the organization had to pay a severe penalty — and Manfred certainly handed one down. For those arguing that using technology to steal signs is going on throughout the sport and that the Astros don’t deserve to be punished for what everyone else also might be doing, I disagree. The Astros got caught and got caught doing it in a year they won the World Series. This is exactly how you tell an entire sport to knock it off. You go after the big boys and send a strong message that this will not be tolerated. It’s time for baseball to return to a competition between players — not a competition between technology.
And then the Astros fired Luhnow and Hinch?
Yep. That happened. The Astros have widely been viewed as an organization where the bottom line is everything, which in part led into their recent scandals. Clearly, Crane was not happy with that perception. Whatever else you might think about Luhnow and Hinch, both were at the very top of their respective professions. Crane could have stated that the suspensions were adequate penalties and that the team would proceed with them both next season under a “no tolerance” policy about future embarrassments. He didn’t do that, and good for him. It couldn’t have been easy. His normally implacable demeanor seemed to waver a couple of times during his news conference.
What exactly does Hinch’s suspension mean?
Hinch won’t be running a team this year, and going forward he won’t be running the Astros, since Crane made the decision to fire him. Because Manfred did not implicate Hinch as an instigator of the schemes, the suspension shouldn’t make other teams shy away from hiring him. He’s respected in the game and will be a heck of managerial free agent. MLB’s statement laid out exactly this: “A.J. Hinch shall be suspended without pay for the period beginning on January 13, 2020 and ending on the day following the completion of the 2020 World Series.
“During the period of his suspension, Hinch is prohibited from performing any services for or conducting any business on behalf of the Astros or any other Major League Club. Hinch must not be present in any Major League, Minor League, or Spring Training facilities, including stadiums, and he may not travel with or on behalf of the Club. If Hinch is found to engage in any future material violations of the Major League Rules, he will be placed on the permanently ineligible list.”
How much impact will this punishment have on the Astros on the field?
For a group of players that is all at once among baseball’s most talented, accomplished and cocksure, this has to be humbling. Manfred made it very apparent that the scandal started with the players, who aren’t being punished. They have a lot to prove.
Why did the Red Sox decide to part ways with Cora the very next day?
Based on the season-long suspension given to Hinch, it became clear Cora will likely receive a similar suspension — if not something longer — once the investigation into the 2018 Red Sox is completed. Given his complicity with both clubs, Cora might receive an even longer suspension. The Red Sox couldn’t have that hanging over the franchise for an entire season, so they had to move on.
What’s different about the Astros and the Red Sox?
Based on what’s been reported, the allegations about the Red Sox are on a somewhat different level than those regarding the Astros. While the Red Sox supposedly used video to decode opponents’ sign sequences and passed the information along to their players, they did not go the additional step of using some means of communicating this knowledge — such as the Astros’ infamous trash-can banging — to players at the plate from the dugout in most situations. They needed to get a runner to second base to see the sequences and signal them to whoever was at the plate. Still, the allegations against the Red Sox refer to activity during the team’s championship 2018 season, which was after MLB issued clarified rules expressly banning the use of replay rooms for this purpose.
What punishments are the Red Sox expected to receive?
It could be harsher than what the Astros received, given the Red Sox had already been fined in September of 2017 for using Apple Watches in a different sign-stealing scheme. If they then moved forward with illegal use of the replay room in the 2018 season, the commissioner’s office might double down on a team that already had been punished. While MLB rules limit the maximum fine to $5 million, they could lose draft picks as well as the ability to sign international players (many in the game felt the Astros got off easy in this regard).
We keep hearing some variation of “everyone does this,” but is that really true?
To think this kind of behavior was limited to one or two teams would be to deny the realities about human behavior in hypercompetitive environments with massive economic stakes in play, especially where policy loopholes and gray areas exist, as they did until very recently. Every team certainly steals signs, as teams always have. Where they draw the line in terms of the kinds of mechanisms they use to do so probably varies from team to team. However, MLB tried to draw distinct lines with policies it has written over the past couple of years, and the alleged behavior of the Astros and Red Sox would certainly cross those lines. We’ll have to rely on MLB investigators to tell us just how widespread this issue actually is and has been. However, it would be surprising or even shocking to find out that the problem was limited to a small minority of teams.
So, is stealing signs against the rules or not?
That’s where things get complicated. The old-fashioned way is not against the rules. In the wake of the Red Sox incident from 2017 and accusations from the 2018 playoffs, when the Indians and Red Sox both discovered an unofficial employee of the Astros pointing a cellphone camera toward the Cleveland and Boston dugouts, MLB instituted new guidelines in 2019 regarding electronic sign stealing. (The Astros claimed the employee in 2018 was deployed in a preventative measure, although Luhnow admitted “it made us look guilty.”)
The guidelines in the six-page document created rules concerning placement and usage of center-field cameras, plus TVs and monitors, and mandated screens be on an eight-second delay. MLB also placed league employees at stadiums to monitor activity.
What’s going to happen with replay rooms? (Could they be scrapped entirely?)
And force managers to — gasp! — make decisions on calling for replays without the help of an expert winding back the tape and looking at it in extreme slow motion? They wouldn’t.
They could, of course, and the public probably wouldn’t know the difference. MLB did install an attendant for each replay room last year, although depending on the city, the competence of the attendants varied, according to sources. Is that enough? Enough to prevent players — who potentially will do anything to gain a competitive advantage — from accessing the room? Probably not. Which means maybe a harsher question is in order: Should MLB just ban in-game video use altogether? Players wouldn’t like it, but here we are, in this position because of players’ choices.
Have there been any past punishments for sign stealing?
The Red Sox were fined an undisclosed amount in 2017, with commissioner Rob Manfred issuing a statement at the time that “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.”
Do we just need to go the PED route and say if it’s electronic cheating, then it’s a 50- or 100-game suspension? Skip the nuance, hand out a set penalty?
The hope from the league is that the penalties here are so harsh that nobody would dare consider doing this in the future. Which … sounds an awful lot like what happened when the league first instituted penalties for PEDs. The problem is that cheating runs on such a wide-ranging continuum whereas PED use is extraordinarily binary. There are either drugs in your urine or there aren’t. If there aren’t, you’re cool, and if there are, you’re suspended. There is blatant cheating. There is mild cheating. There is in-between cheating. There are central figures. There are secondary figures. There are outsiders who are slightly involved in the plan. Electronic cheating tends to be a multiperson exercise from two different populations — players and team employees — and standardizing suspensions is almost impossible, even if knowing for certain the hammer was going to be laid might deter some from even considering it.
If stadiums are outfitted for cheating, can MLB bring owners into punishment?
You mean the owners who employ baseball’s commissioner? That seems unlikely in a situation that doesn’t involve anything that’s illegal in a non-baseball context. The teams involved will pay stiff penalties, and that will hit owners in their most tender spots — their wallets (in the form of fines) and their egos (with lost draft picks impacting their ability to compete). Some harsh conversations will take place, but those will be behind closed doors. Although a formal punishment for Crane or Boston’s John Henry, among others, seems unlikely, it will be interesting to see whether this leads to some acrimony among the ownership groups. The Guggenheim group in Los Angeles, which owns the Dodgers and lost back-to-back World Series to the teams at the forefront of the allegations, can’t be too happy with some of its counterparts right now.
In Euro soccer, a way to cripple teams for cheating is to ban, in essence, participation in free agency and the draft. Can MLB go that route?
Such draconian steps might represent a loss of perspective, and when you kneecap a team’s ability to compete, you’re not just penalizing that team — you’re penalizing its entire fan base. There are many who feel like this issue has been blown a bit out of proportion already. (And many others who feel like it hasn’t been harped on enough because two World Series winners were involved.) Still, the focus has to be on creating barriers against this becoming an ongoing toothache for the game, because if history tells us anything about those who work in baseball, it’s that they will never stop looking for an edge. The obvious solution is to find secure, reliable technology that would allow pitchers and catchers to communicate with each other. We all love the timeless mime routines catchers go through, but there has to be a better way during a time when we can literally measure everything that happens on the field. Technology got us into this mess, and it can get us out of it.
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