From technocracy to roguery, the path to Astrogate

Winning Fixes Everything

When the Astros’s illegal, off-field-based electronic sign-stealing of 2017-18 was exposed in November 2019, there also unfurled a concurrent portrait of the Astros’s organisational culture as ruthlessness run amok. In Jeff Luhnow’s Astroblanca, human life was cheap and the rules were that there were, mostly, no rules.

As delivered by the Athletic reporter who first unearthed Astrogate, Evan Drellich, Winning Fixes Everything: How Baseball’s Brightest Minds Created Sports’ Biggest Mess is as much a deep dive into a rogue baseball organisation as it is about a team that took a ticking time bomb MLB handed all thirty teams and decided detonating their own similar one just wasn’t enough.

The top rogue was Luhnow, who came to the Astros’ attention after remaking the Cardinals’ player development system successfully. He soon proved a technocrat to whom disagreement equaled treason and human considerations, nuisances, from his calculated tanking rebuild through the swamp of Astrogate staining the franchise’s first World Series title.

“Winning isn’t everything, but wanting to win is,” is what football legend Vince Lombardi really said. Luhnow lacked the moral compass to separate ends from means. Wanting the Astros to get ahead of everyone else on the field and in an analytically reoriented front office was one thing. Losing the plot about human elements and ethics?

“Luhnow was right that change is not easy,” writes Drellich, who’d been an Astros beat writer for the Houston Chronicle before 2017.

But he eliminated most any guardrails along the way. He had pressed forward in the face of pushback for so long, dating back go his time [with the Cardinals] as the maligned outsider. Eventually he was rewarded with the results he sought. But he didn’t do enough to ensure the wrong boundary was never tested . . .

Before hiring Luhnow, Astros owner Jim Crane tried to lure Andrew Friedman from the Rays. Friedman didn’t want to take a rebuild on, having proven he could steer the Rays to winning despite their meager budgets. In due course, Friedman went to the Dodgers, a team fabled for rebuilding on the fly and without fear of either spending or an authoritarian front office.

Astrogate’s exposure in November 2019 opened in turn the slow but sure unfurling of a concurrent Astros portrait in which they were governed by a technocracy that lost the human plot above and beyond mere data driving. No less than baseball commissioner Rob Manfred, handing down his Astrogate report in January 2020, pronounced Luhnow’s Astros organisation as a subhuman disaster:

[W]hile no one can dispute that Luhnow’s baseball operations department is an industry leader in analytics, it is very clear to me that the culture of the baseball operations department, manifesting itself in the way its employees are treated, its relations with other clubs, and its relations with the media and external stakeholders, has been very problematic . . . the baseball operations department’s insular culture—one that valued and rewarded results over other considerations, combined with a staff of individuals who often lacked direction or sufficient oversight, led . . . to an environment that allowed the conduct described in this report to have occurred.

That “conduct,” of course, was the Astros taking mere replay room reconnaissance—decrypting signs between opposition catchers and pitchers, then using the old fashioned transmission of sending the intelligence to live baserunners to signal batters, a system used by more teams than just the Yankees, the Red Sox, and, yes, the Dodgers—and graduating to Astrogate’s espionage level.

Drellich reveals that the Astros began thinking outside the replay room reconnaissance box when they suspected the 2016 Rangers, against whom they’d been futile that season (fifteen losses in nineteen games; surrendering sixteen home runs in ten games at Arlington), had a live spy in the stands.

If they were right, it was also hardly unheard-of in the long log of baseball’s oldest sub-profession. But numerous teams long since shown to have done likewise, from the stands (the 1940 Tigers), the old hand-operated scoreboards (the 1948 Indians, the 1961 Reds), even beyond-center field clubhouses (the 1951 Giants), didn’t provoke aggrieved opponents to think about seeing and raising to the extent the Astros did, either. “[I]t remains the case,” Drellich writes, “that no team has been shown, through firm reporting or accounts, to have done something as blatant as Houston.”

In September 2016, Luhnow hired a Spanish-language translator, Derek Vigoa, who proved to have talents above and beyond language. Vigoa developed a spread sheet algorithm, Codebreaker, used to decipher opposing signs. By itself Codebreaker was neither cryptography (Drellich’s word) nor wrongdoing . . . unless it was used during a live game (the Astros did), not before or after it.

“The rules seemed to be an afterthought in Houston,” Drellich writes, “if they were a thought at all. Innovation, improvement—‘Data efficacy’—that was the mindset Luhnow had long fostered.” It was just such “data efficacy” that provoked Astrogate’s two main operatives, 2017 bench coach Alex Cora and 2017 designated hitter/de facto coach Carlos Beltrán, to conclude mere replay room reconnaissance and a mere spread sheet weren’t good enough.

They married Cora’s fascination with the uber-speed Edgertronic camera and Beltrán’s insistence on an extra monitor adjacent to the dugout to send the Astro Intelligence Agency light years beyond previously known methods of in-game espionage. They went from merely technologically savvy to full, above-and-beyond rogue.

Luhnow was a product of McKinsey & Company, the consulting firm infamous for making corporate cost-cutting and data-orientation into an art dark enough that too often such things as safety and human relationships were compromised, if not obliterated. (McKinsey was once brought in to tighten the ship at Disneyland, a ship-tightening that cut into maintenance costs deeply enough and may have contributed to two fatalities at the fabled theme park.)

When the Astros moved to re-evaluate and trim their scouting system if need be, Luhnow heeded an aide’s advice that they eliminate scouts lacking tech savvy. First, though, he wanted his old employer McKinsey’s endorsement. Then, he wanted the new tech-oriented scouting done by remote, dumping eight traveling scouts in August 2017, just as manager A.J. Hinch—who’d prove weak when it came to stopping Astrogate dead in its tracks—had begun working with them on postseason advance scouting.

Cora and Beltrán were respected as career-long students of the game, including and especially catching onto any small “tell” from an opponent that might give them a slight edge. Catching onto and exploiting such “tells” is part of old-fashioned gamesmanship. Training an illegally-mounted and operated real-time camera and monitor on the opposing battery isn’t even close to it.

That 2017 Astros roster was a roster to die for. But Drellich says Luhnow and his brain trust weren’t all that convinced they could get it done by themselves. “Communication was thin,” Drellich writes, “and relationships were strained. Technology was ubiquitous, and the goal was singularly to win. It’s hard to say the Astros were the most likely team in baseball to start cheating. But there couldn’t have been a team more poorly prepared to stop cheating.”

Especially after Manfred’s late-season memo to all teams, after he slapped the Yankees’ and Red Sox’s wrists over replay room and AppleWatch reconnaissance. Manfred, Drellich writes, made two large mistakes: aiming future punishments at managers and GMs; and, believing he’d just drawn a line in the sand.

Six days after that Manfred memo, the Astros played the White Sox in Chicago—and White Sox pitcher Danny Farquhar smelled, and heard, a trash can rat. And Luhnow, as Manfred noted during his Astrogate report, never passed that 2017 memo down to others on the team.

The Astros and the Dodgers held each other in suspicion as that 2017 World Series began, but the worst the Dodgers might have done was simple replay room reconnaissance with the baserunner as the hitter’s tip. “[T]here is no known evidence,” Drellich writes, “that the Dodgers were doing something as flagrant as the Astros’ trash-can system.”

Manfred’s major Astrogate error was not anticipating “how important it would be to make sure he could confidently punish players, and by not pursuing the topic with the [Major League Baseball Players Association] in advance. Even with his experience with the steroids issue, he didn’t fully grasp how players could try to gain an edge through technology, nor what the reaction would be if he ever had to let players off the hook.”

Drellich cites former commissioner Fay Vincent saying baseball’s real Astrogate mistake was “thinking that the players and the owners don’t have to come together on major issues . . . The union should have been taking a leadership role and saying, ‘We can’t have the game hurt by this kind of cheating’.”

The author also cites former union attorney Gene Orza saying not so fast, Fay: “He doesn’t understand what a union does . . . The union does not have a higher calling for the quote-unquote good of the game . . . [it] is not about, first and foremost, the health of the game. It is about defending the players that are its constituency.”

Luhnow and Hinch, of course, were fired by Astros owner Jim Crane when Manfred’s Astrogate report came down. Cora left the Astros to manage the Red Sox to the 2018 World Series championship. (Those Rogue Sox had their own replay room reconnaissance operation at play, though only their video operator J.T. Watkins was held to account and canned.) But he left the Red Sox before they could fire him upon the Astrogate report. Both Hinch and Cora served their 2020 Astrogate suspensions and returned to the dugout after, Cora to the Red Sox and Hinch to the Tigers.

Hinch, Cora, and Beltrán have since been forthright about their Astrogate roles—or, in Hinch’s case, his failure to stop the AIA beyond smashing a couple of the extra dugout-adjacent monitors. But they’ve done it without giving detailed, play-by-play accounts. “It’s likely,” Drellich writes, “that the finger-pointing nature of any such discussion makes it difficult to go down that road while they still hope to work in baseball.”

Beltrán was hired to manage the Mets after the 2019 World Series but fired upon the Astrogate report without having managed even a spring training game for them. He served his 2020 suspension, became a 2021 analyst for the Yankees’ YES network, and has now returned to the Mets in a front office role. Recalling Beltrán’s admission to YES host Michael Kay—I wish I would have asked more questions about what we were doing—Drellich couldn’t resist: “Beltrán was as powerful a clubhouse presence as there was on the 2017 Astros, begging the question, what was stopping him from asking those questions?”

What overseeing a cultural environment that opened the door to baseball’s worst cheating scandal didn’t do to Luhnow, suing an owner probably did. So did the revelation that, despite orders from MLB investigators not to do so, he wiped much if not most of his cell phone data. Luhnow hasn’t returned to baseball since his suspension ended. (He now co-owns a pair of soccer teams, one in his native Mexico—his parents moved there from New York just before he was born—and one in Spain.)

With only five members of the 2017-18 Astros remaining, and under the combined leadership of manager Dusty Baker and since-departed GM James Click, the Astros beat the upstart Phillies in last year’s World Series. Straight, no chaser. But winning hasn’t yet disintegrated all of the Astrogate taint. Even if the entire team now is no longer held responsible for then, opposing fans still hammer the remaining 2017-18 team members with chea-ter! chea-ter! chants. Even including the unfairly-tainted Jose Altuve.

Luhnow’s data-dominant leadership approach hasn’t left the game, either. Baseball still struggles to balance between the value of analytics and the human men who play and manage the game. But don’t make the mistake of reading Winning Fixes Everything and concluding that analytics qua analytics begets cheating.

Gathering the deepest, above-and-beyond data and applying it to player development and advancement is a virtue. It doesn’t have to leave room for an Astrogate. In the hands of a less tunnel-visioned leader, under a less nerve-exposing atmosphere, it might not have done so.

Without the sort of resolution Vincent suggested, there may yet come something worse. Astrogate has informed us already, and Drellich now reminds us vividly, that it will no longer do to dismiss cheating merely by shrugging that boys will still be boys.