Six Takeaways From MLB's Sign-Stealing Investigation

MLB's published report on the Astros is packed with information and findings that will ripple throughout the sport going forward.
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The nine-page “Statement of the Commissioner” regarding the three-month investigation into sign stealing by the Houston Astros is a meaty, historical document. It sets punitive precedents to deal with the growth of technology in baseball, defines the first term of commissioner Rob Manfred, and provides previously unknown details of how far teams and players will go to get an edge when technology is within easy reach.

All those reasons are why you need to look beyond the punishments that drew most of the attention upon its release Monday. Here are the most important takeaways from the report:

1. The Astros’ 2017 championship is tainted.

That’s not opinion. That’s an official MLB finding. The money quote, with boldface added: Even after the Sept. 15, 2017 warning from Manfred that clubs who misuse technology to steal signs would face harsh penalties, “The Astros continued to both utilize the replay review room and the monitor located next to the dugout to decode signs for the remainder of the regular season and throughout the postseason.”

That mark never goes away. Sixty-nine years after the fact, we still talk about the 1951 Giants stealing signs from centerfield.

2. Players face no discipline for using technology to cheat.

This was an intentional and unique carve-out in baseball jurisprudence by Manfred. In all other areas, players are responsible for behavior that violates the rules and regulations of the game, i.e. performance-enhancing drugs, domestic violence, gambling, doctoring baseballs or bats, etc.

But when players misuse technology to steal signs, their manager, coaches and front office staff are held accountable. Manfred made that decision with his Sept. 15, 2017 memo (it was directed to clubs, not players) and held to it with his penalties Monday. He did this because he knew clubhouse culture would not allow him to determine with clarity who benefited from such a system, when and by how much.

He also knew that MLB itself introduced technology into the competitive arena with the challenge-based replay system, so its stewards bear responsibility for making sure players did not misuse it.

Every manager’s job just became more difficult Monday. When it comes to technology, his very job depends on knowing what his players and even his team’s back-room quants and analysts are up to–all while running a major league game.

3. Pay attention to your Inbox.

When Manfred put teams on notice with his Sept. 15, 2017 memo, Houston GM Jeff Luhnow incredibly “did not forward the memoranda and did not confirm that the players and field staff were in compliance … Had Luhnow taken those steps in September 2017 it is clear to me that the Astros would have ceased both sign-stealing schemes at the time.”

There is your fireable offense. The whole world just found out about high-tech sign-stealing in baseball (the Red Sox Apple Watch caper), Manfred warns clubs to knock it off or he’s going to deal with violators severely, and Luhnow does … nothing? It’s emblematic of the lack of trust and communication that existed between Luhnow and manager A.J. Hinch, as well as the problematic culture of a detached front office.

Nothing ever happens to Houston if Luhnow does his diligence and makes sure his team isn’t cheating. The Astros could have stolen as many signs as they wanted and banged on as many trash cans as they wanted up until the Sept. 15 line in the sand and faced no discipline.

And let’s not let owner Jim Crane off as easily as the commissioner did. The report said after the memo went out Crane told Luhnow he “should make sure that the Astros did not engage in similar conduct,” but there is no evidence of more active measures. Crane oversaw this broken culture in which the general manager and manager had little contact and someone like Brandon Taubman was promoted quickly as a rising star.

4. Carlos Beltran must explain his actions immediately.

Recently hired as the New York Mets manager, Beltran is the only named player in the report–after MLB investigators interviewed 23 current and former Astros players. Beltran was at the heart of growing Houston’s sign-stealing scheme into a more elaborate, full-time system. Beltran spent the first three years of the Replay Era with the Yankees, other than two months with Texas. When did he learn about using the cameras and monitors to steal signs? How can he convince baseball now as one of its stewards that he can be trusted?

The first thing baseball investigators do when they interview subjects is to issue a warning: we are going to find out the truth, and if we find out you are not telling us the truth, you will feel the full wrath of the commissioner’s office. Sources said that is why former Braves GM John Coppolella was banned for life in the international scouting scandal. Beltran apparently came clean to investigators. Now he has to do something nobody has done yet in this scandal: take ownership. Come clean in public.

Manfred has muzzled clubs, instructing them they are not allowed to comment on the discipline of another club. But Beltran, as the only player Manfred named in the report, gets no such cover.

5. Alex Cora cannot manage the Red Sox this year or probably ever again.

The Red Sox surely are preparing now to have bench coach Ron Roenicke or someone else run the team from the first day of spring training. Cora is all over the report–he arranged for the monitor next to the dugout with the centerfield camera feed, he developed the trash can scheme and the replay room scheme, he used the dugout phone to talk to the replay room to get the signs … it’s ugly. Hinch was banned for the year with no participation in the scheme (and then fired by the Astros). As the mastermind and a participant, Cora faces a more severe penalty.

6. The report is impressively detailed and transparent.

The lawyerly training of Manfred is all over the nine pages. You can argue about the weight of the punishments–too harsh or too soft–but the level of unblinking detail is inarguable. Nobody who reads the report comes away thinking, I wonder what he meant? I wonder what really happened?