Spring training games are less than a week away, and baseball is still buzzing about the Houston Astros using an illegal center-field camera to steal opponents’ signs during the 2017 and 2018 seasons. The punishments to the Astros organization, former manager AJ Hinch, and former general manager Jeff Luhnow were handed down last month, but the spotlight is back on the scandal because of aggrieved players just this week meeting with the media at spring training in Florida and Arizona.
Some of the loudest comments were made by Los Angeles Dodgers slugger Cody Bellinger, whose team lost to Houston in the 2017 World Series. He said that not only were the Dodgers robbed of a fair World Series, but that Jose Altuve stole the American League MVP award from Aaron Judge.
Much of the outrage was directed at the unemotional and insincere-sounding apologies from Astros players as well as the comments made by owner Jim Crane at a press conference. I feel bad for Crane, because he’s had to navigate this scandal as the head of the organization even though I think he had no knowledge of what was going on in the clubhouse. I could be wrong, but if Crane wasn’t in the dugout during games, there’s no reason to believe that anyone kept him up to speed on his team stealing signs illegally.
Just look at what the team’s hitting coach Dave Hudgens had to say about the scandal.
When I first heard about it, it was during a game. The season had been going for a little bit. I don’t remember exact dates or anything, I just remember sitting in the dugout and heard some bangs going on. After it went on for a little while, I asked a player sitting next to me – I can’t remember who it was – ‘What’s the banging going on back there?’ I didn’t know what it was. And he said, ‘Oh, they’re letting him know a breaking ball’s coming,’ or whatever. I said, ‘Wow. OK.’ And so I wish at that point I would’ve gone to A.J. and said, ‘Maybe this isn’t the right thing to do. What do you think?’ But we didn’t. So now we’re dealing with it.
Again, he could be lying, but it sounds like Hudgens, who is in the clubhouse and dugout with the players every day, barely knew what was going on. Why wouldn’t the hitting coach want to know more about what his players were doing to decide which pitches to swing at? Isn’t he burying his head in the sand just to avoid blame? Even if Hudgens knows more than he is letting on, it still leads me to believe that Crane didn’t know much at all.
Anyway, that all led to Crane botching a press conference and saying that the sign-stealing didn’t affect any games, a comment he walked back a minute later. The bad press conference led to anger from players like Bellinger, who led to Carlos Correa striking back in an impassioned interview with Ken Rosenthal yesterday.
Correa believes that the Astros would have won the World Series even without stealing signs. It’s impossible to prove that point, but it’s also impossible to prove that the Dodgers would have won if Houston was playing totally clean. Correa brings up a bunch of hits the Astros got with runners on base because even with no knowledge of the camera in center field, every team shuffles their signs with a runner on second base. Based on that logic, the Astros didn’t have an illegal advantage when they got those hits with a runner on second.
What Correa doesn’t mention is that for those runners to get on base in the first place, they had to bat with the bases empty, when they could have been aided by illegal sign-stealing. At least Correa says at the end in the nicest possible way that Crane didn’t know what he was talking about when he said that the sign-stealing didn’t affect the game. Correa admits that the Astros had an advantage while also pointing out that many of the key hits they got were clean. Again, that doesn’t prove anything one way or the other.
My favorite part of the interview start at the three-minute mark of the above video. A lot of fans are not going to like Correa saying that the Astros were wrong but also saying that they would have won the World Series playing clean. What I respect and what I feel others will also respect is the way he stands up for his teammate, Jose Altuve. According to Correa, the trash-can system was rarely used with Altuve at the plate, and when it was, he got angry about it in the clubhouse, saying he didn’t want to use the system. This is backed up by data from SignStealingScandal.com as well as Altuve’s home-road splits from the 2017 season.
According to SignStealingScandal.com, the Astros banged the trash can on 13.8 percent of pitches that website creator Tony Adams tracked for the 2017 campaign. With Altuve at bat, that number drops to 2.8 percent with Altuve getting bangs on just 24 out of 866 tracked pitches. The splits show that Altuve hit .311/.371/.463 at home compared to .381/.449/.633 on the road. If you’re a big Altuve fan like I am, those numbers should help you rest easy about the second baseman’s integrity.
Correa then gets into the weird story about Altuve not wanting to take his shirt off after walking off the 2019 ALCS. It certainly sounds strange that Altuve would want to keep his shirt on because of his wife or because of some bad tattoo that no one can find on the internet. However, it seems equally strange to me that if the Astros were using an electronic buzzer system to alert hitters which pitches were coming that they wouldn’t know to allow Altuve to keep his shirt on after the game. How dumb would you have to be to tear a guy’s shirt off if you know you’re cheating so egregiously?
My best guess is that Correa is not telling the whole truth and that maybe there’s a more embarrassing, but non-cheating-related reason why Altuve kept his shirt on.
When you take everything in, you’re still left with a lot of players and fans mad at the Astros for cheating at baseball in 2017 and 2018 (and maybe 2019). There’s also a lot of sports talk show hosts and bloggers who wouldn’t normally discuss baseball at this time of year spending a lot of time discussing baseball. We have players who are normally reserved in front of the camera saying inflammatory things that will piss other players off. Those comments are going to add a lot of juice to games we normally might not pay much attention to during the regular season. In particular, the Astros at Yankees series in late September will be must-see TV.
In other words, this scandal is good for baseball. Yes, there are questions about the integrity of the game that we tried to lay to bed during the steroid era. Sure, it might be a bad thing to have a title won through nefarious means. On the other hand, all that stuff is now in the past and we’re left with a Houston team that will be scrutinized by national media outlets all season long while hardcore fans scour MLB.TV footage to try to catch them cheating again. Any time the Astros play, the other team will want to crush them. They’re the new bad boys that the Yankees were before they got “likable” players such as Aaron Judge. Not since the early-2000s Yankees have we seen a team like this that everyone was desperate to see lose.
And when you have a polarizing team like that (polarizing because jerks like me want to see Altuve and the boys redeem themselves and make Yankees fans cry), you get national rooting interest, TV ratings, and social media interaction. Just what Rob Manfred ordered.
It’s just a shame that he’s going to give all the credit to his goofy new three-batter minimum rule.