Just when you thought the worst of the Houston Astros cheating scandal had come and gone, new details uncovered by the Wall Street Journal are showing just how widespread the cheating scheme was in Houston’s front office.
Not only did Astros players and coaches use a camera, TV screen and garbage can to electronically steal signs and relay them to hitters, but the entire operation was fueled by an Excel spreadsheet developed by a then-intern that used an algorithm to decode opposing team’s signs.
Members of the Astros front office called it “Codebreaker,” according to documents obtained by the Wall Street Journal, and often referred to their tactics as the “dark arts.” The system and the front-office employees that manned it were part of the process of figuring out opposing teams’ signs and ultimately getting the information to Astros players to use on the field.
This adds a new layer to one of baseball’s biggest scandals, which until this point was characterized as “player-led” by MLB. Instead, this new information suggests a top-down scheme that obtained information and filtered it to players.
The Wall Street Journal’s Jared Diamond obtained a letter sent to Astros general manager Jeff Luhnow from MLB commissioner Rob Manfred that outlined results of the league’s three-month investigation. The letter was sent about a week and a half before MLB announced its punishment for the Astros, which resulted in year-long suspensions for Luhnow and manager A.J. Hinch, a fine and loss of draft picks. Shortly after, Astros owner Jim Crane fired both Hinch and Luhnow. Players weren’t punished as part of an immunity deal for their cooperation.
This latest story focuses entirely on the Houston front office, and now brings this question back into focus: How much did Luhnow himself know about all this? Luhnow, you’ll remember, denied knowing anything about the cheating scheme when he was fired and didn’t comment on the Wall Street Journal story.
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.”
Following the MLB investigation was made public and following his dismissal, Luhnow said in a statement:
I am not a cheater. Anybody who has worked closely with me during my 32-year career inside and outside baseball can attest to my integrity. I did not know rules were being broken. As the Commissioner set out in his statement, I did not personally direct, oversee or engage in any misconduct: The sign-stealing initiative was not planned or directed by baseball management; the trash-can banging was driven and executed by players, and the video decoding of signs originated and was executed by lower-level employees working with the bench coach. I am deeply upset that I wasn’t informed of any misconduct because I would have stopped it.
Given the details revealed in the Wall Street Journal story, Luhnow’s statement might now be thoroughly re-examined by fans.
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