Off the Kuff Rotating Header Image

“You guys Codebreaking?”

You thought the Astros sign stealing saga was over? It’s not over.

Did not age well

Roughly four weeks ago, Major League Baseball disciplined the Houston Astros for what commissioner Rob Manfred called the “banging scheme.” The Astros were busted illegally stealing signs in 2017 and 2018. The scheme involved banging a nearby trash can to relay the signs to the hitter at the plate.

Here is a recap of Houston’s punishment:

  • $5 million fine (maximum allowed by MLB Constitution)
  • Manager A.J, Hinch suspended one year (he was then fired)
  • GM Jeff Luhnow suspended one year (he was also fired)
  • Top two draft picks in 2020 and 2021 forfeited

In his nine-page report detailing the investigation, Manfred explained the Astros stole signs illegally throughout their 2017 World Series season and early in 2018 as well. The report says the investigation “revealed no evidence to suggest that Luhnow was aware of the banging scheme.” There appears to be more to the story, however.

According to a bombshell report by the Wall Street Journal‘s Jared Diamond, Manfred sent Luhnow a letter 11 days before the discipline was announced saying “there is more than sufficient evidence to support a conclusion that you knew — and overwhelming evidence that you should have known — that the Astros maintained a sign-stealing program that violated MLB’s rules.”

Diamond reports an intern showed Luhnow an algorithm used to decode signs in September 2016. The spreadsheet, nicknamed “Codemaker,” was fairly rudimentary — someone would manually input the sign sequence and the pitch, and the algorithm would decipher the pattern — but illegal nonetheless. The system was also referred to internally as the team’s “dark arts.”

The Astros used Codebreaker to decode signs during home and road games, according to Diamond, and the information was passed on to the dugout. As Manfred detailed in his report, the information was initially used by runners at second base. Eventually the Astros started banging on garbage cans to cut out the middle man and relay signs even with the bases empty.

See here and here for some background. There’s more:

Among the other details that have come to light:

  • The use of Codebreaker continued into 2018 and not just at home games, but also on the road. Until this point, it was assumed that the Astros only used their system at home. This story suggests they used at least some version of it on the road.
  • Luhnow, however, told MLB that he thought the use of Codebreaker was only for decoding signs after games, not in real-time.
  • The Codebreaker system was developed by Derek Vigoa, then an intern and now the Astros’ senior manager for team operations.
  • Tom Koch-Weser, the team’s director of advance information, plays a central role in this latest story. He told MLB investigators Luhnow would “giggle” at the name “Codebreaker.” Koch-Weser said Luhnow would sometimes say, “You guys Codebreaking?” when he came to the Astros video room during road games. Luhnow denied this to the Wall Street Journal.
  • Koch-Weser would often call the system the Astros’ “dark arts,” according to e-mails obtained by MLB. He said once in a team Slack channel, referring to Luhnow: “I know the secrets that made us a championship team, some of which he[’]d definitely feel a lot safer if they were kept in-house.”
  • Another Astros front-office staffer Matt Hogan told MLB investigators that no one tried to hide their actions from Luhnow. “It would have been something to show we were working and get validation of our work,” Hogan told investigators.
  • Luhnow was updated via e-mail by many in the front office about Codebreaker, the investigation shows, however Luhnow’s defense was that he didn’t read the full e-mails.
  • Regardless of Luhnow’s claim he didn’t know about any of this, Manfred’s letter said, “there is more than sufficient evidence to support a conclusion that you knew—and overwhelming evidence that you should have known—that the Astros maintained a sign-stealing program that violated MLB’s rules.”

I’m not sure what’s worse at this point, the new details about how entrenched in the organization this all was – you saw that this was happening on the road, too, right? – or how pathetically incomplete the Manfred report was. We can think of it as more like the Barr-summary-of-the-Mueller-report rather than the real report, because as before, it pointed us in a totally wrong direction. We need to be asking Rob Manfred a lot of questions about this.

The Journal states that the league’s evidence included knowledge of the existence of Codebreaker, yet the league’s report completely omits it and exonerates Astros non-uniformed personnel. The league’s report also somewhat pointedly omits any mention of actions prior to 2017, even though Manfred apparently knew about the Codebreaker implementation and that program’s 2016 origins.

Why?

Why did MLB not punish any personnel besides Lunhow? The intern who reportedly originally presented Codebreaker to Lunhow, Derek Vigoa, is now Houston’s senior director of team operations. For that matter, why has nothing become of Kevin Goldstein, who according to a report from Jeff Passan asked his scouts to point their cameras into other teams’ dugouts? That information became public before the conclusion of the league’s investigation. Is the front office-driven nature of the scheme the reason that AJ Hinch never put a stop to the banging?

Beyond that, what happened in 2018 when the use of Codebreaker stopped? Was it because there was a better system implemented, and was there front office-driven cheating in 2019? Tom Verducci point-blank asked Hinch whether there was truth to the rumors that the Astros used buzzers to convey signs during the interview that aired tonight on MLB Network. Hinch stated that the league found that no buzzers were used (h/t to Brendan Kuty for transcribing the full exchange). That’s not exactly a “no.”

It’s also worth noting that the Journal states that the aforementioned euphemism “dark arts” was used in the Advance Scouting Department’s 2019 budgeting spreadsheet. Is that a reference to the initiative Goldstein proposed, a new sign-stealing scheme, or something else entirely?

A lot of things about this whole story never added up. Why didn’t Hinch ever flat-out tell the players to cut it out? Why didn’t they get the message when he went as far as to smash the monitors, and did so twice? How could Luhnow – and owner Jim Crane, for that matter – not know about any of this?

The picture is becoming clearer now. We still need more information, and the question of Crane’s knowledge of these matters is still not satisfyingly resolved. But for some reason, MLB decided to conceal this side of the story, and decided to leave everything that happened before 2017 out of the report. Baseball deliberately shielded everyone in the Astros’ front office besides Jeff Luhnow.

Rob Manfred needs to tell us why.

Yes, he does. Also, maybe people need to ask AJ Hinch some more questions, too. We’re about to find out the fate of the Red Sox, as well as MLB’s plan for avoiding this kind of scandal in the future. My advice is to treat this in the same way the large organizations that are serious about cybersecurity treat that threat to their business: Hire people whose mission it is to monitor for this activity in real time, who proactively review past data for signs of misbehavior, and who use intel and other techniques to hunt for bad actors and actions proactively. I’m sure MLB already has cybersecurity experts on their payroll. They need to take that to the next step and treat this as a threat to their business, because it is. Rob Arthur and ESPN have more.

Related Posts:

4 Comments

  1. brad says:

    I just ordered off Amazon my copy of “The Cheaters of Summer” by Roger Kahn.

    Can’t wait to read about the Astro’s special artistry and magic that will make the 2017 so much more memorable for fans.

    It will be talked about for years to come when fathers and sons share their special memories of our city’s cheaters.

  2. Ross says:

    Meh. I don’t really give a crap whether any team is stealing signs or not. Maybe catchers and pitchers should assume signs are being stolen, and come up with better schemes to protect them. The other teams are just jealous they didn’t figure this stuff out before the Astros did.

  3. brad says:

    Good one.

    Minimize, deflect and blame the victim.

    Are you legal counsel for Pete Rose?

  4. C.L. says:

    The only fact that the players were granted immunity for cooperating is a travesty in and of itself.