Explaining Detroit Tigers manager A.J. Hinch's role in Astros cheating scandal
The Houston Astros cheating scandal is one of the biggest black eyes in baseball history, and it all happened under the watch of A.J. Hinch, who was hired Friday as the Detroit Tigers' manager.
Hinch was in his third year as the Astros' manager when players used cameras and banged on trash cans to steal signs and gain an unfair advantage en route to winning the 2017 World Series.
[ Tigers fans have mixed feelings on A.J. Hinch: Is he a cheater or a winner? ]
The cheating wasn't uncovered until 2019, when former Astros (and Tigers) pitcher Mike Fiers detailed the plot in an interview with The Athletic.
No players were disciplined for their actions because MLB commissioner Rob Manfred couldn't "determine with any degree of certainty every player who should be held accountable, or their relative degree of culpability." But Hinch and bench coach Alex Cora were suspended by Major League Baseball for the 2020 season because of their actions — or in Hinch's case, inaction — in the scandal.
Hinch and general manager Jeff Luhnow were fired by the Astros. And Hinch wasn't allowed to interview for any job until the conclusion of the World Series, which ended Tuesday. On Thursday, Hinch interviewed with Tigers general manager Al Avila. And the next day, the Tigers announced Hinch as the man who will replace Ron Gardenhire.
[ Jeff Seidel: Detroit Tigers hiring A.J. Hinch should be a home run. But it isn't. ]
Hinch's hiring is a reason for optimism for a club that has finished last in the AL Central in four of the past six years. But it's also a reason for scrutiny — and criticism — because of what transpired three seasons ago.
Here's a look at Hinch's role in the 2017 scandal, after reviewing the investigation report from MLB commissioner Rob Manfred:
Which Astros faced punishment?
There were three people suspended for the 2020 season: Hinch, Cora and Luhnow. Hinch and Luhnow were fired by the Astros on Jan. 13. Manfred concluded Astros owner Jim Crane was not aware of the misconduct in 2017.
Still, the Astros were forced to forfeit their first- and second-round picks in the 2020 and 2021 amateur drafts. They paid a $5 million fine to MLB, as well.
Cora wasn't given his suspension until April because of a subsequent sign-stealing investigation that happened during his first year as Boston Red Sox manager in 2018, in which he was found not guilty. The Red Sox won the World Series in 2018 but missed the playoffs the following season.
Red Sox replay operator J.T. Watkins took a one-year ban from MLB as the punishment in that investigation.
How did the Astros cheating happen?
The sign-stealing plot began in the Astros' video replay room, where employees used a live feed from the center field camera to decode signs from the opposing teams' catchers and relay them to the dugout. The message was then passed to the runner on second base.
Eventually, Cora began to make calls to the replay room to get the information. And then, on some occasions, the signs were sent via text message and received on a smartwatch or nearby cell phone by a staffer on the bench.
Two months into the 2017 season, designated hitter Carlos Beltran — along with a group of players — developed a much easier — and risky — process. Cora had a technician from the video room place a monitor to display the live footage from the center field camera outside of the team's dugout.
One or more players would watch the live feed on the newly installed monitor, and once the sign from the catcher was decoded, a player would bang on a trash can to communicate to the batter what type of pitch to expect.
"Players occasionally used a massage gun to bang the trash can," Manfred wrote in his report. "Generally, one or two bangs corresponded to certain off-speed pitchers, while no bang corresponded to a fastball."
What exactly did A.J. Hinch do?
That's the problem.
"Cora was involved in developing both the banging scheme and utilizing the replay review room to decode and transmit signs," Manfred wrote. "Cora participated in both schemes, and through his active participation, implicitly condoned the players' conduct."
Hinch — and everyone close to the Astros' dugout — heard or saw the banging. Hinch did not participate in the plan, but he did not do enough to stop his team's actions. He told Manfred's investigators that he was not supportive of the system, calling it "wrong and distracting."
Hinch destroyed the monitor twice, forcing it to be replaced.
"However, Hinch admits he did not stop it and he did not notify players or Cora that he disapproved of it, even after the Red Sox were disciplined in September 2017," Manfred wrote. "Similarly, he knew of and did not stop the communication of sign information from the replay room, although he disagreed with this practice as well and specifically voiced his corners on at least one occasion about the use of the replay phone for this purpose."
Because Hinch was in charge of leading the Astros' players and coaches, he was given a year-long suspension. Through his interactions with Manfred and investigators, Hinch was apologetic and showed remorse.
"If Hinch was unsure about how to handle the situation, it was his responsibility to bring the issue to the attention of Luhnow," Manfred wrote. ... "I must hold him accountable for the conduct of his team, particularly since he had full knowledge of the conduct and chose to allow it to continue through the 2017 postseason."
When did the sign stealing scheme end?
While the Astros did not use the banging plot in the 2018 season, the replay review staffers continued to decode signs for portions of that campaign. A member would decode the signs from the live feed and deliver the information to members in the dugout through in-person communication.
However, at some point in the 2018 season, the Astros stopped.
"The players no longer believed it was effective," Manfred wrote. "The investigation did not reveal any attempt by the Astros to utilize electronic equipment to decode and transmit signs in the 2018 postseason."
Before the 2019 season, individuals from the commissioner's office were placed in each of the replay rooms to make sure rules weren't being broken. This started in the 2018 postseason.
"The investigation revealed no violations of the policy by the Astros in the 2019 season or 2019 postseason," Manfred wrote. "Other than described above, the investigation did not reveal any other scheme or method utilized by the Astros to decode and opposing club's signs from 2016 to the present."
Evan Petzold is a sports reporting intern at the Detroit Free Press. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter @EvanPetzold.