In January, Major League Baseball issued a report on the Astros’ sign-stealing effort that refereed to the scheme as “entirely player-driven.” It claimed that, besides Alex Cora, no non-player staff had involvement in the now-infamous banging scheme.
According to the Wall Street Journal, that is not true.
Jared Diamond reports that now-fired Houston GM Jeff Luhnow was presented with a program called “Codebreaker” in 2016 that would be used to decode the opposing catcher’s signs during games. Per the Journal, the program was used by the team’s baseball ops and video room staff to decode signs and give that information to hitters in real time. The program was put to use both at home and on the road. The revelations directly contradict the notions from Rob Manfred’s official report that the Houston front office was not involved in cheating, that the players initiated the cheating, and the strong suggestion that the Astros were free of sin when they were playing away from Minute Maid Park.
Luhnow claimed in a statement after his firing that he is “not a cheater” and that he “did not know that rules were being broken.” Yet he was reportedly enthusiastic about Codebreaker (sometimes referred to internally as the “dark arts”) and would walk into the video room during road games to ask about Codebreaker. Luhnow denies that to The Journal, yet it is hard to take him at his word at this point.
The report includes some more juicy details about the Codebreaker program and Luhnow’s levels of involvement, but the more important ramifications seem to be about the fact that none of this information was made public before.
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 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.