The Houston Astros have been the most hated franchise in professional sports since news of the sign stealing scandal broke in January 2020. The players have been called cheaters, regardless of whether they actually cheated or were even on the team at the time, and the legitimacy of the 2017 World Series title has been tainted in the eyes of many fans.
But The Los Angeles Times first reported in February 2020 that the data suggested the Astros sign stealing scheme, in which someone in the dugout would bang on a trash can to signal what pitch was coming, didn’t really help the hitters. Now The Athletic, the very publication that broke the story of the sign stealing scheme, appears to concur.
More analysis comes out that the sign stealing scheme didn’t really help the 2017 Houston Astros.
According to Dr. Rob Gray, who’s described as “an expert in vision and perceptual motor control in sports,” the scheme’s main drawbacks were that it hindered hitters’ visual pitch recognition and “disrupted their well developed information-movement coupling in the swing.” By waiting to hear a trash can bang, hitters wouldn’t have been putting in the effort to pick up cues in the pitcher’s delivery and the early flight of the ball.
Missing out on that information would naturally make it more difficult to pick up the timing and location of the pitch. Thus while the sign stealing may have helped them lay off pitches outside of the zone, it would do more harm than good with respect to actually hitting pitches in the zone. If you’re thinking too much and waiting on a bang, instead of just focusing on seeing the ball, it will disrupt your ability to hit it.
The 2017 Astros are even compared to the 1951 New York Giants, who also stole signs from beyond center field. The data suggested the Giants were better hitters on the road, just as the Astros were in 2017. The inevitable conclusion is that “sign-stealing cheaters like the 1951 Giants and the Astros may indeed win, but not because of cheating.”
Why It Matters
None of this excuses the cheating or absolves the Astros. They broke the rules and it’s fair to hate them for it if you want. But the constant claims that the team cheated its way to a title or won the World Series only because of the cheating are just flat out wrong.
That’s especially true when you consider they beat two teams in their playoff run — the Red Sox and Yankees — that were also busted for cheating that same season. It’s why the Astros started the scheme in the first place — Carlos Beltran came in and told them they were “behind the times,” and he’d just spent most of the previous three seasons in the Bronx.
This is why the Astros and their fans aren’t as contrite or apologetic as the outrage mob wants them to be. Illegal sign stealing was rampant around the league and has been going on for decades, but for some reason the other teams that did it — like the ’51 Giants and the 2018 Red Sox, for example — are largely given a pass.
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It doesn’t make it okay that the Astros did it, but the hypocrisy is hard to stomach. Fans are willing to embrace teams that won championships with multiple steroid users on the roster while at the same time advocating that Jose Altuve, who took no part in the sign stealing scheme, be stripped of his 2017 MVP award and intentionally hit in the head with fastballs.
This level of mania is what causes fans to still insist Altuve was wearing a buzzer when he homered off Aroldis Chapman to end the 2019 ALCS, despite the theory and its even crazier variants being debunked. As Simon and Garfunkel so aptly noted, “a man hears what he wants to hear and disregards the rest.”
The players may have escaped punishment from the league for the scandal, but it’s not their fault Commissioner Rob Manfred gave them immunity. He likely didn’t want to get into a battle with the Players Union, especially when he knew as well as anyone that the Astros were far from the only team engaging in illegal sign stealing.
And as for the claims of the title being tainted, the trash can banging wouldn’t have been much help in a loud, sold-out Minute Maid Park in October and couldn’t have been used on the road. The data suggesting the scheme didn’t help the hitters would explain why they voluntarily stopped in early 2018, well before Mike Fiers made it so Manfred could no longer cover up the matter.
Unfortunately this data will change few minds, if any. The angry fans and media figures are happy to have the Astros as an enemy to vilify, so no amount of truth, facts, or logic will sway them. But for those of us who actually care, it’s good to know that the 2017 title wasn’t won because of cheating — it was won because the Astros were just a great team.