Astros' Use of 'Codebreaker' in Cheating Scandal Detailed in New WSJ Report

Blake SchusterContributor IIIFebruary 7, 2020

HOUSTON, TEXAS - OCTOBER 05: Manager AJ Hinch #14 talks with Jeff Luhnow, General Manager of the Houston Astros, prior to game two of the American League Division Series against the Tampa Bay Rays at Minute Maid Park on October 05, 2019 in Houston, Texas. (Photo by Bob Levey/Getty Images)
Bob Levey/Getty Images

The Houston Astros cheating scandal reportedly went well beyond banging on a trash can during home games and also was used on the road from 2017 through parts of the 2018 season. Details of Houston's "Codebreaker" program were revealed in a report by Jared Diamond of the Wall Street Journal on Friday that showed the extent of the team's cheating as well as the depths to which then-general manager Jeff Luhnow was involved.

Accord to Diamond, Luhnow was approached by a team intern in 2016 with a presentation on an Excel-based application that could decode signs from opposing catchers. The program, named Codebreaker, was routinely referred to as the "Dark Arts" among Astros employees, per a previously undisclosed letter MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred sent to the team.

Manfred had called the cheating scandal "player-driven" in his report on the scheme. However, Diamond's report casts doubts on that notion, demonstrating Luhnow and the Astros analytics team were in on the efforts.

Per Diamond, Codebreaker would operate by having someone watch a live feed of games and log catchers' signs into the spreadsheet with the pitch that was thrown. The algorithm would break down the correlation between signs and pitches. That later evolved into employees banging on trash cans just behind the dugout to notify batters which pitch was coming. Diamond noted the use of Codebreaker extended to road games as well as home contests.

Luhnow and field manager AJ Hinch were both suspended one year by Manfred and subsequently fired by Houston owner Jim Crane.

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Despite Luhnow featuring in the newly uncovered letter Manfred previously sent the Astros, Manfred's report was noncommittal on the general manager's roll in the scheme.

"The investigation also revealed that Luhnow neither devised nor actively directed the efforts of the replay review room staff to decode signs in 2017 or 2018," Manfred wrote. "Although Luhnow denies having any awareness that his replay review room staff was decoding and transmitting signs, there is both documentary and testimonial evidence that indicates Luhnow had some knowledge of those efforts, but he did not give it much attention."

That evidence became a bit more clear Friday in Diamond's report. In emails sent between Luhnow and Houston's director of advance information, Tom Koch-Weser, Luhnow thanked his employee for keeping him in the loop, while Koch-Weser later said opponents had become aware of the scheme, per Diamond:

"[An email was] sent by Koch-Weser on May 24, 2017, and was titled 'Road Notes (April-May).' The five-page email included six underlined topic headings, with the fifth one called, 'The System'—a reference to what Koch-Weser described to investigators as 'all kind of covert operations,' including sign-stealing. Luhnow told investigators he didn't read the full email because of its length, and that he was unfamiliar with the term 'the system.' Two people familiar with the matter said it was generally known in the Astros front office that Luhnow expected his staff to put pertinent information in the first page of any email.

"Luhnow responded to that email a day later: 'These are great, thanks.' He wrote another email about three hours later. 'How much of this stuff do you think [Hinch] is aware of?' Luhnow asked Koch-Weser.

"On Aug. 26, 2017, in another 'road notes,' Koch-Weser wrote: 'The system: our dark arts, sign-stealing department has been less productive in the second half as the league has become aware of our reputation and now most clubs change their signs a dozen times per game.' He added that struggling teams like the Toronto Blue Jays and Oakland Athletics 'seem not to care as much.'"

Luhnow replied two weeks later to tell Koch-Weser his report was "very helpful."

Luhnow declined comment to the Wall Street Journal. The GM previously denied claims by Koch-Wesser that he would stop in the video room during road games to ask if employees were codebreaking.

Koch-Weser and the intern who first presented the scheme to Luhnow, Derek Vigoa—now the senior manager for team operations—are still employed by the Astros.

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