June 16, 2015

Analytics Arms Race: Cards Accused of Hacking Astros’ Database

George Leopold

Baseball has thrived for decades on an early form of data analytics known as Sabermetrics. The reliance on data analysis has only grown in the years since Billy Beane of the Oakland Athletics pioneered the use of statistical analysis, or what popularly came to be known as Moneyball.

Now it appears that the professional baseball’s positional arms race to stay one step ahead of the competition via analytics has taken a troubling turn: The National League St. Louis Cardinals, among the most successful of Major League Baseball franchises, has been accused of hacking the database of a team in the American League, the until recently woebegone Houston Astros.

The New York Times reported on Tuesday (June 16) that the F.B.I. and the Justice Department are investigating whether Cardinals’ front-office officials hacked an Astros’ database containing closely held player personnel information. The probe reportedly focuses on an Astros’ database dubbed “Ground Control” that was assembled by a former Cardinals’ executive, Jeff Luhnow. Luhnow took at least parts of the database containing his considerable baseball knowledge with him when he was hired as general manager of the Astros in 2011.

The Times story cited law enforcement officials as saying the Cardinals might have suspected Luhnow took proprietary data with him to Houston. The report called Luhnow a “polarizing figure” during his highly successful tenure as a talent evaluator with the Cardinals.

Polarizing or not, Luhnow has a nearly unmatched record of spotting baseball talent. The Cardinals have steadily supplemented their lineup with fresh talent discovered by Luhnow. The team played in three World Series and won two before Luhnow left for the Astros in December 2011.

After taking the front office helm in Houston, then one of the worst teams in the National League before shifting to the American League in 2013, Luhnow brought with him a former NASA engineer named Sig Mejdal as the Astros’ “director for decision sciences.”

Luhnow immediately dumped the Astros’ veteran roster for prospects, slashing the franchise’s payroll in the process so it could leverage data analysis to invest in young prospects. Fast forward two years later: The Astros lead the American League West by 2.5 games despite losing seven of their last ten games.

According to an account of Luhnow analytics prowess published by BloombergBusiness, his “Ground Control” database combines a range of variables for individual players and assigns a value to each as determined by team scouts, coaches and statisticians. The database then visualizes the team’s projected performance for each prospect.

The Astros’ database was also reported to contain scouting reports and internal data on possible trades.

Reports said subpoenas have been issued in the Major League Baseball database hacking investigation.

In a statement, the league office said it “has been aware of and has fully cooperated with the federal investigation into the illegal breach of the Astros’ baseball operations database,” adding that would “evaluate the next steps and will make decisions promptly,” after the federal probe is concluded.

The Astros said in a statement they are “cooperating with an ongoing federal investigation” but declined further comment.

Meanwhile, the Cardinals said in a statement they “are aware of the investigation into the security breach of the Houston Astros’ database. The team has fully cooperated with the investigation and will continue to do so.”

The investigation reportedly focuses on a hack of the Astros’ database last year that resulted in the public release of some team information. It was initially believed the Astros were hacked by an individual or group outside of professional baseball, but investigators soon linked the breach to the Cardinals.

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