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AJ Hinch

“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.

Is there an Astros apology coming?

Maybe.

Did not age well

A “strong statement” of apology could be forthcoming from the Astros players involved in electronic sign-stealing during the 2017 and 2018 seasons, owner Jim Crane said Tuesday.

In response to interviews given by Jose Altuve and Alex Bregman on Saturday at FanFest, Crane said his players are “just getting some advice to take it easy.”

Neither Altuve nor Bregman addressed specifics of the sign-stealing scheme — one Major League Baseball determined was “player-driven” — nor did they accept culpability for the fallout when presented the option. Manager A.J. Hinch and general manager Jeff Luhnow were fired after the league released its investigative findings.

“When we get down to spring training, we’ll all get them together and they’ll come out with a strong statement as a team and, I think, apologize for what happened and move forward,” Crane said Tuesday prior to the Houston Sports Awards.

Crane said the players who’ve spoken have been “holding back a bit” and are apparently awaiting spring training to formulate a response.

“Everyone is split up. It’s a team,” Crane said. “We’re going to sit in a room and talk about it, then we’ll come out and address the press. All of them will address the press, either as a group or individually. Quite frankly, we’ll apologize for what happened, ask for forgiveness and move forward.”

You know my opinion. I just hope that if and when they do offer an apology, it’s genuine and heartfelt and not one of those “if anyone was offended” abominations. Better to fully embrace being the heel than to half-ass it, that’s my advice. Joe Holley has more.

You can’t move on from something you haven’t faced up to

That’s not how it works.

Did not age well

Neither Jose Altuve nor Alex Bregman, two principal players on a 2017 team that executed what Major League Baseball commissioner Rob Manfred described as a “player-driven and player-executed” system to violate baseball’s rules and defraud the game, chose Saturday to address specifics of a nine-page report on the scandal that led to the dismissal of general manager Jeff Luhnow and manager A.J. Hinch.

If there is remorse and apology, that will come later, perhaps next month after the ballclub gathers at West Palm Beach, Fla, for spring training. But for the moment, if there are fences to be mended, feelings to be reconciled or trust to be regained, Astros fans apparently will be left to their own devices.

Until the players speak, the focus of the Astros’ efforts to cope with and move past what some have described as baseball’s worst performance-related scandal in a century remains on owner Jim Crane, who made the decision last Monday to fire Hinch and Luhnow rather than settle for the suspensions imposed by MLB commissioner Rob Manfred.

By firing his manager and general manaager, said Gene Grabowski, a principal with the public relations firm kglobal, the Astros have made the appropriate sacrifice for their sins to the Lords of Baseball.

“They have thrown the virgin into the volcano,” Grabowski said.

With that, he said, the most important task facing Astros management is to move ahead, as Crane has done by apologizing to season ticket holders, contacting sponsors and receiving what he described as messages of continued support.

“You have to get past this,” Grabowski said.

[…]

Astros alumni Jeff Bagwell and Lance Berkman also emphasized the need to look ahead.

“When I get a spanking from my dad, he doesn’t quit loving me and I don’t quit being his son,” Berkman said. “The Astros aren’t going to stop being part of Major League Baseball. You have to accept the punishment and move on.

“This is a clean organization. This is not a dirty organization. This is not a tricky organization. All these things notwithstanding, this is a great organization, and I think it will continue to be.”

Bagwell agreed with Altuve that it’s too early for players to react to the specific charges outlined in the commissioner’s report.

“Everyone is still trying to wrap their heads around it,” he said.

Others, however, favor a more direct approach. Jeff Van Gundy, the former Rockets coach who now works for ESPN, said the forgiving nature of Houston fans and the old saw that confession is good for the soul would be a better avenue than silence.

“You don’t have to get into specifics, but you can say, ‘I’m sorry for the role that I played in this, and I promise the Astros fans that not only will I promise not to do it again, I won’t tolerate anybody else doing it,’ ” Van Gundy said.

While some fans will scoff at the idea that players did anything wrong by violating the rules in a sport where competition is everything and winning is the only thing, Van Gundy said, “The earlier you deal with it, the more forthright you are, the better.

“Saying ‘I screwed up’ is the hardest thing to do. But it’s the simplest way to be forgiven.”

I’m with Van Gundy here. Look, the main thing we know here is that other than then-coach Alex Cora, the whole “banging scheme” was player-devised and player-driven. Yet for a variety of understandable if debatable reasons, MLB chose to punish only the manager and GM. This has not only left the public wanting players to be held accountable as well, it’s also left every member of the Astros team from 2017 and 2018 under a cloud. That cloud isn’t going anywhere until the players themselves talk about their own role in what happened, whether as a ringleader, beneficiary of the scheme, or just someone who didn’t care for it but didn’t speak up about it. This isn’t complicated. The Astros themselves can feel however they want about all this, but if they want other people to move on, they need to own what they did and apologize for it.

Luhnnow and Hinch suspended by MLB, then fired by Astros

Wow.

Did not age well

Astros owner Jim Crane fired manager A.J. Hinch and general manager Jeff Luhnow on Monday shortly after Major League Baseball announced the pair would be suspended for a year as part of the penalties for the investigation into alleged electronic-sign stealing.

“Today is a very difficult day for the Houston Astros,” Astros owner Jim Crane said in a press conference Monday. “MLB did a very thorough investigation and the Astros fully cooperated and we accept their decisions and findings and penalties.”

The franchise also was stripped of its first- and second-round picks in both the 2020 and 2021 drafts and fined $5 million.

MLB’s report detailed the Astros’ efforts to steal signs in 2017 and laid out the punishment handed down to the Astros. Crane opted to go a step further.

“I have higher standards for the city and the franchise,” Crane said.

Well, at least the Astros found a way to make everyone forget about the Texans’ playoff disaster. The full report is embedded in the story, and it’s not long, so go read the whole thing. (Or just read the highlights here, but really, read the whole thing.) I’d say this was on the high end of what I thought might happen, but it’s not out of line with my expectations. The key is that the activity continued to occur after the 2017 Red Sox Apple Watch incident, in which Commissioner Manfred (the author of the report) explicitly promised strong punishment if anyone was caught doing stuff like that again. If I’m Alex Cora, who was directly named as a mastermind behind the scheme and is now the manager of another team under investigation I’m probably not sleeping well right now. We can debate at length whether this was fitting or not, or if any punishment is worth winning a World Series, or just put on some oven mitts and read Twitter about it. Let’s just say 2020 is off to a rough start for Houston sports fans.

This also wrapped up the Brandon Taubman investigation – he too was suspended for a year, and will have to apply to the Commissioner’s office for reinstatement. He was also singled out in the report for some sharp rebukes. I’ll be thinking about all this for some time. The Press has more.

UPDATE: This did not age well.

Allegations of electronic sign-stealing “surprised” Astros shortstop Carlos Correa, who acknowledged Saturday he has participated in and cooperated with Major League Baseball’s ongoing investigation into his team.

Appearing at an autograph show alongside Alex Bregman and George Springer, Correa offered the most elaborate comments of any Houston player since the scandal broke last November.

Correa expressed little worry about the organization’s reputation and no thought the 2017 World Series title is in any way tainted. He revealed subtle antipathy toward former teammate Mike Fiers, whose on-the-record allegations about the 2017 team’s actions spurred the investigation.

“He’s a grown man, and he can do whatever he wants to do. It’s a free country,” Correa said. “Knowing Fiers, it was surprising, because we were a team. We were a team. We were all together, and we had a bond, and we won a World Series championship. But this is America, the land of the free. You can say what you want to say.”

I’d say at least a little worry about the team’s reputation is in order at this time. There’s no evidence to suggest that the sign stealing actually benefited the Astros, but that doesn’t matter. Fair or not, this scandal will forever be associated with that title.