I have done a disservice to you, the readers.
Heading into 2017, I posted a series entitled “The Top 10 Under-Covered Stories of 2016,” (which you should definitely read if you have not already) and nowhere on that list did I mention the Cardinals/Astros hacking scandal. Perhaps that’s because it actually got a solid chunk of coverage when the story broke, but now that Major League Baseball has announced its punishment for the Cardinals, the story must be revisited.
I highly recommend that you do as much reading about the case as possible, because there is no way that I will be able to adequately summarize the overwhelming amount of details involved in the Cardinals’ hacking of the Astros’ system, but I’m going to give it a try.
Chris Correa, the former director of scouting for the St. Louis Cardinals, reportedly gained unauthorized access to the Houston Astros’ online system, Ground Control, in 2013 and 2014. He stole a plethora of information, such as trade targets, proposals, and prospect rankings and evaluations on draft days. You can read a brief summary of some of the leaked information here. At the time of the leak, it was not known that the Cardinals were behind the hacking, but in 2015, the Cardinals came under fire by the Federal Bureau of Investigation for allegedly perpetrating the hack and leaking the documents. Those allegations ended up being true; Correa was sentenced to 46 months in prison, forced to pay a fine of roughly $300K, and handed a lifetime ban from baseball.
You may be asking, “Why would Correa put his career, and the possible future of his organization on the line for some information that may not even be that helpful in the long run?” Most sources say that beyond gaining a competitive advantage, there were two likely motives. The first was to embarrass the Astros organization. Keep in mind that when the Astros’ database was hacked, they were tanking like no tomorrow, finishing last place in their division three consecutive years (2011-2013), and going a combined 162-324 over that time span. I mentioned in my “Under-Covered Stories” articles that Sports Illustrated picked the Astros as the 2017 World Champs, and that article did not come without much controversy, especially considering that Astros executives gave quotes in the article that some may have perceived to be pompous or arrogant. In short, the Astros were not exactly in favor with most of the other MLB GMs, so the hack could have been perpetrated to put the ‘Stros in their place.
The other possibility, and the one I believe is more likely of the two, is that the hack was done out of spite. To back this up, I’m going to have to give you a bit of history.
As you may know, Jeff Luhnow is the current GM of the Astros. Before he was their GM, though, he was the director of scouting for the Cardinals. While in St. Louis, he was joined by Sig Mejdal, a former NASA scientist and statistics-oriented mind. Luhnow and Mejdal apparently did not leave many friends behind once they left St. Louis for Houston, and after the penning of the “2017 World Champs” article, it appeared Correa had had enough. Correa and Mejdal, although they were coworkers, were reportedly rivals, and the fact that Mejdal and the Astros’ executives were praised, even though their team had not yet begun to win games (as I mentioned before, they went 162-324 from 2011-2013), clearly did not sit favorably with Correa.
This brings us to Correa’s actions. This and this article go very in-depth about the specifics, but, again, I’ll give a brief overview. Correa originally had said that he attempted to access the Astros’ database in order to see if Mejdal had put any information into the system that was property of the Cardinals. We can see, though, from the type of data he accessed and the frequency with which he accessed it, that this was not the case.
On June 27, 2014, Correa attempted to log in to Ground Control through the accounts of Luhnow, Mejdal, and Colin Wyers (another staffer who worked closely with the GM) in addition to the accounts of then-manager Bo Porter and then-pitching coach Brent Strom. When that did not work, he logged in to Mejdal’s Astros email account and searched through it in an attempt to find a way to access Ground Control. He succeeded, and entered Ground Control through the accounts of two minor league ballplayers. The Astros may not have great password protection, but they apparently are not foolish enough to give their minor leaguers full access to Ground Control, because Correa did not find what he was looking for after logging in through the minor league accounts. As a result, he tried to access the accounts of Luhnow, Mejdal, Wyers, and a handful of other higher-ups using various passwords a total of 23 times.
This practice continued for 16 months. Correa, according to the FBI, accessed the Astros’ database “50+ times” over that timeframe. This is clearly evidence that he, in fact, did not access Ground Control to confirm that Mejdal had not entered any Cardinals-related information, but that he was trying to gain a competitive edge.
The saga doesn’t end there, though.
According to the court transcript, Correa did not only hack the Astros system repeatedly, but he also told colleagues at the Cardinals. And they didn’t tell him to stop! This is why I think Major League Baseball did not punish the Cardinals harshly enough; they knew the hacking was going on and it seems that they did not make any concerted effort to stop it. That deserves a punishment of the highest order. And that takes us to the actual punishment doled out by MLB.
According to this press release, the Cardinals were docked their top two draft picks for the upcoming 2017 draft (#56 and #75) and fined $2 million, the maximum dollar amount permitted without having to consult the MLBPA. All of the assets they lost (the picks and the money) were sent the way of the Astros. In theory, it seems like a big hit (it’s the biggest penalty in terms of money and draft picks ever doled out by a commissioner), but keep in mind that the Cardinals lost their #19 overall pick when they signed Dexter Fowler, who had been given a qualifying offer by the Chicago Cubs prior to becoming a free agent. I’m not saying that Cardinals’ GM John Mozeliak knew that they would be losing draft picks as a result of the hacking scandal, but they have never once, in the six years the qualifying offer system has been in place, signed a free agent that would result in the Cardinals forfeiting a draft pick. I’m not saying Mozeliak knew, but it sure is curious timing.
On to the punishment itself: what is Manfred doing? According to FiveThirtyEight, the two picks the Cardinals lost, on average, produce roughly a combined 5 WAR over the course of their entire careers. The article states that losing these picks will only lower the Cardinals’ chances of winning the World Series over the next decade by 1.4%, which isn’t negligible, but certainly isn’t a huge dent. The FiveThirtyEight articles does a fantastic job of detailing how light the MLB penalty is in comparison to other leagues, so I recommend you check that out as well.
I also just want to give my personal input on the situation. The Cardinals are basically the Yankees of the National League. I don’t hate the Cardinals with a burning passion like some folks do (though I am still upset about Beltran’s called strike three to end the 2006 NLCS) but I wouldn’t exactly call myself a fan. With that being said, this seems like a tap on the wrist. The Cardinals make $300MM a year in revenue. A $2MM penalty is the equivalent of a $400 ticket for someone who makes $60,000 a year. Sure, it’s not negligible, but it’s not exactly a huge hit, and for an organization that makes as much money as the Cardinals do, that’s relative pocket change.
As for the draft picks, I think they’re a step in the right direction, but they’re not nearly enough. This is the biggest scandal in Major League Baseball history, save for the Black Sox scandal and the steroid era, and the Cardinals are getting off relatively easy. And here’s one of the worst parts: the $2MM that the team was fined comes out if their signing pool. Some may see that as a good thing (they have less money to sign their talent) but keep in mind that they are missing their top three picks! It’s not the best thing for the organization that they have to be a bit frugal on this upcoming draft, but it could be worse.
When all is said and done, I think the penalty imposed by Manfred was definitely a good thing, but it wasn’t harsh enough. You must keep in mind that there’s only so much Manfred can do unilaterally (that is, without getting the MLBPA or any arbitrators involved), but what he did was likely below the maximum penalty (at least in terms of picks). As far as I am aware, this is the first instance of a team being forced to give up picks as a punishment for something, and in some respects, a punishment is meant to deter other teams/people from committing the same action. This punishment, in my view, does not make enough of a statement to deter other teams from hacking (though Correa’s 46 months in jail and lifetime ban from baseball might). And that’s the problem, because when the commissioner let’s the team off easy, other teams join the party.
(Image credit: St. Louis Cardinals/Taka Yanagimoto)