When Jeff Luhnow was hired by Jim Crane, the billionaire owner of the Houston Astros, as general manager in 2011, he asked his new boss what the constraints were in his role. Crane looked at him and then handed him a piece of paper.
When Jim Crane bought the Astros for $680 million in 2011, he enlisted former McKinsey & Company management consultant Jeff Luhnow to run the organization.
In his first job in baseball at the St. Louis Cardinals, Luhnow’s data-driven approach to management had ruffled feathers with the game’s old guard, to the point where colleagues would routinely ignore him or, in the case of one high-ranking Cardinals executive, allegedly threaten to “kick his ass.”
But it has yielded results, as the Cardinals won two World Series in six years.
Like Crane, Luhnow was programmed for efficiency and he set about cutting costs across the club. Travel subsidies were slashed and even items like free team suitcases were removed for a time.
Then there were the staff cuts.
Gene Coleman was the Astros’ head strength coach. He had just helped Luhnow through a workout when, 20 minutes later, he received a call in his car on the way home.
It was Luhnow. Coleman was now surplus to requirements.
Bench coach Dave Trembley, meanwhile, recalls the words of his colleague Dan Houston, who worked with Luhnow at the Cardinals and the Astros: “This guy is the most cold-hearted person I ever met,” he told him. “If he had to fire his mother, he’d fire his mother.”
In time, Luhnow would fill the front office with a team of stats wonks — the so-called “Nerd Cave” — tasked with centralizing every conceivable piece of baseball information in one password-protected web address. “In a nod to Houston’s NASA roots, they called it ‘Ground Control,’ ” writes Drellich.
The Nerd Cave weren’t your typical baseball folk.
“Most of the people that worked for the Astros at that time were the f–king Island of Misfit Toys,” one Astros exec is quoted as saying. “Most of us could not have gotten a job in baseball elsewhere.”
Luhnow’s approach aimed to take the human element out of baseball, adopting analytics as the most reliable method of achieving success, even if it was unpopular. “The antidote to the complaints was actually quite simple, in Luhnow’s mind: the Astros needed to win,” writes Drellich. “Winning, he believed, would fix everything.”
Besides, “Houstonians were desperate,” writes Drellich. “They had never seen a baseball championship parade, so they were more willing to sit through something radical if it meant getting over the hump.”
While it was all change off the field, it was the same depressing performances on it. In 2013, for instance, they were the worst team in Major League Baseball, a dismal showing typified by shortstop Jonathan Villar in one game when he lunged for second base but only succeeded in planting his face squarely in an opposing player’s rear end.
Gradually, performances improved. In 2014, they hired AJ Hinch as manager and, the following year, they made the post-season play-offs for the first time since 2005.
Luhnow, meanwhile, changed the vanity plate on his car, switching it from “GM111” to “OCTOBB,” a reminder that October — the month of the playoffs each year – was where he and his team needed to be from now on.
In 2016, Luhnow appointed Derek Vigoa to his team, primarily as a Spanish translator but also because of his business acumen. He also had a trick up his sleeve.
Vigoa had created a vast database he called “Codebreaker” that logged opposition hand signals and used an algorithm to predict likely what kind of ball a batter would face and when.
In other words, sign-stealing.
While entirely legal outside of a game environment, doing it during one wasn’t permitted, especially with the use of technology to assist a team. But, as Drellich writes: “The rules seemed to be an afterthought in Houston, if they were a thought at all.”
Which is why, two months into the 2017 season, the Astros set up a camera in center field trained solely on the opposition catcher, so they could zoom in on the signals he was giving and then relay the pictures to a television hanging in the team dugout.
While the technology worked like a dream, the next phase of the scam wasn’t so state of the art.
“Once the signs were decoded, the Astros in the tunnel told the hitter what was coming by making noise. They experimented with clapping, whistling, and yelling, before settling on — of all things — banging on a trash can, often with a baseball bat,” writes Drellich.
“No bangs typically meant a fastball was coming: one or two bangs signaled a breaking ball or changeup.”
While the live feed and the monitor were legal, the Astros had overstepped an ethical line by stealing signs and not all team members were comfortable with it, especially the pitchers.
In 2020, Charlie Morton told the media he regretted “not doing more to stop it” while pitcher Collin McHugh felt sorry his contemporaries. “It was tough watching that,” he said. “You feel for guys out there who are working their tails off, whether they’re on your team or against you.”
The Astros weren’t the only team at it.
In September 2017, both the Boston Red Sox and the New York Yankees were fined for electronic sign-stealing, prompting a warning to all teams from MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred that no further breaches would be tolerated and that it would be a team’s general manager and manager — not the players — held responsible.
Not that the Astros cared.
They were on their way to the first ever World Series title, beating the LA Dodgers in a winner-takes-all final game at Dodger Stadium. “The goal was singularly to win,” writes Drellich. “It’s hard to say the Astros were the most likely team in baseball to start cheating.
“But there couldn’t have been a team more poorly prepared to stop cheating.”
The Astros got their championship parade and a visit to the White House to meet President Donald Trump, where Luhnow, a Trump supporter, explained how his “radical ways” had helped to “build an organization that could compete for multiple championships.”
But their joy was short-lived.
On Nov. 12, 2019, Drellich published an article in The Athletic detailing what had been going on at the Astros — and all hell broke loose.
The MLB launched an investigation and over the course of two months, they interviewed 68 people, including 23 Astros players, as well as collecting more than 76,000 emails as evidence. They also found that data on Jeff Luhnow’s cellphone had also been erased.
When the MLB returned their verdict on Jan. 13, 2020, they suspended Luhnow and Hitch for the 2020 season. But a few hours later, they were fired by Jim Crane. The Astros, meanwhile, were fined $5 million — the maximum allowed under MLB rules.
Remarkably, the Astros weren’t stripped of their 2017 World Series title, nor were any players reprimanded.
Jeff Luhnow, meanwhile, was adamant he was innocent. “I am not a cheater. I did not know rules were being broken,” he said in a statement soon after his dismissal.
Then he threw everyone else under the team bus.
“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.”
The absurdity wasn’t lost on Evan Drellich.
“For a team that could be so high-tech, to be caught with a cheating system that concluded with a hitter simply banging on a garbage can was an ironic error,” he writes.
Moreover, the scandal was typical of a team that operated in what he calls “the grey realms” of the rules. “It is the cruel, number-crunching, dollar-focused, sometimes amusing, and oft-maddening reality of how really smart and successful people run a ball club.
“It’s what happens when corporate America meets America’s pastime.”