Astros' Latest Scandal Demands Quick Action From MLB

Rob Manfred can't let an investigation of the Astros' latest scandal drag on. He needs to act quickly and decisively for the sake of the sport.
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The problems of the Houston Astros are now the problems of baseball commissioner Rob Manfred.

A named active major leaguer, Oakland pitcher Mike Fiers, is on record saying the Astros ran an electronic-aided sign-stealing scheme when he was with the club in 2017. Fiers made the revelation to The Athletic, a claim that was supported by a second named player, pitcher Danny Farquhar, as well as anonymous sources and videotape with enhanced audio.

The timing is important here. Not until this year did MLB establish protocols to catch up with the rapid rise of technology within the game. It barred all non-network cameras from foul pole to foul pole, made unannounced sweeps of stadiums looking for all non-registered surveillance equipment, moved clubhouse game monitors away from dugouts and put their feed on delays, and stationed security agents near them.

The crackdown was in response to speculation that the use of technology to steal signs was widespread then. The 2017 World Series between the Astros and Dodgers was a veritable sign-stealing competition in ways old and new. In that same year the Red Sox and Yankees incurred fines from MLB for improper use of an Apple Watch and dugout phone, respectively. The measures generally have worked well with building a firewall.

An electronic-aided sign-stealing scheme from two years ago does not expose the Astros to the same level of discipline as one would in 2019. Still, the on-the-record, named scheme is a clear violation of the ethics of sport. It gnaws at the integrity of the game. The bedrock of baseball, like any legitimate sporting competition, is fair play. Once your fans begin to even suspect that outcomes are decided by ill-gotten means, you’ve lost your soul as a sport.

That’s why Manfred must act quickly and decisively, and drop his lawyerly instinct to deliberate and kick cans down the road. He already has one Astros controversy on his desk: the behavior of former Houston assistant general manager Brandon Taubman toward a group of female reporters last month, and the response to it by the Astros’ front office.

Astros general manager Jeff Luhnow told reporters at the GM meetings in Arizona Tuesday that he can’t comment on the sign-stealing revelation because the club is “going to look into the allegations in cooperation with Major League Baseball.”

How about Major League Baseball runs an immediate, thorough and independent investigation? This is up to MLB to find out what happened, not Luhnow–and quickly.

jeff-luhnow

It could get worse. According to one baseball source, another former Astro may have information to share regarding a sign-stealing scheme by Houston this year.

“So that’s a potential death penalty for someone if it involved technology and can be proven,” the source said.

In one case where Manfred did act decisively, in 2017 he banned for life former Braves GM John Coppolella for infractions related to the signing of international free agents.

As Nationals pitching coach Paul Menhart told me after World Series Game 6, “You don’t want games to be decided with any extra or outside interference.

“I’m a purist. Old school. All I want is for the game to be fair. I don’t want teams picking up pitches illegally or electronically.”

Asked if he thought the Astros may have been assisted by in-game technology, Menhart stopped short but said, “I’ve heard things may happen like that, but tonight I saw it [Stephen Strasburg’s pitch tipping] with my own eyes. If you see something like that because you’re a smart hitter, that’s fine. That’s baseball.

“But that’s why we give multiple signs here with nobody on base. We know these things go on. And right now we’re the only game on TV.”

In just the past five years the Astros have been accused of using cameras to improperly surveil the dugouts of the Red Sox and Indians; of improperly using substances to increase the spin rate of their pitches (according to an oblique message from Trevor Bauer); of negotiating in bad faith with draft picks Brady Aiken and Jacob Nix (by their agent, Casey Close); of a tone-deaf response to Taubman’s outburst in what the club called SI’s “attempt to fabricate a story where one does not exist;” of whistling from the dugout during the 2019 ALCS against the Yankees as if to alert hitters what was coming (actually, a Houston source told me at the time no such scheme existed, but the players were doing so only “to get into their heads,” such is their awareness of their own reputation); and now of a 2017 scheme to steal signs with the help of electronics.

In 2017, back when television monitors carried real-time feeds and were hung near dugouts, a player in the dugout could pick up signs from the centerfield camera. The Astros, according to the report, would then bang on a trash can to alert the hitter when an changeup pitch was coming.

These may well be isolated incidents in Houston. But the Greeks had a word for what is at the core of these individual incidents: hubris.

“They are definitely flying too close to the sun,” said one MLB executive.

The Astros were built on finding every incremental advantage. They operate with more of a corporate culture than a sporting one. Taubman and the cold-blooded response to his screed represent what happens when this corporate culture goes too far.

Luhnow, the GM, came to baseball from the corporate world. He worked at McKinsey, a global management consulting firm. In February 2013 Luhnow posted a job opening online for an analyst in the Baseball Operations department. He preferred someone with a background in banking and valuation. He hired Taubman, who had played no level higher than high school junior varsity baseball, and who worked at Ernst & Young as a derivative valuation expert. He became a fast riser in the organization. In September 2018 Luhnow named him assistant general manager. A year later Luhnow extended his contract and expanded his duties.

One month later, after the Astros won the 2019 ALCS–winning Game 6 after closer Roberto Osuna blew a save–Taubman screamed repeatedly in the direction of female reporters, “Thank God we got Osuna! I’m so f------ glad we got Osuna!”

The Astros had received criticism for trading for Osuna after he was suspended 75 games for violating baseball’s joint domestic violence policy.

But to the Astros, Osuna was an incremental edge, an undervalued asset (the Blue Jays wanted nothing to do with Osuna pitching for them again), and Taubman was proud to have found it. The team’s first press release in response to the SI report defended him and the turf it carved out. Confronted with the actual facts, the team days later admitted it was wrong and fired Taubman. MLB and the Astros have not identified the release’s author or the chain of command that approved it.

“Look who is running our game now,” said one long-time team executive, referring to how many of the game’s power brokers are schooled in business culture, not the back fields of baseball training complexes. “The game is so messed up now. The owners are buying into all the corporate [bull].”

The shame would be if baseball is being run like Wall Street in the 1980s, driven by finding those incremental edges by any means necessary, the true spirit of sporting competition be damned.

“Well said,” said another veteran executive. “We were joking today that there should be an ethics exam before you can get to assistant general manager, like passing the bar.”

world-series-2017

Did the Astros win the 2017 World Series because they were stealing signs with the aid of electronics? That’s too big of a leap. They did win Game 7 at Dodger Stadium.

It’s almost impossible to define what edge they did gain. Some hitters don’t like to know what’s coming even if teammates have cracked a code (for fear they will commit to swinging, even if the pitch is not in the zone). Pitchers change signs frequently, as Farquhar did, so the Astros were not likely to get every sign.

But we know this much: the Astros had a system to alert their hitters at least sometimes when a changeup was coming. The changeup is designed to get hitters off balance. It traffics almost entirely in deception, especially when it looks like a strike but fades out of the zone.

Let’s examine the whiff rates on changeups in the 2017 postseason games at Minute Maid Park for both the Astros and their opponents. I’ll break them down into two categories: all changeups, and those changeups that wound up out of the zone.

2017 Postseason Games in Houston
Batter Whiff Rates vs. Changeups

All

Out of Zone

Astros

8.9%

5.6%

Opponents

14.9%

21.4%

The Astros saw 74 changeups out of the zone and swung and missed at only four of them. That 5.6% whiff rate is a fraction of the one from their opponents. The MLB average in 2017 on changeups out of the zone was 13.6%. The Astros were one of the better teams against the pitch, but their regular season average was 9.9%.

That means that at home in the 2017 postseason, facing the Red Sox, Yankees and Dodgers, the Astros reduced their chase swing-and-miss rate against changeups by almost half. (And their rate on the road was about the same: 4.5%.)

Maybe the Astros were just that good at that time. The problem with this scheme becoming public is that it allows you to wonder if maybe they had unethical help.

Now let’s see what happened this year at Minute Maid Park–with Manfred’s anti-sign-stealing protocols in place.

The average MLB whiff rate on changeups this year was 15.8% overall and 15.0% percent on pitches out of the zone. At Minute Maid Park in the postseason, both the Astros and their opponents (the Rays, Yankees and Nationals) were near or above the MLB average whiff rate on those pitches. There is nothing anomalous in the data this time:

2019 Postseason Games in Houston
Batter Whiff Rates vs. Changeups

All

Out of Zone

Astros

15.2%

18.4%

Opponents

16.3%

16.7%

We can’t know if what the Astros did helped them a little or lot. But that’s not important. What’s important is that they did it at all. A member of the 2017 Astros defined how they were stealing signs with the help of electronics and he knew that it was wrong. Others in the organization clearly did not see an ethical breach, only the incremental edge it afforded.

Stealing signs is a baseball tradition. If you steal them unaided–such as the way the Astros did against Strasburg in the first inning of World Series Game 6 by the way he came set with the ball in his glove; or by decoding the catcher’s signs as a runner at second base–that’s perfectly acceptable gamesmanship. But the use of electronics to do so is far outside the game’s ethical boundary and has been for more than 100 years.

In 1900, Reds shortstop Tommy Corcoran grew concerned about how Phillies third-base coach Petie Chiles planted his foot in the same spot for every pitch at Baker Bowl in Philadelphia. Corcoran ran to the spot and began digging. He found a small wooden box with a buzzer attached to a long wire. The wire led to the Phillies’ clubhouse in centerfield, where Phillies infielder Morgan Murphy was using binoculars to steal the catcher’s signs. Murphy would pass along the signs with a Morse-like code: one buzz for a fastball, two for a curve and three for a changeup. Chiles could feel the buzzes with his foot, and he relayed the message to the hitter what was coming.

It took three weeks for the Phillies to offer an explanation. Their director and treasurer, Col. John I. Rogers, dismissed it by insisting it was part of a lighting system left there by a carnival company. “I will not dignify the charge by pleading ‘not guilty,’” he said.

The press, of course, was not satisfied with the inelegant non-denial. A week later, Charles Dryden of the New York North American detailed the scheme.

It was the first known use of electronics to steal signs. Other than Rogers, most everyone came to the quick conclusion that stealing signs with the use of devices is unacceptable.

Wrote The Sporting News, “The explanation that everything in baseball is fair will not suffice. An advantage obtained by underhanded methods is unsportsmanlike.”

More than a century later, it is still true. And now Manfred must investigate what should be done about it.