Playing Devil’s Advocate is often a slippery slope. In this case, doing so would involve taking the side of the Houston Astros, who allegedly employed sign-stealing tactics during the 2017 season, and possibly beyond.
In a story published by The Athletic, Ken Rosenthal and Evan Drellich dive into substantial claims of cheating made by former Houston pitcher Mike Fiers, among others. Fiers alleges that the Astros set up camera(s) in the outfield in order to immediately receive an opposing catcher’s signs in the Houston dugout. Once the signs were decoded, tactics such as the audible banging of bats signaled to the batter which type of pitch was coming. The clear evidence of this practice taking place is broken down in this video.
Sign stealing from a runner at second base or teams picking up on a tipping pitcher (coincidentally, the case that is explained in the linked video also involves the Astros) have long been a part of Major League Baseball. However, doing so with technology such as video cameras is prohibited.
The accusations against the Astros, should they be true, could have major repercussions. Major League Baseball could force Houston to pay a significant fine, or even strip the Astros of future draft picks. Yet, there is almost no way MLB would ever consider vacating Houston’s 2017 title, as some radical critics have suggested.
Amidst this controversy, very few have dared to argue in defense of the Astros. The consensus opinion throughout the rest of the league and the media is that Houston not only cheated, but that their established offensive prowess should at least be moderately questioned. There is no doubt that the 2017 World Champions have rolled out lineups full of superstar hitters day-in and day-out, but it is fair to wonder if sign stealing has inflated some of the huge numbers that they have constantly put up.
The actual statistics can be used to support either side of this issue. The 2017 playoffs are a fascinating case, as nearly every one of the Astros’ stars had massive home/road splits. José Altuve’s OPS at home in the ‘17 postseason was an otherworldly 1.541, while it was just .497 on the road. Alex Bregman (.857 OPS at home, .508 OPS on the road), Carlos Correa (1.164, .626), and Yuli Gurriel (.937, .797) were all remarkably better at Minute Maid Park during the ‘17 playoffs.
The 2017 regular season tells a different story. As a team, the Astros recorded an OPS of .812 at home, but they posted an even higher .834 mark on the road. The Astros scored 395 runs at home, and 501 away from Houston. These numbers matter because the claims made against the Astros only state that they stole signs in their home park, meaning that Houston’s 2017 batting statistics on the road are theoretically legitimate. This should lead outsiders to believe that even if the Astros cheated, it did not truly make that much of a difference, at least in the regular season.
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So, did the Astros really do anything wrong? The answer is complicated. They certainly did break Major League Baseball’s rules regarding sign stealing, because doing so with the help of technology is illegal. This entire controversy ties into the central philosophy of the Astros: win games at any cost. In their recent window of success, Houston has been known to seek any possible competitive advantages, often blurring the lines of what is considered “right” or “wrong”.
A well known instance of the Astros (allegedly) going too far was when they supposedly doctored baseballs in order to increase the spin rate of their staff’s pitches. These accusations were made by Reds (at that time Indians) pitcher Trevor Bauer, who sarcastically made these claims through Twitter. While it is true that the Astros have revitalized the careers of a number of pitchers, including an aging Justin Verlander and an underperforming Gerrit Cole, this is simply because the Houston organization, as a whole, is smarter than everyone else. They have revolutionized the art of unlocking an arm’s hidden potential, pushing pitchers to throw more of what works and less of what does not.
The Astros did technically do wrong by stealing signs with the help of technology. They were caught, and if their actions are proven true, they will likely be punished. However, baseball fans need to understand that at times, as the saying goes, “if you ain’t cheating, you ain’t trying”.
Many will gasp at those words in this context, clutching their pearls and sitting atop the high horse of morality. The truth that everyone needs to comprehend is that the Houston Astros will get away with this, whether the public likes it or not. Their 2017 World Series Championship, while it now may come with an asterisk in some people’s eyes, will never be taken away. Banners hang forever. Houston’s 311 regular season wins from 2017-19 will always stand, along with their likely winning season next year (and probably additional successful campaigns to follow). The “severe” punishment that MLB is rumored to soon bring upon the Astros will surely make an impact, but not one that is large enough to strike fear in other teams who are driven to do whatever it takes to win.
The overarching theme from this entire story should be viewed from a fan’s perspective. As a dedicated follower of their local Major League team, which type of organization would a fan choose: one like the Pittsburgh Pirates, who will stop at nothing to make an extra buck, or one like the Houston Astros, who push the limits of the rules in order to win every single game?
The answer seems pretty clear.