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'Dark Arts' and 'Codebreaker': The Origins of the Houston Astros Cheating Scheme

The Wall Street Journal. logo The Wall Street Journal. 2/7/2020 Jared Diamond
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On Sept. 22, 2016, an intern in the Houston Astros organization showed general manager Jeff Luhnow a PowerPoint presentation that featured the latest creation by the team’s high-tech front office: an Excel-based application programmed with an algorithm that could decode the opposing catchers’ signs. It was called “Codebreaker.”

This was the beginning of what has turned into one of the biggest scandals in Major League Baseball history. Throughout the 2017 season and for part of 2018, Astros baseball operations employees and video room staffers used Codebreaker to illegally steal signs, which were then relayed to batters in real time. Another Astros employee referred to the system as the “dark arts.”

This previously undisclosed information about the origins and nature of the Astros’ cheating comes from both a letter MLB commissioner Rob Manfred sent to Luhnow on Jan. 2 that outlined the findings of a league investigation, as well as interviews with several people familiar with the matter.

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Eleven days after Manfred’s letter, which was reviewed by The Wall Street Journal, MLB announced that it had suspended Luhnow, as well as field manager A.J. Hinch, for the entire 2020 season. Hours later, the Astros fired both Luhnow and Hinch.

The existence of Codebreaker shows that it was the Astros front office that laid the groundwork for the team’s electronic sign-stealing schemes.

During MLB’s probe, Luhnow maintained that he had no knowledge of any of the Astros’ misconduct. However, Manfred wrote in his letter that “there is more than sufficient evidence to support a conclusion that you knew—and overwhelming evidence that you should have known—that the Astros maintained a sign-stealing program that violated MLB’s rules.”

But while the league collected evidence that showed Luhnow was aware of Codebreaker’s existence and capabilities, it couldn’t prove that he knew how it was used. In response to Manfred’s letter, Luhnow presented investigators with a binder with more than 170 pages that cast at least some doubt on the contents of the initial letter, according to multiple familiar with the matter.

These people described the situation as a “he said-he said” between Luhnow and Tom Koch-Weser, the team’s director of advance information, who sent two emails to Luhnow in 2017 that referenced “the system” and “our dark arts, sign-stealing department.”

Luhnow opened the emails, but told investigators he did not read to the bottom of them.

Complicating matters further, Koch-Weser’s responsibilities were reduced following the 2019 season, but before allegations of the Astros’ cheating became public in a November story in The Athletic.

MLB couldn’t decipher whose account was truthful. In his final findings, Manfred said that the investigation revealed that “Luhnow neither devised nor actively directed the efforts of the replay review room staff to decode signs in 2017 or 2018.”

Luhnow declined to comment through a spokesman. In a statement released last month, Luhnow said, “As the commissioner set out in his statement, I did not personally direct, oversee or engage in any misconduct.” The Astros did not provide comment on behalf of their employees. Koch-Weser did not respond to requests for comment.

The way Codebreaker worked was simple: Somebody would watch an in-game live feed and log the catcher’s signs into the spreadsheet, as well as the type of pitch that was actually thrown. With that information, Codebreaker determined how the signs corresponded with different pitches. Once decoded, that information would be communicated through intermediaries to a baserunner, who would relay them to the hitter.

Starting around June 2017, the system was embellished by Astros players. They started watching a live game feed on a monitor near the dugout and then would bang on a trash can to communicate the coming pitch to the batter. The “banging scheme” lasted through the 2017 World Series, which the Astros won over the Los Angeles Dodgers. Manfred said Luhnow was unaware of the banging scheme.

But everything started with Codebreaker, and the use of it to steal signs continued into 2018—not just at home, but also on the road.

Luhnow acknowledged to investigators that he recalled the intern’s PowerPoint slide about Codebreaker and even asked questions about how it worked. He said that he was under the impression that it would be used to legally decipher signs from previous game footage for runners on second base to disseminate, rather than live in games.

The intern, Derek Vigoa, currently the Astros’ senior manager for team operations, told investigators that he presumed Luhnow knew it would be used in games because that was “where the value would be,” according to the letter. But he said he didn’t recall whether he explicitly told Luhnow that Codebreaker would be used during games.

Vigoa’s presentation wasn’t the only time Astros employees say Luhnow was informed about Codebreaker. Koch-Weser, the Astros’ director of advance information, said he discussed Codebreaker with Luhnow in one to three meetings after the 2016 season.

Koch-Weser told MLB that Luhnow would “giggle” at the title and appeared “excited” about it. Koch-Weser also said that Luhnow sometimes entered the Astros’ video room during road games and made comments such as, “You guys Codebreaking?”

Luhnow denied Koch-Weser’s accounts.

Other Astros employees told MLB’s investigators that they believed Luhnow knew about Codebreaker, but they provided no definitive proof. Matt Hogan, now the Astros’ manager of pro scouting analysis, told investigators there was no effort to hide the use of Codebreaker in front of Luhnow when he visited the video room. In fact, he told them, “it would have been something to show we were working and get validation of our work.” Luhnow denied seeing evidence of sign-stealing during those visits.

In October 2018, Luhnow met with Koch-Weser to discuss a potential contract extension. In preparation, Koch-Weser outlined his arguments for an extension in a Slack post that included the term “dark arts.” He wrote, in part: “Lastly, I know the secrets that made us a championship team, some of which he[’]d definitely feel a lot safer if they were kept in-house.” Koch-Weser told MLB investigators that during his meeting with Luhnow, he used either the term “dark arts” or “codebreaking” to tout his efforts. Luhnow denied that Koch-Weser referenced either of those things.

Koch-Weser also used the term “dark arts” in the Astros’ Advanced Scouting Department’s 2019 budget Excel spreadsheet. Luhnow acknowledged that he reviewed the document but denied reading the tab “dark arts” was written in and denied that any discussion of “dark arts” took place during the budget meeting.

In Manfred’s public report last month, he said that Luhnow received at least two emails that mentioned the Astros’ sign-stealing. His letter to Luhnow expanded upon the content of those emails.

One 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 responded two weeks later.

“Tom, this type of write up is very helpful,” he wrote. “Seems like our baserunning is still pathetic. What the hell happened to our pitching this series? I mean that was historically bad…”

Nonetheless, Luhnow told investigators that he did not read the full email because of its length and that if he had, he would have followed up because the reference to “dark arts” sounded “nefarious” and “sinister.”

The evidence led Manfred to believe that Luhnow knew about that element of the Astros’ sign-stealing. In the last paragraph of Manfred’s letter, he wrote: “I intend to hold you accountable for the egregious rules violations that took place under your supervision…”

Luhnow was suspended by MLB for a year on Jan. 13. He was fired by the Astros hours later.

Write to Jared Diamond at jared.diamond@wsj.com


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