MLB punishes Astros for 2017 sign-stealing scheme citing problematic culture

Baseball’s most important offseason story ends with suspensions, fines, forfeiture of draft picks, and eventually firings. Here’s a recap of the day’s events.

Major League Baseball concluded its investigation of the 2017 Houston Astros on Monday by handing out punishments—and harsh words—against the reigning American League champs, Manager A.J. Hinch, and GM/President of Baseball Operations Jeff Luhnow.

Shortly after details of Commissioner Rob Manfred’s nine-page investigation summary began trickling out, both Hinch and Luhnow were dismissed from the team.

The punishments handed down by MLB included season-long suspensions for Hinch and Luhnow, forfeiture of first and second-round draft picks in 2020 and 2021, and a $5 million fine. There were no punishments changing the status of the 2017 Astros as World Series Champions.

The investigation, conducted by MLB’s own Department of Investigations and led by Bryan Seeley and Moira Weinberg, included interviews with 68 witnesses and focused on a period from 2016 to present-day. MLB also said it reviewed video evidence and internal communications during its investigation.

According to MLB, the Astros used a live game feed from a camera installed in center field to decode opposing teams’ signs (the camera was allowed for player development) and employed two methods to do so throughout the 2017 season. The first involved watching the live game feed from the center field camera in the Astros’ video replay review room, then relaying decoded sign sequences to the dugout via a “runner.” The second was an optimized version of the first, with the Astros installing a monitor showing the center field feed right outside Houston’s dugout.

After decoding the signs, players would “bang a nearby trash can with a bat to communicate the upcoming pitch type to the batter.” MLB determined both methods were used throughout the 2017 season, and even into the postseason.

Fallout from the investigation looks likely to stretch out to other teams around the league as well. Former Astros bench coach and current Red Sox manager Alex Cora was singled out as the only non-player involved with the sign-stealing scheme and appeared to be integral to Houston’s misconduct. Cora allegedly played a major role in streamlining Houston’s sign stealing, first by using the replay phone to communicate with the replay review room where the center field feed was aired, and then by having the monitor outside the dugout installed. It’s expected that he will face “harsh” punishment, though none has been officially announced at the time of writing. Cora and the Red Sox are also under investigation for a separate sign-stealing scheme from 2018.

Given Hinch and Luhnow’s dismissals, and that the punishments appear to be against organizations and personnel, not positions, it seems likely that the Red Sox will fire Cora.

Former Astro and current Mets manager Carlos Beltran also played a role, but Manfred indicated he would avoid punishing players despite the facts that sign-stealing via video feed was repeatedly described as a player-driven initiative and that the investigation indicated that most Astros position players in 2017 participated in the scheme. Given the large number of participants and the previous decision to hold General and Field Managers responsible for sign-stealing misconduct in the wake of 2017 investigations of the Red Sox and Yankees, Manfred largely stuck to precedent and breadth as the main reasons for not disciplining players.

After findings and penalties were made public, Astros owner Jim Crane announced that both Hinch and Luhnow had been fired. Hinch indicated he was aware of the scheme, opposed it, and played no part in its creation, but did nothing to stop it. Luhnow maintained that he had no knowledge or involvement, though communications reviewed by MLB suggest otherwise.

Both received season-long suspensions because, per Manfred and MLB’s investigation, a belief arose that the sign-stealing scheme could have ended had either ordered it to stop. Manfred wrote that at least some players interviewed claimed they would have stopped the sign-stealing plan if Hinch ordered it, while Hinch admitted he did nothing to stop it. Because of this, Manfred wrote that he “recognized that some players may have understood that their conduct was not only condoned by the Club, but encouraged by it.”

Manfred’s release included a stinging critique of the Astros’ baseball operations department, writing that the culture within it was problematic, citing both the sign-stealing investigation and former Assistant General Manager Brandon Taubman’s October outburst, when Taubman faced a group of female reporters and yelled, “Thank god we got [Roberto] Osuna! I’m so f—— glad we got Osuna!” Osuna was arrested in 2018 and charged with allegedly assaulting Alejandra Roman Cota, the mother of his son. One reporter present was wearing a purple bracelet for domestic violence awareness.

Manfred also made it clear that ownership was not involved with the sign-stealing scheme, separating ownership from baseball operations in the report, and writing that no evidence implied Crane was aware of what the players were doing.

Crane said the search for Hinch and Luhnow’s replacements would begin immediately.

Asked why he decided to fire Hinch and Luhnow, Crane said, “Neither one of them started this, but neither one of them did anything about it.”

Khurram Kalim is a senior writer for Bronx to Bushville.

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