MLB renders large-scale discipline on Astros for sign-stealing scandal

Former Houston Astros manager A.J. Hinch (left), and general manager Jeff Luhnow, who were both suspended by MLB and then fired by the club for their roles in a sign-stealing scandal.

Major League Baseball has rendered a large-scale package of discipline on the Houston Astros for their role in improper sign stealing using electronic means.

Both Astros general manager Jeff Luhnow and field manager A.J. Hinch have been suspended through the 2020 World Series without pay. The Astros will be stripped of their first- and second-round selections in the 2020 and 2021 First-Player Player Drafts. And the club will be fined $5m, the most allowed under the league’s constitution.

In addition, former Astros assistant general manager Brandon Taubman, fired in October has been placed on the sport’s ineligible list through at least the 2020 World Series, and cannot work in the sport either as an employee or independent contractor.

Astros owner Jim Crane then went a step further than the league, immediately firing both Luhnow and Hinch. No permanent replacements for either role have been named. In the meantime, Crane himself will oversee Astros baseball operations. The suspensions for Luhnow and Hinch remain in effect despite Crane’s firings, and the pair cannot work for another club until after the World Series.

In a nine-page detailed report, MLB commissioner Rob Manfred decried a “problematic” culture within the Astros’ baseball operations department that led to the impermissible sign-stealing, despite repeated warnings from the league.

“The baseball operations department’s insular culture – one that valued and rewarded results over other considerations, combined with a staff of individuals who often lacked direction or sufficient oversight, led, at least in part….to an environment that allowed the conduct described in this report to have occurred,” Manfred wrote.

The report detailed a series of efforts by the Astros to use live game feeds, the club’s video replay room near the dugout, other video monitors near the dugout, and a series of internal signals to “decode and transmit opposing teams’ sign sequences.” MLB expressly prohibits using electronic equipment to steal opponent signs. 

The report also indicates the Astros conducted their improper sign stealing during the postseason of their 2017 World Series championship campaign, a revelation that now badly taints that title in the eyes of many around the game. 

The measures against the Astros represent by far the most severe discipline rendered by Manfred in his five years as commissioner, with the action choosing to focus on organization leaders as opposed to players, who were generally described a prime participant group in the sign-stealing schemes. 

The penalties also represent the most extensive sign-stealing scandal in the history of the game. 

“The conduct described herein has caused fans, players, executives at other MLB Clubs, and members of the media to raise questions about the integrity of games in which the Astros participated,” Manfred wrote. “And while it is impossible to determine whether the conduct actually impacted the results on the field, the perception of some that it did causes significant harm to the game.”

The three-month probe, led by MLB’s Department of Investigations, involved 68 witness interviews and a review of tens of thousands of e-mails, Slack communications, text messages, video clips, and photographs. 

Astros owner Jim Crane was said by Manfred in the report to be “unaware of any of the violations of MLB rules by his club,” and fully cooperative in the investigation. In a news conference January 13, Crane said the club needed to “move forward with a clean slate” in the decision to dismiss both Luhnow and Hinch.

“Neither one of them started it,” Crane said of the pair, regarding the electronic sign-stealing. “But neither one of them did anything to stop it.”

Crane, however, dismissed suggestions that the wide-scale penalties, and the need to fire both Luhnow and Hinch, does not tarnish the club’s 2017 World Series title. 

“Absolutely not,” Crane said. “We had a great team before 2017.”

While MLB found rule violations by the Astros during the 2017 and 2018 seasons, the league report concluded the club stopped utilizing electronic equipment to steal signs prior to the 2018 postseason and did not resume during 2019. The club lost in a seven-game World Series this year to the Washington Nationals.

Luhnow, for his part, accepted the suspension in a written statement. But at the same time, he sought to distance himself from employees in the Astros baseball operations department he oversaw.

“I’m not a cheater,” Luhnow said. “I am deeply upset I wasn’t informed of any misconduct because I would have stopped it.”

The severe level of MLB punishment is designed in part to be a deterrent against similar activity by other clubs. And the Boston Red Sox are now under league investigation following reports they conducted similar electronic surveillance of opponents signs during their 2018 championship season. Current Red Sox manager Alex Cora was part of the 2017 Astros team as bench coach and is frequently mentioned in MLB’s report as an active participant in that club’s sign-stealing efforts.

Manfred said of Cora, “I will withhold determining the appropriate level of discipline for Cora until after the Department of Investigations completes its investigation of the allegations that the Red Sox engaged in impermissible sign stealing in 2018 while Cora was the manager.”