The MLB Nailed Houston, But Jim Crane (And Reality) Is The Hammer

Sign stealing has been, is and always will be a part of baseball.

It starts as early as little league. Kids have to learn signs before they can steal them. As they work their way up through the 12s, 13s, 14s, etc, coaches are communicating the methods of identifying the other team’s signs. They’re telling their kids to pay attention when they’re on second base, and try to notice anything subtle coming from the pitcher.

In high school, everyone is on the hunt for anything they can use to their advantage. Sometimes it’s even two scrubs’ job to be spies. They try all they can to dig up anything.

The coaches are in on it too. You’ll see first and third base coaches creep their way down toward home plate, before the opposing coaching staff asks the ump to move them back up. Then they start slowly creeping down again until the ump catches on again.

So of course it happens in MLB. Major league baseball is hard – really hard.  Guys throw 98 MPH.  It’d be really nice to have some idea of what’s coming.

The Astros certainly did.  It’s likely some other teams certainly did as well.  It’s also likely that every team in MLB “did” too, maybe not with that “certainly” attached though.

Houston ensured they had signs, thanks to an elaborate, multi-year system detailed the past few months by The Athletic’s Ken Rosenthal and Evan Drellich.  MLB’s investigation resulted in the suspension of manager AJ Hinch and GM Jeff Luhnow, both of whom were fired about an hour after the penalty was handed down.  In addition, the Astros were fined $5 million and lost their first and second round draft picks over the next two seasons.

MLB’s punishment was shocking and unprecedented.  They couldn’t slap Houston on the wrist – outrage would be fierce, especially for a team that hasn’t exactly made friends the past two months and has seemingly benefitted quite nicely from their cheating.  But it never felt like MLB would go this far.

There had to be a moment when Rob Manfred and others atop the league looked each other in the eye and realized just exactly what they were dealing with.  This was no illegal Apple Watch in the dugout.  Manfred and his investigators knew they were dealing with likely one of the three most reprehensible acts in baseball history, right behind Pete Rose’s gambling and the Black Sox Scandal of 1919.  Manfred and MLB had to go harder rather than softer here.  They did just that, and got away with a whole lot more thanks to the actions of the Astros organization soon after the penalty was handed down.

Luhnow’s career, at 53, could be over.  His statement Monday was odd and somewhat convincing (unfortunately).  Front offices tend to keep their distance from coaches and players.  But at the same time, there is no sport where the trio work closer together on day-to-day basis than baseball, where data nerds up top are producing packets of information for people like Hinch and the players to use.  It seems hard to believe that Luhnow wouldn’t know of the system.  How could a manager like Hinch or every player keep such a secret from the guy who determines whether they’re employed or not?  Then again, Hinch seems to think he could have gotten away with anything throughout this whole thing.

It’s not just this that Luhnow has working against him.  Whether you believe his statement that left everyone out to dry and essentially dared others to present evidence that he knew, it doesn’t make-up for Manfred’s skewering of him in the report released Monday.  The Brandon Taubman incident (Who’s been suspended for life now, an underrated storyline of this report), as Manfred pointed out, is a pipeline down from Luhnow. It reflects so poorly on Luhnow’s ability to appoint not smart people but good people, and his ability to foster a front office culture that people actually enjoy instead of despise.  Luhnow might be among the smartest people in baseball, and even among the most innovative.  But it’s everything else about him that probably sees him meet the end of his line as an executive once his suspension is over.

Hinch is probably worse off.  Luhnow – despite his personal drawbacks – has at least shown that he’s a capable mind aside from cheating with the Astros. He had immense success with the Cardinals that landed him in the gig in Houston. Much has been written about the Astros revolutionary pitching strategy; that starts and ends with Luhnow and the people he’s hired. Despite what seems to be serious personal drawbacks, a consulting job where Luhnow can use his brain and nothing else might be in the future for him.

Hinch is a different story. Not only is he hurt by the fact that managers just don’t really mean that much at all (in a positive way, that is), but by coaching a group of talented players who cheated when they probably didn’t have to (That is, unless the cheating made them great. More on that later…).  Looking at this from a worst case scenario perspective, there’s actually no evidence that Hinch is good at what he does: he had good players who may not even be that good in the first place thanks to this.

Astros owner Jim Crane stepped up to the plate here –trusting an old, white 65-year-old sports team owner to do the right thing in a time of crisis gets you 500-1 odds in Vegas.  He actually did the right thing.

But there’s a chance it wasn’t enough.

Crises cause knee-jerk reactions.  Crane and the ‘Stros went with maybe the only option at the time: promoting from within to replace Luhnow and Hinch.  They made Joe Espada manager and seem likely to elevate Pete Putila to GM, per ESPN’s Jeff Passan.  Crane is running baseball operations in the immediate future until Putila’s promotion becomes official.

But while Espada is certainly ready for the job (He’s been interviewed for multiple managerial openings across baseball) and wasn’t there during the 2017 World Series season, he was there in 2018 when the system still used and then subsequently stopped.

Putila has been with the Astros since 2011 and held his pre-GM role since 2016 (Director of Player Development).  He was in an executive role from the very beginning of the Astros’ sign-stealing scheme.

So while Crane made the right call in dismissing Hinch and Luhnow, replacing them with internal candidates – even if both are interim – doesn’t really “clean house.”  It seems hard to believe that Espada and Putila didn’t know of the system – especially Espada, who was in the dugout everyday for that 2018 season.

The bottom line is that it’s not a house cleaning if Espada and Putila remain.  That “culture” that Manfred mentioned in the Luhnow section of the report still exists if those two remain.  If Crane wants to get rid of “the culture”, everyone needs to go.

Everyone.

But that is a hard thing to do.  Crane, because of MLB’s lack of punishment for Astros players (Which is a justifiable decision for multiple reasons… more on that later), can’t just get rid of everyone involved with baseball ops.  Players have value – they won’t just be let go.  There are nerds that sit at computers all day plugging away numbers in the front office that probably didn’t know about what the players were up to and are innocent because of that.

Not all of Crane’s non-doings are his fault.  MLB decided not to punish players and he can’t change that.  They’re still there.  They’re still going to play this season.  They all played last season – and supposedly didn’t cheat.

It doesn’t necessarily make things better for the Astros that MLB found no wrongdoing last season.  It doesn’t make up for the fact that Houston cheated on their way to and in the World Series in 2017 either, though.  The good news is that MLB’s findings in 2019 don’t make things worse – they provide the players some type of buffer from the case of “Cheating made Jose Altuve, George Springer, Carlos Correa and Alex Bregman great.”  Houston also made the World Series in 2019 without cheating.  But at the same time, these allegations are hard to dispute as false now.

Perhaps MLB – besides the obvious issues that punishing players comes with (Determining who exactly was involved, as Manfred said, is difficult.  There’s also the MLBPA to deal with.  That could be the biggest reason why no players were suspended.  There would be lawsuits and court dealings and what not.  Everyone should want this to go away as soon as possible.  Punishing players does not make that the case) – is going to let the consequences of the players play themselves out on the field.  We don’t have conclusive evidence that Houston didn’t cheat last year (because of the whistling).  That could be why they finished third in runs scored, third in hits, third in home runs and first in batting average last season.  What if those numbers all plummet?  What if the Astros suck?  That might be the biggest punishment MLB could levy, and it would all be because they did the right thing.