One question stands out among the many that keep surfacing in the wake of the Houston Astros’ sign-stealing scandal.
Why would a highly talented group of hitters, probably good enough as a collective to win a World Series without illicitly obtained opposing signals, resort to technology in a win-at-all-costs effort that would compromise their opponents and besmirch their reputations in perpetuity?
That question has been directed at the players themselves, but perhaps we should be posing a different query, viewed through a wider lens encompassing an industry that has been evolving at breakneck speed going on three decades.
How did an organization viewed as the gold standard of innovation stray so far afield that a highly-regarded baseball executive, a respected field manager and several lower-level employees conspire to cheat baseball in such a fashion?
GM Jeff Luhnow, lauded in baseball circles for his bloodless commitment to efficiency, was fired. So, too, was manager A.J. Hinch, who did little to stop the scheme when the getting was too good – a 103-win season that culminated in the franchise’s first World Series championship.
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It’s easy to paint the Astros scandal as a one-off, a result of owner Jim Crane handing Luhnow a blank page to run the club, enabling a culture that went too far in seeking an edge, and inspiring too many employees to try and impress a GM viewed as untouchable in an era that increasingly fetishized its baseball operations mavens.
Yet perhaps the Astros are not the disease, but rather the patient in an industry that has seen several front offices severely punished for misdeeds beyond the white lines.
“Where’s the moral compass of our game? Over time, it’s probably not pointing north, like it should,” John Mozeliak, the St. Louis Cardinals’ president of baseball operations, tells USA TODAY Sports. “I think this is a good opportunity for everybody to take a deep breath, reassess. I can’t look at the phrase, ‘Well baseball’s just a game,’ because it’s not, to all of us. It’s more than that.
“But that doesn’t mean you can’t have standards, you can’t adhere to them. I do think, as an industry, it’s a great opportunity for all of us to hit that pause button and hopefully do the right thing.”
Mozeliak and Luhnow worked together in St. Louis, where Mozeliak succeeded Walt Jocketty as GM in 2007 and Luhnow ran the team’s drafts before Houston hired him in 2011. Less than two years later, Cardinals scouting director Chris Correa, concerned that Luhnow or other former St. Louis employees took proprietary information with them to Houston, hacked into the Astros database.
Correa accessed the database, which contained scouting and other confidential information, 60 times over two years; he eventually pleaded guilty to five counts of unauthorized access to a protected computer and is still serving a 46-month prison sentence.
Correa received a lifetime ban from Major League Baseball. So did former Atlanta Braves GM John Coppolella, who spearheaded an effort to circumvent international signing rules from 2015-2017.
Just as the Astros did not invent illicit sign-stealing, rules-flouting in the executive suite certainly isn’t new. And it would be inaccurate to claim a through line from the hyper-analytic practices of today’s front offices to the Astros using electronics and, ultimately, a trash can to punish opposing pitchers.
Yet, from the field to the front office, the industry’s modern misdeeds can be traced to a pair of factors: proprietary information and paranoia.
Is it too much to trust that rivals are doing the right thing, on the field, in the front office or in talent-mining efforts in the Dominican Republic?
“In the big picture, it still comes down to making a commitment to follow the rules,” says Chaim Bloom, the first-year chief baseball office for the Boston Red Sox. “That should be the case regardless of technology, regardless of what area you’re in.
“Whatever the rules are, it’s our job to follow them.”
Given the rise of the Super GM’s influence, it’s not hard to understand how some officials might feel overly emboldened.
A fan holds shows her displeasure with the Astros during a spring training game. (Photo: John Bazemore, AP)
'Look how smart they are'
The acceptance and glorification of “analytics” – a phrase somehow oversimplified but also misunderstood – goes far beyond talent acquisition. It is ultimately about markets, and that’s why the financial sector and baseball have taken a keen interest in one another.
You could wile away a summer’s worth of reading digging into the genius of Luhnow (Astroball), current Dodgers and former Rays baseball chief Andrew Friedman (The Extra 2%), curse-busting Cubs and Red Sox chief Theo Epstein (Theology, The Plan), and the godfather of them all, Billy Beane and Moneyball.
Fascinating reads, and so too are many of the methods behind the men. Now, 18 years after Beane pulled back the curtain for author Michael Lewis and kick-started staggering change in the sport, the players once at its core wonder if too much has been ceded to its ostensibly brightest minds.
“You mean, the McKinsey-fication of baseball?” asks Washington Nationals reliever Sean Doolittle, referring to the management consulting firm that counts Luhnow and presidential candidate Pete Buttigieg among its high-profile alums.
Doolittle will be a free agent after this season, and partially bemoans the notion that he and his brethren are viewed as “assets” before players.
“You’re commodified. And it’s tough to complain about that,” says Doolittle, in the final year of a contract that will pay him $22.5 million from 2014 to 2020. “I’m really lucky to be able to play this game and get paid well to do it. But at the same time, I don’t think it’s good for the game when players, human beings, are broken down and reduced to numbers and ratios and percentages.
“But there’s so much unpredictability to baseball. I think we proved that last year – as the oldest guys in baseball, winning the World Series.”
Since Moneyball dropped, the obsession of process over outcome has, to some players, overwhelmed the game, the media that reflect it and even the fans who consume it.
“I think a fan should be wanting a team that’s going to fight for every inch and be competitive at every turn,” says Yankees reliever Adam Ottavino. “But I think people seem to be more impressed by the ‘how’ it’s done. A team like the Yankees wins and it’s like, ‘Oh, well you bought the championship.’ Winning can be turned into a negative.
“And a team that’s low-budget that has success and it’s, ‘Look how smart they are.’ I often think that in these interview processes it’s changed from, ‘How are you going to get us to win?’ to, ‘How are you going to get us to win on the cheap?’”
Even with MLB revenues approaching $11 billion despite alarming attendance drops, the incentive to win is inconsistent across the industry.
“There’s so many alternate revenue streams, other than gate revenue,” says Doolittle. “In some places, it feels like that’s the way they measure success. And success used to be measured by your win-loss record.”
For one 2019 playoff GM, the obsession with brain power has gotten a bit exhausting.
“Why do we play this game? Technology and data should not be developed into a (expletive) sport,” said the GM, who spoke to USA TODAY Sports on the condition of anonymity because of the topic’s sensitive nature.
“I am so tired of hearing the word ‘smart.’”
In Houston, at least, turning innovation into success got more than a little sideways.
From competitive to craven
Multiple media accounts and MLB’s nine-page report on the Astros scandal pointed to a scourge that touched every corner of the organization. Luhnow was made aware of the scheme and did nothing. Hinch supposedly voiced his displeasure by smashing a video monitor used to capture signs, but never addressed the team.
And the players, raised in this organizational culture, did not pause long enough to realize they’d turned from competitive to craven and that their behavior was injurious to their major league brethren.
It all points to a systemic rot, even if principles involved won’t connect those dots.
So how did the Astros lose touch with their humanity, and how can other clubs aim to retain it?
“I think you have to be more proactive than ever to make sure that doesn’t happen,” says Twins chief baseball officer Derek Falvey. “You can get consumed by data. It’s easy to blame data or changes for behavior. It seems like that’s been easy recently and I don’t personally disagree with it.
“But how you go about acting and operating and what values your culture reflects, is about you as a leader, you as a person. Yes, we use data to inform our decision-making, but I would say we are as connected to the human being in our space as we are to the information we have.”
Pittsburgh Pirates GM Ben Cherington cautions against drawing connections between executives he knows are “absolutely maniacal about seeking an advantage” and malfeasance, saying edges can be gleaned within the guardrails of the rules.
Yet, he also notes that the game is better off if the gaze is down toward the diamond, and not up at the front office.
Ultimately, that’s where the outcome-obsessed must cede control.
“There does come a fundamental question of where does the line fall between technology improving things and making things easier for us, versus detracting from a sporting event taking place among human beings, and losing that,” says Orioles GM Mike Elias, an assistant under Luhnow in Houston.
“Those are broad issues that are dealt with at the league level; there seems to be an ongoing conversation about it around the game and, like anything else, it will work itself out.”
Perhaps after a timely bit of reflection.
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