Much as we’d all rather focus on other matters, it’s impossible to ignore the still-fully-emerging Astros sign-stealing scandal. Jeff Luhnow and A.J. Hinch lost their jobs; the club was penalized with sacrificed draft picks and a fine. But that didn’t close the book on the matter. Developments this evening contributed significant new information, potentially impacting both the interpretation of the events and the evolution of the fallout.
First came an eye-popping new report from Jared Diamond of the Wall Street Journal that unveiled the role of the Houston front office in the sign-stealing effort. Though commissioner Rob Manfred had characterized it as a player-driven scheme — even as he worked out a deal that exempted players from punishment — he also sent a letter to Luhnow detailing a host of facts about the front office’s involvement that were not previously known publicly.
You’ll need to read the detailed story for the full account, but we’ll touch upon a few key points. The scheme is said to have been hatched before the 2017 season when the Astros analytical department cooked up a program — deemed “Codebreaker,” if you can believe it — that enabled swift sign deduction. As Diamond puts it, this “laid the groundwork” for the eventual trashcan-banging signaling effort that was utilized by Astros players, coaches, and video room staffers. “Codebreaker” was utilized in 2017 and 2018; it was deployed both in home and road contests.
So far as Luhnow’s knowledge and involvement goes, he was assuredly aware of “Codebreaker.” And there’s a fair compilation of evidence suggesting he knew just how it was being used on a game-by-game basis, including an email that Luhnow received (but claims not to have fully read) in which Astros director of advance information Tom Koch-Weser referred to “our dark arts, sign-stealing department” (a moniker he also used in other circumstances).
There are loads of scandalous details involving Koch-Weser, with Luhnow disputing them. Other junior employees involved in the efforts indicated that Luhnow was likely aware “Codebreaker” was being used in real-time during games, though it seems there was at least some amount of plausible doubt.
So far as is known publicly, lower-level Astros front office employees involved or potentially involved in the scandal have not been punished or removed from their jobs. Manfred found that there was a larger cultural problem in the Houston baseball operations department, but owner Jim Crane has disputed that characterization. Crane hired new GM James Click to take over for Luhnow an otherwise generally unchanged department (apart from voluntary departures, so far as is known).
The scope of the scandal remains an important element in understanding and assessing the matter. As noted above, today’s news suggests that the illicit actions were broader than had previously been known.
There’s one other item that hints at potential expansion of the known bounds of the overall sign-stealing/signalling effort.
Hinch, who has been more forthcoming with contrition for his role in failing to intercede with the scheme as the club’s top uniformed employee, held an interview with Tom Verducci for MLB Network. (Video and write-up via MLB.com’s Alyson Footer.) He accepted without condition that the team was wrong for its actions and that he personally failed to exercise his leadership power and responsibility to halt the cheating.
Curiously, though, Hinch declined an opportunity to shut the door fully on a theory that has been floated with varying levels of evidence and seriousness regarding the Astros’ 2019 season. When asked whether Houston players had utilized buzzers to convey signs to hitters in the just-concluded campaign, Hinch chose to stand on the proposition that “The Commissioner’s Office did as thorough of an investigation as anyone could imagine was possible.”
It would certainly be foolish to read that oblique statement to mean that the Astros were indeed utilizing buzzers and that Hinch was aware of it. Precisely why Hinch chose to state things that way isn’t evident. But the guarded phrasing does seem to leave ample cause for exploring the topic further, to the extent that’s possible. At a minimum, it leaves some room for doubt with a team that has already proven it doesn’t deserve any. If only to eliminate that doubt, the possibility of more recent cheating now seems a matter worthy of further examination (or, if that has truly already been completed, elucidation) from the league.