The fallout from MLB’s sign-stealing scandal doesn’t figure to be going away any time soon based on strong reactions from players as spring training opened.
Why is this such a big deal?
First take: Michael Rand
I think the notion of cheating to steal signs with technology creates natural heroes vs. villains in a way that, say, the steroid scandal didn’t.
Teams [like the Yankees and Dodgers] who lost to the Astros in the playoffs are rightfully mad. Pitchers are furious at hitters because knowing what pitch is coming renders impossible the element of surprise and the ability to keep a batter off-balance. It is the single biggest edge a batter can have. The Astros cheated to get it.
And the Astros keep messing up several attempts at humility.
It’s nearly impossible to hit a baseball — even if you know what pitch is coming — while your foot is in your mouth, which is the posture Astros owner Jim Crane got himself into when he said Thursday, “Our opinion is this didn’t impact the game. We had a good team. We won the World Series and we’ll leave it at that.”
Phil Miller: Most pitchers cannot throw a strike past most good MLB hitters on velocity alone. The essence of pitching is to keep the hitter guessing, to make him swing at a pitch he doesn’t want to.
I talked to a Twins player about the scandal Friday, but he insisted that MLB is partly to blame, because the league should have seen this coming. Its leaders allowed teams to install video equipment, made it easily accessible from the dugout, and didn’t police the usage.
Manager A.J. Hinch and General Manager Jeff Luhnow were aware of the cheating and did nothing to stop it, showing just how enticing it is to find an edge, even an illicit one. The Astros won a World Series, made millions of dollars because of that fact and generally enjoyed all that comes with winning. We’ll never know if they would have done it without rule-breaking, but the motivation was certainly there.
Which might explain why it’s been so difficult for the Astros to apologize: Maybe they aren’t sorry.
Rand: Great points. And I’ll add just a bit of basic statistical analysis to it:
While people are rightly focused on big events like Jose Altuve’s suspicious game-winning homer in the 2019 ALCS, even subtle edges are huge. Say you are in a 1-1 count and know to lay off a breaking ball because your team cheated to get the signs. The difference in average OPS after a 2-1 count last season vs. a 1-2 count was about 300 points.
Hitters guess what pitch might be coming all the time, but there’s a huge difference between that and the certainty of knowing what’s coming.
Miller: The part that is so surprising is that they seemed to believe they would not be caught. Banging on a garbage can isn’t exactly CIA-level sophistication, and opponents had obviously become suspicious.
Perhaps they thought that the baseball world would simply shrug at the scheme and portray it as charming roguishness, more akin to scuffing the ball than electronic subterfuge.
Then again, maybe it has.
The players have suffered no penalty except to their reputation.
Rand: At least not until the first beanball of many this season.
Miller: “Two fingers means curveball, three means slider, four is a changeup. And if I put down my middle finger ...”