On Tuesday, The New York Times first reported that the FBI and the Justice Department are involved in a formal investigation of the St. Louis Cardinals’ front office, members of whom had been accused of hacking a Houston Astros’ internal database.
The Cardinals (with 11 World Series titles, second only to the New York Yankees) are by most considered a model MLB franchise. The notion that they’d be involved in something as nefarious as cyberhacking an opponent to gain a competitive advantage seems unsavory to many; the notion they’d be hacking an opponent with as downtrodden a history as the Houston Astros seems ironic to many others.
But times, as they say, are a-changing and baseball teams (and individuals) have long balanced the tightrope between bending the rules and breaking them. From stealing signs to over- or under-cutting the infield grass (to impact the speed of groundballs hit), from pine tar (to improve grip) to performance-enhancing substances, baseball has a long and storied history of what has euphemistically been referred to as “gamesmanship” and less euphemistically as “cheating.”
The problem with this elevation of the competitive arms race is that, if the accusation is proven, the Cardinals and their employees will have actually committed a crime.
According to officials cited in both the initial Times report and subsequent stories, employees of the Cardinals hacked into the Astros’ Ground Control database which “contains scouting and medical reports and statistical projections, among other data.” At the center of the story is Jeff Luhnow, a Cardinals exec who handled scouting and player development from 2003 until 2011, has served as general manager of the Astros since 2011, and is, theoretically, the individual victim of the attack.
The data compiled by the Astros and the effects it’s had seem to be working, albeit more slowly than some Astros would like. In the three years leading up to this season, the Astros had a rather abysmal 176-310 win-loss record; this year they’re 39-28 and in first place in the American League West.
Could this year’s early record be an anomaly? Sure. But it could also represent further tangible evidence of the impact data-driven analytics is bringing to sports. And where data drives success and advantage, hackers often follow.