Just two weeks after the conclusion of a thrilling seven-game World Series between the Houston Astros and Washington Nationals, news broke out of a major cheating scandal involving the Astros, and now Major League Baseball is on the defensive.
On Tuesday, The Athletic published a report in which four people who were with the Astros in 2017, including pitcher Mike Fiers, alleging the team had a camera in their outfield aimed at opposing catchers; Astros players and staff would relay the catcher’s sign to the Astros batter by banging on a garbage can to signal what pitch was coming. That’s sign-stealing, and even if some people believe lots of teams do it, it’s against the rules. It calls into question the Astros’ World Series win that year, and although The Athletic’s report focused on 2017, additional reports say the system may have continued in 2018.
Now MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred says the league is investigating.
“Obviously, following the rules is crucial to the competition on the field; any time there’s this sort of allegation, we take it very seriously,” Manfred told Yahoo Finance in an exclusive interview at the Paley International Council Summit in New York on Thursday. “We’re in the midst of gathering the facts. We want to make sure we understand everything that went on, who was involved, how far up in the organization it went. And at that point in time, we’ll make a decision as to what, if any, discipline is appropriate.”
If the league finds that this scheme was indeed in place—and a viral video analysis by baseball blogger Jimmy “Jomboy” O’Brien leaves very little room for doubt—discipline is the biggest question fans and media pundits will have next. The camera system allegedly relied on both staff and players, so Astros batters had to be aware of it and complicit in it; and cheating of this kind didn’t just give the Astros an advantage, it also hurt the numbers for opposing pitchers who were victims of the scheme.
So, what might a potential punishment even look like? On the extreme end, some fans have wondered whether the league would make the Astros vacate their 2017 title, akin to how the NCAA has punished college athletic programs like Louisville last year. Or MLB could slap an asterisk on the Astros’ 2017 title in all the record books. It could suspend or even permanently ban executives like GM Jeff Luhnow, who has been at the center of tech-related baseball scandals before. On the lower end of the spectrum, it could fine the team or the individuals involved.
ESPN reports that if the league finds major wrongdoing, the severity of the punishment “could be unlike anything seen in the sport’s recent history.”
Manfred, when asked about possible punishments, told Yahoo Finance, “Fans are always the first thing in the front of our minds. And when we discipline in a situation like this, we discipline with a view towards it having a prophylactic effect on the behavior going forward, so that we maintain the trust of our fans.”
The Astros scandal has pushed to the side a separate issue from Game 5 of the 2019 World Series that now, in contrast, looks like a footnote: a bad interference call against a Nationals runner at first base that reignited calls for better instant replay review. Fox announcer Joe Buck called it “a potentially series-changing call.” Umpired then talked for 10 minutes in what fans thought was a replay review, but it later emerged that the play was not reviewable under the current rules.
Manfred addressed the issue with Yahoo Finance.
“We always, in the offseason, review what we’re doing in terms of instant replay, and whether there should be additional calls added to the replay system,” he said. “Interestingly, that call was not subject to instant replay, the delay was actually with the replay system. So, not everything went right on that one. But it does happen. In terms of automation, we continue to experiment with the automated strike zone, we think it could be a big improvement for the game—probably a couple of years away still, but we’ve made great strides with it.”
Expect MLB to prioritize the Astros investigation—it is now under enormous pressure as the baseball world watches and the outrage gets louder—long before anything ever happens with replay changes.