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The Ripple Effects of the Astros Sign-Stealing Investigation

Jeff Luhnow and A.J. Hinch are out in Houston, but what about Alex Cora and Carlos Beltrán? And what does Monday’s news mean for the Astros in the long term?

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

On Monday, Major League Baseball commissioner Rob Manfred announced the results of the league’s investigation into the Houston Astros’ alleged sign stealing. Actually, scratch the “alleged”: We can just say sign stealing now. Based on information derived from 68 interviews, including 23 with past or present Astros players, MLB concluded that Houston illegally stole signs throughout the 2017 regular season and postseason, both by banging on a trash can to relay real-time signals stolen from a feed from a center-field camera at Minute Maid Park and by using the video monitor in their replay room to crack opposing teams’ sign schemes and manually relay them to the dugout so that runners could decode them from second base. According to the report, the Astros continued using the latter method alone for some portion of the 2018 regular season.

The punishments were appropriately harsh. MLB suspended GM Jeff Luhnow and manager A.J. Hinch through the end of the 2020 World Series; Astros owner Jim Crane fired both men almost immediately. (Former Astros assistant general manager Brandon Taubman, whom Houston had already dismissed for berating three female reporters during the 2019 playoffs, received a suspension of the same length.) Alex Cora, the former Astros bench coach and (for now) reigning Red Sox manager, was found directly responsible for spearheading Houston’s sign stealing, although his punishment is still pending. MLB also stripped the Astros of two future first-round draft picks and two future second-round draft picks and fined the Astros $5 million (the maximum amount allowable under the league’s rules). Left unspecified is an intangible but still significant consequence: the taint on the team’s 2017 title, which exists in many minds even if Crane insists otherwise.

The dust kicked up by the November Athletic report that prompted MLB’s deep dive has started to settle, but the ripple effects from that investigation, the separate, still-proceeding investigation into reports of Red Sox sign stealing in 2018, and the punishments stemming from each of those inquiries are still spreading. Let’s consider some of the secondary implications that may flow from these findings.

The Astros

In the short term, the Astros are still a formidable team. FanGraphs projects them to be baseball’s best in 2020, and one would have to attribute a great deal of their past success to sign stealing to believe otherwise. That seems like a stretch, for a few reasons. For one thing, the Astros came within a few innings of winning a World Series in 2019, and no reports have suggested that they illegally stole signs during that season. That doesn’t mean they didn’t steal signs illegally in 2019—Houston hasn’t exactly earned the benefit of the doubt—but stricter monitoring by MLB and increased countermeasures by opposing teams would have made it more difficult.

Beyond that, there’s the question of how much the sign stealing helped in prior seasons. As MLB’s report notes, it’s impossible to say with certainty whether or how much the Astros benefited from sign stealing. Manfred notes that some Astros told investigators that sign stealing was “more distracting than useful to hitters,” and that the team stopped sign stealing in 2018 because they found it ineffective. Take that for what it’s worth, considering the source—Mark McGwire said steroids didn’t help him hit homers—but the statistical evidence of a sign-stealing effect is somewhat mixed. The Astros cheated, and it may well have made them better, but they’re pretty good regardless.

That said, these penalties will make it more difficult for the Astros to sustain their success. A $5 million fine is chump change to a major league team, but the other losses are more meaningful. The Astros are getting older and pricier, and their farm system isn’t what it was. Lopping the top two picks off of their next two drafts will make it much harder for them to replenish their prospect riches.

On top of that, the Astros will be without the GM and manager who presided over the franchise’s rebuild. If you thought it was tough to quantify the effects of sign stealing, good luck assigning a value to a GM or manager. Would Astros assistant general manager Pete Putila, who helped engineer Houston’s player development pipeline, recently interviewed for two teams’ GM or president of baseball ops positions, and is likely in line for Luhnow’s job, be appreciably worse at that job than Luhnow was? Is interim manager Joe Espada, who was hired as Hinch’s bench coach after 2017 and interviewed twice with the Cubs and the Giants last October, be appreciably worse than Hinch himself? Who knows! Given the track records of Luhnow and Hinch, it might seem safe to say that they have some value over a replacement GM or manager, but that may not be true if they tutored the replacements personally. And perhaps they’d already developed and implemented their best ideas.

Because MLB isn’t imposing suspensions on players—which would be complex in light of player movement between teams, the difficulty of assigning responsibility to individual players, and the appeals and protections that the CBA and the MLBPA afford to disciplined players—the penalties levied by the league won’t radically reshape MLB’s competitive landscape. But the costs to the Astros may make their window close more quickly, and if the Red Sox incur any draft-pick penalties, their AL East rivals could benefit too.

Luhnow and Hinch

All we can say for today is that Luhnow and Hinch won’t be working for a major league club (or, in Hinch’s case, the 2020 AL All-Star team) between now and the end of the 2020 World Series. After that, they’ll be eligible to resume their old roles, or alternative ones, for new franchises. But will anyone want them to?

On the one hand, both Luhnow and Hinch won with Houston, and many owners are willing to overlook a lot of bad behavior if it will put money in their pockets and rings on their fingers. Hinch has long been regarded as one of baseball’s best managers, and even the report that announced Luhnow’s suspension allowed that the GM is “widely considered to be one of the most successful baseball executives of his generation.” Teams employ players with domestic violence suspensions in their pasts—and managers with histories of failing to respond appropriately to domestic violence incidents—if they think it will be worth it in WAR. Ethically speaking, sign stealing seems almost frivolous in comparison, and although these punishments are hurting Houston now, Crane probably believes that the title was worth the blow to the team’s reputation. Some teams may be swayed by the prospect of a better-behaved Luhnow or Hinch—still capable, but chastened by the public rebuke and ensuing season in exile.

On the other hand, neither Hinch nor Luhnow looks good in Manfred’s statement, which blames both of them for failing to “establish a culture in which adherence to the rules is ingrained in the fabric of the organization, and to stop bad behavior as soon as it occurred.” It also singles out Luhnow for presiding over a “very problematic” baseball operations culture, which “valued and rewarded results over other considerations” and “staff of individuals who often lacked direction or sufficient oversight.” Luhnow’s suspension may have resulted from sign stealing, but his roles in the response to the Taubman debacle and the culture that contributed to that incident loom large.

The report leaves room for Luhnow and Hinch to receive a second chance. MLB’s investigation didn’t establish any top-down directive from the Astros front office that orchestrated the sign-stealing scheme. It faults Luhnow for failing to ensure that MLB’s memo about harsh punishments for future sign-stealing infractions were relayed to the players and field staff, and it asserts that he received emails that alluded to the less elaborate of the sign-stealing schemes. The report portrays Luhnow’s faults as sins of omission rather than sins of commission; he was, it suggests, negligent, but not nefarious, although there’s no way to prove that he wasn’t aware of what was happening.

Hinch, meanwhile, is said to have been bothered by the sign stealing to the point that he repeatedly damaged the replay monitors, but, bizarrely, not to the point that he actually instructed anyone to stop stealing signs. Although he wasn’t the mastermind, he did dissemble about sign stealing in statements to the media, and his reluctance to step in and stop a practice of which he supposedly disapproved makes him seem spineless and unqualified to police a clubhouse.

Both Luhnow and Hinch released statements in the wake of the report. Hinch’s corroborated the report and professed regret. Luhnow’s accepted responsibility but also stated, “I did not know rules were being broken,” which conflicts with the league’s findings. If they want to work again in baseball, I would guess that someone will give them that chance. But they might have to do penance in a less public role—perhaps something like special assistant—until the heat dies down.

Alex Cora and Carlos Beltrán

For Cora, MLB’s findings are damning. The report reveals that Cora was one of the primary instigators of both of the Astros’ sign-stealing schemes, and the sole uniformed nonplayer implicated in the trash-can relay system. Not only did he help put those systems in place, but his involvement—and thus, the tacit approval of the Astros’ field staff, in the absence of objections from Hinch—may have made it more likely that players would participate.

Cora is also expected to be blamed in large part for Boston’s sign-stealing activities in 2018 (although the team had already relayed signs via Apple Watch in 2017, when Cora was still stealing signs in Houston). Considering his direct role in the rule-breaking behavior of not one, but two teams, Cora is expected to face a stiffer suspension than either Luhnow or Hinch—not necessarily a lifetime ban, but one that would last at least multiple years. The Red Sox will likely dismiss him as soon as MLB’s investigation is complete, and although he was well regarded as a manager, the serial nature of his offenses may make him even more radioactive to potential employers.

Beltrán, whom the Mets hired as manager just days before the first sign-stealing story broke, is the only former Astros player (aside from initial whistleblower Mike Fiers) to be named in MLB’s report, possibly because The Athletic had already identified him as a culprit. The report reveals that Beltrán was one of a group of players who discussed ways in which the Astros could steal signs more efficiently two months into the 2017 regular season. Because Beltrán was a player at the time, MLB didn’t discipline him, but the Mets may be wary of entrusting their team to a leader less than three years removed from helping institute the Astros’ sign-stealing efforts, and only two months removed from denying that he was aware of any illegal sign stealing (which sounds even sketchier now). Even if Beltrán escapes a suspension, he’s sure to be bombarded with questions once spring training starts, although the bad PR may make him fit in well with the Mets.

Other Teams

All signs suggest that MLB would have been happy not to stir up this sign-stealing story. MLB knew that the Red Sox used technology to steal signs in 2017, and Jeff Passan reported in 2018, per anonymous MLB players, that the Astros had passed signs via trash can. MLB subsequently upped its preventative measures in response to sign-stealing rumors swirling around the sport. Yet not until Fiers went on record in The Athletic’s initial report did MLB grudgingly launch an investigation. Even then, Manfred stated, “I have no reason to believe it extends beyond the Astros at this point in time,” which was far-fetched at the time, considering that The Athletic’s report cited a source who described the practice as “pervasive.” And not until The Athletic linked the 2018 Red Sox to sign stealing did MLB acknowledge that publicly. Tom Verducci reported that when Manfred called Red Sox owner John Henry to inform him of the investigation, Manfred said, “I’ve got no choice here,” which doesn’t make it sound as if Manfred was eager to follow the sign-stealing trail.

For consistency’s sake, though, MLB will have to follow that trail if it leads anywhere else. It’s quite likely that the Astros and Red Sox weren’t the only two teams engaging in at least low-level forms of illegal sign stealing; every team has a video room and must have been tempted to use it improperly. On Monday, MLB player Logan Morrison suggested that the Dodgers and Yankees have also “used film to pick signs.” In 2018, members of the Brewers suggested that the Dodgers were stealing signs. In November, BBWAA member Jeff Jones reported that multiple players had told him that the Brewers and Rangers have stolen signs electronically, and Yu Darvish fueled further speculation about the Brewers. None of that smoke has turned into fire, but it’s probably risky for any MLB fan base to proclaim its team pure or complain too loudly about losing to known sign stealers. That said, Manfred will have to be poked pretty hard for the league to acknowledge that the scandal extends beyond Boston and Houston.

The Future of Sign Stealing

As of now, we don’t have hard evidence that sign stealing is an ongoing issue, but who would want to bet against it? As long as players have been putting down signs, opposing players have been stealing them using whatever technology existed at the time. And although clubs can defend against sign stealing, switching up signs can cause cross-ups and longer delays between pitches. In the short term, Manfred is planning to impose more monitoring and regulation; video rooms could be locked, and cameras and monitors disabled after games begin. The fates of the Astros and Red Sox may also dissuade teams from breaking the rules. But as Manfred told Verducci, in the long run, “the idea of having a technology solution that eliminates some guy putting fingers above his cup might be a better answer.”

MLB will be motivated to make this concern subside, both because electronic sign stealing plays poorly with the public and because the rise of legal gambling—a potential cash cow—raises the pressure on the league to ensure that its product is on the up and up. Manfred mentioned a system of colored lights, visible only from the mound, that the catcher could activate, but vibrating wristbands that pass on signs invisibly may be a safer system. The only way to eliminate centuries-old sign-stealing suspicion is to eliminate a centuries-old system of signs. If Manfred fights teams’ latest sign-stealing tactics with tech that can’t be cracked, MLB’s most embarrassing sign-stealing scandal could also be its last.

An earlier version of this piece misstated when the Taubman incident occurred.