Tue, Jan 21, 2020

Monday afternoon, Major League Baseball and commissioner Rob Manfred announced their punishment for the Houston Astros stemming from the team’s sign-stealing scandal. The Astros were alleged to have illegally used electronics to steal signs during their 2017 World Series Championship run and MLB‘s investigation verified media reports.

Here is a recap of the discipline:

  • Astros fined $5 million, the maximum allowed under MLB’s constitution.
  • GM Jeff Luhnow suspended for one year. Luhnow was then fired by the Astros.
  • Manager A.J. Hinch suspended for one year. Hinch was then fired by the Astros.
  • Former assistant GM Brandon Taubman suspended one year.
  • Astros forfeit their first and second round draft picks the next two years.

Manfred issued a nine-page report detailing MLB’s investigation and explaining how he arrived at the discipline. The scandal and the level of discipline are unprecedented, and yet the punishment also feels a little light.

Specifically, the $5 million fine is probably not enough to deter similar behavior in the future. Hinch and Luhnow getting suspended and then fired will undoubtedly resonate throughout baseball circles, but, at the ownership level, the $5 million fine is a pittance relative to the financial windfall associated with winning the 2017 World Series.

Astros players took home a then-record $30,420,155.57 postseason pool in 2017, and, given how that is calculated and the fact the Astros played seven games in the ALCS and World Series, it means the club itself took home something well north of that following the 2017 postseason run. The $5 million fine amounts to only a small piece of that pie.

And those are just the gate receipts, remember. A World Series win means merchandise sales, better advertising opportunities, new fans who will return and give you their money for years to come. For the Astros, the fact it was their first World Series title makes it even more lucrative. It was a historic moment. A license to print money for the foreseeable future.

As best I can tell the Major League Constitution was amended in recent years to raise the maximum allowable fine from $2 million to $5 million, which is good, but still relatively insignificant at the ownership and team level. The MLB Constitution also includes a section regarding integrity of the game, which is the primary matter in question here:

Integrity shall include without limitation, as determined by the Commissioner, the ability of, and the public perception that, players and Clubs perform and compete at all times to the best of their abilities. Public confidence shall include without limitation the public perception, as determined by the Commissioner, that there is an appropriate level of long-term competitive balance among Clubs. 

The Astros, through their sign-stealing scheme, have damaged the reputation of the game and the integrity of play. On-field results during their 2017 regular season and, more importantly, their 2017 postseason run have been brought into question. It’s an ugly situation for baseball all around. That the 2018 Red Sox are also being investigated for sign-stealing only makes it worse.

To spark change, it has to begin at the top of the organizational ladder, and the best way to drive home a point is to hit someone in the wallet, always and forever. That includes MLB owners. Fine the owner heavily and the other 29 will notice, and word will trickle down to the baseball operations folks and on-field personnel that they better not cheat.

There is a point where the risk is worth the reward. Do I want to risk a $5 million fine to get a postseason windfall that could equals tens of millions? I don’t know where that point is, exactly, and I’m sure it’s different for everyone, but $5 million is dangerously close to an acceptable risk. Teams can make that up with a postseason trip that doesn’t end with a World Series win.

The MLB Constitution lays out the maximum fine and it is what it is, and we shouldn’t expect the owners to agree to revise it so the commissioner can fine exorbitant amounts. It would be a sign of good faith, however. We’ll hold ourselves accountable by giving the commissioner the power to hammer us with a $10 million, $25 million, or even a $100 million fine. Imagine that?

Hinch and Luhnow paid for the sign-stealing scandal with the loss of a year’s salary and their jobs — and their reputations. The Astros also lost four high draft picks the next two years, which will hurt them long-term. Beyond that, Crane and the Astros did not incur much pain. Their reputation is sullied, but that’s nothing a little winning won’t cure. Don’t believe me? Wait until you see the avalanche of redemption stories when Houston wins the AL West again in a few months. You know they’re coming.

Manfred’s discipline was harsh like it should have been, but it was also not as harsh as it could have been and maybe should have been. The single best way to drive home a point and invite change is to take away money, and MLB did not take away enough from the Astros. That 2017 World Series win more than paid for itself.

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