The Houston Trashtros: The Methods, Discovery, and Punishment of One of the Biggest Cheating Scandals in MLB History
In October 2017, the Houston Astros defeated the Los Angeles Dodgers in an epic 7 game World Series to take home the first championship in their 55 year history. Led by MVP Jose Altuve, former 1st overall pick Carlos Correa, and World Series MVP George Springer, the Astros won 101 games in the 2017 regular season, their best season in 18 years and 17 wins better than their 84-78 season in 2016. To all baseball fans, this breakout seemed to be the result of a brutal rebuild, which saw the Astros as the worst team in the MLB for 3 straight years, from 2011-2013, and 11 years without hitting the 90 win benchmark. This success continued in a 103 win 2018 season, which saw the Astros eliminated in the ALCS, and a 107 win 2019 season, which saw the Astros lose to the Washington Nationals in another 7 game World Series.
The Methods: About two weeks after the Nationals’ big victory, the public’s perception of them changed from simple champions to true heroes, when, on November 12, 2019, The Athletic newspaper writers Ken Rosenthal and Evan Drellich released their bombshell article entitled “The Astros stole signs electronically in 2017 – part of a much broader issue for Major League Baseball.” This article detailed the methods used by the Houston Astros in their breakout, championship winning 2017 campaign to steal the signs used by opposing teams’ pitchers and catchers and to relay those signs to the Astros batter, so the batter knows what pitch the pitcher will throw next. Using a complex algorithm developed by the Astros’ front office, nicknamed “Codebreaker,” the team decoded the other team’s signs and found a way to relay those signs to the batter. Using their advanced algorithm, a camera set up in center field, and a TV monitor in their dugout to find out what pitch was coming up next. The guys in the dugout would then bang on a trash can to indicate to the batter which pitch was coming next, giving the batter a huge advantage, resulting in an offensively dominant championship winning season for the Astros.
The Discovery: After the release of the Athletic article, Danny Farquhar, a relief pitcher for the Chicago White Sox in 2017, came forward with his observations about facing the Astros in that season, particularly in an at bat against Houston’s Evan Gattis: “There was a banging from the dugout, almost like a bat hitting a bat rack every time the changeup signal got put down. After the third one, I stepped off. I was throwing some really good changeups, and they were getting fouled off.” A popular baseball youtuber, Jomboy Media, made a breakdown video of the at bat, wherein a distinct banging sound can be heard within seconds after the catcher’s signal. Farquhar noticed the odd banging and the way the batter responded to some of his best pitches and stepped off the mound, indicating privately to his catcher that their opponent might have a way of telling what pitch was coming next. They agreed to change the signs for an at bat, and Farquhar struck the batter out on the very next pitch. For the public just learning about the scandal, in case an account from an opposing MLB pitcher wasn’t reliable enough, Mike Fiers, an Oakland Athletics pitcher who was on the Astros in 2017, came forward and admitted to the sign stealing detailed in the article. Fiers felt that the sign stealing going on in the Astros organization was potentially costing many opposing pitchers millions of dollars and even their major league careers, as they would allow many runs against the Astros and consequently get sent down to the minor leagues or get cut by the team. So a few days after the article was released, Fiers came clean: “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.” The accounts told by Farquhar, Jomboy, and Fiers was enough to spark an internet witch hunt, where hundreds of baseball fans took to old videos of 2017 Astros home games to try to hear banging coming from the dugout in response to a catcher’s signal. The results were conclusive. In a megathread on the baseball subreddit, dozens of videos cropped up with clear, easily audible banging sounds corresponding to a breaking pitch, and no bang corresponding to a fastball. After determining the fact that the Astros did indeed cheat in 2017 by banging on trash cans, baseball fans turned to find the effect this actually had on the numbers the Astros put up at the plate. When comparing the Astros home field stats from the 2016 season to the 2017 season, the results are staggering. In the course of one offseason, the Astros went from the team with the 3rd highest home strikeout rates in the majors to the lowest in the league, dropping their K rate from 24.5% to 16.7%. Anyone who’s watched or played baseball knows that cutting down on strikeouts is one of the most difficult things for a player to do, yet the Astros whole team managed to cut down on strikeouts by almost 8 percentage points. Their 2016 home triple-slash (batting average/on base percentage/slugging percentage) went from a poor .238/.307/.411 to an incredible .279/.340/.472 in 2017. Although numerous Astros players, particularly shortstop Carlos Correa, denied it, this cheating obviously was not confined to the regular season. While the MLB commissioner Rob Manfred’s statement that Astros players admitted to cheating even in the postseason should be enough evidence, the numbers tell a staggering story. In the pivotal World Series game 5, 13-12 victory for the Astros in their ballpark in Houston, one of the greatest pitchers of all time, Clayton Kershaw, started the game. In the regular season, Kershaw got opposing batters to swing and miss 44% of the time on his slider, 35% of the time on his curveball, and 25% of the time on his changeup, all incredible numbers. In game 5, Kershaw threw 51 breaking pitches, or pitches that fell under one of those three categories. The Astros did not swing and miss at a single breaking pitch. It should go without saying that statistically, the odds on that are astronomically low. There’s no question that cheating helped the Astros become a better team, and these stats show the incredible extent to which the sign stealing gave them an advantage. Once the facts of the scandal had been revealed to the public and the extent to which the trash can banging helped the Astros win was known, there was only one question to ask: What, if anything, will Commissioner Rob Manfred and the MLB do about this?
The Punishment: A few days after the big article broke, the MLB announced that it was conducting a thorough investigation. Almost exactly 2 months later, commissioner Manfred released a report confirming the accusations of sign stealing and trash can banging, receiving numerous first hand accounts of who set the whole thing up, how they decided on trash can banging, and the panic from the clubhouse when they were seemingly caught cheating in the aforementioned Danny Farquhar story. So what was the punishment to one of the biggest scandals in MLB history? A 5 million dollar fine, a loss of 4 draft picks, and a one year suspension for their manager and general manager. In other words, severely underwhelming. Many MLB superstars publicly voiced their displeasure with the Astros and with the punishment they received, including one of the best players of all time Mike Trout, star Dodgers player, who lost to the cheating Astros in the World Series, Cody Bellinger, and Aaron Judge, who finished 2nd in a close 2017 MVP race to a member of the Astros, Jose Altuve. All around the MLB, players were upset with the soft punishment handed to the Astros. Why? Because it set a weak precedent and opened the door for a seemingly low risk option for teams to cheat their way to a world series victory.
The anger towards the punishment begs the question: What should the MLB have done to the Astros? I have come to a conclusion for an admittedly harsh punishment, a punishment that should end any thoughts of cheating from the minds of Major League Baseball front offices and players.
I believe the first and most important thing that should have been done would be to strip the Astros of their 2017 World Series title and American League pennant. This would immediately send the message to everyone that this is a serious issue and that the MLB is on top of it. No need to give the title to the Dodgers or the pennant to the Yankees, just take it away from the Astros and declare the 2017 an unfortunate, lost season. The next step would be to hand lifetime bans to all high ranking front office members on the Houston Astros involved in the sign stealing. None of this happens without not only the consent but the willingness of the high ranking front office members to set up the system and help the players cheat. These lifetime coaching bans should extend to the players on the 2017 Houston Astros team, should they wish to accept a coaching position upon retiring from their playing careers. Coaching bans for players on that 2017 team already have a precedent, when Carlos Beltran, a potential Hall of Famer who not only was part of the 2017 Astros team but was the only player mentioned by name to have been a force in setting up the whole system, retired. He began coaching almost immediately, accepting a position as the head coach of the New York Mets on November 1st, 2019, but mutually agreeing to part ways with the Mets after the scandal broke, without ever managing a game. Another appropriate punishment would be bans from consideration into the Hall of Fame for all players on the team, another way of bringing down the hammer and ensuring that no MLB franchise even considers cheating like this ever again. The remainder of the actually given punishment, including the $5,000,000 fine (the maximum fine allowed to be levied on a team according to the MLB constitution) and the loss of draft picks, would remain. For those who feel the punishment should be even more severe, other punishment options could include the forced sale of the team by the owner, forfeiting even more draft picks and forfeiting cap space to sign international amateur free agents.
Harsh punishments for big MLB scandals actually have some precedent. In 1919, in a scandal that became known as the Black Sox scandal, the Chicago White Sox conspired to intentionally lose the world series in exchange for money from a gambling group. In response, Judge Kenesaw Mountain Landis, the first commissioner of the MLB, handed the eight players actively involved in the scandal lifetime bans from the sport and banishment from consideration into the baseball Hall of Fame. While I believe lifetime bans from playing for the players involved would be simply too harsh a punishment, the fact that such a punishment was given out to players in the past, with the Hall of Fame bans never being lifted even through requests for reinstatement in the years since, shows that there’s a place in baseball for harsh punishments for a team that knowingly and willingly breaks the rules. While there is almost no likelihood of any change in the punishment given to the Astros, the stain that the Astros sign stealing scandal left on the sport and the precedent of harsh punishment set in 1919 lead me to conclude that the Astros cheating scandal is perfectly warranted of a much greater punishment than the slap on the wrist handed to them by the MLB.