MLB: Where things stand in the Astros sign-stealing scandal

News in the MLB investigation into the Houston Astros for alleged sign stealing during the 2017 season has come out slowly thus far, so here are the latest talking points.

Since the news broke of the Astros elaborate efforts to allegedly steal signs during the 2017 season, it has been tough to follow and understand the further developments coming out in drips and drabs.

For those still playing catch-up, you can read Ken Rosenthal and Even Drellich’s article on The Athletic that initially broke the story, but for the TL;DR crowd, here’s a quick summary:

  1. The Astros were reportedly using a camera in center field to record the opposing team’s catchers’ sign to the pitcher and relay it in real-time to the Houston hitter by banging on a trash can.
  2. Rosenthal and Drellich say that the sign-stealing officially started in late May of 2017, Sam Miller of ESPN and the Fangraphs’ podcast Effectively Wild says the banging on trash cans started on May 28th, but MLB Commission Rob Manfred has confirmed the investigation will look into the 2018 and 2019 seasons as well.
  3. The evidence against Houston is overwhelming. Everything from former Astros starter Mike Fiers outing his former ball club along with hard data showing a significant improvement in the Astros offense after May 28th.
  4. Teams were game-planning for Houston and their sign-stealing, including the Nationals in the most current World Series, having multiple unique sign sequences to avoid anyone gaining an unfair advantage.

Simply put: Houston got caught red-handed and the consequences are expected to be steep. A quote from ESPN’s Jeff Passan’s most recent article on the matter highlights Manfred’s intentions well.

“Players who might have violated league rules have been told by MLB officials they can expect leniency in exchange for answering questions truthfully. But members of the Astros’ front office and coaching staff could face significant punishment upon the investigation’s conclusion if they’re found to have cheated, the sources said. The league has requested to search the phones of certain members of the Astros’ front office, the sources said.”

So while other teams have also come up in the sign-stealing/cheating news over the last few weeks, it seems like the MLB is focusing solely on making the Astros an example in this matter. It makes sense since Houston has taken the sign-stealing to another level with Passan even reporting that Astro players may have been wearing some type of buzzers to alert them of certain pitches.

As for whether or not the Astros benefited from their alleged sign-stealing, it’s hard to say definitively that the team owes their great 2017 season at the plate from cheating. However, Rob Arthur from Baseball Prospectus dove deep into the numbers, which can be found in the Twitter thread below, showing that their offense did take a massive jump the moment we could start hearing trash cans being banged on in the background of Astro at-bats.

Arthur also points out that the Astros are the only team in the last seven years to see such a drastically improve in plate discipline that late into May. Ben Lindbergh from The Ringer was able to find that Home and Road stats for the Astros did increase while the team’s strikeout rate dropped from 23.4 percent in 2016 to 17.2 percent in 2017.

The strangest thing about this whole sign-stealing scandal is that the Astros were already a good team with tons of young talent budding on the MLB roster. That makes it hard to say the Astros needed to cheat to win, or that even if it did make a significant impact – as the data is seeming to show – they couldn’t have won without it. Regardless, Houston will suffer serious penalties if the MLB’s investigation can prove they did, in fact, steal signs.

It doesn’t change the fact that the Astros won the World Series in 2017, but it could forever change the way we view this current Houston team, which is the saddest part of this whole situation.

The investigation seems to still be in its early stages so we don’t know where it will go from here, but at the very least, MLB is going to take serious measures to stop cheating in the game going forward – which apparently is needed with so many teams reportedly trying to tip the scales in their favor.

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