MLB Brings The Hammer Down On The Astros; Hinch and Luhnow Fired

A few months ago, I wrote about the Astros and the sign stealing accusations from their former pitcher (and current A’s pitcher) Mike Fiers. Actually, a few months ago EVERYONE was writing about this, but at the time, my question was were they actually cheating if the rules about using technology to steal signs weren’t yet concrete.

Turns out that yes, according to MLB and Rob Manfred, the Astros were cheating.

If you’re too lazy to click on the link above and want a refresher about what the Astros were accused of, here’s a short recap: Mike Fiers blew the lid off of a system used by the Astros to steal signs. Fiers claimed that during home games in 2017, the Astros had set up a feed from a camera in center field that would show the opposing catcher’s signs. This camera was hooked up to a television monitor near the team’s home dugout at Minute Maid Park, in the tunnel that runs between the dugout and the clubhouse. Players and team personnel would watch the screen during the games and try to decode signs — sitting opposite the screen on massage tables in a wide hallway. They would then make a loud noise, most often a bang on a trashcan, to signal to the batter when an off-speed pitch was on its way.

And while stealing signs in baseball is a tradition as old as the game itself, the use of technology to do so is something that MLB hadn’t quite caught up to yet. Sure, stealing signs is frowned upon, but up until recent years, the (known) way to do it was via base runners/base coaches signaling to the batter what they saw with their own eyes. This elaborate system was not something that had been dreamed up when the rules and been written umptyfoo years ago. The rules regarding the use of technology to steal signs were put into action for the 2019 season.

That being said…. Major League Baseball rained hellfire upon the Astros organization on Monday after completing their investigation regarding the sign stealing allegations. The list of penalties they’ve imposed are among the strongest they’ve ever given out:

  • GM Jeff Luhnow and Manager AJ Hinch are both suspended until after the final game of the 2020 World Series
  • Forfeiture of first and second round draft picks in 2020 and 2021
  • $5 million fine
  • If at any time in the future Luhnow or Hinch “engage in any future material violations”, they will be placed on MLB’s permanently ineligible list. (Essentially a lifetime ban).

Hours after the penalties came out, Hinch and Luhnow have now both been fired for their roles in this scandal. No players have been suspended or disciplined for their roles in the scheme. (Yet?)

The kicker in all of this is that the 2017 Astros were good. Yes, they won the World Series, and people might say that this scheme enabled that. But you have to remember, half of their games were played on the road, and they won the World Series on the road. This scheme only worked at home, so they clearly had the talent to win anywhere else they might have played. The scheme didn’t dictate how well Dallas Keuchel, Charlie Morton, or Brad Peacock (and eventually Justin Verlander) were pitching. The scheme didn’t involve their stellar fielding.

People might say that the scheme may have had a part in George Springer’s MVP and Silver Slugging season – but again, half of his games were road games. Furthermore, this sign stealing has nothing to do with his fantastic fielding. And in terms of his hitting, 18 of his 34 home runs were hit on the road, and his batting average was higher in road games (.292 on the road vs .273 at home).

So what? George Springer probably didn’t need to do this. What about their other good players? Let’s look at Jose Altuve’s hitting stats from that year, shall we?

Looking at Jose Altuve’s 2017 home/away stats, he hit .381 on the road but .311 at home, hit 15 home runs on the road vs 9 at home, had more hits, including doubles and singles, on the road…. You get the idea.

Ok, ok, but what about Alex Bregman. Surely, at least one of their superstars had to have benefited from this scheme at home? Let’s look at his numbers:

Again, we see the higher road average, higher number of home runs, higher number of RBI.. triples.. doubles…

But not all of their players played better on the road. Carlos Beltran, in his last year as a player, was the DH for the Astros in 2017. (He’s now the manager for the Mets). Here, we see his numbers at home are slightly better than on the road:

But only slightly better. The stats are nearly identical, and it could just be the difference between a few extra home games than away for him.

If you look at the batting stats for the entire team as a whole, the trend is that as a team they batted better on the road. They had a higher team batting average on the road, hit more home runs, doubles, triples, and RBI.

Looking at all of these numbers, the Astros shot themselves in the proverbial foot by doing something so foolish. They had the talent to win the World Series that year without having to steal signs with the use of serious technology. But now they’re stuck without their manager and stuck being unable to draft the prospects that will ultimately be needed replace some of their superstars five or six years down the road.

The Red Sox are probably sweating buckets at this point, as the investigation into their own sign-stealing scheme is underway. Their manager, Alex Cora, was implicated in the Astros investigation, as he was a bench coach for Houston at the time, but was not penalized. Boston’s similar scheme in 2018 is currently being looked at under a microscope. If you’ll recall, Boston won the World Series that year, and now they’re being accused of taking similar actions. They could be dealt with in an even harsher manner because of the September 2017 MLB memorandum following the Sox and Yankees being fined for using technology to steal signs.

As the Red Sox have already been fined for the lesser-involved scheme in 2017 – in that case, using an Apple watch to steal signs (I still have a hard time understanding how this worked) – they’re probably going to get hit extremely hard with penalties now. A fine clearly wasn’t enough to deter them from doing this again, and with Alex Cora as a common denominator in both Houston and Boston, they’re going to probably lose Cora for at least the same amount of time as Houston was to lose Hinch, if not longer. The fine will probably be heftier than the $5 million Houston is facing, since they didn’t seem to be bothered much by the 2017 Apple watch fine. Players might get suspended.

And looking at the stats of the team as a whole – Boston is looking like they really benefitted from a sign stealing scheme at home:

If you look at individual players, the numbers are pretty damning in a few cases. The top three batting averages among the 2018 Red Sox belonged to Mookie Betts (.346), J.D. Martinez (.330), and Andrew Benintendi (.290). Let’s take a look at their home/away stats:

Betts had a higher batting average at home than he did away:

Martinez played a lot better at home (though his average only slightly higher home vs. away). He hit a lot more home runs at Fenway, as well as hits and extra base hits in general.

Benintendi was MUCH better at home in 2018. He struck out 68 times on the road vs 38 times at home. His batting average was 51 points higher at home. Chalk it up to home field advantage if you want, but….

Whether the 2018 Red Sox had as an elaborate scheme or not compared to the Astros, their players might have benefitted much more than the Astros did based on numbers alone. I don’t like to speculate much on this site as to what may happen (like with hot stove/player signings, or making predictions on who will win, etc.) but I can say with almost certainty that MLB is going to see these numbers, see Alex Cora involved in both teams’ schemes, and think of their prior slap on the wrist and come down with the full wrath of God and Babe Ruth on the Red Sox.


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