The Houston Astros’ sign-stealing operation appears to have involved more than just trash can banging and occurred in some form at both home games and on the road. Details from the Wall Street Journal’s Jared Diamond reveal that the team also utilized an Excel-based application, programmed with an algorithm that could decode the opposing catchers’ signs. The program, called “Codebreaker,” suggests it was the Astros’ front office that laid the groundwork for the team’s electronic sign-stealing scheme.
During MLB’s investigation into the Astros, then general manager Jeff Luhnow said he had no knowledge of any misconduct from his club. However, in a Jan. 2 letter sent by commissioner Rob Manfred to Luhnow obtained by the WSJ, Manfred wrote 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.”
Luhnow responded to Manfred’s letter with a binder including more than 170 pages that attempted to cast doubt on the letters’ contents, according to the Journal.
Both Luhnow and then-manager AJ Hinch were suspended one year for allowing the illegal sign stealing to happen on their team, regardless of their specific involvement in the scheme. Astros owner Jim Crane fired both Luhnow and Hinch shortly after MLB levied the suspensions.
Following the release of the league’s investigation into the Houston sign-stealing operation, Luhnow said in a statement: “The sign-stealing initiative was not planned or directed by baseball management. The trash-can banging was driven and executed by players, and the video decoding of signs originated and was executed by lower-level employees working with the bench coach. I am deeply upset that I wasn’t informed of any misconduct because I would have stopped it.”
The Journal’s report based on Manfred’s letter contradicts Luhnow’s statement denying his involvement. His participation in the organization’s sign-stealing system appears to now be in question.
The team’s Codebreaker system involved a person watching an in-game live feed and logging the catcher’s signs into the spreadsheet, as well as the type of pitch that was actually thrown, according to the Journal. The system then decoded the corresponding sign for each pitch. Once the signs were known, baserunners would steal and relay them to batters.
By June 2017, players started watching a live game on a feed and began banging on a trash can to communicate signs. The scheme lasted through the 2017 World Series. Houston’s bench coach at the time Alex Cora and then-designated hitter Carlos Beltrán were the only two other members of the team named in MLB’s report. Cora was hired as the Red Sox’s manager before the 2018 season, and he led Boston to a World Series title in his first season there. Beltrán was hired as the Mets’ manager this offseason. Both Cora and Beltrán were fired by their clubs for their involvement in the Astros’ sign-stealing scandal.
According to the Journal, even though the banging scheme had ceased by the end of the 2017 regular season, the Astros continued using Codebreaker during the 2018 season, relaying signs more discreetly than by making loud thumping sounds. Houston also used Codebreaker to steal signs in away games, too, according to the Journal, which also reported that Luhnow received had received at least two emails documenting the scheme.
One was sent by Tom Koch-Weser, the team’s director of advance information on May 24, 2017, and was titled “Road Notes (April-May).” According to the Journal, the five-page email included six underlined topic headings, with the fifth one called, “The System”—a reference to what Koch-Weser described to investigators as “all kind of covert operations,” including sign stealing.
The Journal reports that Luhnow told investigators he didn’t read the full note because of its length, and that he was unfamiliar with the term “the system.”
On Aug. 26, 2017, in another “road notes,” Koch-Weser reportedly wrote: “The system: our 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.”
Luhnow replied to Koch-Weser in an email two weeks later, per the Journal, saying, “Tom, this type of write up is very helpful. Seems like our baserunning is still pathetic. What the hell happened to our pitching this series? I mean that was historically bad…”
However, the Journal reports Luhnow told MLB investigators that because of its length he did not read Koch-Weser’s whole email, to which he was responding, claiming he would have followed up on anything related to “dark arts,” because it sounded “nefarious” and “sinister.”
The Journal published its report about an hour before MLB Network aired Sports Illustrated’s Tom Verducci’s exclusive interview with Hinch, whose response to the scandal starkly contrasts Luhnow’s comments. While Luhnow blamed the players and distanced the baseball operations department from the scandal, Hinch repeatedly took ownership for his failure to act.
“I’m the man up front,” Hinch told Verducci. “As the manager I always feel responsibility for everything that happens in and around the team. I was in a position of knowledge, and that’s been mentioned. I’m going to serve a pretty stiff penalty, and I just want people to know I’m sorry for being a part of it.
“It happened on my watch. I’m not proud of that. I’ll never be proud of it. I didn’t like it. But I have to own it because I was in a leadership position. And the commissioner’s office made it very, very clear that the GM and the manager were in position to make sure nothing like this happened—and we fell short.”