Feb 11, 2020 - Sports

Inside the Astros' front office's sign stealing operation

Illustration of someone inspecting a catcher

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

Over the weekend, a bombshell Wall Street Journal report revealed that the Astros' front office was not only aware of the sign-stealing that was going on but, in fact, created the system in the first place. It even had a name: "Codebreaker."

How it worked: Using an in-game live feed, someone would log the catchers' signs and the type of pitch that was thrown into an Excel spreadsheet. An algorithm would then decipher what each sign meant and that information was communicated to a baserunner, who would relay it to the hitter.

Why it matters: This directly contradicts MLB commissioner Rob Manfred's Jan. 13 statement, which described the sign-stealing scheme as "player-driven" and "not an initiative that was planned or directed" by the front office.

Inside the operation...

1. Tom Koch-Weser: The Astros' director of advance information sent multiple emails to GM Jeff Luhnow in 2017 that referenced "the system" and a "sign-stealing department," per WSJ.

  • Aug. 26, 2017, email: "[O]ur dark arts, sign-stealing department has been less productive in the second half as the league has become aware of our reputation and now most clubs change their signs a dozen times per game."
  • The backdrop: When Koch-Weser was hired in 2013, the Astros noted that instead of traveling ahead of the team to watch upcoming opponents like a traditional advance scout, he would travel with the club and provide analysis "through video and statistical information."
  • Current job status: Still employed by the Astros, though his responsibilities were reduced following the 2019 season.

2. Kevin Goldstein: A special assistant to the GM, the former baseball writer was identified as the unnamed executive who suggested using cameras to steal signs leading up to the 2017 postseason.

  • The email: "One thing in specific we are looking for is picking up signs coming out of the dugout. What we are looking for is how much we can see, how we would log things, if we need cameras/binoculars, etc. So go to game, see what you can [or can't] do and report back your findings."
  • Current job status: Still employed by the Astros in the same role.

3. Derek Vigoa: While serving as an intern in 2016, he showed Luhnow a PowerPoint presentation about "Codebreaker" and assumed the GM knew it would be used in games because that was "where the value would be," per WSJ.

  • Current job status: Still employed by the Astros and has since been promoted to director of team operations, according to his LinkedIn.

The big picture: In a letter to Luhnow on Jan. 2, Manfred said that "there is more than sufficient evidence to support a conclusion that you knew ... that the Astros maintained a sign-stealing program that violated MLB's rules."

  • Two weeks later, he told the public that the scheme was, with the exception of bench coach Alex Cora, player-led.
  • Why the change? Was it because he couldn't definitively prove the allegations stated in his letter? Or is something else going on here?

The bottom line: Spring training opens this week, and baseball is not only dealing with a shocking cheating scandal — it's also dealing with a growing suspicion that there's more to that scandal than has been revealed.

P.S.: According to multiple reports yesterday, MLB is mulling significant changes to its postseason format. This is the league using the media to try to change the conversation.

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