MLB’s punishment for Astros was both harsh and not enough

Bill Baer

After an investigation into allegations of the Astros stealing signs and relaying them to hitters during games, Major League Baseball suspended GM Jeff Luhnow and manager A.J. Hinch each for one year. In a press conference this afternoon, Astros owner Jim Crane announced that Luhnow and Hinch had been dismissed. The Astros’ punishment also includes a $5 million fine and the loss of their first- and second-round draft picks in both 2020 and ’21.

MLB’s report on the Astros’ cheating scheme was damning. Commissioner Rob Manfred wrote, “But while no one can dispute that Luhnow’s baseball operations department is an industry leader in its analytics, it is very clear to me that the culture of the baseball operations department, manifesting itself in the way its employees are treated, its relations with other Clubs, and its relations with the media and external stakeholders, has been very problematic. At least in my view, the baseball operations department’s insular culture – one that valued and rewarded results over other considerations, combined with a staff of individuals who often lacked direction or sufficient oversight, led, at least in part, to the Brandon Taubman incident, the Club’s admittedly inappropriate and inaccurate response to that incident, and finally, to an environment that allowed the conduct described in this report to have occurred.”

There is no question that the punishment handed down to Luhnow and Hinch was harsh. Both have been fired but cannot work in Major League Baseball until their suspensions are over following the completion of the 2020 season. They will not be paid for this season, and their careers have each been tarred by the cheating scandal enough where it may be difficult for them to find work in the sport in 2021 and beyond. Losing four high draft picks will also hurt; it is likely the aspect of the punishment that stings the organization the most.

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That being said, the punishment did not go far enough to make the Astros regret having pulled off this caper. Crane, for example, was more or less exonerated by Manfred in the report, not that we should have expected anything more. Manfred wrote, “Jim Crane was unaware of any of the violations of MLB rules by his Club. In fact, Crane told Luhnow after the Red Sox discipline was announced that Luhnow should make sure that the Astros did not engage in similar conduct.”

While it is believable that Crane was completely unaware of the Astros’ cheating scheme, that fact does not exonerate him. Crane took partial credit for the Astros’ success in recent years, including the club’s 2017 championship. It stands to reason he should also take partial blame when something of this magnitude occurs on his watch. But the commissioner’s office works for the owners, not the other way around, so Crane getting off scot-free is not surprising.

The $5 million penalty is the maximum allowable fine, but it is obviously just a drop in the bucket in the grand scheme of things. The Astros have had Opening Day payrolls in the $124-$161 million range over the last three seasons. Additionally, according to Forbes, the Astros were valued at $1.1 billion in 2016 but saw a significant increase all the way to $1.8 billion in 2019. If you asked (off-the-record, of course, to ensure honesty) 29 other owners around the sport if they would trade two first-round draft picks, two second-round picks, their GM and manager, $5 million, and a bit of bad press for a significantly increased chance to win a championship and to improve the value of the franchise by $700 million, 29 other owners around the sport would say they would make the deal. They would be misguided not to do so.

It is worth taking a minute to think about all of the people negatively impacted by the Astros’ cheating as well. As ESPN Stats & Info noted today, the Astros went 8-1 and hit .273 at home during the 2017 postseason as opposed to 3-6 with a .208 average on the road. One of the players negatively impacted, for example, was Clayton Kershaw. He held the Astros to one run while striking out 11 batters over seven innings in Los Angeles in Game 1 of the World Series, but the Astros lit him up to the tune of six runs over 4 2/3 innings in Game 5 in Houston. It’s impossible to say if that would have happened anyway without cheating, but nevertheless, the poor performance added to Kershaw’s infamous “can’t perform in the postseason” narrative. Closer Kenley Jansen gave up runs in back-to-back outings in Houston in Games 4 and 5 of the World Series. Manager Dave Roberts’ decision-making was heavily criticized, which hurt his reputation and that might never have come up if the Astros hadn’t broken the rules.

Furthermore, the Astros advanced through the postseason at the expense of other teams and their players, which meant those players might have unjustly lost out on bigger postseason bonuses. Their stats were negatively impacted if they played against the Astros, and they lost out on opportunities to bolster their stats if they didn’t get to advance in the playoffs, which all has a factor in negotiating higher pay via arbitration and free agency. The teams the Astros knocked out in the postseason lost a bit of franchise value from not having the prestige of having played in or possibly won a World Series, or at least the ALCS. There is no way to accurately value all of the pluses and minuses, but it is safe to say that the Astros’ success came very much at the expense of others. It was not a victimless crime.

So what should the punishment have been? That is a much, much harder question to answer. MLB’s report describes the Astros’ cheating as “player-driven,” but doling out punishment to individual players would have been rather messy, especially since MLB would have had to deal with the MLB Players Association. Since the entire roster benefited either directly or indirectly from the cheating, the punishment would have had to involve fining and suspending most or all of the players on the 2017 roster. The logistics of doing so are mind-boggling and unprecedented.

Some have suggested having the Astros’ 2017 championship vacated, but that would be purely symbolic if it didn’t also come with relenting all of the profits the organization has realized since 2017. And that’s an even bigger can of worms to open up. While a symbolic gesture wouldn’t be completely meaningless, it would do nothing to dissuade other teams from cheating as long as they get to keep their profits. Others have suggested lifetime bans for Luhnow and Hinch (as well as others), but giving the league precedent to use such a big weapon in this way could have unintended downsides in the future in other scenarios.

Ultimately, MLB’s punishment was harsh, but it wasn’t enough. And I’m not sure the league could have realistically done anything more.

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