The Astros and the Sign Stealing Controversy

It’s been some time since Major League Baseball came out with their findings on the Houston Astros’ pitch stealing scam (For basic explanation of the controversy read here). Here we will try to decide if this is a major threat for baseball or a minor story that will soon be forgotten.

What happened?

“The Astros used a live camera feed from center field to relay signs to hitters in real time during the 2017 season and for the start of the 2018 campaign. The report asserted the Astros decoded signs and communicated them to batters by banging on a trash can in 2017.” 

This is clearly a violation of MLB rules. Quoting directly from the Commissioners report: 

“On November 12, 2019, former Houston Astro player Mike Fiers publicly alleged in an article published by Ken Rosenthal and Evan Drellich of The Athletic that the Astros had engaged in sign-stealing methods in 2017 that violated MLB’s rules.”

“Witnesses consistently describe this new scheme as player-driven, and with the exception of (Alex) Cora, non-player staff, including individuals in the video replay review room, had no involvement in the banging scheme. However, witnesses made clear that everyone proximate to the Astros’ dugout presumptively heard or saw the banging.”

Was there an advantage?

In 2017 Houston beat the Boston Red Sox in the first round of the playoffs 3 games to 1, The New York Yankees in the ALCS 4 games to 3, and finally the Los Angeles Dodgers in the World Series 4 games to 3. Since the pitch stealing scam was only used in the Astros’ home park, we’ll compare their win-loss record at home versus their record away from home, and the runs scored at home versus on the road.

The Offense:

They were 8-1 at home and 3-6 on the road, averaging 5.7 runs at home and 2.9 runs per game on the road. The numbers indicated that the offense was much more productive at Minute Maid Park. To compare, the Los Angeles Dodgers in the first two round they were 5-0 at home and 3-1 away. The Dodgers were 37-12 at home with an average of 7.4 runs at home. Away they averaged 2.75 runs per game.


Only four starters during the post-season started games both at home and on the road against the Astros. In the American League Championship Series Masahiro Tanaka had an ERA of 0.00 in New York and 3.00 in Houston. C.C. Sabathia’s ERA was 0.00 at Yankee Stadium and just under 3.00 in Houston.

In the World Series the Dodgers’ Clayton Kershaw’s had the most extreme home/road splits of the four. He threw 4.2 innings in Houston, giving up 4 hits, 6 runs, 3 walks with only 2 strikeouts. Away from Houston he pitched 11 innings, giving up 5 hits, 1 run, with 2 walks and 15 strikeouts. That’s a 0.69 ERA in Los Angeles and a 12.85 ERA in Houston. On the other hand, Yu Darvish struggled both places, giving up 4 earned runs in 1.2 innings in both Houston and Los Angeles.

The pitch-stealing practice clearly worked very well. As Dodger pitcher Alex Wood tweeted after the story broke, “The fact that there hasn’t been any consequences to any players up to this point is wild.” He added that he “would rather face a player who was taking steroids than face a player that knew every pitch that was coming.” 

Who got punished?

It is interesting that the MLB made it clear that the scheme was player-driven, but so far the only individuals punished for the violation are non-players. Astro General Manager Jeff Luhnow and Field Manager A.J. Hinch were the first two casualties. Both were suspended for a year by Major League Baseball, and then fired by the Houston Astros. Neither man was an instigator of the plan, and Hinch specifically made it known to his players that he didn’t approve of it. His crime was knowledge about what was going on and not insuring that they stopped the practice. These two men’s punishment seems reasonable.

The other two named principles were bench coach Alex Cora and former player Carlos Beltran. Neither has been disciplined by MLB, but both lost big league manager jobs due to the scandal. Cora losing his job in Boston after two seasons, and Beltran being let go before he managed a game by the New York Mets.  

Both Cora and Beltran were more culpable in the act than Hinch and Luhnow, but MLB’s rules specifically say that the GM and Manager are responsible for the conduct of their players. 

Rumor has it that this was not a scandal that involved only a few of the Astro hitters, but most of them. So far the only player name released by MLB is Carlos Beltran. All the others have been protected from exposure. Major League Baseball seems to fear the reaction of the Major League Baseball Players Association. 

There was also a rumor that the Astros were wearing electronic devices on their person to receive pitch information. Major League Baseball investigated the charge and exonerated the Astros with the following statement, “MLB explored wearable devices during the investigation but found no evidence to substantiate it.” 

This is not a good look for Major League Baseball. As this year’s National League Most Valuable Player, Cody Bellinger, tweeted, “For the sake of the game I hope this isn’t true. If true, there needs to be major consequences to the players. That completely ruins the integrity of the game!!!”  

Is it a major threat to the baseball?

That last line is the key one. This is a major assault on the integrity of the game. Not to the level of the “Black Sox” scandal of 1919, but every bit on the level of the steroid era of the 1990s. The Astros World Series Championship should always be tainted, and unless the players involved come clean then the entire line-up is implicated. Jose Altuve’s MVP should be discounted, as should George Springer’s World Series MVP award. All of Alex Bregman’s accomplishments are also in jeopardy. And they should be. Major League Baseball and the Players Union should agree to go public with the names and then punishment should be swift and severe.

A final note. The big story after Game 3 of the World Series in 2017, was the gesture made by Yuli Gurriel towards Yu Darvish after his 2nd inning Home Run. It was a racial gesture that would earn Gurriel a suspension. Darvish was very magnanimous about the incident and it went away pretty quickly (we wrote in praise of Darvish at the time here). With what we know now Gurriel probably knew what pitch was coming when he went deep on Darvish. That pitch knocked Yu Darvish out of the game, and Gurriel was quite demonstrative in his circling of the bases. This looks even worse now. Yuli Gurriel should be extremely ashamed of what he did.

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