I am fan of Major League Baseball and as such, was curious as to the findings of cheating by the Astros.
A Case for the Astros
If there was one professional sports team that welcomed the impact COVID-19 had on the 2020 MLB season, it had to be the Houston Astros. After being exposed for cheating after the 2019 season, they would likely have encountered a lot of hostility in ballparks all over the country. When the 2020 season was delayed, and then ultimately played without fans in the stands, the timing could not have been better for the Astros.
So what about this cheating? Major League Baseball found substantiated evidence that cheating did occur. But were the accomplishments of the Astros during this time largely due to their cheating?
When this cheating accusation came to light, I was interested to see if it was statistically evident that this activity occurred. I want to make it clear that this is not about whether or not the Astros cheated, but about what affect this cheating may have had on the results of games.
As I understand it, Major League Baseball determined that the Astros were cheating by using a camera placed beyond the centerfield fence that would pick up the catchers signs. Utilizing a monitor in the hallway between the dugout and the clubhouse, they would relay the signs to the hitter by banging on a trash can or not depending on the type of pitch. This activity apparently occurred during the 2017 season and at least part of the 2018 season.
This activity was taking place at home games, primarily by the hitters. The pitchers were not involved and it was not occurring on away games. With that in mind, I looked at the Astros batting statistics for the 2017 and 2018 seasons and compared their home and away numbers.
In every category, the Astros performed better on the road than at home. In fact, they had the best road record of any team in baseball in 2017. They scored over 100 more runs on the road and hit more home runs on the road, which is an amazing stat since Minute Maid Park is a hitter’s ballpark.
So what about the postseason in 2017? In the American League Division Series, they beat Boston three games to one, winning both games at home and splitting wins on the road. They did score eight runs in both home games and only three and five runs in the two away games. However, their hit totals in the four games were virtually identical, with 12 hits in both home games and 13 and 12 hits in the two away games. While they were hitting well in all four games, they were maybe just getting more clutch hits at home.
Then came the American League Championship Series against the Yankees. In this series, the Astros won all four games at home and lost all three on the road. So at first glance, this appears to be good evidence of cheating. However, in the four home games, the scores were 2-1, 2-1, 7-1 and 4-0. There was only one game where the offense really performed well. They won those games more on pitching than hitting.
Then came the World Series against the Dodgers, which the Astros won four games to three. There were four games played in LA and the teams split those games (2-2), with the Astros winning Game 7 in LA. The Astros won two of the three games in Houston. The one game in this World Series that stood out as a possible case for cheating was the memorable Game 5 in Houston where the Astros won 13-12. In this game, the Astros had 14 hits, including five home runs. There is no question that the Astros seemed to be hitting everything that the Dodgers were serving up in that game. When viewed by itself, this game could lead one to believe that some cheating was taking place.
However, during the 2017 regular season, the Astros scored 10 or more runs in 23 games; 16 of those games were on the road. So having a high scoring game was not unusual for that team. Since most of those games occurred on the road, cheating was not involved.
I believe that the logical assumption has to be that this game was an outlier. It was just one of those games that come along every once in a while where a team gets into the other teams bullpen and pours it on. Remember, the Dodgers scored 12 runs in that game and they hit the Astros' pitching pretty hard as well. Furthermore, I think it is worth noting that the Astros only had two hits in the fourth game of the series, which was also in Houston. So how likely is that they didn’t cheat in Game 4 and then decided to cheat in Game 5?
In 2018, the Astros batting statistics were better across the board on the road than at home. Once again, their road record was the best in baseball (tied with Cleveland) and 11 games better than their home record. This is again quite shocking considering that their home park (Minute Maid Field) definitely favors the hitters.
How about the postseason? They played Cleveland in the Division Series and won in a three-game sweep. They scored seven runs and three runs in the first two games in Houston and 11 runs in the third game in Cleveland. Again, they had more runs on the road.
Then they played Boston in the American League Championship Series and lost four games to one. They split the two games in Boston, scoring seven runs in the game they won. Then they came home and lost all three games; their number of runs were two, six, and one. Again, no consistent pattern of a better performance at home.
If the Astros were cheating at home, and the evidence says that they were, they were either doing it very infrequently or they weren’t very good at it. It isn’t clear how many games that they cheated in or how often in a given game they cheated. Certainly there could have been isolated at bats in a game where their cheating produced results. However, the fact remains that over the entire season in both 2017 and 2018, they hit better on the road, where they clearly weren’t cheating, than at home.
As far as the postseason, there was no clear pattern of hitting success at home versus on the road. It has also been theorized that the Astros would not have been able to cheat the way they did during the postseason. This is because the crowd noise would have drowned out the noise generated by them banging on a trash can.
Again, I am not at all trying to say that the Astros didn’t cheat. However, the narrative that everything they accomplished was due to cheating just doesn’t add up. I am not an Astros fan and do not have feelings about the Astros one way or another. But when I looked into this cheating scandal, I expected to find some kind of pattern of success at home that exceeded what they did on the road. But it just wasn’t there.
The Astros followed up the 2018 season with another successful season in 2019, advancing to the World Series. In the shortened 2020 season, the Astros didn’t have a great regular season, but they qualified for the playoffs due to the expanded playoff system adopted as a result of COVID-19. Once in the playoffs, they beat Minnesota and Oakland and came within a game of beating Tampa Bay in the American League Championship Series and going to the World Series.
The findings of Major League Baseball also stated that there was no evidence of the Astros cheating in the 2019 and 2020 seasons. In 2017 and 2018, they went to the World Series and American League Championship series respectively. In 2019 and 2020, they again went to the World Series and American League Championship series respectively. Whatever cheating they did, it did not change their results much.
During the 2020 postseason, the Astros players apparently adopted a sort of “us against the world” mentality which propelled them to success. Dodgers president Andrew Friedman mentioned that this “were the victim” mentality was sort of curious since they had been caught cheating. However, I wonder if the Astros had this mentality because they felt that all that they had accomplished was being thrown out the window because of their cheating and the reality was that their cheating played little or no role in their success.
I know that right now it is popular to bash the Astros, so my defense of them is not going to place me with the majority. The Astros probably deserve some heat right now with their cheating scandal still fresh in everyone’s mind. Did they cheat? Yes. Should they punished for cheating? Yes. But unless their cheating is found to be more widespread than what Major League Baseball currently found it to be, I hope that at some point in the future these Astros won’t be remembered just for their cheating, but for what they did on the field.