Yesterday, Ken Rosenthal and Evan Drellich of The Athletic released a damning story that the Astros electronically stole signs in their championship year of 2017. The story was confirmed by multiple members of the team.
Four people who were with the Astros in 2017, including pitcher Mike Fiers, said that during that season, the Astros stole signs during home games in real time with the aid of a camera positioned in the outfield.
Allegedly, the outfield camera was used to relay signs to the dugout, then someone would bang on a garbage can to alert the batter what pitch was coming. This is evident in video footage put together by @Jomboy:
Sign-stealing is fairly widespread across baseball; every team is involved to some extent. However, using electronics to do so is forbidden, as it gives a clear, unfair advantage to the home team. In fact, Rob Manfred sent a five-page memo to teams this past February cracking down on the practice.
That the Astros have flouted the rules is no surprise. It only confirms what we already know about how their organization is run. They try to eek out every advantage they can, repeatedly crossing moral and written guidelines. The franchise’s recent history is rife with scandal that cannot be separated from their on-field success.
That being said, they’ve never been deterred from coloring outside the lines. Until they are, they’ll continue to be a black-eye on the face of baseball. For this reason, GM Jeff Luhnow should be suspended indefinitely, if not fired.
Luhnow took over the Astros eight years ago in the midst of a blatant tank-job. The team lost 324 games from 2011-13. They didn’t invent tanking, of course, but few franchises had ever plumbed such low depths. Obviously it worked, as they’ve become the best team in the sport since 2017. Now, mega-tanking has become a more accepted practice than ever before: four teams lost at least 103 games in 2019.
With great tank-jobs comes great draft picks, and the franchise enjoyed the privilege of picking first overall three straight years from 2012-14. They selected Carlos Correa, Mark Appel (not all draft picks pan out), and Brady Aiken. Aiken never signed, though— an MRI revealed a thin UCL in his pitching arm, which the Astros leveraged into a lowball contract offer. This had ramifications for the rest of their draft pool, ultimately causing them to back out of an overslot agreement with fifth round pick Jacob Nix.
MLBPA President Tony Clark had strong words regarding Lunhow’s conduct:
We believe that it is a clear violation of the rules being attempted solely to avoid penalty. The Astros made a deal with Jacob Nix and should honor that agreement.
So did Casey Close, the agent/adviser for both Aiken and Nix:
We are extremely disappointed that Major League Baseball is allowing the Astros to conduct business in this manner with a complete disregard for the rules governing the draft and the 29 other clubs who have followed those same rules.
The Astros basically escaped punishment. They were awarded the second overall pick in the 2015 draft as compensation for “failing” to sign Aiken. They used that pick on Alex Bregman.
In a strictly baseball sense, refusing to sign Aiken was the right decision— as was tanking in the first place. Still, it was plainly unethical, and detrimental to the game.
This was only the first harbinger of rule breaking and immorality from the Luhnow-led Astros. In 2018, Oregon State pitcher Luke Heimlich and convicted child molester entered the draft. On pitching merit alone, he would have been a likely first round pick. 28 teams wanted nothing to do with him, and he went undrafted. What kind of morally bankrupt individual would willingly bring a monster like that into their baseball community?
Jeff Luhnow would. As reported by Ben Lindbergh and Travis Sawchik in The MVP Machine, the Astros GM had to be talked out of selecting Heimlich. The Royals caught most of the public uproar for bringing him in for a workout, but it was the Astros that nearly drafted him.
A few weeks after the draft, the team acquired “distressed asset” Roberto Osuna in the middle of a 75-game suspension for domestic violence. He allegedly assaulted the mother of his three-year-old child, causing “significant injuries,” and the Blue Jays rightly wanted nothing more to do with him.
Luhnow saw this as an opportunity to add to his bullpen at a nominal cost. Most other teams recognized that Osuna’s atrocities should cross him off their shopping list, which lowered the price for the Astros. Sheryl Ring, now of Beyond the Box Score, wrote extensively about this at FanGraphs. To hell with the message his acquisition sent to fans— especially women! Nothing could be more important than winning baseball games, right?
Once again, a Luhnow decision that may have helped win a few games was morally devoid. This actually may have been a bridge too far for many of his lieutenants. Several respected members of the front office fled to other organizations last winter. This is somewhat common— lots of teams try to hire away talent from successful organizations— but the culture certainly appeared to nudge them out the door.
Fast forward a year or so— past an incident in which the Astros possibly violated the collective bargaining agreement by banning a reporter from the clubhouse— and we arrive at the snowballing Brandon Taubman disaster. The erstwhile assistant GM made an offensive outburst praising Osuna— directed at female reporters— was bungled by the Astros at every turn.
Setting aside the original inexcusable actions of Taubman, the team first posted a scathing press release denying the event, attempting to discredit Sports Illustrated reporter Stephanie Apstein. After multiple witnesses corroborated her story, the team retracted the statement, then eventually put out an “I’m sorry you were offended,” non-apology. When the incident didn’t blow over, Luhnow met with Apstein in person in an attempt to smooth things out, but refused to retract the false statement attacking her credibility. Finally, several days later, Taubman was fired and the statement was retracted by owner Jim Crane.
Now we learn of the electronic sign-stealing. This isn’t a recent incident, but it’s another patch in the quilt portraying Luhnow’s lack of scruples. Whether or not he was directly involved in the sign-stealing, he’s the man in charge, and as such is a reflection of those working beneath him. He is responsible for an atmosphere in which this is not only accepted, but encouraged.
Evidently, Luhnow will do anything it takes to win. This is good for the Astros in terms of their win-loss record, but awful in nearly all other terms. Furthermore, it’s terrible for MLB and the overall well-being of the game.
Luhnow shows no regard for standards of legality, morality, the rules of MLB, the collective bargaining agreement, or simple human decency. If Jim Crane won’t suspend or remove him, Rob Manfred must. This isn’t about stealing signs— it’s about all the repeated, repugnant ways in which he subverts MLB. At some point, they have to stop letting him get away with it. He’s proven over and over again that he’s unwilling to stop himself.
Daniel R. Epstein is an elementary special education teacher and president of the Somerset County Education Association. Tweets @depstein1983.