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Why did Major League Baseball go easy on the Astros front office?

2019 Major League Baseball Winter Meetings

BOSTON, MA - DECEMBER 10: Major League Baseball Commissioner Rob Manfred speaks during the 2019 Major League Baseball Winter Meetings on December 10, 2019 in San Diego, California. (Photo by Billie Weiss/Boston Red Sox/Getty Images)

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On Friday evening the Wall Street Journal released a bombshell report in which it was revealed that Astros front office personnel, going up as high as general manager Jeff Luhnow, were not only aware of the sign-stealing going on but, in fact, launched the initiative in the first place. It even had a codename: “Codebreaker,” and was referred to internally as ''the dark arts.”

What was so amazing about this report is that it directly contradicted Rob Manfred’s January 13th report which described the sign-stealing scheme thusly:

The Astros’ methods in 2017 and 2018 to decode and communicate to the batter an opposing Club’s signs were not an initiative that was planned or directed by the Club’s top baseball operations officials. Rather, the 2017 scheme in which players banged on a trash can was, with the exception of Cora, player-driven and player-executed.

That statement cannot possibly be squared with the Wall Street Journal report, which details Manfred’s knowledge of the front office’s involvement in a letter he wrote to the Astros 11 days earlier. They are directly at odds.

The only thing at issue, according to the WSJ report, was whether Luhnow was fully aware of Codebreaker and how the “dark arts” worked. He claimed he did not. It’s not a credible claim given that Luhnow had been reported to ask questions about it and given that other Astros employees told MLB investigators that Luhnow did, in fact, know about it.

It’s also not credible on an intuitive level. The Astros, and Luhnow in particular, have been given wide credit for their utter mastery and control of information and data over the years. They have been lauded for their attention to even the smallest of details. For their unparalleled exploitation of every possible inefficiency there can be. For the architect and primary beneficiary of that reputation to now claim that he didn’t read emails is implausible. For him to, not read a tab on a budget spreadsheet for the advanced scouting department entitled “Dark Arts,” is implausible. For him to claim that he didn’t inquire or think much about such programs that others in his office were aware of, is implausible. Yet, according to the WSJ, he maintained his ignorance in response to Manfred’s January 2 letter presenting him with this information.

Perhaps it’s not surprising that Luhnow has held to such an implausible denial. After all, admitting to presiding over a front-office initiated cheating scheme would likely mean the end to his career in baseball. The question is why did Manfred, between January 2, when he presented Luhnow with this information, and January 13 when he issued his public report, back off of it all entirely? And to be clear: Manfred did back off, both in his words and in his actions.

On January 2, Manfred was, under no circumstances, accepting the idea that the front office was not involved. Indeed, he said in his letter to Luhnow that “there is more than sufficient evidence to support a conclusion that you knew—and overwhelming evidence that you should have known—that the Astros maintained a sign-stealing program that violated MLB’s rules,” and “I intend to hold you accountable for the egregious rules violations that took place under your supervision. " As noted above, that changed to it being a “player-led” scheme in the space of eleven days. Why?

On the punishment side, Manfred ended up suspending Luhnow for only a year, and did not suspend any other member of the Astros front office. That one year suspension is the same suspension manager A.J. Hinch, who took no part in the scheme but allowed it to persist, received. That level of punishment was perceived by most around the game to be of the “well, you didn’t do it, the players did, but the buck has to stop with you” variety. Punishment by default. We now know, however, that front office personnel who answered to Luhnow were actively involved and that Luhnow, in all likelihood, knew of it and approved of it. That seems like something that should lead to far greater punishment than a one-year default suspension. I mean, this time next year, Luhnow could theoretically be leading a new team into spring training.

I do not know why Rob Manfred decided to change course so abruptly nor do I do not know why he made no mention of “Codebreaker” or “the dark arts” and the front office’s involvement in his report, leading the public to believe that the Astros’ sign-stealing began in 2017 and was limited to the trash can banging. Banging that we now know was a refinement of a long-existing front office-driven program, not some opportunistic idea hatched by some uniformed Astros personnel.

But I can make some guesses.

One guess is that, given the Astros success over the past several years, people who once worked for the Astros are now working elsewhere in baseball, and that opening that can of worms seemed dangerous. For example, the GM of the Orioles, Mike Elias, was an assistant GM for the Astros in 2016-17. His right-hand man in Baltimore, Sig Mejdal, was the Astros Director of Decision Sciences. Were they aware of the scheme? Are they tainted by the cheating scandal? Are other front office employees, scouts and analysts who have moved on to other teams around the league tainted as well? Given that Elias and Mejdal worked on the draft and amateur side of things in Houston one can begin with the presumption that they were not. But how safe of a presumption is it? Elias was asked about it all over the weekend and said he was “confident that the group that’s here that came from Houston will not be connected or implicated in the sign-stealing situation.” Of course, back in November when he was first asked about it, he didn’t call it a “sign-stealing situation.” He dismissed it as “a couple of weird episodes.” It seems now to be more than that. It’s the kind of thing that, one thinks, would warrant some deeper questioning, but I suspect that it’s questioning Major League Baseball doesn’t have the stomach to dig into with gusto.

A broader guess is that truly digging down into something that might cast a shadow on the league is simply not in Rob Manfred’s tool kit or in Major League Baseball’s DNA.

In the wake of The Athletic blowing this all wide open in November, considerable chatter emerged about how the Astros’ cheating was widely suspected around the league and how there were many teams besides the Astros who were doing this. Yet Manfred and Major League Baseball did not take action to investigate it until The Athletic’s report. Even then it was an investigation of just the Astros. They did not expand it to the Boston Red Sox until a few days later, again in response to a report in The Athletic.

Which is to say that Rob Manfred’s investigation has, at every turn, been limited to that which publicly-released information has required him to investigate. It has, like so many internal investigations in the corporate and political spheres, been limited to that which had to be investigated and revealed in order to put out a public relations fire, not to root out and solve a problem in a substantive way. In this, it is not unlike many of Major League Baseball’s past investigations, from gambling, to substance abuse to PEDs and beyond. Major League Baseball’s instinct in almost every previous scandal it has been presented with has been to scapegoat a few -- usually players -- to declare victory and a resolution and then to wipe its hands clean. It has shown, time and again, that it will investigate as little as it can get away with and will publicly reveal as little as it can get away with. As it appears to have done so here.

Given that track record -- and the silence from the league since the Wall Street Journal report came out Friday evening -- I don’t expect much more to come of this now. But, by the same token, Major League Baseball should not expect us to trust it when it says the scandal has been dealt with sufficiently. Because, quite clearly, it has not. Large parts of it, in fact, appear to have been ignored.

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