It’s hard to keep track of all of Major League Baseball’s current controversies, so you are forgiven if you are still sorting out the unpopular plan to cut dozens of minor league teams or have already moved on to news of an impending labor showdown.
Or maybe you simply can’t keep straight the investigations into the Astros. A month go during the World Series it was about an executive who was eventually fired. Now Houston is in an ocean of hot water over allegations that has been stealing signs electronically — including in 2017 when it won the World Series.
But this sign stealing investigation is one where we really need to keep our eyes on the ball.
Former Astros pitcher Mike Fiers was the whistle blower of sorts, and now MLB is investigating. Commissioner Rob Manfred said Tuesday, “Any allegation that relates to a rule violation that affects the outcome of a game is the most serious matter; it relates to the integrity of the sport.”
Conventional sign stealing is unsavory, but it has been built into the culture of baseball (and other sports and life itself, one supposes) as some sort of espionage subplot. It’s not against the rules; stealing signs with a came is definitely against the rules.
If you want to say that electronic sign stealing is basically the same thing as a runner on second base cracking a code from a distance with just his eyes — and what the Astros did is just a 21st Century version incorporating the evolving tools at our disposal — then perhaps you should try this analogy:
Sign stealing that involves nothing but cracking the code unaided by technology is akin to stealing someone’s wallet that has been left in a relatively unguarded area. The person doing the stealing is still to blame and in the wrong, but the victim contributed with carelessness.
Sign stealing like the Astros (and apparently other teams) engaged in is akin to stealing someone’s credit card information by hacking into a secure system. The person doing the stealing has gone beyond a mere crime of opportunity.
(What remains particularly hilarious in this whole thing is the Astros’ ham-handed, extremely analog method of relaying the information — often coming in the form of a loud bang in the dugout. That’s basically like publishing a confession on a billboard).
How much did the Astros potentially benefit from their crime? FiveThirtyEight found that from 2016 to 2017 (the biggest year in question), the Astros had a significant jump in power and decrease in strikeouts. Some of it was was surely talent and teaching, and the jump occurred both at home and on the road (though was more pronounced at home). But knowing when certain pitches are coming is a huge and unfair edge in a game of reaction times down to the millisecond.
The Astros seem to be deploying a “don’t just look at us, everyone is doing it” defense, which is about the most guilty defense possible.
MLB’s investigation is looking at cheating at an extremely high level, one that gave Houston a competitive edge in real-time in 2017. If enough damning evidence is found, I don’t think it would be overstepping boundaries to strip the Astros of their World Series title. If that’s too harsh, maybe take away all their draft picks for the next two years, dooming them to future hardship.
By the way, in case you are worried that the Twins might be tangled up in this mess as a means of explaining their sudden jump to 307 home runs last season: it seems unlikely considering their batting splits and power were much better on the road than at home.
No, the Twins likely just benefited (and eventually suffered) from another of MLB’s controversies this season: the juiced up ball that was launched out at a record rate in the regular season before mysteriously dulling in the playoffs.
It’s been a tough couple of months for MLB, and it doesn’t figure to get better anytime soon.