The Results Are In: Astros Cheating Punishment Ends in Relief for None

Zachary D. Rymer@zachrymerMLB Lead WriterNovember 10, 2020

Houston Astros Carlos Correa watches the eighth inning from the dugout in Game 7 of a baseball American League Championship Series, Saturday, Oct. 17, 2020, in San Diego. (AP Photo/Gregory Bull)
Gregory Bull/Associated Press

Just about a year has passed since the Houston Astros were first revealed to have cheated their way to a World Series title in 2017.

Of all the ways the fallout from the scandal can be described, "cathartic" isn't one of them. Because as much as anyone might have been hoping for the Astros and assorted people involved in their electronic sign-stealing schemes to get their comeuppance, it just never really happened. 

      

Recapping the Astros Scandal

  • Nov. 2019: Story broken by Ken Rosenthal and Evan Drellich of The Athletic
  • Jan. 2020: MLB concludes its investigation and issues the following punishments: one-year bans for general manager Jeff Luhnow and manager A.J. Hinch, a $5 million fine and stripped draft picks for 2020 and 2021
  • Jan. 2020: Manager Alex Cora, formerly Houston's bench coach, is let go by the Boston Red Sox
  • Jan. 2020: Manager Carlos Beltran, formerly Houston's designated hitter, is fired by the New York Mets
  • No Astros players were punished
  • The organization retained its 2017 World Series title

      

Why the Astros Scandal Now Feels Like Such a Dud

Let's back up and acknowledge that the Astros indeed deserved all the scorn that came their way after one of their former pitchers, Mike Fiers, blew the whistle on their sign-stealing schemes from 2017. 

Major League Baseball Commissioner Rob Manfred's investigation found the Astros used their video replay room to decipher opposing teams' signs during games. They then attempted to exploit them in real-time by banging on a dugout trash can to alert their batters about incoming pitches.

The other damning part of the league's investigation was that the Astros stole signs not just during the regular season in 2017, but also throughout the postseason.

Given the specifics, the Astros' sign-stealing methods were clearly more egregious than others MLB had previously encountered. And since they continued to use them throughout the 2017 postseason, they ultimately had an unfair advantage over the Los Angeles Dodgers in the World Series.

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How much did the Astros actually benefit from their scheme? According to a comprehensive study by Rob Arthur for Baseball Prospectus, maybe not at all.

However, that was beside the point. The Astros crossed a line simply by attempting said scheme. And regardless of how much it benefited them, their scandal remains one of the greatest in MLB history by way of their subversion of the integrity of the '17 World Series.

Even in retrospect, it's understandable that the conclusion of MLB's investigation did little to quell the furor over the Astros' wrongdoing. If anything, said furor was only heightened. Because without suspensions for players, who were granted immunity in exchange for testimony, or the stripping of Houston's championship, what price was actually being paid?

Perhaps nobody said it better than Chicago Cubs ace Yu Darvish, who bombed in the '17 World Series with the Dodgers, in February: "It's like the Olympics. When a player cheats, you can't have a gold medal, right? But [the Astros] still have a World Series title. That makes me feel weird." 

Matt Slocum/Associated Press

Sans a satisfactory whacking of the Astros, those outraged by the scandal—i.e., pretty much everyone not associated with or rooting for them—were left to hope for other forms of catharsis.

More extreme penalties in a subsequent sign-stealing scandal, perhaps. Or better yet, a season in which the Astros were revealed as frauds who simply couldn't compete without an ill-begotten leg up.

Well, the first hope was dashed when MLB looked into the sign-stealing accusations against the Red Sox and struggled to find anything worth penalizing. And with Cora having already been relieved of his post, his one-year ban was effectively symbolic.

It was also clear by then that the Red Sox were in for a rough 2020 season regardless of the results of MLB's investigation. To wit, they had already traded MVP Mookie Betts and Cy Young Award winner David Price and lost All-Star ace Chris Sale to Tommy John surgery. It was to nobody's surprise or satisfaction they went 24-36 and finished in last place in the American League East.

For their part, the Astros also fell short of .500 by going just 29-31 in the regular season. The notion that they would be revealed as frauds, however, didn't really pan out.

Their struggles had much to do with the losses of ace Justin Verlander (forearm and eventual Tommy John surgery) and closer Roberto Osuna (elbow), which put a huge dent in the club's pitching depth. And while its offense did post a below-average 94 OPS+, it also finished with MLB's lowest strikeout rate for the third time in four seasons.

Data courtesy of FanGraphs

Despite their losing record, the Astros also qualified for the playoffs by way of the league's expanded field.

They easily dispatched the Minnesota Twins in the Wild Card Round and then the Oakland Athletics in the American League Division Series. After falling behind 0-3, Houston nearly punched a ticket to its third World Series since 2017 before losing to the Tampa Bay Rays in Game 7 of the ALCS.

Throughout it all, Astros hitters more or less lived up to the hype that accompanied them before news of their sign-stealing ways broke. Whereas the field had a .234 average and a .412 slugging percentage in the playoffs, the Astros hit .270 and slugged .442.

The 2020 season, therefore, wasn't the ruination of the Astros. In the end, their scandal was less of a mortal blow and more like what they had treated it as back in spring training: a mere inconvenience.

Jeff Roberson/Associated Press

It's now doubtful that Al-Star outfielder George Springer, who has spent seven seasons in Houston, will be significantly devalued by other teams in free agency. And while Luhnow and Beltran remain out of a job, Cora is back with the Red Sox while Hinch has a new gig with the Detroit Tigers.

All this amounts to a pretty weak serving of schadenfreude. What's more, the less-publicized aspects of MLB's handling of the Astros scandal may have had unintended consequences for everyone else.

In addition to penalizing the Astros, MLB also instituted measures designed to prevent future sign-stealing scandals. These included the right to suspend wrongdoing players and, crucially, restrictions on the usage of in-game video.

The latter ended up being the subject of no small amount of griping as both players and coaches lamented no longer having video to help them make adjustments on the fly. To quote Rays manager Kevin Cash (h/t Katherine Acquavella of CBSSports.com): 

"Without being too controversial, I think it's absolutely ridiculous. It's probably one of the worst things that I've seen Major League Baseball do in take video away from players. Video is what makes us good. It helps us learn, it helps us coach, it helps us attack. And it's been taken away from us because of one team, or a couple teams' stupid choices."

On the plus side, the 2020 season saw hitters lower their strikeout rate for the first time in over a decade. Yet they collectively hit just .245, marking the league's lowest batting average in nearly 50 years.

Especially given that the 2020 season was 102 games shorter than a normal season, figuring out exactly how much of hitters' struggles should be chalked up to the new in-game video protocols is...well, tricky. All the same, it's not a leap to assume there's a correlation.

Looking back, it's obviously a good thing that the Astros' misdeeds were revealed and that Major League Baseball responded with both punishment and reform.

Yet whether things changed for the better is debatable. The Astros, frankly, got off light, and relatively few of the people at the center of their scandal are still paying for it. The rest of the league, meanwhile, was arguably worse off in the post-Astros fallout.

Put another way: The Astros' bangs were followed by so many whimpers.

      

Stats courtesy of Baseball Reference, FanGraphs and Baseball Savant.