Monday, January 13, 2020

Judgment Day

The official punishment from MLB came to Minute Maid Park today. It is not a good day in Astros history. Is it the worst day in Astros history? I don't know about that - there have been a lot of them, some of them even as part of this saga. Anyway, let's discuss what we know so far:

The Punishment

Let's first start with what did not happen:

-The Astros were not stripped of the 2017 World Series Championship.
-No actual current Astros players were suspended.

Commissioner Rob Manfred issued the following punishments on the Houston Astros after interviewing 68 people, 23 current and former Astros, 76,000 emails, who knows how many texts and Slack conversations

-$5 million fine.
-Loss of 1st and 2nd Round picks in the 2020 and 2021 drafts.
-A ban through the 2020 World Series on GM Jeff Luhnow, Manager A.J. Hinch, and former assistant GM Brandon Taubman. Taubman can apply for reinstatement after the World Series, and any subsequent infractions could result in a lifetime ban.

The punishment is consistent with previous punishments levied by MLB: the Cardinals were fined $2 million and lost their 1st & 2nd Round picks after their own technological endeavors.

Manfred issued a 9-page statement that began with the following:
On November 12, 2019, former Houston Astros player Mike Fiers publicly alleged in an article published by Ken Rosenthal and Evan Drellich of The Athletic that the Astros had engaged in sign-stealing methods in 2017 that violated MLB's rules.

Within the first 1.5 pages of the report, Alex Cora and Carlos Beltran are specifically named as co-conspirators. The trash can banging was confirmed. Manfred:
Witnesses consistently describe this new scheme as player-driven, and with the exception of Cora, non-player staff, including individuals in the video replay room, had no involvement in the banging scheme.

After the September 15, 2017 memo circulated to all clubs, the investigation concluded that
...The Astros continued to both utilize the replay review room and the monitor located next to the dugout to decode signs for the remainder of the regular season and throughout the Postseason.

The investigation uncovered no evidence that Astros players utilized the banging scheme (Ed. Note: Thank you, Rob Manfred, for naming every single Astros fan's fantasy baseball team in 2020) in 2018. However, the Astros' replay review room staff continued, at least for part of the 2018 season, to decode signs using the live center field camera feed, and to transmit the signs to the dugout through in-person communication. At some point during the 2018 season, the Astros stopped using the replay review room to decode signs because the players no longer believed it was effective. The investigation did not reveal any attempt by the Astros to utilize electronic equipment to decode and transmit signs in the 2018 postseason.

The 2019 Astros were cleared, as well. However:
The efforts involving the replay review room staff were mentioned in at least two emails sent to Luhnow, and there is conflicting evidence about conversations with Luhnow on the topic. Regardless of the level of Luhnow's actual knowledge, the Astros' violation of rules in 2017 and 2018 is attributable, in my view, to a failure by the leaders of the baseball operations department and the Field Manager (meaning: Hinch) to adequately manage the employees under their supervision, to establish a culture in which adherence to the rules is ingrained in the fabric of the organization, and to stop bad behavior as soon as it occurred.

Regarding the 2017 Astros' player involvement:
Most of the position players on the 2017 team either received sign information from the banging scheme or participated in the scheme by helping to decode signs or bang on the trash can. Many of the players who were interviewed admitted that they knew the scheme was wrong because it crossed the line from what the player believed was fair competition and/or violated MLB rules. Players stated that if Manager A.J. Hinch told them to stop engaging in the conduct, they would have immediately stopped. 

This feels really stupid. If you know it's wrong, stop doing it. If you - a grown-ass adult - is waiting on a more-grown-ass adult to tell you to stop, you didn't really want to stop. Ultimately, the report concluded, the Astros stopped because they said it wasn't really all that effective. All this because of something that might not have actually helped. Great work, dudes.

On Luhnow, Manfred:
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, but he did not give it much attention...

...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.

The handling of The Taubman Incident should be taught in Public Relations courses in the Don't Do It Like This portion of the syllabus.

On Hinch:
Hinch attempted to signal his disapproval of the scheme by physically damaging the monitor on two occasions, necessitating its replacement. However, Hinch admits he did not stop it and he did not notify players or Cora that he disapproved of it, even after the Red Sox were disciplined in September 2017. Similarly, he knew of and did not stop the communication of sign information from the replay review room, although he disagreed with this practice as well and specifically voiced his concerns on at least one occasion about the use of the replay phone for this purpose. As the person with responsibility for managing his players and coaches, there simply is no justification for Hinch's failure to act.

So Hinch, here, is taking the fall for what Alex Cora and Former Mets Great Carlos Beltran (who will apparently not face any punishment, given that he was a player and not management), and who knows how many of the current members of the Houston Astros, did. That he did not forcefully disagree with it - other than actually breaking the monitor on two occasions - is what led to his suspension.

On Alex Cora:
Cora participated in both schemes, and through his active participation, implicitly condoned the players' conduct. I will withhold determining the appropriate level of discipline for Cora until after the DOI completes its investigation of the allegations that the Red Sox engaged in impermissible electronic sign stealing in 2018 while Cora was the manager.

Cora is screwed, and deservedly so. And I would say this if he was still a part of the Astros' organization: let him burn. The Truly One Good SportsThing that has happened to me (and it's always about me) has been called into question because of Mike Fing Fiers, the one-year bench coach, and a Douchebag Ivy League bro.

Anyhow, those are the main points of Manfred's report. Whether you want to believe that Manfred is suddenly the Angel of Light in the wake of the What's Up With The Actual Baseballs fiasco is up to you. That said, I don't want to deflect from the very real conclusion that members of the Astros players and coaching staff cheated when it was questionable at best, and continued after it was explicitly impermissible. And then they quit doing it when they couldn't figure out if it was actually helpful. That's an impossibly stupid turn of events.

In the press conference held today, owner Jim Crane officially fired both Luhnow and Hinch. Crane:
Neither one of them started this, but neither one of them did anything about it...We need to move forward with a clean slate.

I did not know rules were being broken...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.

Manfred explicitly said in his report - again, its believability is up to you - that Luhnow was aware, and ignored it.

While the evidence showed I didn't endorse or participate in the sign-stealing practices, I failed to stop them and I am deeply sorry.

What Now

Crane fired Luhnow and Hinch.

I have higher standards for the city and franchise, and I am going above and beyond MLB's penalty. We need to move forward with a clean slate, and the Astros will become a stronger organization because of this today. You can be confident that we will always do the right thing and will not have this happen again on my watch. 

The Astros now have two positions to fill: their GM, and their manager. Crane:
We'll quickly look for someone to manage the team. As soon as we get out of here today. Certainly, we have possibilities internally; we'll also look outside. The baseball operation, I will oversee. We have a number of capable guys that can run that operation. A number of them were interviewed for GM spots, one in particular (whom McTaggart notes is Pete Putila). And so we'll sit down today and start working on that and move as quickly as we can.

It's logical to assume that bench coach Joe Espada, who was a finalist for both the Cubs and Giants' managerial openings, would take over the Astros, and I'm perfectly okay with that. Joe Espada is a highly-respected bilingual baseball man who has been around the Astros players (some of whom, let's not forget, sunk this whole thing with an alley-oop from Mike MF Fiers). Crane:
Certainly, we have a bench coach that's capable. We'll certainly look outside, but we know we've got to have somebody in charge when we go to Spring Training. That could be interim. I don't have the answer yet, but we'll make it work.

If the Astros promote Espada, he'll need a bench coach to replace...himself.

Teh Medier's Reaction:

The Chronicle is loving it.

*Chandler Rome: Where do the Astros go from here?
With the firings, the most amazing era of Astros baseball is indelibly sullied by an electronic sign-stealing scheme that Major League Baseball confirmed was in existence during the 2017 and 2018 seasons.

Brian T. Smith: Cheating Astros* (sic) Pay Painful Price For Golden Era.

*Dodgers People are in a hipster canyon coffee shop just seething:

Bill Plaschke: Dodgers cheated out of a championship.

*My Dude Bill Baer: MLB's punishment for the Astros is both too harsh and also not enough.

My Reaction:

*No one will take away the joy I felt on November 1, 2017. What it does take away is Luhnow and Hinch's legacy. I've long been Anti-Asterisk. You don't need to know why Hugh Duffy needs an asterisk when he hit .440 in 1894. You don't need an asterisk on Barry Bonds' much-deserved plaque in Cooperstown. It's understood by anyone who would know who Hugh Duffy is or by anyone who would actually make the effort to go to Cooperstown. The 2017 Astros don't need an asterisk because now we all know. This is the outcome.

*The draft picks lost are more of a penalty down the road than they are an immediate penalty. It's way more of a long-term penalty than the immediate downer of today's news.

*The punishment levied on Hinch and Luhnow robs them of their legacy. That's the penalty. Hinch will probably, and deservedly, be okay, and God help us if Seattle hires him.

*Every time you get Excited About The Astros Online, you have to wear the tweets from other teams responding with an aforementioned asterisk, or a "27 Rangz" tweet, or a complete dismissal. That's how it is now. The Astros made the Yankees feel like they have the moral high ground. Do you know how hard that is to achieve?

*This is all because of unnamed players who are currently on the Astros, because of Alex Cora, because of Mike Fiers, because of Carlos Beltran, because of Brandon Taubman, because of Roberto Osuna, because of how the front office officially decided to handle the last two items. Everything came due today.

*Other teams were probably doing the same thing, but it doesn't make it okay to do it as well.

*Today wasn't fun. Let's not do this again.