On Monday, Houston Astros owner Jim Crane fired General Manager Jeff Luhnow and Manager A.J. Hinch just hours after Major League Baseball Commissioner Rob Manfred suspended both men for the 2020 season for their roles in the Astros electronic sign-stealing scheme in 2017 and 2018.
Additionally, Manfred stripped the Astros of their first and second round draft picks in the 2020 and 2021 MLB Drafts, and he fined the organization $5 million.
In an executive summary of the investigation’s findings and his subsequent decision-making resulting in these penalties, Commissioner Manfred:
- Blasts both Luhnow, Hinch, and Alex Cora (then the Astros bench coach and now Boston Red Sox manager) for differing degrees of failing to adhere to the rules as outlined by MLB on electronic signal stealing;
- And blasts the Astros’ baseball operations department for creating a problematic culture as it relates to the way “its employees are treated, its relations with other Clubs, and its relations with the media and external stakeholders…”, calling it an “insular culture – one that valued and rewarded results over other considerations…”
What are my immediate takeaways?
1) MLB Teams Just Got Scared Straight
Today’s ruling will send chills down the spine of many MLB teams who have been skirting the signal-stealing rules.
Manfred realized his ruling had to be stern in an attempt to discourage similar future behaviors by other clubs. Time will tell if he’s successful in this task, but he certainly can’t be faulted for doing far more than merely slapping these men or this franchise on the wrist.
Rather, this is a stern penalty. And while we could debate whether select Astros players should have also be suspended
2) Luhnow and Hinch are forever tainted
Over the last three seasons, Luhnow and Hinch oversaw a historic run of winning which netted the franchise its first World Series in 2017, another World Series trip in 2019, and three consecutive seasons (2017-2019) of winning more than 100 games after losing more than 100 games in three consecutive seasons (2011-13).
Unfortunately, the Commissioner’s report unequivocally taints Hinch’s ethics and Luhnow’s leadership skills.
Both men are unquestionably talented, and perhaps with time, will be given another chance to re-enter baseball on some level.
But I would be very surprised if either man achieves as lofty a status with a major league team as they had with the Astros.
3) Alex Cora is in big trouble
As damning as Manfred’s executive summary is with respect to Luhnow, Hinch, and the entire baseball operations department of the Astros, the report scours Cora.
Cora’s name is mentioned 11 times in the 9-page report, and in Manfred’s summary assessment of Cora’s behavior, he writes:
Cora was involved in developing both the banging scheme and utilizing the replay review room to decode and transmit signs. Cora participated in both schemes, and through his active participation, implicitly condoned the players’ conduct.
Manfred went on to write that an assessment of Cora’s penalties would be rendered after the league completes a separate and on-going investigation into similar signal-stealing accusations levied at the Boston Red Sox in 2018 under Cora’s helm.
But since Cora was much more actively involved in the Astros scandal than either Hinch or Luhnow (according to the MLB investigation), and given his connection with the Red Sox matter, I suspect MLB will levy at least a two-year suspension, possibly a three-year suspension, and maybe even a lifetime ban…pending the evidence uncovered.
And, whatever the penalties assigned to Cora, that too will have a chilling effect on other teams’ behaviors going forward.
4) Astros Owner Crane No Hero Here
Some may praise Jim Crane for expediently terminating Luhnow and Hinch within hours of MLB’s suspensions.
But from a public relations perspective, he really had no other choice but to fire these men. So for that, he wins no honorability prize with me.
Technological advancements have made sport more compelling on so many fronts, from how players train, how fans consume, and how leaders manage.
Just like in the world of business, the sports industry is filled with highly competitive people. And sometimes in the heat of competition, people skirt the rules to gain an edge and satiate their unquenchable thirst for success and winning.
But sports are a public trust, and certainly baseball has endured eras where that trust has been violated. From the Chicago White Sox scandal of 1919, to Pete Rose gambling on baseball, to the rampant use of steroids which tainted offensive records and kept numerous otherwise shoe-ins for the Hall of Fame from inclusion at Cooperstown’s shrine.
Part of the Commissioner’s job is to protect the relationship with the public. On that note, I highly commend Rob Manfred for his stiff penalties. This not only sends a message to all other teams that cheating won’t be tolerated and that fairness is not just valued but expected, but it sends these same messages to the public.
As an economist, I believe that the best way to deter the consumption of a good is to raise its real price. In that respect, the best way to deter the frequency with which teams engage in electronically stealing signals (a form of cheating as MLB rules are currently constructed) is to raise the penalties associated with such activity.
Commissioner Manfred has done that emphatically, raising the stakes in a manner that ultimately inflicted even larger negative impacts upon the baseball careers of his intended targets.
And in the process, sending a strong message to the new wave of tech-savvy front office hopefuls to (1) not use their technical skills for unethical purposes and (2) be more cognizant of how you treat people both internal and external to your job.