The Rise and Sudden Fall of the Houston Astros

The Rise and Sudden Fall of the Houston Astros

The Houston Astros took four years to mutate from baseball’s worst team to its best. But even at their lowest point, as they stumbled to a franchise-record 111 losses in 2013, they constantly emphasized their brand of ambition.

Everywhere they went that season, the Astros took an upright, game show-style spinning wheel for their clubhouse. Words like “leadership,” “trust” and “desire” filled the slots. So did an image of the World Series trophy.

It was a gimmick to encourage the players: Keep pushing the wheel in hopes of a breakthrough. The club soared to the pinnacle of the sport, propelled by an unapologetic desire to change the game, and won the franchise’s first World Series in 2017.

But on Monday, a scathing report by Major League Baseball exposed the Astros as cheaters, trashing their reputation, ousting their leaders and igniting the sport’s biggest scandal since the steroid revelations of the 2000s.

The shock waves have been seismic. Three managers and one general manager have lost their jobs: A.J. Hinch and Jeff Luhnow of the Astros, Alex Cora of the Boston Red Sox and Carlos Beltran of the Mets — all implicated in a brazen scheme to illegally use electronics to steal opposing catchers’ signs and tip off their own batters to what pitch was coming.

So a month before spring training, baseball is grappling with at least one tainted championship, a moral and practical quandary over using technology and unsettling questions about the credibility of the competition. On Friday, Representative Bobby L. Rush, a Democrat from Illinois, requested a congressional oversight hearing “to determine the extent to which this cancer has spread.”

For some, this kind of cheating is worse than using performance-enhancing drugs. Alex Wood, a pitcher for the Los Angeles Dodgers — whom the Astros defeated for the title in 2017 — tweeted on Thursday: “I would rather face a player that was taking steroids than face a player that knew every pitch that was coming.”

Wood helped the Dodgers win a World Series game at Minute Maid Park in Houston in 2017. In the rest of their home games that postseason, the Astros went 8-0, stealing signs and legacies along the way.

“The word that keeps popping into my mind is ‘unfathomable,’” said the veteran catcher Stephen Vogt, who played for the Oakland Athletics in 2017, in an interview on Friday. “Maybe that’s me being naïve, but you would never even think to do it. The integrity of our game is what we have, and now that’s been broken.”

On Oct. 19, life was grand for the Astros. After leading the majors with 107 wins in the regular season, they clinched their second World Series berth in three years with a towering home run by Jose Altuve off the Yankees’ Aroldis Chapman in Game 6 of the American League Championship Series.

Yet almost from the moment that drive cleared the left field fence, the organization descended into chaos.

In the clubhouse celebration after that game, the assistant general manager Brandon Taubman gloated profanely to a group of female reporters about the Astros’ acquisition of pitcher Roberto Osuna, who had been serving a suspension for domestic violence when the team traded for him in 2018. The Astros compounded the problem by publicly denying the incident, another public-relations blunder for a team that had barred a credentialed reporter from its clubhouse in August to placate pitcher Justin Verlander.

Taubman was fired during the World Series, which the Astros lost to the Washington Nationals in seven games.

Houston’s ace starter, Gerrit Cole, joined the Yankees in December, signing a nine-year, $324 million contract. The Astros also lost Nolan Ryan, the Hall of Famer and team icon, who quit as an executive adviser after the team owner Jim Crane elevated his son Jared in the team’s hierarchy and demoted Ryan’s son Reid, who had been president of business operations.

But the worst news, by far, came on Nov. 12, when The Athletic published a story in which the former Astros pitcher Mike Fiers confirmed the team’s sign-stealing methods in 2017: Players decoded the catcher’s signals from a live video feed, then communicated the signal to the hitter by banging a trash can in the tunnel near the dugout.

Over the next two months, Commissioner Rob Manfred’s investigators interviewed 68 witnesses, including 23 current and former Astros players, and scoured thousands of emails, Slack communications, text messages and videos. Because the scheme was player-driven, there was no substantial email trace tying it to management, and Luhnow told investigators he had no knowledge of it.

Even before The Athletic’s revelations, the Astros had a reputation for using data analysis to find any small edge. They used video modeling and algorithms that could pick up tells from pitchers’ subtle movements, trying to determine which pitch would come next. That is legal as a form of pregame preparation, and while many clubs most likely do it now, the Astros were probably among the first to try to detect pitch-tipping with a computer rather than the naked eye.

But they also raised suspicions that they were breaking the rules. Some teams, including the Yankees, have sent suspicious Astros footage and images to M.L.B. over the past few seasons. Vogt, who now plays for the Arizona Diamondbacks, respected Houston’s hitters but sensed something shady.

“When you’d go to Houston, it always seemed like they were on pitches,” Vogt said. “As a catcher, when you see your pitcher execute a perfect slider down in the zone with two strikes and someone doesn’t even flinch at it, you start to get alarm bells going off in your head. I spent a lot of time wondering if I was doing something in my setup that would be tipping pitches to the other team.”

It was clear the Astros were doing something unusually effective. While power hitters generally strike out frequently — a trade-off for swinging aggressively — the Astros’ lineup has an extraordinary knack for slugging without whiffing. From 1910 through 2016, only two teams — the 1948 Yankees and the 1995 Cleveland Indians — led the majors in slugging percentage while also recording the fewest strikeouts. The Astros did it in both 2017 and 2019.

“I don’t want guys swinging at a pitch unless they can hit a homer,” said Dave Hudgens, then the Astros’ hitting coach, explaining the team’s philosophy in a 2017 interview. He added later: “If you go in with that mind-set, you’re not going to miss your pitch as often.”

Of course, it helps to know what pitch is coming, and the Astros’ scheme not only led to victories but also made their rivals look worse than they should have — possibly costing players money and jobs.

“Now you’re telling me that could have potentially shortened my career or sent me back down” to the minor leagues, Indians pitcher Mike Clevinger said in a video posted to YouTube, “because they knew what I was throwing when I was in their park?”

The Astros’ players have mostly stayed silent on social media since the revelations, but many rivals have not hid their anger.

“It’s time for the players involved to step forward,” the veteran reliever Jerry Blevins tweeted. “Take your lumps publicly. Your name is coming out sooner or later. Maybe there’s some integrity still in you somewhere.”

The Astros were hardly the bullies of the league when Crane, the Astros’ owner, picked Luhnow as his general manager in December 2011. Crane, a former college pitcher who earned his fortune in shipping, plucked Luhnow from the St. Louis Cardinals, who had just won the World Series with many players Luhnow drafted as scouting director.

Some in the Astros’ organization were more enthusiastic about the hire than others. Luhnow, who has a master’s degree in business administration from Northwestern and consulted for McKinsey & Company in Chicago in his pre-baseball career, overhauled the team’s scouting operations, emphasizing objective data over gut instincts. Somewhat symbolically, he removed the lists of every team’s 40-man roster from the walls of his office in Houston.

“One of the first things I did was ask them to take it out,” he said in an interview there, a few months after taking the job. “Depth charts are something that I can get online at the stroke of a button.”

Luhnow — who did not respond to an interview request for this article — inherited a team with the majors’ worst record and a poorly regarded farm system. A new collective bargaining agreement had made losing more attractive by providing the worst teams with the most money to spend on amateur talent, so the Astros unloaded veterans and prepared for a stretch of several painful seasons.

“The players couldn’t understand why the best 25 guys weren’t breaking camp with us,” said Dave Trembley, who coached for the Astros in 2013 and 2014. “We tried to develop those guys as best we could, we had early work every day, we’d come out and do fundamentals. But it was a tough situation trying to keep the players motivated knowing that they were pretty much aware of what the plan was.”

Even before the N.B.A.’s Philadelphia 76ers popularized it, the Astros used the word “process” as a euphemism for tanking — a strategy of fielding a threadbare roster to get better prospects and accelerate a rebuild. Houston’s attendance sank below 1.7 million, a 20-year low for a non-strike season, but Luhnow eagerly sold fans on his logic. The team’s supporters, in turn, embraced his bold vision to put the Astros at the forefront of baseball’s analytical and technological revolution.

“To me, there was nothing sinister about what they were doing; they were just on that leading edge and they wanted to show it off a little bit,” said the Texas Rangers broadcaster Dave Raymond, who was the Astros’ radio play-by-play voice from 2006 through 2012. “They brilliantly educated the fan base on what they were doing and how they were going about it. One of the most interesting parts of the process was how the fans really embraced the losing. They believed immediately.”

The results began revealing themselves in 2015, when the Astros earned a surprise playoff berth. But that season was marred by troubling news: The Astros’ database had been hacked by the Cardinals’ scouting director, Chris Correa, a former analyst for Luhnow in St. Louis.

Correa eventually pleaded guilty to five counts of unauthorized access to a protected computer and was sentenced to 46 months in prison. His rationale for the crime, he said, was a suspicion that the Astros had stolen proprietary data from the Cardinals, an accusation the Astros denied.

In hindsight, that suspicion seems prescient. When the Astros were caught aiming a camera at the dugouts of the Indians and the Red Sox in the 2018 playoffs, Correa — who declined an interview request — could not resist commenting. “Guess who isn’t surprised?” he tweeted.

Baseball acted quickly to suppress that controversy, accepting the Astros’ explanation that they were simply playing defense against possible electronic spying by the Indians and the Red Sox. But the issue had flared before — as the Red Sox were found to have used an Apple Watch in their dugout in 2017 — and last fall teams took extra precautions with their signs, especially when facing the Astros.

In the World Series, the Nationals took no chances: Each of their pitchers took a card to the mound with five sets of signs he could switch to at any time, and all four of Washington’s wins came at the Astros’ park in Houston.

Sign-stealing has a long and colorful history in baseball, but the sport has clearly struggled to keep up with the potential for misuse created by the rapid spread of technology. M.L.B. officers monitor video replay rooms now — they did not do so in 2017 — and the league will most likely reinforce its rules with prominent signage in clubhouses.

But the Astros’ scandal has brought the issue to a crossroads: Should baseball run from technology to crack down on cheating, or lean into it? League officials are considering a ban on players’ looking at live video during games, yet they are also working on prototypes of electronic signs between catchers and pitchers, though nothing is considered close to game-ready.

Those will not be the only efforts to beat back the Astros’ influence. The M.L.B. players’ union hopes to discourage tanking in the next collective bargaining agreement, and the Astros’ model may already be losing its appeal. Most imitators have not seen the same results, and this winter’s robust free-agent market — after two slow off-seasons — seems to indicate that more teams are trying to be competitive.

The Astros should still be a force on the field this season, if their talent can overcome the organizational upheaval, the public skepticism over their achievements and the newfound awkwardness of their place within the players’ fraternity. In any case, the scandal has disgraced the dominant team of this era — and threatens to swallow up the game.

“None of us, if we looked ourselves in the mirror, would have said, ‘Wow, these guys are morally corrupt, these guys are cheaters,’” said one general manager, who requested anonymity to candidly discuss another team. “Let’s not kid ourselves, they were the model organization. But we know more now.”

David Waldstein and James Wagner contributed reporting.

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