Sign Stealing – Did the Punishment Suit the Crime, and its Impact on the Yankees
AJ Hinch and Jeff Lunhow – Photo Courtesy of CNN Photo
The Astros are now officially the evil empire of baseball. In case you’ve been living under a rock for the last 24 hours, the Astros were hit with some of the most significant penalties in the history of baseball for an offense of this kind. Following the announcement of said penalties, the Astros swiftly relieved both Manager AJ HInch and GM Jeff Lunhow of their respective jobs. In all likelihood, both men will serve out their suspensions for the 2020 seasons without any affiliation with an MLB team. Meanwhile, as a result of this and other investigations, the Red Sox are now under investigation for their own activities as it relates to sign stealing, having already been punished for offenses related to sign stealing in 2017, and have preemptively fired Manager Alex Cora, who was also the bench coach for the 2017 Astros. Our Editor-In-Chief, Paul Semendinger, covered his immediate thoughts on the penalties handed out in a post on Monday, but such a momentous decision is deserving of multiple posts. In no particular order, here are my thoughts on the situation:
I’ve had almost a full 24 hours to reflect on the decision, and after some time for reflection, I stand by my original opinion: now that MLB has confirmed that the allegations were true, Jeff Lunhow and possibly even AJ Hinch deserved a lifetime ban from baseball. A few years ago, John Coppolella, former GM of the Braves, was banned from MLB for life for the widely accepted underground practice of bundling bonus pool money for multiple prospects in Latin America as a way of subverting the cap on exported Latin American talent. Granted, Coppolella reportedly refused to cooperate with MLB investigators while Lunhow and Hinch were characterized as cooperative by MLB, but I think that Manfred’s decision yesterday hints at far more cynical motivations. The cap on money spent on amateur talent under the age of 25 with at least 6 years of foreign professional experience serves to save owners a significant amount of money on premier talent, much like the purpose the Rule 4 Amateur Draft and subsequent rules surrounding team control serves. There is little question but that the Braves under John Coppolella subverted this rule, but frankly this subversion did not actively impact the integrity of the on-the-field product. What the Astros, and possibly the Red Sox, have done purposefully impacted the way in which the game on the field was played, and you could reasonably argue impacted the results that occurred in all seasons from 2017-2019. For Lunhow to maintain his job while Coppolella received a lifetime ban smells of hypocrisy by MLB. I feel the same way about Hinch as the manager on the field, but Lunhow should bear responsibility for the culture created by his leadership. Lunhow’s Astros have repeatedly and systematically attempted to subvert the rules to their advantage, and while the penalties levied against the Astros are significant, I think that they are incongruous in context. Yes, the Astros will lose significant draft picks and the possibility exists that Hinch and Lunhow will be “blackballed” from MLB once their suspension is up, but the monetary fine is peanuts to Astros ownership (admittedly, the max fine allowed under the CBA, but still a pittance relative to the balance sheets with which most owners are working) and the entire situation shows a lack of regard for the integrity of the game, in many ways matching the absurdity of the role MLB organizations played in the steroid crisis of the last decades. Not as a Yankee fan, as a baseball fan, I am disappointed in the penalties handed out by MLB.
We’re not done with the fallout from this investigation yet. Already, Alex Cora, now ex-manager of the Red Sox and former bench coach for the 2017 Astros, has been fired by the Red Sox amidst the investigation that has been opened by MLB of the Red Sox sign-stealing operations in light of findings from the investigation of the Astros’ practices. I would bet any amount of money that other teams will be implicated in due course. The Astros and Red Sox may be the most egregious offenders, but they are by no means the only teams guilty in this scenario. Given the strong stance that Brian Cashman and others in the Yankee organization have taken in the hours since MLB closed its investigation against the Astros, I sincerely hope and believe that the Yankees were not one of the teams that decided to undertake systematic, unethical practices to win games. Say what you want about the Yankees’ organizational culture, but I sincerely believe that the Yankees have run an above-board operation with regards to what happens on the field. I hope I’m right.
Multiple Yankees have made their feelings known. CC Sabathia was quoted on Showtime’s Inside the NFL as saying that he felt “cheated” and even floated the idea that vacating the Astros’ 2017 World Series title wasn’t out of range with regards to punishment. Aaron Judge even removed his tweet congratulating Jose Altuve for his 2017 MVP. Do I fully commiserate with their sentiments? Oh yeah. I was the guy in 2017 crediting Sanchez with changing the signs behind the plate so effectively given the fact that the Astros seemed to have the signs. I’m also the guy who sat at a bar this past year who watched Altuve walk-off to end the Yankees’ playoff run, and despite the fact that I acknowledged that Chapman’s spinny slider was awful, it was really odd for a small, line-drive hitter like Altuve to tomahawk an outside slider to the pull side for a no-doubt home run. Even saying those things out loud, I felt like a homer, but I didn’t think I was wrong. I can only imagine how the guys who played for the Yankees on those teams feel today. That said, much like the steroid era, baseball prior to integration, and the amphetamine era, the games happened. We can’t change the record just because the oversight for these issues didn’t exist. It is the same type of black mark that exists for all of the previous mistakes that have occurred in Major League history. As satisfying as it would be to see the Astros and Red Sox stripped of their titles, I don’t think that it’s the right decision either. I have heard from many Yankee fans in the last 24 hours who feel as though they were cheated out of a World Series parade in both 2017 and 2019. As much as I sympathize with that point of view, I can’t say definitively that sign-stealing tipped the scales in favor of the Astros (or the Red Sox in 2018, for that matter).
The most important question remains: how should MLB ensure that systematic, technologically-based sign-stealing never happens again? Multiple people have suggested that MLB change the rules such that live video feeds are no longer accessible by teams and players during live games. I am completely in favor of this move. Teams only gained access to this type of video when instant replay was expanded significantly in the 2014 season. I think that access to this video from multiple camera angles has proven to be a forbidden fruit that teams are far too enticed to eat. Players will cry a bit about the inability to look at in-game at-bats and pitch sequences, but to that I say: that type of video isn’t available at any other level in-game! Players will adjust rather quickly, and the sport will be better off for it. I have seen other suggestions for bringing more technology to the field to solve the problem, such as ear-pieces for catchers, electronic signals built into the mound, and a host of other technologically-based ideas. To those ideas, beyond the logistical issues they cause, I say the following: if technology got us into this mess, technology is not likely to get us out of it either. Sign stealing the old-fashioned way is part of the game. If the catcher and pitcher are unable to conceal their signs from runners on-base or the opposing dugout, the signs are fair game. Once teams are using technology, cameras, and systems to get signs, I think it’s wrong. Making live video feeds inaccessible to teams would go a long way to solving this problem.
I am very curious to see how the remainder of this investigation plays out for former Yankee, Carlos Beltran, who was implicated as one of the ring-leaders on the players’ side for the 2017 season. Beltran is about to undertake his first season as manager of the New York Mets. They knew this investigation was active when they hired Beltran, but I am very interested to see what happens now that Beltran is an official party implicated as a result of the investigation. Beltran has always had a stellar reputation in the game, both as a player and as a person, so my hunch is that he will survive this blight on his record. However, I think that he will be on a thin leash hereafter. Unlike Cora, Hinch, and Lunhow, I think that Beltran’s reputation has a chance to survive this scandal.
In short, I am disappointed not just as a Yankee fan, but as a baseball fan today. I would much rather talk about the wealth of young talent entering the MLB ranks, the Yankees World Series aspirations, or the overall health of the game than talk about yet another scandal. While I don’t agree with the penalties levied by MLB, I hope that the penalties will be enough to serve as a deterrent. I also hope that MLB will implement rule changes that supplement that goal. My greatest hope is that baseball can move past this stain quickly, so that we can get back to focusing on all the good that this game has to offer.