The Houston Astros were at the vanguard of leveraging new technology and information to their advantage during recent seasons. Their innovations in player development and data-based strategies helped the club to three straight 100-win seasons, a World Series title in 2017 and nearly another this past fall. Their processes are spreading through the copy-cat industry. But the on-field success and legacy of MLB’s most analytically advanced team are now tarnished by the results of its push to win at seemingly any cost.
On Monday, Major League Baseball commissioner Rob Manfred suspended Astros GM Jeff Luhnow and manager A.J. Hinch for the 2020 season for their roles in a video- and technology-aided sign-stealing scandal. Later in the day, Astros owner Jim Crane fired Luhnow and Hinch. The Astros also forfeited their first- and second-round picks in the 2020 and 2021 drafts, and were fined $5 million.
While sign stealing has always been part of the game, it’s illegal to be assisted by technology and video. The commissioner’s office likely hopes these punishments provide a powerful deterrent at a time when technology and video capabilities will only increase in coming years. But it’s also worth wondering what the Astros scandal will do to the team’s legacy — while the Astros’ on-the-field future as a franchise is now very uncertain, the Astros’ Way in organizational and player development has proliferated throughout baseball. What happens to that approach now? How much of the Astros’ success was due to innovative practices? How much was generated from going beyond the rules?
Manfred, in his report issued Monday, took issue not just with the Astros sign-stealing, but also with their overall culture. He made former Astros assistant general manager Brandon Taubman ineligible to work for any MLB club in 2020. After Game 6 of the ALCS, Taubman taunted a group of female reporters in a postgame clubhouse, including one reporter who had been critical of the Astros acquiring relief pitcher Roberto Osuna the previous season. Osuna had been suspended 75-games for violating MLB’s domestic violence policy before the Astros traded for him in 2018.
“Luhnow is widely considered to be one of the most successful baseball executives of his generation, credited with ushering in the second ‘analytics’ revolution in baseball and rebuilding Houston,” Manfred concluded in his report “… it is very clear to me that the culture of the baseball operations department, manifesting itself in the way its employees are treated, its relations with other clubs, and its relations with the media and external stakeholders, has been very problematic.”
“They don’t give a shit, to be honest, what people think about them,” one former Astros staffer told Ringer staff writer Ben Lindbergh and me in reporting for our book published last year that in part focused on the Astros’ player development practices.
The Astros’ story is complicated in that they have also used new tools and data to benefit player development legally.
For instance, no club had been as interested in camera technology and its uses as the Astros. The Astros had 75 high-speed cameras installed throughout their system by the spring of 2019, a time when many teams only first began experimenting with them. Insight from the cameras helped a number of players in the organization better understand their biomechanical movement and pitch grips, including pitcher Justin Verlander, who was shown video of his best sliders. Verlander has enjoyed a late-career renaissance in Houston, capped by winning his second Cy Young Award in 2019, eight years after his first. He won the award over teammate Gerrit Cole, who also enjoyed a remarkable turnaround in Houston through data-based changes to the types of pitches he throws, and a curious increase in spin rate, resulting in more pitch movement.
But the Astros also used video in illegal ways, MLB found. The investigation into the Astros’s sign-stealing scheme began in November after former Astros pitcher Mike Fiers told The Athletic that the Astros stole signs in 2017 by using a center-field camera linked to a monitor in the dugout where banging of a trash can would alert Astros hitters to whether a certain type of pitch was coming.
According to the report, the sign-stealing began early in the 2017 season when the Astros used their video replay room and center-field camera feed to “decode and transmit” opponents’ signs for use when an Astros’ baserunner was on second base. From that position, the baserunner could relay signs to the Astros’ hitters. Harsh penalties reportedly await Boston Red Sox manager Alex Cora, who was the Astros’ bench coach during the 2017 season and who was heavily involved in the scheme.
The scope of sign-stealing widened two months into the season, according to the report, when then Astros player Carlos Beltrán and other players began communicating signs stolen via center-field camera in new ways. Beltrán , now the New York Mets manager, was not given a punishment Monday.
“One or more players watched the live feed of the center field camera on the monitor, and after decoding the sign, a player would bang a nearby trash can with a bat to communicate the upcoming pitch type to the batter,” the report found.
The scheme continued into the 2017 postseason, when the Astros won the World Series. Did it help the Astros? Last year, we investigated the Astros’ change in offensive performance between 2016 and 2017 and found they were outliers in reducing strikeout rates and increasing power.
In Manfred’s report issued Monday, he noted much of the scheme was “player-driven” yet did not suspend or fine any players. He cited the Red Sox sign-stealing case of 2017 as a precedent for focusing on leadership positions in punishing such violations. (In a statement released Monday, Luhnow claimed to have had no knowledge of the scheme.)
As the Astros are punished, former Astros employees have been hired by other clubs as rivals trying to replicate their success. There was the departure of former front-office lieutenants like Mike Elias and Sig Mejdal to Baltimore and Mike Fast to Atlanta. The question now is how much of the Astros Way is worth copy-catting if teams aren’t stepping beyond the rules of the game?
While the Astros have advanced some scouting and development practices and ushered in new technologies to the game, how integral those strategies were to their overall success is now clouded due to whatever advantages they gained from sophisticated sign-stealing at the plate and curious spin gains on the mound. Just a few months ago the Astros seemed to have built an unstoppable talent-creating machine, which began when Luhnow ushered an extreme and controversial “tanking” rebuild in the early 2010s. While it took years for the Astros to become winners, it only took a few unethical decisions to tear down the organization’s reputation and place its future — and its legal contributions to the game — in doubt.