Technology, Once the Astros’ Ally, Helps Do Them In

Technology, Once the Astros’ Ally, Helps Do Them In

This was in the summer of 2012, in Jeff Luhnow’s office at the old Union Station in Houston, adjacent to Minute Maid Park. It was Luhnow’s first year as general manager of the Astros, and while the team on the field was terrible, there was palpable excitement upstairs. Luhnow, still a proud outsider even after working in baseball for several years, had a plan to revolutionize the way teams were built.

Yes, the Astros would tank for a couple of seasons, thus earning the right to spend more on amateur talent than other teams. Yes, they would utilize statistics in a deeper and savvier way than their rivals. But what seemed to invigorate Luhnow most were the possibilities of technology, and the evolving methods for measuring every data point from the field.

“It’s not an issue of just crunching numbers,” he said. “It’s an issue of collecting and evaluating and interpreting and using information across a whole bunch of disciplines that allows you to take the most educated guess you can as to how that player’s going to perform in the future. And if we can do that 5 percent better than the rest of the clubs, that’s a significant edge in our game.”

Luhnow went on to make an analogy: “In blackjack, the house has a half-percent advantage. If you go from a half down to a half up, you’re going to become a millionaire. But the house doesn’t allow that. That’s why the game is designed the way it is.”

On Monday, effectively, the casino security force closed in on Luhnow and Astros Manager A.J. Hinch, grabbed them by the arms and hauled them into a jail cell. Technology helped lift them up, and now it had done them in.

After four playoff appearances, three 100-win seasons, two World Series appearances and one championship, Luhnow and Hinch were suspended for a year by Commissioner Rob Manfred for condoning a sign-stealing scheme in 2017. An hour later, they were fired by the Astros’ owner, Jim Crane.

The team was also fined $5 million — the maximum allowed by the league’s constitution — and forced to forfeit its next two first- and second-round draft picks. Players were spared punishment, but the swift removal of Luhnow and Hinch blows apart the leadership structure of the league’s most successful franchise in recent years.

“Neither one of them started this,” Crane said at a news conference in Houston. “But neither one of them did anything about it.”

In that way, Crane cast Luhnow and Hinch as something like Buck Weaver, the Chicago White Sox infielder who was one of the eight players banned for life over a conspiracy to throw the 1919 World Series. Weaver took no money, but he knew of the plot in advance and did not stop it.

The Astros scandal is far different — no other crime in baseball history has come close to intentionally losing the World Series — and Luhnow and Hinch will be eligible to work in the sport again starting next fall. But seven words in Manfred’s report detailed the gravest concerns in the commissioner’s office: The Astros’ conduct, Manfred wrote, caused fans, players, executives and reporters to “raise questions about the integrity of games” the Astros played.

The business of baseball depends on the public’s belief in the legitimacy of the competition. That is the implicit deal between the league and fans, and without that trust, everything falls apart.

M.L.B. wisely did not vacate the Astros’ title, which would have been meaningless and intellectually dishonest; the Astros did, in fact, beat the Los Angeles Dodgers in the 2017 World Series. But the report will leave a devastating imprint on the franchise’s only title and everything else Luhnow built. It is fair to view the Astros the same way we view Alex Rodriguez, who repeatedly used performance-enhancing drugs: undeniably talented, but forever tainted.

This saga does not end here, of course. The report cited Boston Red Sox Manager Alex Cora, the bench coach of the 2017 Astros, as a mastermind of the sign-stealing operation. The league has also begun an investigation into allegations of electronic sign-stealing by Cora’s Red Sox in 2018, based on a recent report in The Athletic. It stands to reason that Cora will be severely punished.

Manfred’s report also named the Mets’ new manager, Carlos Beltran, as one of the Houston players who initiated the idea of decoding and communicating signs with help from an illicit camera in center field and a video monitor near the dugout. Beltran is not facing discipline from the league, though, and a Mets spokesman said the team had no comment on his inclusion in the report.

Manfred was clearly outraged by the Astros’ brazenness in continuing to steal signs even after he had issued a warning to all teams in September 2017 about using technology to do that. His report cited a “very problematic” culture in the Astros’ baseball operations, and blamed Luhnow and Hinch for failures in leadership.

Yet Crane, the leader of the organization, was spared (besides being docked roughly the salary of a middle reliever). Manfred, likewise, took no responsibility for failing to recognize the temptations in the spread of technology to the dugout. Baseball did not acknowledge that the sign-stealing epidemic almost certainly extended well beyond Houston, and stopped short of establishing clear boundaries that could stop the problem for good.

“We need to have a system where all video systems of the teams must be vetted by an M.L.B. technology supervisor,” the agent Scott Boras said on Monday. “Any live information is not allowed to be advanced to coaches and managers during the course of the game, period — post-performance only. So the only thing you’re going to get during the game is with the naked eye.”

Boras is close to some of the principals in this case. He represented Cora and Beltran during their playing careers, and he is the agent for the Astros’ Jose Altuve, the American League’s most valuable player in 2017. (“Altuve does not use this stuff,” Boras said. “He doesn’t like the signs before he hits; it makes him too aggressive.”)

But his solution makes sense — just eliminate the viewing of in-game video. Teams survived for a century without such technology, and they can learn to live without it.

Monday’s punishments, at least, should serve as a powerful deterrent to organizations tempted to test the boundaries of fair play. Manfred exerted his power and proved to Luhnow that baseball follows the same fundamental rule as blackjack: You can ride a hot hand for a while, but the house always wins in the end.

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