It is an enduring part of baseball strategy: As a batter is at the plate, his teammates carefully watch a catcher’s fingers to figure out what pitch is about to be thrown.
It is all fair play as long as teams do not enhance the abilities of the naked eye and clever minds with either cameras or electronic devices that allow teammates to signal the batter whether a fastball or a breaking ball is on the way.
But that is exactly what the Houston Astros did during their 2017 championship-winning season, clouding that World Series title and causing one of baseball’s biggest cheating scandals in years, Major League Baseball officials said on Monday in a scathing report detailing the team’s scheme.
By the end of the day, Houston General Manager Jeff Luhnow and Manager A.J. Hinch — the two men who helped propel the Astros to the top of the sport — had been suspended and then fired, while their club was left with severe penalties for deploying a scheme involving cameras and monitors to decode the hand signals of catchers and tip off Houston batters. One of their favorite communication methods was banging on a trash can just outside the dugout.
[A look at sign stealing and what we know about the Houston Astros’ scandal]
Commissioner Robert D. Manfred of Major League Baseball said in the report, which was written in a first person voice, that the league could not determine whether the Astros had changed the results of any games by cheating. But, he said, “the perception of some that it did causes significant harm to the game.”
And so M.L.B. acted, issuing one of the heaviest punishments in the history of the sport.
Mr. Manfred’s report, which concluded an investigation that involved at least 68 interviews and thousands of videos and documents, excoriated the Astros’ baseball operations department — including how they treated employees, other clubs and the news media — as “very problematic.”
In addition to the cheating schemes, the commissioner noted an incident during the 2019 postseason in which the Astros’ assistant general manager, Brandon Taubman, loudly celebrated a pitcher who had been suspended from the game for a violation of the M.L.B. domestic violence policy. A group of female reporters were nearby in the team’s clubhouse when Mr. Taubman lauded the pitcher.
Mr. Taubman was fired, but not before the team issued what Mr. Manfred called an “inappropriate and inaccurate response” by attempting to discredit a reporter who wrote a story uncovering the incident.
Jim Crane, the Astros’ owner and chairman, was largely spared in the report. And at a news conference announcing the firings soon after M.L.B. released its report, he said: “We will not have this happen again on my watch. We need to move forward with a clean slate.”
The Astros were accused of violating the rules during the 2017 and 2018 seasons, the first of which was when they won their first World Series title and were praised as a paradigm-shifting power in the baseball landscape. The team’s heavy focus on analytics earned the nickname “Astroball,” and Mr. Luhnow’s strategies helped transform the team from a perennial loser to a championship-winning club.
The dismissal of Mr. Luhnow and Mr. Hinch came shortly after M.L.B. said that they would be suspended for the 2020 season and that the club would be fined $5 million, the maximum penalty allowed under league rules, while also losing first- and second-round draft picks in 2020 and 2021.
“Neither one of them started this, but neither one of them did anything about it,” Mr. Crane said of Mr. Luhnow and Mr. Hinch, who were both once acclaimed as progressive strategists in a staid sport but now find themselves barred from the game until the end of the 2020 World Series.
Mr. Luhnow, who joined the Astros in 2011 after a stint with the St. Louis Cardinals and a career as an engineer and management consultant that included five years at the consulting firm McKinsey and Company, issued a written statement on Monday apologizing for the “shame and embarrassment this has caused.” He added: “I did not know rules were being broken.”
Mr. Hinch, who was hired by the Astros after the 2014 season, did the same on Monday: “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.”
Despite the heavy punishment and damning details of the Astros’ scheme, their title will not be vacated, though the scandal could have further repercussions as Alex Cora, the manager of the Boston Red Sox, was heavily implicated for his role while he was a bench coach for the Astros in 2017.
“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,” Mr. Manfred wrote.
The punishment drew mixed reactions from across the baseball world — some satisfied with the result, others disappointed. Many sympathized with the Los Angeles Dodgers, who lost the 2017 World Series to the Astros (led by Mr. Hinch) and the Red Sox (led by Mr. Cora) in 2018. “Didn’t really expect the punishments to be this harsh. Good for M.L.B. stepping up,” David Freese, who played on both Dodgers teams, wrote in a tweet.
The explosion of technology in the sport and M.L.B.’s expansion of replay review in 2014 have added a new dynamic to the sign-stealing practice, allowing some teams to consistently stay one step ahead of the rule. In September 2017, all teams were put on notice by M.L.B. after it found that the Red Sox had been sending information about opposing teams’ signs from their replay review room to people in the dugout wearing Apple watches. The Red Sox were fined — as were the Yankees, who turned in their rival, for a lesser misuse of the dugout phone — and Mr. Manfred sent a memo to teams detailing the potential punishment for managers and general managers for future violations of the rules governing the use of electronic equipment.
But the Astros brazenly continued their practice, Mr. Manfred’s report said. M.L.B.’s investigation found that the Astros violated those rules through the 2017 playoffs and for at least part of the 2018 season.
M.L.B.’s report stated that the Astros began using the live game feeds in their replay review room — intended solely for teams to decide whether to challenge umpires’ decisions — to decode opponents’ signs at the start of the 2017 season.
A more detailed scheme, first detailed in a report by The Athletic in November, began two months into the 2017 season by Mr. Cora and several players, including Carlos Beltran, who was hired this off-season as the Mets’ manager. Mr. Cora arranged for a monitor displaying the center-field camera footage to be installed next to the Astros’ dugout. At least one player would decode the opposing team’s signs, and when the catcher issued a sign, the upcoming pitch would be relayed to the batter with a sound — most often the slamming of a baseball bat on a nearby trash can.
Mr. Manfred’s report said that most of the non-pitching players on the 2017 Astros team had participated in the cheating operation, and that many of those interviewed admitted they knew the scheme was wrong.
“Players stated that if Manager A.J. Hinch told them to stop engaging in the conduct, they would have immediately stopped,” the report said.
Mr. Manfred chose to punish Mr. Luhnow and Mr. Hinch, rather than the players, because of his previous warning in 2017 that senior team officials would be held accountable for electronic sign-stealing.
“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,” Mr. Manfred wrote.
Mr. Manfred’s report said that Mr. Hinch had disapproved of the scheme, and had twice damaged the monitor near the dugout in an attempt to thwart it, but that he did not tell his players or Mr. Cora to stop it. “Although I appreciate Hinch’s remorsefulness, I must hold him accountable for the conduct of his team, particularly since he had full knowledge of the conduct,” Mr. Manfred wrote.
Although Mr. Luhnow denied any knowledge of the schemes, the report cited “documentary and testimonial evidence that indicates Luhnow had some knowledge,” including at least two emails, of the sign-stealing efforts.
“Luhnow failed to take any adequate steps to ensure that his club was in compliance with the rules,” Mr. Manfred wrote, then referring to the 2017 Red Sox incident.
As far as the “lower-level Astros employees” who were aware of and participated in the sign-stealing schemes, Mr. Manfred wrote that he would defer decisions about punishment to the Astros, and Mr. Crane said the team was still reviewing that matter.
After nearly 80 interviews by M.L.B.’s investigation department during its inquiries into the sign-stealing scandal and Mr. Taubman’s outburst, Mr. Manfred found that while Mr. Luhnow (“one of the most successful baseball executives of his generation”) had ushered in the “second ‘analytics’ revolution in baseball” and capably rebuilt the Astros, the team’s culture became “insular,” “one that valued and rewarded results over other considerations” and lacked sufficient oversight.
Victor Mather and Tyler Kepner contributed reporting.