Friday, February 28, 2020

Houston, We Have A Problem

These last few months have been a whirlwind for Major League Baseball and, in particular, the Houston Astros. Until this past offseason, the Astros were seen as an incredible success story. Having lost 324 games between 2011 and 2013, this organization was able to build an absolute powerhouse around the All-Star core of Jose Altuve, George Springer, Alex Bregman, and Carlos Correa. Throw in some key pitching acquisitions, free agent signings, a top-notch manager in A.J. Hinch, and suddenly the Astros found themselves with their first world championship in 2017 and 311 wins over these past three seasons.

On an individual basis, Houston’s players were thriving. Jose Altuve won the American League MVP in 2017 and five Silver Slugger Awards for the second baseman position from 2014-2018. Alex Bregman finished second in MVP voting this past season, but still won a Silver Slugger for the third baseman position this year. George Springer was the World Series MVP in 2017 and won a Silver Slugger for the outfield position this past year. Justin Verlander won the AL Cy Young Award this past season. Finally, star rookie Yordan Alvarez cemented a fantastic 2019 campaign as he took home the Rookie of the Year Award.

Having assembled such a touted and lauded roster, the Astros looked poised to remain a perennial contender for years to come. After their championship run, they lost in five games in the 2018 American League Championship Series and returned to the World Series in 2019 before falling in seven games. Even after a tough loss to the Washington Nationals in this year’s Fall’s Classic, there was still no doubt that Houston could easily make it back to the World Series in 2020 and many more seasons to come.

Then, reports started to come out. After all this success, the Astros were accused of cheating. In particular, the Astros were accused of stealing signs. Here’s what’s interesting though. As part of the “unwritten rules of baseball”, it’s completely fine and legitimate to steal signs from the opposing catcher, third base coach, manager, or whoever is the source of the signs. What makes Houston’s situation interesting though is how elaborate this scheme was. To put it simply, the Astros utilized video, trash cans, and buzzers (supposedly) among other things to get a leg up on what pitches were being thrown.

These allegations obviously created a firestorm across the MLB and the entire sports world with Houston ultimately being punished for their actions. However, many saw a measly $5 million fine, the firing of manager A.J. Hinch and general manager Jeff Luhnow, and draft pick forfeitures as a slap on the wrist. Many are calling for Houston to vacate the 2017 World Series championship, the players involved to be suspended (maybe even banned), any awards those players won to be vacated, and for some pitchers’ statistics to be readjusted to account for this advantage Houston had when facing these pitchers.

So with all this in mind, here’s my two cents on the matter. What the Houston Astros did was wrong. Plain and simple. Sign stealing in itself is fine, but the lengths that the Astros went to were unacceptable. The 2017 World Series should NOT be vacated. I do agree that is unfair to the Los Angeles Dodgers that the Astros were using these tactics against them on baseball’s biggest stage.

As a Marlins/Cubs fan, I would be livid if either of my two teams lost the World Series because of an elaborate sign stealing scheme from the opposing team. However, the Astros still had to hit those pitches. Knowing what pitch is coming is helpful, but that by no means guarantees a base hit. It increases the likelihood, yes, but baseball is a weird game where hard hit balls can be lineouts and soft hit balls can be doubles. Also consider this. If we ask the Astros to forfeit their World Series title, let’s also ask the Cincinnati Reds to relinquish their claim to the 1919 World Series championship as the Chicago White Sox blatantly fixed that series to spite their cheapskate owner Charles Comiskey.

Back on point. The firings of both Alex Cora (Red Sox) and Carlos Beltran (Mets) were warranted and the right move to make for both of the organizations who employed them. Especially if it is true that these two individuals played pivotal roles in the implementation of this elaborate sign stealing schematic. Whether Cora should be banned permanently or if this scandal affects Beltran’s Hall of Fame chances are not for me to say. What I will say is that Pete Rose, the all-time hits leader who was banned from baseball for his role in gambling as a manager, has a much stronger case for reinstatement if no harsher action is taken on the key individuals involved in this scandal.

As for the awards, it’s absurd to say they should be vacated. We had players using steroids who were breaking records and winning awards! It makes no sense at all to make Altuve give his MVP award back because he had a leg up on what pitches were being thrown. Barry Bonds hit a record 73 home runs in 2001 and nobody complained about him giving back the National League MVP for that season amid the steroid allegations that cloud his career. I could go on forever, but the point is that there are many past examples of players who used performance enhancing substances and won accolades as a result.

My final point is as follows. Does Houston deserve the criticism it has been getting? Yes. Should an asterisk be put on this World Series? Absolutely. Was the punishment appropriate? That’s not for me to say. Suspending everyone involved, fining the organization an insane amount of money, and taking away all the draft picks in the world can’t change the fact that the Houston Astros won the 2017 World Series. Physically taking that title away will not change that fact either.

It’ll be interesting to see what comes of the investigation into the Boston Red Sox for similar allegations. Many people seem to forget that Houston was not the only one accused of stealing signs. This scandal does put a stain on the MLB, but it’s nothing the league can’t overcome and move on from. For all we know, Houston might not be the only team who has done this. They just happen to be the first one who got caught.

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