In recent years, it’s become clear that sports has entered its Age of Data, with dueling analytics departments vying for breakthroughs and proprietary metrics increasingly shaping how teams are built. And perhaps there’s no better confirmation of that trend than the inevitable bombshell on Tuesday: The FBI is investigating the St. Louis Cardinals over allegations that they stole data from the Houston Astros in a computer-hacking scheme.
According to The New York Times, the FBI found evidence that Cardinals team officials broke into the Astros’ “Ground Control” information network by using the old passwords of Jeff Luhnow, currently Houston’s general manager and formerly the vice president of scouting and player development for St. Louis. Investigators told the Times that the breach compromised Houston’s internal data regarding player evaluation — both scouting and statistical in nature — and potential transactions. (Part of the same database was leaked last June as well.)
It was, in essence, the first known case of corporate espionage between sports teams.
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In some ways, it’s surprising that it took so long for such an incident to surface in the supercompetitive world of sports. During the 1980s and ’90s, the rise of computing — and, consequently, data collection and analysis — led to a rapid proliferation of industrial espionage cases in the business world. (It’s estimated now that the number of corporate hacking incursions doubles every year.) Just as the digital age offered far easier, more systematic methods of data storage than ever before, it also made information theft an efficient means of gaining a competitive advantage.
Baseball has had its own long history of dishonesty, from sign-stealing to doctoring the ball. (“If you’re not cheating,” former Chicago Cubs first baseman Mark Grace once said, “you’re not trying hard enough.”) And it’s not uncommon for team officials (and players) to switch franchises, presumably taking whatever knowledge they acquired at their old job with them when they go. According to Baseball-Reference’s historical database, 28 percent of all top-level baseball executives — general managers, scouting directors and farm directors — held the job for multiple teams over their careers.
That’s why it’s a little hard to believe that, as the FBI suggested, the motive here was “retaliation” against Luhnow for leaving the Cardinals and starting a new database system with the Astros. Because it’s so widely acknowledged that everyone’s front-office lifespan is mind-bogglingly short, comings and goings between front offices are almost always matters of business, not fuel for personal vendettas.
It is easy, however, to understand the story as the latest step a team is willing to take to gain an edge. While the Astros weren’t the earliest adopters of sabermetrics, there’s plenty of evidence that they’re in the current vanguard of advanced statistical thinking.1 In other words, if you were going to begin spying on MLB teams for their proprietary data, Houston might be the one to start with.
If this scandal deepens, the Cardinals may well see the legitimacy of their recent accomplishments questioned, much like the New England Patriots in the wake of Spygate (and, subsequently, Deflate-gate).
St. Louis won three National League pennants and two World Series with Luhnow in its front office, and the team also has the best record in baseball since he departed. Over that span, the Cardinals have exceeded expectations, beating their projected wins by the fifth-largest margin of any team in baseball. In that department, they’re not outliers like the Patriots are at avoiding fumbles, for instance, but it will be interesting to watch how much their transactions and personnel decisions will be scrutinized for signs that they used the hacked data to their advantage.
In the meantime, this might be the opening salvo in baseball’s era of cyber espionage — a fate that, in retrospect, seems like an inevitable consequence of the game’s widespread adoption of data analysis over the past decade and a half.