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Houston, You Have a Problem

by Jordan Lazowski

At this point, I’m sure you’ve already heard of the controversy surrounding the Astros. If not, here’s Jomboy’s excellent breakdown of it – basically, the 2017 Astros used the center field camera to steal signs and relay them to their hitters.

If I told you one team in baseball was caught using cameras to relay signs, I guarantee almost all of you would guess the Astros. It’s the narrative that’s been created around the team – whether it’s hitters reviving careers or pitchers suddenly turning into Cy Young candidates, everyone has felt something was up with the Astros. Forever, it’s felt unfair to be suspicious of that Astros simply because they were head and shoulders above everyone else and were leading the pack in sabermetrics while revolutionizing baseball. Now, that narrative is starting to look more and more fair – and that’s the sad part about all of this.

I have a lot of frustrated thoughts about this, and I’ve tried to collect them here. I’m curious to see how everyone else is feeling too.

Stealing signs isn’t the problem with this

A lot of people seem to be misinterpreting the uproar over all of this. No one is upset at the Astros for trying to gain a competitive advantage. A prime example of this came during the ALDS this year against the Rays. When the Astros picked up on the fact that Tyler Glasnow was tipping his pitches, fans and sportscasters credited the Astros for being so disciplined in every facet of the game.

I’m all for hitters picking up on pitcher’s tells all day long – back when I played high school ball, it was a goal of ours to try and steal signs from the other team’s coach as he gave them to the catcher, and I’m sure it was the same way for many of you. No matter which level of baseball you’ve made your way up to, odds are stealing signs was a part of your game, and that’s completely okay and should be encouraged. That being said, taking the game out of the players’ hands and putting it in the hands of some staffer who’s watching the game is way out of bounds. Let the players on the field determine the game’s outcome with each pitch at the end of the day. It’s not sign stealing that’s the problem; it’s the way it was done.

My next problem with this: all of the reactions to this from the players. Here’s a few examples:

I hate these sort of reactions, and these aren’t the only ones. Don’t pretend your team isn’t trying to find some competitive edge and is borderline cheating while doing it (although Trevor Bauer’s reaction was hilarious – and props to him for being right about all of this for quite some time).

This doesn’t change the outcome of the season, and odds are the Astros were still talented enough to win that 2017 World Series. So, yeah, these reactions really bother me. If you’re not innocent, don’t act like you are.

Speaking of acting innocent – let’s talk about A.J. Hinch. It’s one thing to try and deny any sort of cheating – it’s expected, rather. However, the way in which Hinch has handled each instance of being questioned about cheating allegations comes across as arrogant. Here’s a great example:

You know you’ve cheated (and might still be cheating). Deny it, that’s fine. But don’t pretend the allegations are THAT outrageous, because if you really think about it, they aren’t. With iPads in the dugout, it wouldn’t be that difficult to do exactly what the Astros have done. I was incredibly frustrated by the way Hinch responded at the time, and now, it looks even worse.

Mike Fiers deserves a lot of credit… and he might end up paying for this

I give a lot of credit to Mike Fiers for how he handled this situation too. A lot of people are going to want to blackball him for something like this, calling him a bad teammate, a rat, whatever it might be. A lot of fans even have said, “It didn’t seem to bother him when he was getting the World Series ring!” Here’s the thing though, if it’s still bothering you 2-3 years later, it’s worth talking about. I give him a lot of credit for coming out on the record and giving a straight answer, especially because in these situations, it’s a lose-lose for the player. If you go in anonymously, people call you a coward. If you put your name to it, you get directly called out and your character gets tossed around. If you say nothing, you live with the guilt. There’s literally no good that can come from this situation for Fiers, yet he still found himself willing to talk. Major props for that.

It’ll be interesting to see how current and new teammates react to Fiers, however. Obviously, the Astros aren’t the only team doing some shady stuff – can other teams trust Fiers not to be someone who says something? Now, that’s not exactly fair to say, but that’s likely how teams/teammates are going to think. At the end of the day, he was doing a good thing:

“I just want the game to be cleaned up a little bit because there are guys who are losing their jobs because they’re going in there not knowing,” Fiers said. “Young guys getting hit around in the first couple of innings starting a game, and then they get sent down. It’s (B.S.) on that end. It’s ruining jobs for younger guys. The guys who know are more prepared. But most people don’t. That’s why I told my team. We had a lot of young guys with Detroit (in 2018) trying to make a name and establish themselves. I wanted to help them out and say, ‘Hey, this stuff really does go on. Just be prepared.’”

– Mike Fiers in The Athletic’s Nov. 12 Article

…. But at the same time, he might end up paying for it. I’m going to be interested to see the reaction Mike Fiers gets around the league moving forward.

No, this should not be legal in any way

I’ve actually seen this take more often than I would’ve thought – here’s just a few examples of times I’ve seen it:

Here’s the thing: “It’s okay because everyone is doing something,” is not an acceptable answer here. So let’s move past that.

I think this idea that it should be legal pisses me off more than most because of the implications behind what is being said here. There are actually people – especially people who consider themselves pro-analytics – who are advocating for the need for hitting analytics to go away completely. Think about it: hitters study tendencies from pitchers based off of data. They study what pitches come most often in what counts and prepare themselves accordingly. What’s the point of studying tendencies or using data to prepare for an at-bat if you know 100% of the time which pitch is coming? It absolutely ruins the essence of the game.

Even if you don’t like analytics or believe they’re ruining the game, no one can deny that the inherent chess match that makes the game of baseball so amazing to all of us is completely destroyed by making this sort of cheating legal. People who have built their reputation on analytics should hate this more than most. It’s kind of equivalent to an automatic strike zone. Catchers should be pissed because a crucial part of their value is being taken away. For analysts, not only is a crucial part of your value being taken away, ALL of your value disappears.

In my opinion, to be pro-electronic sign stealing is an anti-analytics argument. And you wonder why that annoys me.

This journey has only just begun

As more details come out about this, I continue to get more upset about it. It’s almost impossible to keep up with all the news and articles coming out. Here’s just some of what I’ve seen, to help you stay informed.

Hinch, Cora, and Beltran will all be investigated by MLB: https://theathletic.com/1376638/2019/11/13/three-major-league-managers-are-connected-to-astros-sign-stealing/

Astros Execs suggested scouts use cameras to steal signs: https://www.si.com/mlb/2019/11/17/astros-executive-email-cameras-steal-signs

Rob Manfred says penalties for Astros could be severe: https://www.espn.com/mlb/story/_/id/28116718/mlb-commissioner-says-punishments-severe-sign-stealing-scandal

This has all come out in the past week. There is likely more information to come, and you can look anywhere on Twitter to start to find it. It’s pretty disappointing to read some of the headlines, and they’re likely to get worse before they get better. However, even after the 2020 season begins, the journey from this scandal will be far from over – in fact, it might continue to shape the game moving forward.

Rob Manfred, you have a big job to do

I’m not Rob Manfred’s biggest supporter. Between all the rule changes and the OBSESSION with speeding up the game in the least meaningful ways, I don’t feel he’s done the world’s greatest job in his position. However, nothing Manfred has done up to this point will be anywhere near as crucial as the decision he makes on how to penalize the Astros through this ordeal.

I would expect there to be some serious repercussions for the Astros. If you look back to the closest example, the Red Sox were fined in 2017 for their use of Apple Watches in the dugout. The fines aren’t going to be enough in this situation, as this took place over the course of the entire season with multiple teams filing grievances against the Astros. I’m actually very curious to see how harsh the penalty will be – and whether or not it includes draft picks of any kind, which should be on the table. In my opinion, this doesn’t hurt unless members of the front office are directly impacted along with the team/draft picks. Rob Manfred should err on the side of too harsh, rather than risk being too relaxed about this punishment. Your goal is to scare other teams from doing this, not to encourage it because the repercussions are the equivalent of a slap on the wrist. He has a big opportunity to set a precedent, let’s hope he doesn’t mess it up.

The reality is that cheating and baseball are going to go hand-in-hand forever – they always have, and they always will. Whether it’s pine tar on a pitcher’s glove, steroids, or whatever it might be, teams and players are always going to be searching for a competitive advantage. But, at a certain point, this crosses a line where something legitimately should be done about it, and involving technology is exactly the point at which the line is crossed.

Unfortunately, no matter what Manfred does, the Astros have permanently left an ugly mark on the game of baseball. In game, for example, signs are only going to get more complex, and games are only going to take longer as a result. Pitcher and catchers will get crossed up more, leading to more mound visits – and therefore more stops in action. In addition, more teams are going to be paranoid constantly, and there’s going to be more and more accusations flying around in the aftermath of this scandal. This is precisely why Manfred’s punishment is so crucial – and why he can’t afford to mess this up.

The Astros organization was long heralded by many in the baseball community – myself included – as the model for how to run a baseball team. Now, they’re anything but. And whether Houston Astros fans will be humble enough to admit it or not, they have a serious problem down in the Lone Star State. Fans should stop defending their team and instead work to hold them accountable.

What a scandal. It’s a brand new ballgame now.

Leave your comments below or send them to me on Twitter! @jlazowski14

Featured Photo: Houston Astros/Twitter

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John J Buckley

Great job Jordon, the Astros are total sleezebags, the play by play announcer sounds like a game show host as he screams another Springer Dinger, couldn’t happen to a better organization.

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