Rob Manfred And The Deterrent That Isn’t

Rob Manfred missed the mark.

The punishment levied against the Houston Astros management is both historic and significant. It is a sentence that many believe is deserving and will serve as a deterrent for future behavior. Except it very well may not be a deterrent because the main culprits, the Houston Astros players, are walking away scot-free. It is hard to curtail crime when the ones who actively break the rules are immune from the consequences. If anything, Rob Manfred’s investigation tells players that you can continue to undermine the integrity of the game because management is the only entity potentially exposed to repercussions.

To be clear, I’m all for gaining competitive advantages within the rules. If a catcher can’t put signs down well enough to hide them from a runner on first, so be it. When a runner on second base can relay signs to a hitter, that is on the pitcher and catcher. If a team can identify a tell in a pitcher’s set up, then the pitcher deserves his fate. However, manipulating available technology and building a communication system through that technology is clearly crossing the line.

The commissioner’s ruling is an important one for institutional checks and balances. It was a clear statement that franchises have to regulate organizational behavior. What it did not do was directly address the act of illegal sign stealing in baseball. The Astros were seemingly punished for allowing the stealing to continue. They were not punished for it happening in the first place. The commissioner took the weakest route possible to give the illusion that he is protecting the game’s integrity.

We need to address the elephant in the room. Manfred granted players immunity (prior to the launch of the investigation) in exchange for honest testimonies for one reason. He didn’t want a fight with the MLBPA. The commissioner did not want to allow the players’ union to have a rallying point in their CBA discussions. Manfred is well aware that he is in a strong position at the bargaining table so weakening that position doesn’t make much sense. Even if it comes at the cost of the sport he represents.

It would’ve been in the best interest of baseball if Manfred invited a fight. Did the Astros players really have that much leverage when clear visual evidence was being revealed on social media every day? Outside of Astros fans, were there people denying what their eyes and ears were telling them? It is really difficult to impose a deterrent to a clear problem in the game when the main perpetrators are immediately protected from punishment. What exactly is the end goal when the threat of consequences is removed from the equation?

Then again, why would any of this ultimately matter to Manfred? He comes out looking like the good guy. He can give the appearance of being really tough on crime. The media can focus on managers and general managers getting fired while completely forgetting about the ones who executed and benefitted from the rule breaking.

These decisions also create a tenuous “adult vs kids” scenario where management is supposed to be the grown ups and the players are the adorable toddlers just being kids by harmlessly drawing pictures on white walls with permanent markers. It is a dangerous and undermining dynamic to create. The players know exactly what they’re doing. They’re going to challenge the limits whenever they can to gain an advantage. This adult vs kids dynamic is even more ridiculous when you consider one of the scheme’s masterminds was a 38-year-old player on his last legs and considered a savant in the industry.

This is not to say Luhnow, Hinch, and Cora don’t deserve their punishments. They absolutely do. You can make the case that their penalties aren’t harsh enough (at least for Luhnow and Hinch). If MLB came down with a John Coppolella-level sentence it would be deserving. It is also laughable that Jim Crane was not only protected in Manfred’s statement but praised for being a good owner. This is the same tone deaf attitude that allows the offenders on the field to get a hall pass. It also keeps the commissioner in the good graces of the almighty owners.

The players needed to be severely punished in this case. A precedent should have been set. The idea that MLB investigators wouldn’t be able to determine which players participated in the scheme is absurd. Lucas Apostoleris was able to hop on YouTube and provide us our first visual evidence of the cheating occurring in real time. Jomboy was able to expand on this and provide more evidence. We can both see and hear the precise moments when the scheme was taking place. We can see when hitters are laying off nasty pitches.

A simple Google search reveals at least some of the players involved. There is no public evidence of AJ Hinch destroying two monitors. Yet there is clear evidence of Evan Gattis and George Springer using the scheme to aid their at-bats. How can Manfred honestly tell the public he couldn’t identify the players who took part when we can see it for ourselves? The decision to grant immunity was strictly a matter of the commissioner not having the fortitude to fight a union that is desperately looking to pick one.

In the context of labor climate and negotiations, this decision makes total sense. The problem is we can’t entirely view this sport through that prism despite MLB being a multi-billion dollar private corporation. MLB is also in the business of competitive integrity. The sport loves to get on its high horse when it comes to steroids and tradition. It loves to remind you of the heroes of yesteryear. When it comes to punishing the cheaters of today MLB decided to cower. The Astros punishment is not truly a deterrent to future sign stealing. It is a relative slap on the wrist that lets players know that you can get away with a lot if you just tell MLB what they want to hear.

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16 Comments

  1. MikeD

    I think he took the pragmatic approach that allowed him to make a statement but didn’t require a lengthy battle with the union. Not perfect, but not bad, even though I think the punishment for all should have been harsher.

    I’m hoping they address this in the next CBA allowing the Commissioner to punish players more easily in this type of situation.

    • Randy

      Pragmatism doesn’t really work when the integrity of the game is being undermined.

  2. chip56

    I said before and I’ll say again: The penalties were light.

    I get not penalizing the players for two reasons: A) You need their cooperation to get to the bottom of what happened; B) You don’t want to have to go through the Union.

    In addition to what was handed down I would have done the following:
    Each team in MLB, in accordance with draft order, would have been permitted to select one player from the Houston farm system (not currently on the Astros 40 man roster).

    That would have a much more lasting organizational impact than a $5m fine and loss of draft picks alone.

    • DJ Lemeddardhieu

      And all profits earned by the Astros and Red Sox during the cheating years is donated to charity, all draft picks for the next 10 years are revoked, any crooked player, coach or manager associated with the cheating scandal is banned from baseball for life like Pete Rose and the Black Sox, all playoff wins and championships earned during the cheating years are vacated and players championship rings are confiscated and donated to charity.

    • RetroRob

      Chip, I agree that the penalties were too light.

  3. Dan G

    That gif is creepy. That is all.

    • RetroRob

      I did notice that as he thrusted forward she hipped back. Not sure what that means.

  4. ted k

    As someone who is generally in favor of technology (e.g. I support instant replay reviews), it seems to me that if MLB wants to end cheating around sign stealing, they should just give pitchers and catchers some technology so it can’t be stolen. Using cameras is so easy that it’ll be hard to prevent people from trying to use them – maybe not as flagrant as the Astros, but someone’s going to be desperate enough to try.

    Put some type of keypad/clicker in the catcher’s glove, and transmit it to the pitcher the same way NFL quarterbacks have a receiver in their helmet. Maybe someone can suggest an even better process, but the idea is just give them a secure transmission that can’t get picked up by a center field camera.

    • DJ Lemeddardhieu

      Cheaters like the Astros and Red Sox would just find a Russian to hack into the transmission. I’m surprised Bellicheat hasn’t done that in the NFL. The way to stop it was to ban the players for a year-a lifetime and Manfred blew it. Players still use PED’s because the penalty is only 50 games. Make the first offense a lifetime ban and the risk is too great for them.

  5. DJ Lemeddardhieu

    I agree 100%, Randy. The GM, the coaches and the players should have been banned for life! At the very least all players involved should have gotten a ban equivalent to the steroid ban. How is it any different than using PED’s to cheat? How is what Pete Rose did worse than this cheating? Players will keep doing it because there are no consequences. I didn’t buy Manfred’s “Well some players are on other clubs now and we don’t want to ruin their seasons.” That doesn’t happen to PED users. If you’re suspended for using PED’s you can’t go to another club and the suspension just goes away.

    And who was screwed the most by this cheating? Us! The Astros and Sox are the two clubs we’ve lost to the past 3 years and they could only beat us by cheating. We should have at least 1 ring from this and the Dodgers should have at least 1 ring. Both of their championships should be vacated and their championship rings confiscated. Any postseason or World Series bonus and all profits made by the Red Sox and Astros this year should be donated to the Boys and Girls Club. What Manfred did was a half measure and a slap on the wrist. Selig was like this turning a blind eye to steroids. New boss same as the old boss.

  6. A couple of things:
    Can you give an example of a punishment that wouldn’t be a slap on the wrist? What would you have done to the players?
    A statement that rings true from the statements in the investigation: I’m paraphrasing “If Hinch or Luhnow said that it had to stop then it would ended right there”, but they didn’t and that’s why THEY are the ones getting punished.
    This is not a deterrent for the players, its a deterrent for the owners and management. Is it worth it? lose your job, possibly your legacy and a put a big black mark next to anything that you achieved.
    If I’m in the manager/GM on an MLB team I am making sure that everything is on the level because its my @$$ on the line.

  7. markbraff

    Well written and thought-out piece, but I disagree with the premise. I believe the deterrent in the future will be managers/coaches telling players not try attempt this sort of cheating, and ordering them to shut it down if they do. That was Hinch’s downfall: not creating the situation, but doing nothing to stop it. After Manfred’s decision, what manager/coach will want to put his job, reputation and possibly career on the line by turning a blind eye to this sort of activity? And, rest assured, if this sort of thing is happening someone on the coaching staff will know about it.

    • Randy

      Thank you.

      If a coach or manager has to tell a team to shut it down then it’s pretty clear this ruling wasn’t a deterrent. The point is that the illegal activity shouldn’t be happening at all. You have to stop that partly by actually punishing the ones doing it.

      MLB had a ruling on the Apple Watches in 2017. The Astros players continued it despite that ruling and then Boston did it. It’s pretty clear these punishments don’t have much teeth.

      • I’m not familiar with the inner workings of an MLB clubhouse, so forgive me if this is a silly question…

        But are the players really able to set up this kind of scheme without the help of someone in management? When I consider the need that most of the people at my office (including me!) have to get IT involved with any technology more advanced than a calculator, I have a hard time believing that these guys could set this up themselves.

        Like, if there was a request at any point made by players to “set this system up” it seems like blame falls back primarily on managements’ shoulders. By punishing management, I would think that teams would emphasize to all employees that requests like this need to be pushed up the ladder for approval in the future.

        • I don’t have any incite on how this actually works, but I’m sure Cora, Hinch or Luhnow would have to be the ones to request a camera to be in CF and fed to a table right outside the dugout. Idk Carlos Beltran personally, but I doubt he was out in CF running wires and setting up IP addresses.

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