MLB has said that the Astros’ sign-stealing scheme in 2017 and 2018 was player-driven, but a report Friday said that it knew the plan originated in the team’s front office.
The Wall Street Journal reported that Houston’s baseball operations department put together a system to steal signs with technology in 2016, the year before the team won the World Series. The scheme, named Codebreaker, employed video, Excel spreadsheets and an algorithm that could decipher catchers’ signals in real time. MLB learned of Codebreaker when it was investigating the Astros for stealing signs in 2017 and 2018, the Journal reported.
The team also had a “sign-stealing department” that engaged in the “dark arts” of intercepting signals, according to a letter MLB commissioner Rob Manfred sent to former general manager Jeff Luhnow in January that outlined baseball’s findings.
The Journal laid out how the Codebreaker system operated, based on information in Manfred’s letter:
The way Codebreaker worked was simple: Somebody would watch an in-game live feed and log the catcher’s signs into the spreadsheet, as well as the type of pitch that was actually thrown. With that information, Codebreaker determined how the signs corresponded with different pitches. Once decoded, that information would be communicated through intermediaries to a baserunner, who would relay them to the hitter.
Astros players expanded the process in mid-2017. They watched a live feed from center field, figured out the signs, and then delivered them to hitters by banging (or not banging) on a trash can. Manfred, the Journal noted, said Luhnow was unaware of the “banging scheme.”
MLB found that the Astros used Codebreaker at home and on the road during the life of the sign-stealing scheme, an important piece of information that calls the legitimacy of the hitters’ 2017 performance into further question. Houston was 3-6 on the road in the postseason that year but won Game 7 of the World Series in Los Angeles as it knocked out Dodgers starter Yu Darvish in the second inning.
Teams grew suspicious of the Astros during the 2017 season, and one e-mail to Luhnow in August that year claimed a drop in Codebreaker’s effectiveness as teams began regularly changing signs, according to the Journal’s report. (One piece of anecdotal evidence: The team’s OPS dropped from .948 in July 2017 to .726 in August before improving to .787 in September.)
Astros players continued with the scheme through the 2017 World Series and into the 2018 season before scrapping it.
MLB, according to the Journal, determined that Luhnow knew about Codebreaker but couldn’t prove whether he knew how it worked.
The only mention of former manager A.J. Hinch in the Journal’s report was Luhnow asking a staffer in an e-mail correspodence how much Hinch knew of Codebreaker. Luhnow and Hinch were fired over the scheme and were suspended for the 2020 season by MLB. No players were punished because Manfred gave them immunity in exchange for full disclosure about sign-stealing.
Hinch said in an interview with MLB Network’s Tom Verducci that he feels a responsibility for the scandal because he failed to stop the sign-stealing early on.