February 9, 2020

A.J. Hinch Interviewed About Sign-Stealing; WSJ Reports Scheme Was Set Up In 2016 And Continued Into 2018; Commissioner Manfred Covering Up Extensive Involvement Of Houston's Front Office; Two Yankees Suspect Astros Cheated In 2019, But No One Has Denied MFY Were Cheating 2015-17, So F Them; Charlie Morton Admits He Knew Astros Teammates Were Cheating In 2017

Former Astros manager A.J. Hinch was given a chance in a 25-minute interview to deny accusations that his Astros players wore buzzers under their uniforms to receive signals about certain pitches in 2019. Hinch did not deny the allegations.

MLB has stated it "found no evidence to substantiate" the stories about under-the-uniform devices. Hinch's interview with Tom Verducci aired on the MLB Network this past Friday. (Full interview here.)
I still feel responsible and will always feel responsible as the man out front. As the leader, I was in charge of the team. I put out a statement to apologize. But there is something different to doing it on camera and putting a face to an apology, and saying I'm sorry to the league, to baseball, to fans, to players, to the coaches. ...

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. ...

I didn't initiate, or didn't endorse [the scheme]. But I was the manager. I think there is a responsibility when you're in a position to end it. My mindset at that point was to demonstrate that I didn't like it [by smashing a couple of monitors]. In hindsight, I should have had a meeting and faced it ... and ended it. ... I tolerated too much. ...

I wish I would have [stopped it]. ... [T]hat's a big question that I'm going to process over what's now a season-long suspension.

Hinch was asked if the team's 2017 World Series title was tainted.
It's a fair question. And I think everyone is going to have to draw their own conclusion.

The Wall Street Journal reported on Friday that the Astros' front office laid the groundwork for the illegal sign-stealing scheme back in September 2016 using an Excel-based application nicknamed "Codebreaker". The program was introduced by Derek Vigoa, an intern at that time and now the Astros' senior manager of team operations.

The application was used to decode opposing catchers' signs for both home and road games throughout 2017 and for part of 2018. That system evolved over time into banging on a trash can.

Ex-Astros general manager Jeff Luhnow told MLB investigators that he believed "Codebreaker" would be used only to decipher signs from previous-played games. Three Astros employees, Vigoa, Tom Koch-Weser (the Astros' director of advance information), and Matt Hogan, say Luhnow lied to MLB investigators. Koch-Weser said Luhnow would often stop by the Astros' video room during road games and ask: "You guys Codebreaking?" Hogan told MLB that no one hid their activities from Luhnow. "It would have been something to show we were working and get validation of our work." Luhnow received on-going updates about Codebreaker. He claimed he didn't fully read these e-mails.

Commissioner Rob Manfred cleared kept secret (i.e., covered up) additional damaging information on the involvement of the Astros front office. In a January 2, 2020 letter, Manfred told Luhnow "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". In his official report, issued five days later, Manfred watered "more than sufficient evidence" down to "some knowledge of those efforts, but he did not give it much attention".

Yankees third baseman Gio Urshela thinks Houston's Jose Altuve "probably knew [a slider] was coming" when he hit a pennant-winning home run in Houston in 2019. And Yankees relief pitcher Adam Ottavino does not believe the Astros stopped cheating after 2017.
For me, when the trash cans stopped, it makes me think they just got smarter with the cheating, not that they stopped. That lends itself to a possible buzzer system. I don't know. ... It's a crazy rabbit hole to go down, for sure. ... [The Altuve at-bat] looks a little fishy, but ... I can't say one way or another.
When The Athletic reported in January that the 2018 Red Sox were being investigated for using their video replay room to steal opponents' signs, it also noted that the Yankees had done the same thing, beginning in 2015. While no one has denied the Yankees used their video room to steal signs from 2015-17, because MLB drew a line before the 2018 season, the MFY are not under investigation. (But last summer in London, Alex Cora implied that Carlos Beltran was up to some funny business with the Yankees. Like Ottovino says, it's hard to think a team would simply stop cheating after 2017.)

Rays pitcher Charlie Morton (a member of the 2017-18 Astros) admitted on Saturday that he knew about the 2017 sign-stealing scheme and understands why people think the Astros championship is not legit.
I was aware of the banging. You could hear the banging in the dugout. I don't know when it dawned on me, but you knew it was going on. ... I regret not doing more to stop it. I don't know what that would have entailed. I think the actions would have been somewhat extreme to stop it. ...

I know what it's like to struggle in the big leagues and I know what it's like to battle for a spot. So to know that was going on and guys were having to deal with that, pitching in the big leagues is tough enough, so that part was difficult. ...

Certainly the public perception of that [World Series] win has changed ... People have weighed in on this. That's the reality of it. There are moments during the World Series that will always be special to me, that won't be "tainted". But ... that's a justified perception to have.

A few weeks ago, White Sox pitcher Dallas Keuchel, a member of the 2017 Astros, apologized for Houston's sign-stealing operation, but fudged and downplayed the illegality of the operation.
First and foremost, I think that apologies should be in order, if not for everybody on the team. And when the stuff was going on, it was never intended to be what it's made to be right now. I think when stuff comes out about things that go on during the course of a big-league ball season, it's always blown up to the point of, "Oh gosh this has never happened before." I'm not going to go into specific detail, but over the course of the playoffs in 2017 everybody was using multiple signs.

For factual purposes, when there's nobody on base, when in the history of Major League Baseball has there been multiple signs? You can go back and watch film of every team in the playoffs, there were probably six out of eight teams using multiple signs. It's just what the state of baseball was at that point in time. Was it against the rules? Yes it was. And I personally am sorry for what's come about, the whole situation. It is what it is and we got to move past that. I never thought anything would've come like it did. I, myself, am sorry. ...

I can tell you not every game there were signs being stolen. Some guys did a really good job. And some times we, as a group, did have signs but we still couldn't hit the pitcher. So it wasn't like every game we had everything going on. The whole system, it really works a little bit, but at the same time there was a human element where some guys were better than our hitters.
You can certainly find fault with (or question) some of what Keuchel said ("it was never intended to be what it's made to be", the Astros did not cheat in every game) but he did apologize, which is far more than the outright evasions or "no comments" offered by Jose Altuve and Alex Bregman.

Keuchel said the Astros' pitchers probably did not benefit from the stolen signs in 2017. Then, in his very next sentence, he said some pitchers benefited, but not him. Most of the time. (How he knows this is not explained.)
Did our pitchers benefit from any of that? I mean, not really. But at the same time, we might've had a few runs more per game. In my instance, I did not. I was actually pretty mad about that. I didn't really enjoy that sometimes. It is what it is.
Jon Greenberg of The Athletic:
In 23 starts in 2017, Keuchel's run support was 5.07 runs per game, less than Charlie Morton's 6.1 and more than Fiers' 4.67. Still, in 12 of Keuchel's starts, he got five or more runs of support. He only got one run of support in Game 1 of the 2017 World Series, giving up three runs in seven innings and taking the loss. In Game 5, he was pulled after 3.2 innings, but the Astros won at home, 13-12.

A few weeks after the Astros' story broke, The Athletic's Molly Knight noted that "little has been written about the damage that such a [sign-stealing] system could have inflicted on fringe baseball players just trying to hold on to their jobs".
After all, one bad outing could lead to a guy being cut from the organization. Or, it could result in a pitcher being optioned to the minor leagues and potentially losing hundreds of thousands of dollars.

The major-league minimum salary in 2017 was $535,000. That year, players on minimum contracts made about $3,300 per game. ... The pay scale in the minor leagues is in a different universe. That same year, some minor-league pitchers were paid as little as $12,000 for the entire season.

There is also the issue of service time. A player must remain on the active roster for a set number of days before he is eligible for arbitration, a process that initiates significant pay bumps. Demotions to the minors delay that mechanism as well.
Knight went back through Houston's 2017 box scores and identified "nine opposing pitchers who were either optioned to the minors or designated for assignment immediately following a shaky outing at Minute Maid Park".

She contacted those nine pitchers: Chase DeJong (Mariners), Matt Strahm (Royals), Anthony Bass (Rangers), Tyler Wilson (Orioles), Dillon Gee (Rangers), Sam Gaviglio (Mariners), Chase Whitley (Rays), Matt Dermody (Blue Jays), and Mike Bolsinger (Blue Jays).

Four of the nine men replied "within minutes". Everyone who spoke to Knight requested anonymity. One pitcher told Knight he "wasn't interested in ever watching his game in Houston again".

David Spampinato, Twitter, January 29: "On August 4th, the game with the most trash can bangs, the Astros scored 16 earned runs. Mike Bolsinger, a Blue Jays reliever, allowed 4 earned runs in 0.1 IP. He never pitched in the big leagues again."

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