Merely 21 months ago, the baseball world was rocked as Commissioner Rob Manfred revealed the results of Major League Baseball’s sweeping investigation into alleged sign stealing conducted by the Houston Astros. Today, the Houston Astros are bound for the American League Championship Series with a cloud of allegations surrounding their ALDS conquest.
In November of 2019, Ken Rosenthal and Evan Drellich of The Athletic, published the first detailed account of the allegations made by former Astros pitcher Mike Fiers. Fiers stated that the feed from a camera located behind the center-field wall in Minute Maid Park was being directed to the tunnel leading into the Astros dugout. An Astros staffer or player would then bang on a trash can to signal different incoming pitches to the batter. Major League Baseball launched its formal investigation into the Houston Astros the very next day.
Months before the results of the investigation would be announced, social media was abuzz with videos claiming to prove the Astros were cheating. Jimmy O’Brien, better known as Jomboy, published a series of videos to YouTube and Twitter purporting to show the cheating operation in action. In one of Jomboy’s publications, a loud banging can be heard shortly after White Sox catcher Kevan Smith calls for a changeup. Jomboy alleged that it was simply impossible for the Astros to have obtained the White Sox’s signs without employing technological means. Other social media creators joined in by digging through footage to locate other incidences of banging following a catcher calling for an off-speed pitch. ESPN’s Joon Lee credited these social media sleuths in assisting the league’s investigation by cutting down on the time spent reviewing tape.
Major League Baseball’s investigation found that two months into the 2017 season, Astros bench coach Alex Cora and a group of players developed a system to steal signs. One or more individuals would go behind the dugout and watch the live feed from the center-field camera, when a breaking ball was called, they would strike a trash can with a bat. This practice continued through the postseason, one in which the Astros would eventually hoist the Commissioner’s Trophy as World Champions.
Upon the conclusion of the investigation, Major League Baseball fined the Astros $5 million, forced the forfeiture of the team’s first and second round draft picks for 2020 and 2021, and suspended general manager Jeff Luhnrow and manager AJ Hinch for the entire 2020 season. Luhnrow and Hinch were subsequently fired by Astros owner Jim Crane.
This year the Astros are back in the postseason spotlight, having just clinched a berth in the American League Championship Series, defeating the Chicago White Sox three games to one. This routing of the White Sox has not come without controversy as White Sox reliever Ryan Tepera poured gasoline on the fire after Game Three. After working two perfect innings in the first game of the series to be played in Chicago, Tepera noted the seeming difference between the Astros at home and on the road.
Tepera said, “Yeah. It is what it is. They’ve obviously had a reputation of doing sketchy stuff over there. It’s just, we can say that it’s a little bit of a difference. I think you saw the swings and misses tonight compared to, you know, the first two games at Minute Maid. But that’s not really the story, you know? We come here to play. We’re going to compete. We’re not going to worry about what they’re going to do. All we have to do is execute pitches and they can’t hit them anyways.”
Astros manager Dusty Baker, who was not a member of the organization during the 2017 scandal, responded to Tepera. “Those are heavy accusations,” Baker said. “We’re about the same [at home] in runs, OPS, and everything as we are [on the road]. Well, actually better on the road than we are at home. And then I think they’re actually better at home than they are on the road. And so, I don’t have much response to that other than I was listening to Eric Clapton this morning, and he had a song, ‘Before you accuse me, [take] a look at yourself.’ You know what I mean? That’s all I got to say.”
Baker alluded to the Astros home and away splits as evidence to exonerate his team of any sign stealing suspicions. And in truth, Baker raises a valid point. Depending on what statistics you value more, Houston’s offense has been marginally better on the road than at home. There is also a very good argument to be made that sign stealing will not be proven by statistics as the 2017 Astros, who were proven to be stealing signs, were more productive on the road than at home. The statistical comparison between the two seasons are shown below
It is worth examining the potential validity of Tepera’s claims that the Astros were swinging and missing more in Chicago than in Houston. In the four-game series, two games were played in Houston and two were played in Chicago. In Chicago, Astros hitters faced 348 pitches, swinging and missing on 36 of those pitches, or roughly 10.3% of all pitches. In Houston, Astros hitters faced 287 pitches and swung and missed on 29 pitchers, or roughly 10.1%. Tepera insists that the Astros were swinging and missing at a higher rate and missing balls by larger margins in Chicago. Tepera is correct that the Astros did swing and miss more in Chicago, but are we really supposed to believe that .2% is statistically significant enough to allege cheating?
Barring another investigation, we will not truly know if the Astros are back to their old ways; however, we can acknowledge that there is little statistical evidence of these allegations. Until then, I’ll let you be the judge.