Astros fire Luhnow and Hinch after MLB levies penalties in sign-stealing case

Astros general manager Jeff Luhnow and manager A.J. Hinch were suspended by Major League Baseball Commissioner Rob Manfred Monday for allowing the team’s uniformed personnel to steal signs electronically during the 2017 and 2018 seasons.

Luhnow and Hinch were suspended through the 2020 World Series. The Astros also were fined $5 million - the maximum allowed under MLB rules - and they’ll have to forfeit first- and second-round draft picks in 2020 and 2021.

About an hour the initial report came out, Astros owner Jim Crane fired Luhnow and Hinch, who was under contract through 2022. Luhnow was signed through 2023.

Reports say that Joe Espada, the brother-in-law of Orioles manager Brandon Hyde, will be the Astros manager this season. The Astros have not confirmed media reports.

The MLB investigation started after former Astros pitcher Mike Fiers told The Athletic, an online sports publication, that the Astros were using sign-stealing methods during the 2017 season. In a statement Manfred said Fiers’ story created significant concern that started an investigation by the MLB Department of Investigations to conduct a thorough investigation, Manfred said.

Manfred also said that that investigation revealed no evidence that Crane was aware of any of the conduct of the members of his organization.

The investigation interviewed 68 witnesses, including 23 former and current Astros players. The investigation team also read through more than 10,000 emails, text messages, video clips and photographs.

Manfred said in his statement that in 2017, the year the Astros won the World Series, team employees started using a live game feed from the center field camera to decode and transmit opponents’ sign sequences. Center field cameras are allowed by MLB for development purposes.

And once the signs were decoded, a player in the video review room ran the information to the dugout.

Then, someone would send it to a runner on second base. The runner would decipher the catcher’s sign and send the signal of the pitch to the batter in the box, Manfred said.

The commissioner’s statement also said that two months into the 2017 season, a group of Astros players, including Carlos Beltran, now the rookie manager of the Mets, discussed how the team could improve on sign-stealing communications. Astros bench coach Alex Cora, now the manager of the Red Sox, arraigned for a video room technician to install a monitor outside the Astros dugout, according to Manfred.

Players would look at the video, and then come into the dugout to bang a trash can to send a player a message in the batter’s box. Witnesses told the commissioner that generally one or two bangs corresponded with an off-speed pitch. No bang was a fastball. (Witnesses also explained clapping, whistling, and yelling were tried before the garbage-can method.)

In August 2017, the Red Sox were caught transmitting sign information from their review room to individuals in the dugout wearing smart watches. After that, Manfred issued a statement in September 2018 saying that an attempt to steal a catcher’s signs is fine, but that MLB prohibited the use of electronic equipment for the purpose of stealing signs.

Manfred said in his statement that most of the position players for the Astros on the 2017 team either took advantage of the illegal system or were part of decoding the signs and banging the trash cans.

“Players stated that if manager A.J. Hinch told them to stop engaging in the conduct, they would have immediately stopped,’’ Manfred said.

Some Astros players told Manfred that the sign-stealing was not effective.

Luhnow said in the commissioner’s statement that he denied knowledge of sign-stealing scheme. But Manfred said that although Luhnow denies participation, there is evidence that indicates Luhnow had some knowledge of the efforts.

Hinch told Manfred that he didn’t devise the scheme or participate in it and that it was wrong and distracting. In an attempt to show his disapproval, Hinch took to physically damaging the monitor twice.

“If Hinch was unsure how to handle the situation, it was his responsibility to bring the issue to Jeff Luhnow,’’ Manfred said.

Manfred said that Cora was involved in developing the banging scheme.

But Manfred said that he will wait to issue a discipline for Cora after the MLB finishes its investigation into the Red Sox’s signing stealing in 2018, the year Cora was their manager and they won the World Series.

Both the Astros and Red Sox won World Series against the Dodgers.