Feb 11, 2020

Axios Sports

By Kendall Baker
Kendall Baker

👋 Good morning! Let's sports.

Today's word count: 1,843 words (7 minutes).

1 big thing: ⚾️ Inside the Astros' front office

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

Over the weekend, a bombshell WSJ report (subscription) 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.

2. 🏈 Rivers, Chargers officially part ways
Photo: John Cordes/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Philip Rivers will enter free agency this offseason, officially ending his 16-year run with the Chargers.

What they're saying:

  • Rivers, age 38: "There are so many relationships and memories with coaches, support staff and teammates that will last forever, and for that I am so thankful. I never took for granted the opportunity to lead this team out onto the field for 235 games. We had a lot of great moments, beginning in San Diego and then finishing in L.A. I wish my teammates and coaches nothing but the best moving forward."
  • Owner Dean Spanos: "Through 16 seasons, 224 consecutive starts and more 'dadgummits' and 'shoots' than any of us can count, not only has Philip Rivers been our quarterback, he's been the heart and soul of our organization. ... I think he broke just about every team record in the book and, simply put, it was just fun to watch him play football."

By the numbers: Rivers led the Chargers to the playoffs six times, including an appearance in the 2007 AFC Championship Game. He has the most wins, passing yards and passing TD of any QB to not appear in a Super Bowl.

  • Wins: 123 (8th all-time)
  • Passing yards: 59,271 (6th all-time)
  • Passing TD: 397 (6th all-time)

Looking ahead: Rivers joins a free-agent QB market that could include Tom Brady, Drew Brees, Ryan Tannehill, Jameis Winston, Teddy Bridgewater and ... Taysom Hill. Where might Rivers land?

  • The Buccaneers have "legitimate" interest following another up-and-down season from Winston, and Rivers just moved his family to Florida.
  • The Colts, who are built to win now, also make a lot of sense. Head coach Frank Reich and OC Nick Sirianni both worked with Rivers for multiple seasons in San Diego.

Go deeper: Rivers' top moments as a Charger (ESPN)

3. 📸 Yesterday in photos
Photo: Maddie Meyer/Getty Images

BOSTON — Northeastern beat Boston University in a thrilling 5-4 double OT victory to claim the school's third straight Beanpot title.

Photo: Jayne Kamin-Oncea/Getty Images

ANAHEIM, Calif. — Thousands poured into Angel Stadium for a public memorial honoring the Altobelli family, who were among the nine people killed in last month's helicopter crash that also took the lives of Kobe and Gianna Bryant.

Photo: Vaughn Ridley/Getty Images

TORONTO — D'Angelo Russell scored 22 points in his Minnesota debut, but it wasn't enough to prevent the Raptors from beating the Timberwolves, 137-126, and extending their winning streak to 15 games, the second-longest in the NBA this season.

4. 🏀 Men's poll: Preseason No. 1 Spartans drop out
Expand chart
Data: AP; Table: Axios Visuals

The top 9 teams remained unchanged in the latest AP men's college basketball poll, Seton Hall moved into the top 10 after beating Villanova and preseason No. 1 Michigan State — losers of three straight — dropped out of the rankings entirely.

Last night:

  • Duke 70, Florida State 65: "This has been an incredible 48 hours for our team," said Coach K. "I've got good guys, man. I've got really good kids. Not many teams would've won tonight after Saturday. I'm so damn proud of them, man. I wish you could feel what I feel."
  • Baylor 52, Texas 45: That's 21 straight wins for the top-ranked Bears — one short of the Big 12 record set by Kansas in 1997.
  • Texas Tech 88, TCU 42: Last year's runners-up celebrated their return to the top 25 with a 46-point win, their largest margin of victory ever in a Big 12 game.

The big picture: ESPN analyst Joe Lunardi's latest bracket projection features one of the most inexperienced fields in the history of the NCAA tournament — a reflection of just how chaotic this season has been.

  • Eighth seed or higher: Rutgers (zero tournament wins since it expanded to 64 teams in 1985), Colorado (2), Houston (3), Penn State (3).
  • Notably absent: North Carolina (91), UConn (55), Syracuse (54).

Fun fact ... A No. 1 seed quartet of San Diego State, Baylor, Gonzaga and Kansas would have a combined 136 all-time tournament wins to its name, which would tie 2014 (Florida, Arizona, Virginia, Wichita State) for the least established group of top seeds in the past 30 years, per FiveThirtyEight's Jake Lourim.

5. 🏀 Women's poll: Gamecocks still No. 1, beat UConn
Expand chart
Data: NCAA; Table: Axios Visuals

South Carolina earned the No. 1 ranking in the women's AP poll for the fifth straight week on Monday — and followed that up hours later with a dominant 70-52 win over No. 5 UConn.

Why it matters:

  • For South Carolina, beating the Huskies was the last "big" thing the program had yet to do in its 12-season rise to national prominence. Now that hurdle has been cleared.
  • For UConn, this marks the first season since 1992-93 that they have lost three games by at least 15 points, having also lost badly to No. 2 Baylor and No. 3 Oregon.

More women's hoops:

6. 💵 CBS Sports partners with William Hill

Photo: Michael Allio/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

CBS Sports said yesterday that William Hill, a sportsbook operator, will be the official sportsbook and provider of wager information for the network, writes Axios' Sara Fischer.

Why it matters: It's the latest media company to partner with a sportsbook to increase engagement with its content — and the latest sportsbook to partner with a media company to acquire more customers.

"We need to acquire customers, and we think that the existing CBS database of customers, 80 million+ in CBS Sports' digital audience and tens of millions on social, is an attractive audience for us to reach. ... We expect a far more efficient customer acquisition cost because CBS has the right audience of prospective sports betters that we can try to tap into."
— Joe Asher, CEO of William Hill US, tells Axios

What to watch: The partnership will tip off with initial integrations in March on CBS Sports digital platforms, with a full rollout planned for the fantasy football season.

7. Feb. 11, 1990: 🥊 Buster shocks the world
Photo: The Ring Magazine via Getty Images

30 years ago today, Buster Douglas pulled off one of the biggest upsets in sports history, knocking out the previously undefeated Mike Tyson (37-0) in the 10th round to win the world heavyweight title.

  • By the numbers: Douglas was famously a 42-1 underdog. For context, No. 16 seed UMBC was a 25-1 underdog against No. 1 seed Virginia ahead of their historic upset in the 2018 NCAA tournament.
  • What came next: Douglas lost his first title defense eight months later in a third-round knockout to Evander Holyfield. He reportedly earned $24.6 million for the fight and retired afterward, only to return six years later, winning eight of nine bouts.

Go deeper:

8. The Ocho: 🐶 The 2020 Westminster Dog Show

"Best of Breed" awards were handed out yesterday at the 2020 Westminster Dog Show, with breeds like Pomeranians, Terriers and Standard Poodles taking center stage.

Pomeranian. Photo: Rich Graessle/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images
Wire Fox Terrier. Photo: Rich Graessle/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images
Standard Poodle. Photo: Rich Graessle/Icon Sportswire via Getty Image

What's next: By tonight, the judges will have narrowed a field of hundreds of dogs down to just seven for the "Best in Show" finale at Madison Square Garden.

📸 Go deeper: More photos (NYT)

9. 🏈 NFL trivia
Talk about a dynamic duo. Photo: Mike Simons/Getty Images

Philip Rivers and Eli Manning were two of the four QBs selected in the first round of the 2004 NFL draft.

  • Question: Who were the other two?
  • Hint: Both played at non-Power 5 schools.

Answer at the bottom.

10. 📚 Good read: The king of ultra-running
Screenshot: @walmsleyruns (Instagram)

30-year-old ultra-runner Jim Walmsley has smashed records at 50 and 100 miles. Now he hopes to make the Olympics in a distance he's never run: 26.2 miles.

"Distance running is always a negotiation; it's about quieting a compelling, insistent whisper telling you to stop. At an Olympic marathon pace ... that whisper can turn into a scream. Walmsley's long-shot chance — his intangible advantage — is that running has always been his path away from pain. He knows what real suffering feels like. He has yet to find it in a race."

Read: Can the king of ultrarunning conquer a race as short as the marathon? (Joseph Bien-Kahn, NYT)

Kendall Baker

Talk tomorrow,

Kendall "Carson Daly is an American institution" Baker

Trivia answer: The Steelers picked Ben Roethlisberger from Miami (OH) at pick No. 11, and the Bills took J.P. Losman from Tulane at pick No. 22.