By Nick Schaefer
The New York Times threw a big ol’ rock at the social media hive on Tuesday when it broke the news that the FBI was investigating the St. Louis Cardinals for cyber-espionage against the Houston Astros.
The short version goes as follows: Current Astros GM Jeff Luhnow used to work as the Assistant GM with the Cardinals. When Luhnow began with the Astros, they built a database where they would keep their proprietary information – presumably this would consist of statistics, data, and scouting reports, etc. that they developed internally. Apparently, Luhnow used the same passwords for this database as were used during his time in St. Louis.
In other words, the Cardinals stole Jeff Luhnow’s car – but they were able to do it because the Astros left the keys in the ignition.
It is difficult to say what sort of competitive advantage St. Louis may or may not have accrued as a result of this fiasco. The Cardinals were very successful before this happened and have been very successful since. If they simply had some more defensive metrics to put alongside their own, for example, the impact may have been negligible. Or, perhaps they were able to essentially double their pre-draft scouting information, which would be a huge boon. It’s also unclear what level of the St. Louis organization participated or directed the cyber-infiltration. As of now, the Cardinals have basically only said, “No comment.”
The news is shocking from many different perspectives. MLB has historically functioned more as a cabal of owners working largely in concert. For all that the various organizations compete on the field and try to act in their own best interest, you don’t usually see this sort of attack from one front office to another. Besides, there’s no sense in alienating another organization that you may want in your corner for voting purposes or for future trades. What’s more, the news came out of nowhere: the Astros haven’t been in the Cardinals’ division for several years now – theoretically the Cardinals-Astros rivalry was only going to diminish into the realm of Historical Footnote as time went on.
From another angle, the story is delicious in its irony – the Cardinals have been the subject of some ridicule as they have made every effort to hold themselves up as beacons of propriety in recent memory. Here, they may have been caught red-handed in Nixon-like fashion trying to steal information from a less successful competitor.
Similarly, the Astros have been the subject of minor controversies as they have adopted an extremely analytics-oriented front office, going scorched earth with their rebuild. They have drawn attention for attempting to execute bold draft strategies that sometimes work, and sometimes blow up in their face. Here, we have the Model Front Office of Modern Analytics using the same security for their intellectual property as some guy in 1998 signing up with AOL from a CD in the mail.
In the end, what makes the story so compelling is the novelty and the uncertainty of what is to come. It is a blank canvas for wild speculation as there isn’t a whole lot of precedent on point. In the time line of the sport, proprietary digital data is an extremely recent development. Social media commentators have attempted to make links between the recent Patriots scandal and this incident, but the shoe doesn’t quite fit on that analogy. This isn’t the traditional Messing With Equipment To Get An Advantage On The Field scenario that has played out since time immemorial. Rather, this is an off-the-field cyber attack in order to get an advantage on the field – or, as some have speculated, acting out on grudges against Luhnow that developed when he was still with the Cardinals.
People may go to jail. The most successful front office in recent memory may wind up dismantled. It is unclear what the precise fallout will be, but it has devastating potential.
On Twitter: @Nick_TCS