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New book on Houston’s sign-stealing scandal illuminates backstory to Cardinals hacking case

JUPITER, Fla. — How the Houston Astros rose to dominance in this era and fell hard into a sign-stealing scandal is also the story of Jeff Luhnow’s disruptive run as an executive in Major League Baseball.

And any Luhnow story is a Cardinals story.

It was the Cardinals almost 20 years who, through a personal connection with one of the owners, plucked Luhnow out of the business-launching and consulting world and brought him into baseball’s bloodstream. He was empowered by chairman Bill DeWitt Jr. with modernizing how the Cardinals used analytics and data to build a better team at Busch Stadium. A just released and compellingly comprehensive book, Evan Drellich’s “Winning Fixes Everything,” reveals new details and broader context about the sign-stealing caper that engulfed the Astros, cast a shadow on their 2017 World Series, and led to Luhnow’s firing.

By tracing the executives who led the Astros back to their baseball beginnings with the Cardinals, Drellich also offers revelations and confirmations on the hacking scandal that binds the two teams and gets confirmation from Astros’ employees of proprietary Cardinals’ information that they used internally, right down to the randomly generated ID tags for players.

“As far as I know, no one every breached the Cardinals database or performed any criminal act,” an Astros employee tells Drellich, now a senior writer for The Athletic. “But there was a lot of bad (gunk) that would get people who currently have jobs in baseball fired. It would probably also vindicate (Chris) Correa a little bit.”

In 2016, former Cardinals executive Chris Correa was sentenced to 46 months in federal prison for illegally breaching the Houston Astros’ database in 2013 and at least through 2014. The illegal acts were pursued by prosecutors as industrial espionage – like trying to hack the formula for Coke – and yanked baseball into the modern world of tech, intellectual property, and security that was inevitable after Moneyball. Before sentencing, Correa’s attorney attempted to argue for a shorter sentence by revealing “the Astros’ conduct in the events leading to this case,” and even in later statements made to the Post-Dispatch and other outlets Correa contended his initial goal was to see if the Astros were utilizing data, algorithms, or player valuations developed by the Cardinals.

That led to a memorable exchange in a Houston courtroom between U.S. Judge Lynn Hughes and Correa.

“So you broke into their house to find out if they were stealing your stuff?” Hughes said. “That didn’t strike you as peculiar?”

“Stupid,” Correa replied. “I know.”

Within “Winning Fixes Everything,” Drellich describes a PowerPoint presentation made to the “core” of the Astros’ front office in September 2015, a few months after the revelation a Cardinals executive was behind the hacking. The presentation centered on draft advantages Luhnow and Sig Mejdal had helped create for the Cardinals and also how the industry was catching up. Drellich quotes an executive who attended the presentation and says it included “internal draft valuations the Cardinals” made. One example given was how the Cardinals rated Allen Craig, a future All-Star, as the seventh-best player available in the 2006 draft but got him in the eighth round. In 2009, the Cardinals famously saw a slugging catcher from Slippery Rock as the 17th-best player in the draft but got Matt Adams in the 23rd round. Where each player was taken in the draft was obviously public, but the Cardinals internal rankings had not been.

Yet, Drellich writes there they appeared in a Houston presentation just months after the Cardinals had fired an executive for his role in the hacking scandal.

Drellich writes that the Astros’ ran an internal audit of what Correa accessed and also looked at some of its employees’ use.

Drellich writes the results were “worse than is known.”

“Winning Fixes Everything” adds new layers to past reporting done by the Post-Dispatch, by Drellich and others at the Houston Chronicle, and the New York Times.

The Post-Dispatch reported in January 2017 that a defense motion was made to access Houston’s internal emails that referenced “Girsch” and “PV,” a reference to Cardinals general manager Michael Girsch and the value metric he helped develop and was used internally by the Cardinals. The motion also requested emails with the words “Leveque” and “mechanics” – references to Cardinals pitching coordinator Tim Leveque and his extensive studies on pitching mechanics.

Drellich’s reporting confirms Houston had Leveque’s “biomechanics grades.”

The only clarity from the hacking scandal is that Correa had multiple unauthorized and illegal entries into a protected database. Whether Houston had info from the Cardinals and the etiquette on taken vs. recreated was a murkier issue at the time.

The Cardinals have long since updated and tightened their employee contracts as a result.

Asked by a Post-Dispatch reporter way back in 2014 about some similarities between the analytics and database being touted by the Astros and the one developed for the Cardinals, Luhnow challenged the question and said they started “from scratch.” He held firm to that answer through the years.

In January 2017, Major League Baseball commissioner Rob Manfred fined the Cardinals $2 million for the hacking scandal, and that money went Houston as “damages.” Manfred also gave the Astros the Cardinals’ first two picks in the 2017 draft as well as the money assigned to those picks for bonus spending. The financial penalty was the max Manfred could levy. Houston owner Jim Crane lobbied the commissioner for a far harsher penalty, multiple sources said.

The Cardinals, however, never followed up on Correa’s allegations, never requested an investigation by the commissioner’s office.

No formal complaint was filed, sources said.

In a new episode of the Best Podcast in Baseball, Drellich discusses what his reporting revealed about why the Cardinals decided not to challenge the Astros.

Drellich and Ken Rosenthal, of Fox Sports, broke the news on The Athletic of the Astros’ sign-stealing caper after the 2019 World Series. Their reporting upended baseball, exposed a winning (and polarizing) organization to widespread ridicule, and forced the sport to look deeper into how tech could be used to blur rules or outright cheat. The fallout from their reporting and Major League Baseball’s investigation was Luhnow’s dismissal from Houston and suspension from MLB and suspensions or firings for three big-league managers: Houston’s A.J. Hinch, Boston’s Alex Cora, and the Mets’ Carlos Beltran.

Beltran was the only player active in 2017 who was implicated and punished by Major League Baseball. The former Cardinals’ outfielder was also the only inactive player by 2019 and thus not protected by the union.

“Winning Fixes Everything” is as much a business book as it is a baseball book, and it meticulously maps how arrogance can become negligence, how overinflated confidence becomes lack of oversight.

The entire second chapter, “The Cardinals Years,” is about Luhnow’s time with the Cardinals, the hiring of Mejdal, and the ruptures that led to an overturned front office in St. Louis. Luhnow was hired as “an agent of change,” Drellich writes, and he was – shoving the Cardinals in a new data-driven direction and willing to experiment, abandon experiments, and move forward to the next potential edge. Luhnow did oversee vast advancements for the Cardinals that put in motion the current run of 15 consecutive winning seasons. He expanded how they used statistical data to drive the draft, how they mined talent from late rounds, how they widened their presence and interest in international markets (and it has since grown even more), and how they saw innovation when wed with traditional scouting as an edge for a mid-market team.

(They once called that STOUT – stats and scouts.)

Factions ripped through the Cardinals’ front office and led to the dismissal of general manager Walt Jocketty. John Mozeliak, current president of baseball operations, was promoted to general manager, and Luhnow remained a leader within the front office through 2011. That winter, as the World Series champion Cardinals tried to re-sign Albert Pujols, Luhnow was hired as Houston’s general manager. He attempted to bring so many of his colleagues with him to Texas that Mozeliak had to intercede, specifically as Luhnow attempted to court Correa. Drellich writes that DeWitt stepped in, too.

As Drellich builds his book toward the sign-stealing scandal and the biggest recent scoop in baseball, it also becomes clear that even with success in Houston and friction developing around him, Luhnow maintained some loyalty – nostalgia? – for where he got his start and who was there with him.

“There was always this sense that if you weren’t one of the people who had been at the Cardinals, you had to work harder and be better to get noticed,” an Astros employee tells Drellich. “It’s like there was an exception of being cutthroat if you used to work for the St. Louis Cardinals.”

Houston Astros executive Jeff Luhnow talks with the Post-Dispatch's Rick Hummel and other reporters at the general managers' meetings in 2016. (AP Photo)

Houston Astros executive Jeff Luhnow talks with the Post-Dispatch’s Rick Hummel and other reporters at the general managers’ meetings in 2016. (AP Photo)

Derrick Goold

@dgoold on Twitter

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