The Houston Astros cheating scandal shows how tech is upending baseball

January 16, 2020, 3:02 PM UTC

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Good morning, Data Sheet readers. Fortune writer Aric Jenkins here, subbing in for Adam.

Sports, like everything else around us, are being reshaped by technology. But baseball, more than most, is a game of tradition. 

That was the central dilemma of Michael Lewis’s 2003 bestseller Moneyball (adapted into an excellent 2011 film). Oakland Athletics general manager Billy Beane bucked 100 years of conventional wisdom, utilizing sabermetric analytics rather than outdated statistics, to assemble a winning team on a limited budget. Sabermetric technology went on to revolutionize the front offices of not just Major League Baseball, but sporting institutions around the world.

Perhaps the legacy of Moneyball was later used by another general manager, Jeff Luhnow of the Houston Astros, to justify using technology to win in a…savvier way, let’s say.

You may have heard of the Astros’s sign-stealing scandal, when the team used video cameras to steal strategic hand signals from opposing teams throughout the 2017 season and the playoffs—the year the Astros won its first World Series title. Sign-stealing, one of those aforementioned baseball traditions, has been around forever and is not explicitly barred by the MLB—except when tech is used to do it.

This week, the investigation into the Astros’s use of tech to steal signs culminated in severe sanctions against the team, including a maximum $5 million fine and forfeited draft picks, as well as a one-year suspension for Luhnow and manager A.J. Hinch, both of whom were fired an hour after the MLB’s official ruling. Former Astros bench coach Alex Cora was implicated and fired from his managerial job at the Boston Red Sox.

The punishments altogether are among the worst in baseball history, drawing comparisons to the 1919 “Black Sox” scandal that saw players banned for life after intentionally throwing that year’s World Series in exchange for money from a gambling syndicate.

But I don’t think Luhnow, Hinch, and Cora did this to lose. They did it to win. Cora has been described as the “mastermind” of the plot, while Hinch and Luhnow did nothing to stop it. And that may well be rooted in the belief that technology can change the game.

“It’s not an issue of just crunching numbers,” Luhnow said back in 2012, the first year of his gig. “It’s an issue of collecting and evaluating and interpreting and using information across a whole bunch of disciplines that allows you to take the most educated guess you can as to how that player’s going to perform in the future. And if we can do that 5 percent better than the rest of the clubs, that’s a significant edge in our game.”

Baseball, and sports at large, must reckon with more and more people sharing this principle.

Aric Jenkins

Twitter: @aricwithan_a


This edition of Data Sheet was curated by Aaron Pressman.


The quick brwn fox jmps over the lazy dog. Sorry you fat-fingered Twitter users, you're not going to get an edit button. While an edit option is the most requested feature on Twitter, CEO Jack Dorsey said on Wednesday that it's not happening. "We wanted to preserve the vibe and feeling in the early days," he said in a Wired video interview.

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Up, up and away. It's now 2020 and I still don't have my flying car–yet. Toyota invested almost $400 million in air taxi startup Joby Aviation, leading a total fundraising of almost $600 million. Unlike some rivals, Joby's prototype is intended to be flown by a pilot, not operated autonomously.

A soothing elixir. Digital lifestyle investor Felix Capital raised $300 million for its third venture capital fund. The London-based firm was an early investor in FarFetch, Peloton, and Gwyneth Paltrow's Goop.

Chipwich. The semiconductor industry has an upbeat outlook for 2020, even after revenue shrunk last year, according to a KPMG survey of executives in the industry. “Anticipated 2020 revenue growth for both big and small semiconductor companies is particularly healthy,” Lincoln Clark, KPMG's global semiconductor leader, told Data Sheet in an early look at the survey results. “With the recovery expected and prices ticking back up, nearly nine in ten of semiconductor executives surveyed expect their companies’ revenue to grow next year.”

Munch all you want. One of those very companies, Taiwan Semiconductor, reported fourth quarter earnings on Thursday. Revenue at the company that makes chips for Apple, AMD, and many others increased 11% to $10.4 billion in the fourth quarter and is expected to increase more than 40% in the first quarter. Shares of TSM, which have gained 69% over the past year, gained 1% in pre-market trading.


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"Back in the 1970s, demand for broad spectrum access (for example, to broadcast television) favored large satellites bearing tons of transponders that could broadcast across many frequencies. But most of the fruits of the wireless spectrum have been harvested. Business opportunities now center on the scraps of spectrum remaining. “There’s a lot of snippets of spectrum left over that the big guys have left behind,” says Rob Schwarz, the chief technology officer of space infrastructure at Maxar Technologies in Palo Alto, Calif. “That doesn’t fit into that big-satellite business model.”

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Keeping up with all the sequel news? AT&T's HBO says it will make a prequel to Game of Thrones called House of the Dragon. Set 300 years before the events of the just-completed series, Dragon is expected to hit in 2022. And in Disney's Star Wars universe, the completion of the story of the Skywalkers means it's time for a new narrative focus. The next movie, also expected in 2022, could be written and directed by Rian Johnson.

Aaron Pressman

On Twitter: @ampressman


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