The Houston Astros on Monday fired manager A.J. Hinch and general manager Jeff Luhnow, an hour after Major League Baseball suspended both for a year for their roles in an extensive sign-stealing scheme. It was a swift and powerful downfall for the duo who turned the Astros into an analytics-driven winning machine that produced a World Series title in 2017, now tainted by scandal.
An investigation by MLB found the Astros used cameras and video monitors to steal the signs of opposing catchers at Houston’s Minute Maid Park, then signaled those signs to their hitters before pitches throughout the 2017 regular season and playoffs and at least part of the 2018 season. In addition to the suspensions of Hinch and Luhnow, Commissioner Rob Manfred fined the team $5 million and took away its top two draft picks in both 2020 and 2021.
About an hour after MLB’s announcement, Astros owner Jim Crane told reporters he had terminated Hinch and Luhnow, saying: “We need to move forward with a clean slate. [We] will not have this happen again on my watch.” According to a statement from Manfred, Crane had been unaware of the scheme and was “extraordinarily troubled and upset” about his employees’ conduct.
MLB’s investigation also spread to the 2018 Boston Red Sox, whose manager, Alex Cora, formerly the bench coach for the 2017 Astros, could face significant discipline once that phase is completed in the coming weeks. Manfred’s statement called Cora, as bench coach, an active participant in the 2017 Astros’ scheme and implied he had a role, as manager, in a similar electronic sign-stealing scheme allegedly perpetrated by the 2018 Red Sox.
Both the 2017 Astros and 2018 Red Sox won the World Series, in each case beating the Los Angeles Dodgers.
The scheme — baseball’s biggest cheating scandal since members of Bobby Thomson’s pennant-winning 1951 New York Giants acknowledged decades later that the team used a telescope and buzzers in a sign-stealing operation — came to light in November in a story by the Athletic, quoting former Astros pitcher Mike Fiers and other unidentified personnel, who confirmed its existence. According to those players, Astros personnel, after the catchers’ signs were decoded, banged on a trash can to signal to their batter whether the next pitch would be a breaking ball.
Although sign-stealing is a long-standing and accepted tradition in baseball when executed by traditional means — typically, a runner on second base watching the catcher’s signs and signaling pitches to the batter through subtle movements — MLB has had to confront an explosion of the practice, and a swelling tide of accusations and rumors, in the digital age. In part out of concerns over the lengthening time of games — as catchers and pitchers devised increasingly intricate signs to combat espionage — baseball has banned the use of electronic equipment to steal signals, a rule underscored in a memorandum Manfred issued in September 2017.
Although Crane insisted the scandal did not taint the Astros’ title and Manfred never seriously considered taking it away, the commissioner’s strong penalties and the Astros owner’s swift actions suggested they both saw the scheme as an affront to the sport’s integrity. During the 2017 postseason, the Astros went 8-1 at their home stadium — where the scheme was found to have occurred — but just 3-6 on the road.
The Astros’ actions have “caused fans, players, executives at other MLB Clubs and members of the media to raise questions about the integrity of games in which the Astros participated,” Manfred said in the statement. “And while it is impossible to determine whether the conduct actually impacted the results on the field, the perception of some that it did causes significant harm to the game.”
Concerns over the integrity of individual games have been heightened with the spread of legalized gambling throughout all major sports and may have contributed to the harsh penalties handed down in this case.
The investigation determined the Astros’ scheme was abandoned at some point during the 2018 regular season — because players no longer believed it was effective — and was not used during the 2018 postseason, when the Astros lost to the Red Sox in the American League Championship Series, or in 2019, a season that ended with the Astros losing to the Washington Nationals in the World Series.
Although there was no punishment of individual players, the investigation found most of the Astros’ position players “received sign information from the scheme or participated in the scheme by helping to decode signs.”
“Assessing discipline of players for this type of conduct is both difficult and impractical,” Manfred’s statement said. “It is difficult because virtually all of the Astros’ players had some involvement or knowledge of the scheme, and I am not in a position based on the investigative record to determine with any degree of certainty every player who should be held accountable, or their relative degree of culpability.”
Some Astros players who were interviewed by investigators “stated that if Hinch told them to stop engaging in the conduct, they would have immediately stopped,” the statement said. But Hinch, according to the statement, was aware of the scheme, and while he made clear his disapproval on occasion — twice destroying the video monitor used by players to decode signs — he did not take action to stop it.
Hinch said in a statement Monday: “I regret being connected to these events, am disappointed in our club’s actions within this timeline, and I accept the Commissioner’s decision. As a leader and Major League Manager, it is my responsibility to lead players and staff with integrity that represents the game in the best possible way. While the evidence consistently showed I didn’t endorse or participate in the sign stealing practices, I failed to stop them and I am deeply sorry.”
Luhnow, in both Manfred’s statement and one he issued through a Houston law firm, denied knowledge of the sign-stealing scheme. But MLB’s investigators, according to Manfred, found both “documentary and testimonial evidence” that he “had some knowledge of those efforts, but . . . did not give it much attention.”
“I am not a cheater. . . . I did not know rules were being broken,” Luhnow’s statement said. The scheme, he added, “was executed by lower-level employees working with [Cora]. I am deeply upset that I wasn’t informed of any misconduct because I would have stopped it.”
Manfred last month called MLB’s investigation “the most thorough” in the sport’s history, encompassing not only interviews with the primary figures but also an examination of tens of thousands of emails, Slack messages and other communications. In his statement Monday, Manfred credited Crane with providing “unfettered access” to any information MLB requested.
Hinch, 45, has long been considered one of the best and most personable managers in baseball, projecting a deep sense of humanity that often stood in contrast to the front office’s cold, analytical culture. It was no surprise the Astros tabbed Hinch to be their public voice when they played their first emotional games after Hurricane Harvey devastated the Houston area in 2017 and when a controversy involving a now-former assistant general manager exploded before the start of last fall’s World Series.
The one-year suspension Manfred handed Hinch was the longest imposed on a manager since Pete Rose was banned for life in 1989 for gambling on the sport. Manfred, in his statement, gave Hinch credit for his “contrition” and “remorsefulness,” and he will almost certainly land another managing job in 2021 when his suspension is over.
Luhnow’s future in the game is much murkier. During his tenure as GM, the Astros cultivated a data-driven identity that has produced 311 regular season wins, three straight division titles and two World Series appearances. However, the team’s nontraditional approach, which has included replacing scouts with video analysts across the organization, has subjected it to withering criticism within the industry.
As part of Monday’s discipline, former Astros assistant general manager Brandon Taubman — who was fired by the team in October after unleashing a threatening, vulgar tirade at female reporters during a clubhouse celebration — was placed on baseball’s ineligible list until the end of 2020.
Manfred’s statement Monday took direct aim at the Astros’ culture under Luhnow, saying: “[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 . . . has been very problematic. At least in my view, the [front office’s] insular culture — one that valued and rewarded results over other considerations . . . led, at least in part, to [the] environment that allowed the conduct described in this report to have occurred.”