Baseball In January …

Pitchers and catchers will start to report to Spring Training in about a month, but baseball finds itself in the news today in a way it would prefer not to be in the news.  Of course, I am referring to the outcome of the MLB investigation into the Houston Astros’ sign stealing endeavors back in 2017 when the Astros won the World Series.  You can go to any one of several hundred websites that cover sports and find the details of what the Astros did and what the evidence is.  I will leave that as background reading for all who are interested.

I want to think about some of the consequences here.  MLB suspended Astros’ GM, Jeff Lunhow, and Astros’ manager, AJ Hinch for 1 year.  The owner of the Astros subsequently fired both men.  (A former Astros’ Assistant GM, Brandon Taubman is also suspended from baseball through the end of the 2020 season for behavior unrelated to this sign-stealing investigation.)  Question 1:

  • Even assuming that both men knew that the sign-stealing was going on and did nothing to curtail it, it strains the imagination to believe that either of them did the sign stealing or were part of the communication link that got the information from the “sign-stealer” to the batter in the box.  So, after the exhaustive investigation that MLB is trumpeting, who are the actual sign-stealers and who are the communicators and what is the sanction to be levied against them?

The Astros will also lose their first round and second round picks in the Baseball Draft in both 2020 and 2021.  That penalty has some teeth given that one of the foundation pieces of the Astros’ success model has been to identify top talent in the draft and to develop it into a team core where several young star players are still on “rookie contracts”.  Question 2:

  • If MLB wants to use this as a hammer to make teams think about doing this in the future, why not set the precedent that draft picks are going to be the coin by which team payments are made.  Since these incidents happened in 2017, why not take the Astros’ top two picks in the 2017, 2018, and 2019 Drafts and make them free agents – – in addition to taking away the top 2 picks for the next two years?

Why is a bludgeon necessary?  Well, it appears that there is a simultaneous investigation ongoing into the behavior(s) of the Red Sox in 2018 – coincidentally the year the Red Sox were also World Series champs.  And, there are vague reports out there that as many as 8 MLB teams (27% of MLB by the way) may have been involved in actions like what the Astros did and what the Red Sox are alleged to have done.  Question 3:

  • Since the beneficiary of the stolen sign(s) was a player on the field, it is not possible that every player on the Astros was unaware of what was going on.  So, where is player liability for whatever was their level of culpability?  I am unconvinced by arguments that players are protected by their union and therefore cannot be punished here.

This entire matter boils down to one’s fundamental view of why this was done in the first place.  A “hard-liner” here would say that this behavior tears at the fabric of the game itself and that “hard-liner” would eventually wrap himself into a pretzel claiming that whenever the playing field for a sporting event is not level, the event is meaningless and should not enjoy public attention.  A ”situational-ethicist” here would way that sign-stealing – or attempts at sign-stealing – are part of the game since the day that sending signals among players on the field was first done.  The “situational-ethicist” would mumble a lot of “tut-tuts” and suggest that the advantage gained by the Astros was a result of their superiority at sign-stealing – – which is part of the game.

The hard-liner will want to see some folks banned for life from MLB; the situational-ethicist would consider ignoring all of this and codifying in the MLB rulebook what sort of sign-stealing is allowed and what sort is ‘over the line”.  (Of course, “over the line” would pin down the situational-ethicist into declaring what is right and what is wrong which is something they will never do.)  Pick whatever side you want; I have purposely spread out these positions to create room for a spectrum here.  For me, I am closer to the position of the “hard-liner” here…

  • [Aside:  Here is an idea for a nuclear option.  There is precedent in sports for a league forcing an owner to dispose of his franchise.  The NBA did this with the Clippers a few years back; MLB did this with the Phillies in the 1940s; the NFL at least nudged the former owner of the Panthers to sell his team about 2 years ago.  So, how about MLB making it a rule that any team caught doing this sort of stuff in the future will require the owner to dispose of his franchise?]

On more positive notes, five very good baseball players have signed 1-year contracts recently thereby avoiding arbitration hearings.

  1. Mookie Betts signed a 1-year contract worth $27M with the Red Sox.  Betts will be an unrestricted free agent after the 2020 season.
  2. Cody Bellinger signed a 1-year contract worth $11.5M with the Dodgers.  Bellinger will be subject to arbitration through 2023.
  3. Kris Bryant signed a 1-year contract worth $16.8M with the Cubs.  Bryant will be subject to arbitration again next year.
  4. Aaron Judge signed a 1-year contract worth $8.5M with the Yankees.  Judge will be subject to arbitration through 2022.
  5. Francisco Lindor signed a 1-year contract worth $17.5M with the Indians.  Lindor will be subject to arbitration again next year.

Finally, Dwight Perry had this interesting look back at 2019 in the Seattle Times:

“This is the Year of the Pig, according to the Chinese calendar, though one could argue that Russian doping and the can-banging Astros make it seem like the Year of the Cheetah.”

But don’t get me wrong, I love sports………



5 thoughts on “Baseball In January …”

  1. Sign stealing is a relatively new phenomenon. I believe it started well after Abner Doubleday invented baseball. I hear there was a rain delay on the second day of the first season. If I am not wrong, that was the first time signs were stolen.

    If it’s OK for the runner on 2nd to steal the catcher’s sign, or the coach on 1st or 3rd to steal a sign, what’s the big deal about technology? Everyone is stealing signs everyday in MLB.

  2. I would argue that the Astro’s sign-stealing system was far more elaborate and effective than a guy on second base. The Curmudgeon didn’t remind us of the victim of the scandal, the LA Dodgers. The LA Times’ Bill Plaschke writes typically overwrought columns, but he speaks for many in this area this morning when he says “the Astros cheated the title-starved Dodgers of far more than a championship. They stole a legacy. They robbed history. They changed the sports narrative of this city forever.”

    1. Jim:

      The key word in your comment is “overwrought”. The reality that folks like Bill Plaschke do not recognize is that the Astros “cheated” and the Astros “won” – – but there is no way to prove that they won because of their cheating.

      And by the way, the Dodgers and the LA fans are less “title-starved” than the Indians and the Cleveland fans.

    1. Rich:

      Manfred says he promised player immunity in exchange for information about the scandal. If he did that, then he cannot renege on that promise.

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