Inside the St Louis Cardinals-Houston Astros hacking scandal

Yesterday, punishment was finally confirmed amid a cyber scandal that rocked Major League Baseball. Chris Correa, former scouting director of the St Louis Cardinals, was sentenced to 46 months in prison for hacking the player evaluation database and email system of the Houston Astros, a rival team.

The data breach was first reported in June 2015, when Astros general manager Jeff Luhnow confirmed an FBI investigation was underway. Correa, 36, was fired by St Louis shortly thereafter, before pleading guilty to five counts of unauthorised access to a protected computer between 2013 and 2014. 

According to the prosecution, Correa hacked into the accounts of three different Astros employees. At least one of those victims previously worked for St Louis and used a similar password after moving teams, allowing Correa to gain access illegally.

An important member of the Cardinals' front office, Correa oversaw the team's evaluation of prospects linked to the amateur draft. After penetrating the Astros' database, he downloaded files relating to the draft and also viewed confidential notes on trade discussions and injuries.

Correa also gained access to proprietary statistics maintained by the Astros, which may have informed his decision-making across the board. In total, Correa caused $1.7 million worth of damage to the Astros, and he will pay $279,038 in restitution as part of his punishment.

The Cardinals contend that Correa acted as a lone wolf and that no other executives were aware of his actions. Earlier in the process, Correa said he hacked the Astros' system merely to check whether former St Louis employees had stolen intellectual property when building their new database. However, the disgraced scouting director has since expressed ‘remorse and regret’ for his actions. “I violated my values and it was wrong,” he said in a court statement. “I behaved shamefully, and the whole episode represents the worst thing I've done in my life.”

To understand the magnitude of this offence, it is important to understand the nature of baseball, a sport obsessed by numbers and information. From the earliest days, when a nation was thrilled by the home run totals of Babe Ruth, to the modern surge in advanced analytics, the game inspires an almost incalculable amount of data. And not only does MLB generate more data than any other sport; it uses more, too, and in a far more serious manner.

Bill James is widely considered the godfather of advanced statistics in baseball. In the late 1970s, he catalysed a movement away from subjective analysis and towards a more quantifiable approach to evaluating players and teams. Many of his teachings were later popularised by progressive executives such as Billy Beane, whose use of undervalued metrics to eke maximum value from a miniscule Oakland A's payroll was later detailed in Moneyball, a bestselling book and blockbuster movie.

In the post-Moneyball realm, where advanced statistics are accepted with greater ease than ever before, the debate has become far more granular. Now, with so much data available to all teams, advantages are found in how that information is interpreted and applied. In this regard, it is important for teams to have their own proprietary data, which is typically housed in databases similar to that hacked by Correa.

The Cleveland Indians were early adopters in this field. Their database allowed for quick access to medical records and statistics for thousands of players in professional baseball, making trade discussions and internal evaluations easier. These systems have now become commonplace throughout baseball and can cost millions of dollars to build.

In essence, they take myriad statistical ingredients and spit out rankings, evaluations or suggestions that can be used in many different ways. One pertinent example is the Pittsburgh Pirates' increased use of defensive shifting and emphasis on pitch-framing for catchers. That concept was derived almost entirely from proprietary data, which has become invaluable to modern organisations.

Under Luhnow, the Astros have gained a reputation for analytical expertise. A near blanket trust in data has enabled the progressive general manager to revive a faltering franchise and rebuild a potential powerhouse on a modest payroll. Making full use of high draft positions has been a key component of that renaissance, especially during the period of Correa's offences.

Therefore, Major League Baseball must be wary of cybercrime, because it can have extreme consequences on competitive balance, in addition to raising various ethical issues. This is just the latest form of cheating in a sport that has elevated rule-bending to a celebrated art form. From spitballs to steroids, baseball has always inspired people to seek new advantages, by means fair or foul. Hacking is a form of cheating fit for the twenty-first century, and it must be stopped at source.

The Cardinals have a glowing reputation within baseball. Only the New York Yankees have won more World Series titles, and St Louis places great faith in player development. That philosophy has delivered tremendous success, with nine trips to the National League Championship Series since 2000. But the actions of Correa may blight that image, while further punishment may come from MLB, perhaps in the form of confiscated draft picks.

Yet there are also implications for the wider industry of baseball here, and sports more generally. As technology encroaches further into our lives, the potential benefits from hacking may increase for sports teams and those employed by them. While baseball is the king of statistics, other sports are catching up, most notably football.

Accordingly, MLB must consider a stiff punishment to draw a line in the sand and offer a true deterrent moving forward. Sports hacking may never become commonplace, but it is now firmly on the radar. Teams must take additional measures to secure their infrastructure, and governing bodies must treat those systems as the powerful assets they have become.

The case of Chris Correa has exposed a murky underworld of modern sports. Now the full details are known, baseball must take appropriate action to defend itself and help other sports do the same.

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