The Houston Astros and the Ire of Nelson Rockingham

Some of you may have heard a little about the whole mess with the Houston Astros and their sign stealing scandal. As a lifelong fan of the game, I have a few opinions I felt that I needed to weigh in with after seeing last week’s pathetic press conferences that were meant to be apologetic. Strap yourselves in, I’m bringin’ out my Louisville Slugger.

Just a quick synopsis of this scandal for those unaware: In 2017 the Houston Astros went 101-61 (a winning percentage of 0.623) in the regular season, and capped it off by winning the World Series against the Los Angeles Dodgers in a highly-contested 7 game series. However, rumors started to gather around the league that the Astros had used a secret video camera to steal signs from opposing teams during home games. These suspicions were later strengthened by a public admission from a former player (pitcher Mike Fiers) that the Astros were doing exactly what was alleged, and added that they would communicate the pitch that was coming by hitting a trashcan in the dugout a specified number of times. I’ll get into the gravity and context of these actions later. 

The Astros’ 2017 Championship might have come as a bit of a surprise at the time, as the team was coming off a two-year stretch of going 86-76 (0.531) and 84-78 (0.519), and had an opening day payroll that ranked 18th in Major League Baseball. During their playoff stretch, they were tasked with (and beat) the top 3 teams in payroll: the Boston Redsox, NY Yankees, and LA Dodgers. In and of themselves, those facts don’t necessarily mean anything. Big-market teams have the resources to sign the highest paid players in the league but those players don’t always perform up to the level of their contracts. Generally speaking though, money buys talent, and talent wins games. There is a reason small-market teams like the Oakland A’s have to get really innovative and start a revolution in order to compete with the big boys. And it is possible that from a talent perspective, the team really did turn a corner that year to go from middle-of-the-road to a perennial pennant favorite. In fact, they have only had 100-win years since. It’s just another thing to consider in the context of this cheating scandal.

So some of you might be wondering what the big deal is with sign stealing. Does it actually help the hitter? Isn’t stealing signs just part of the game? The answer to both of those questions is “yes” but that second question can get squirrely. 

At the professional level, when the ball leaves a pitcher’s hand, it is roughly 54 feet from home plate. That is due to the pitcher’s stride as he pushes himself off the rubber, which is 60’ 6” from home. If that ball is traveling 90 miles an hour (commonplace at the Major League level), it will cross those 54 feet in 0.41 seconds. In that amount of time, the batter must identify the trajectory, speed, and type of pitch thrown. Somewhere amongst all of those calculations, they must also make a decision to swing the bat or not, based on all of that data, in less than 0.41 seconds. The bat itself is actually smaller in diameter than the ball itself (2.75” vs 2.87-3”) which means making meaningful contact with a pitch thrown by a professional is the single most difficult hand-eye coordination challenge in all of sports. Therefore, if the batter knows what pitch is coming, that is a HUGE benefit. This is one less calculation they must make, allowing them to focus more on trajectory and velocity. Furthermore, if they know it is a breaking pitch such as a curveball, and they see it start in the lower part of the strike zone, they know it will sink too low to be a strike. They won’t be fooled, and won’t swing. This is why pitchers develop multiple pitches (outside of Mariano Rivera but he is a goddamn outlier if there ever was one), to keep hitters guessing and off-balance. Anyone who knows anything about competition knows that if you know your opponent’s moves before they make them, you’re already at a significant advantage. 

Now is where it gets difficult-ish. There is an aspect of stealing signs that is accepted practice and considered “fair” in baseball. Signals from coaches to runners and hitters involve hand and vocal cues to covertly tell players “hey we’re gonna attempt a bunt/steal/hit and run here.” Obviously, everyone watching the game can see and possibly pick up on some of these signs. If you notice a pattern and break the code, you can get the upper hand on your opponent. Signals between the pitcher and catcher are a bit different. They involve the catcher showing any number of fingers between their legs. Growing up, the common thing was for 1 to mean fastball, 2 for curveball or slider, and 3 for a change up, etc. Typically these signs are only visible to the pitcher, perhaps 2nd baseman and shortstop, or even the center fielder if his eyes are good enough. When a runner gets on second, they normally show many numbers to keep the runner from relaying the pitch to the hitter. But if you figure it out anyway, more power to ya. The issue with this Astros situation is that they used technology to aid their venture. They used a camera positioned right on where the catcher shows his signs, and zoomed in from 400 feet away. If a person could make out those flashes of the catcher’s finger from there with their own two eyes, congrats, one of your parents was a hawk. That is where they crossed the line. That’s when it went from “it’s part of the game” to “they cheated”. 

Ever notice in the NFL that play-callers cover their mouths when talking into the headset? That is because they are worried the other team would employ a lip reader that could decipher those calls and counter them. Now imagine a team built a discrete hyperbolic mic, and despite that coaches’ best efforts, the home team could listen to the calls from across the field. That is comparable to the infraction here. And god dammit, now I’ve given the Patriots an idea to try the next season! 

After the allegations were corroborated by a first-hand witness, MLB launched a full-scale investigation into the Astros. In the end, they confirmed the sign stealing scheme. There was a camera in the outfield aimed at the catcher, and a live video feed into the clubhouse, just a few steps from the dugout. There, a player or coach would decode the signs, and then relay it to the batters. Everyone from the manager down knew about it. Some players claim they did not participate in it, but they still knew it was happening and, and with the exception of Fiers, none spoke out. Major League Baseball fined the organization $5 million, took away 1st and 2nd round draft picks for the next two years, and the General Manager (Jeff Luhnow) and Manager (A.J. Hinch) were suspended for a year. These two men were then immediately fired by the owner, Jim Crane. Even coaches who had moved on to other teams faced bans and firings with the likes of the Mets’ manager Carlos Beltran, and the Red Sox’s Alex Cora.

Initially, I felt like these actions were appropriate given the nature of what they did, and set the historical precedent for punishments. One big thing you might be surprised to see missing is there were no player punishments. That is because the League didn’t want to punish the very sort of people who blew the whistle on the whole thing. They want, rightfully, for their players to speak out when they see something wrong. I’d argue that those players lost the luxury to avoid punishment when they were silent the whole time, or worse denying it was happening, but someone can understand where MLB was coming from on that. 

However, recently there was a press conference where the Astros owner, Jim Crane, was set to apologize for the whole scandal and field questions from reporters face-to-face. This was supposed to be a good, necessary step in getting past the whole ordeal. And while Crane did apologize, and state that they had broken the rules, he also indulged in such feckless lies as “Our opinion is that this didn’t impact the game.” EXCUSE ME? Just how stupid do you think we all are?! Everyone and their mother knows this had an impact on the game, because IF IT DIDN’T THEN WHY DID YOU DO IT/ WHY WOULD IT BE ILLEGAL THEN? I made a chart to show the difference in batting average when they were home vs. away for 5 prominent Astros hitters. This is for the 2017 postseason run where they toppled 3 giants in a row.

PlayerAVG at HomeAVG Away
Carlos Correa.371.211
Jose Altuve.472.143
Alex Bregman.273.154
Evan Gattis.300.200
Brian McCann.300.037

This is with 18 games worth of data. That is enough to establish a trend. These are not slight drop-offs in production either. McCann went from a good hitter at home, to being a nearly-guaranteed out when away. Seeing those numbers, and knowing how close the ALCS and World Series contests were, coupled with comments from an owner that showed no remorse or real accountability, I’ve moved to the idea the original punishments were not enough. The team needs to lose their title. They need to obliterate their name from the record books. Don’t award it to LA, just have there be no World Series winner listed for 2017. That way, no one will ever forget what they did. Demand that the trophy be returned, they shouldn’t get to keep what they got by cheating. This is the only thing that will really hurt the owner and the players. What is a $5 million fine to a man worth $2.5 billion, who also receives over $100 million in revenue sharing from MLB every year? What are two draft picks when the draft is 40 rounds long? They need to be made examples of. Doing so would not be “futile” as the Commissioner Robert Manfred said, it would be sending a powerful message to future players and clubs. It’s about holding an entire organization accountable. They knew what they were doing was wrong, they covered it up, and when they went to apologize, they tried to minimize it. The NCAA has been known to strip championships from programs, the Olympic Committee has taken medals from athletes, so the concept isn’t as wild as one would believe. The press conferences from last week were supposed to be the end of it, but after that disaster, MLB needs to step in, and end it themselves. The last punishment they can do is strip the title away. It is what they deserve.

Nelson is a man of pure class. When not reviewing erotica he’s getting very angry about baseball. Follow him on Twitter

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