Astros fire AJ Hinch, general manager after season-long ban for Houston's sign-stealing
Houston — The Houston Astros’ sign-stealing scandal cost manager AJ Hinch and general manager Jeff Luhnow their jobs, and Boston Red Sox manager Alex Cora could be next.
Hinch and Luhnow were fired Monday after being suspended by Major League Baseball for the team’s illicit use of electronics to steal signs during Houston’s run to the 2017 World Series title and again in the 2018 season.
In U.S. sports’ largest scandal since the New England Patriots’ “Spygate,” MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred announced the discipline and strongly hinted that Cora — the Astros bench coach in 2017 — will face equal or more severe punishment. Manfred said Cora developed the sign-stealing system used by the Astros.
The Red Sox are under investigation for stealing signs in Cora’s first season as manager in 2018, when Boston won the World Series.
Houston was fined $5 million, the maximum allowed under the Major League Constitution, as punishment. The Astros also will forfeit their next two first- and second-round amateur draft picks.
The investigation found that the Astros used the video feed from a center field camera to see and decode the opposing catcher’s signs. Players banged on a trash can to signal to batters what was coming, believing it would improve the batter’s odds of getting a hit.
Sign stealing is a legal and time-honored part of baseball as long as it is done with the naked eye — say, by a baserunner standing on second. Using technology is prohibited.
Astros players disputed whether knowing the pitches seconds in advance helped batters. Houston had fewer wins at home than on the road, winning 94 home games and 110 on the road during the two seasons. There was no sign-stealing system on the road.
“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,” Manfred said.
Manfred, in his most significant action since becoming commissioner five years ago, said Hinch failed to stop the sign stealing and Luhnow was responsible for the players’ conduct even though he made the dubious claim he was not aware. Manfred said owner Jim Crane was not informed.
An hour after MLB announced its punishment, Crane opened a news conference by saying Hinch and Luhnow were fired.
“I have higher standards for the city and the franchise, and I’m going above and beyond MLB’s penalty,” he said. “We need to move forward with a clean slate.”
Both Luhnow’s and Hinch’s suspensions for the 2020 season were to be without pay. Crane said he will look outside the organization and internally for candidates to replace Luhnow. If he hires internally, the most likely candidate would be Pete Putila, who was promoted to assistant general manager this offseason.
Crane, who said he learned of the discipline this weekend, was visibly upset during Monday’s news conference and insisted that Houston’s championship, which culminated in a seven-game World Series over the Los Angeles Dodgers, was not tainted.
“We want to be known as playing by the rules,” he said. “We broke the rules. We accept the punishment and we’re going to move forward … if you read the report neither (Luhnow or Hinch) implemented this or pushed it through the system and (it) really came from the bottom up.”
Hinch’s penalty was among the longest for an MLB manager. Brooklyn’s Leo Durocher was suspended for one year by Commissioner Happy Chandler in April 1947 for the “accumulation of unpleasant incidents” detrimental to baseball, and Cincinnati’s Pete Rose was banned for life by Commissioner A. Bartlett Giamatti in August 1989 for betting on Reds’ games while managing the team.
Houston was a big league-best 204-120 during the two years in question, winning its first title. Hinch, a 45-year-old former catcher with a degree from Stanford, was the most successful manager in the history of the Astros, who have won two of the last three AL pennants and came within one victory of another World Series title last year against Washington.
During his seven-year playing career in the majors from 1998-2004, Hinch spent one season (2003) in Detroit.
Luhnow, 53, earned an MBA at Northwestern and fostered an analytic-based culture during eight seasons as Astros GM, but also a toxic one with high turnover.
“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,” Manfred wrote in a nine-page statement. “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 … finally, to an environment that allowed the conduct described in this report to have occurred.”
Crane, who hired Luhnow weeks after buying the Astros, denied a widespread problem, saying “I think there was some isolated situations.”
Luhnow said in a statement that he accepts responsibility “for rules violations that occurred on my watch as president of baseball operations and general manager of the Astros” and apologized to the team and fans for “the shame and embarrassment this has caused.”
Then Luhnow defended himself.
“I am not a cheater,’’ the statement said. “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.”
Hinch issued a statement through the Astros, saying he was “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,” the statement said. “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.”
Manfred said Hinch was aware of the system but did not tell Luhnow.
“As the person with responsibility for managing his players and coaches, there simply is no justification for Hinch’s failure to act,” Manfred said.
The GM told Major League Baseball he was unaware of the system, but Manfred held him accountable for the team’s actions.
“Although Luhnow denies having any awareness that his replay review room staff was decoding and transmitting signs, there is both documentary and testimonial evidence that indicates Luhnow had some knowledge of those efforts,” Manfred’s report said.
Baseball’s response was far greater than that of the NFL to a similar infraction. New England coach Bill Belichick was fined $500,000 in 2007 and the Patriots were penalized $250,000 for using video to capture an opponent’s signals. The Patriots also were stripped of a first-round draft choice for punishment in the scandal known as “Spygate.” They were penalized again for $1 million eight years later for deflating footballs used in the AFC championship game. The NFL took away a first-round draft pick and suspended quarterback Tom Brady for four games.
Current New York Mets manager Carlos Beltrán, then a player with the Astros, was among the group involved. Manfred said no Astros players will be disciplined because he decided in September 2017 to hold a team’s manager and GM responsible for sign-stealing infractions.
“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.”
Baseball’s investigation began when former Astros pitcher Mike Fiers, now with Oakland and also a former Tiger, made the allegations in a report by The Athletic on Nov. 12.
Sign stealing has a long history in baseball – the New York Giants used a military field scope and buzzer during their 1951 tiebreaker playoff against the Brooklyn Dodgers. While decoding with the naked eye is allowed, MLB has enacted increasingly stringent prohibitions in recent years against the use of electronics to spy on opponents.
MLB’s Department of Investigations interviewed 68 witnesses, including 23 current and former Houston players, and reviews tens of thousands of emails, Slack communications, text messages, video clips and photographs.
Astros employees in the team’s video replay room started to decode signs using a center field camera at the start of the 2017 season. A player would act as a runner to bring the information to the dugout, where a runner on second would be signaled. The runner would decode the catcher’s sign and signal the batter. At times, an employee in the replay room would convey the information by text message to the watch or phone of a staff member in the dugout.
Cora began calling the replay room for the information early in the season. After a group of players that included Beltrán discussed how to improve the system about two months into the season, Cora arranged for a video monitor of a center field camera to be installed next to the dugout, and players would communicate pitches by banging a bat or massage gun on a trash can. Two bangs usually were used for off-speed pitches and no sound for fastballs.
Manfred said the banging system was not used in 2018 but that signs were stolen by the replay room and communicated to the dugout in person during at least part of that season. There was no evidence signs were stolen during the 2018 playoffs.
The Mets and Beltrán declined to comment, spokesman Harold Kaufman said.
Manfred left it to the Astros whether to discipline lower-level employees found to be involved in the sign stealing.
“Lower-level employees were taking direction from senior, either players or coaches,” Crane said. “And so in my opinion it can be difficult to hold them to the same standard we hold to the leaders. But we’ll review that … and deal with that shortly.”
In addition, former Astros GM Brandon Taubman was suspended through the World Series for his conduct during last year’s AL Championship Series, when his profane remarks directed at female reporters led to his firing by Houston, which at first denied the incident and later apologized.
Taubman can apply to Manfred for reinstatement after the World Series. Any future violations of Major League Rules by Hinch, Luhnow or Taubman would lead to a lifetime ban.