Guess what happened to the Astros team batting average after they started cheating?

The latest on the Houston Astros cheating scandal...

When you have a complicated story to tell, sometimes it’s best to tell it chronologically; so let’s set the Wayback Machine for 2016.

That season the Houston Astros’ team batting average was .247, the 24th-best team average in baseball.

According to the Wall Street Journal, in September of 2016 an Astros intern made a PowerPoint presentation showing how the team could use a camera to steal opposing catcher’s signs and then use an algorithm to decipher them.

Timeout to ridicule the algorithm

Catchers use more than one sign with a runner on second base and the intern’s idea was to record the signs the catcher used and the pitch that was eventually thrown and then let the computer figure out which sign was the real one; something a smart big league ballplayer can do in two or three pitches without calling up IBM.

The smart guys needed a computer, the ballplayers use their eyes.

Here’s how that works.

Big league dugouts tend to have a TV monitor nearby, so you send a player good at deciphering signs (catchers tend to be best because they use the signs themselves) to watch the monitor and a few pitches later you have the sign sequence the other team is using.

Now he tells everybody on the team which sign to look for (let’s say it’s the first one) and anytime a runner makes it to second base he’s welcome to try to pass the signs to the hitter.

This has been going on forever in baseball and if an opposing catcher spots a guy on second base passing signs to the hitter, that catcher is also free to tell the pitcher to drill somebody in the ribs as punishment – the sign-stealing base runner is a prime candidate.

So far we’ve got guys on the field competing on the field.

What set the Astros apart was using a camera to steal the signs without a runner on second base and then passing the signs to the hitter from the dugout. Which means the Astros had an advantage because opposing catchers were using a single sign with second base empty.

What a difference a year makes

Just one year after the Astros hit .247 — 24th best in baseball — they hit .282 and had the best team average in the big leagues.

Throw out a couple guys who didn’t have enough at bats to move the needle all that much and seven of the 2017 Astros top nine hitters were also with the club in 2016. After that intern’s presentation, suddenly, a whole bunch of guys got a whole bunch better.

Dave Hudgens was the Astros hitting coach in 2016 and 2017 and I don’t know if he got a big raise for all that improvement, but I do know the intern who started this mess – Derek Vigoa – is currently Houston’s Senior Manager of Team Operations.  

Whoever said cheaters never prosper probably didn’t work for the Houston Astros.

So how about 2020?

Some of the Astros have claimed they stopped all that cheating a while ago, but in 2019 they hit .274, had an on-base percentage of .352 and slugged .495 – all three numbers the best team numbers in baseball – so a lot of people are going to be extremely interested in how the Astros perform in 2020.

If the Astros numbers fall off this coming season those people might be forgiven for thinking Houston just kept right on cheating until they got caught and once they stopped cheating they weren’t as good as before.

On the other hand, a number of pitchers have expressed an interest in helping the Astros with their on-base percentage, so the Houston training staff probably ought to keep extra ice on hand.

Appropriate punishment might not be possible

Some people (by which I mean everyone who isn’t a Houston Astros fan or employee) are upset by what they see as light punishment for cheating.

The Astros got fined $5 million, lost a few draft picks and had their manager and GM suspended for a year, but there was no punishment for the owner or the players who did the cheating. The Astros also get to keep their World Series trophy.

There have been no shortage of suggestions for more severe punishments like vacating the title, taking back the World Series rings, asking the players to return the winners’ share – $429,000 each – or forcing the players to listen to an analytics guy recite and explain the formula for Wins Above Replacement. (That last one is mine.)

But according to an LA Times story which quoted Tony Clark, Executive Director of the Major League Players Association:

“The rules on the books with regard to sign stealing clearly lay out that clubs and club personnel can be disciplined, and not players.”

“In order for that consideration to be made going forward, there’s going to have to be a change or an amendment to the rules.”

So feel free to ignore all the people on sports-talk radio squawking about hanging Astros players up by their Louisville Sluggers because unless some rules get changed, the Players Association isn’t going to let that happen.  

And to make things even more bizarre, the Players Association finds itself in the uncomfortable position of representing the players that cheated and the players that got cheated. So a player who cheated can’t be fined, but if some pissed-off pitcher retaliates, the cheated player can be.

Is this a great country or what?

Why didn’t other teams report it?

Some misguided soul (assuming reporters have souls) recently praised pitcher Mike Fiers for his honesty and integrity because Fiers is the guy who broke the Astros scandal wide open.

Unfortunately, that ignores the fact that Fiers didn’t say anything about it when he played for Houston.

That’s one of the problems with doing something shady: eventually you’re going to trade one of the guys involved in your scheme to another team and if you think he’s going to keep his mouth shut while you’re cheating him and new his teammates, you’re dreaming.

Apparently, word of the Astros cheating got around baseball and teams were changing their signs multiple times during a single game.

If catchers started thinking something was up because every time they called an off-speed pitch a trashcan got assaulted, that might explain the accusation that the Astro hitters started tapping buzzers to their bodies; a less obvious method of signaling a hitter.

If Jose Altuve didn’t want his shirt ripped off because he didn’t want everyone to see he was wearing more hardware than Tony Stark, that means the Astros were also cheating in the 2019 playoffs.

So if all these rumors were swirling around baseball for the last few seasons, why didn’t someone say something sooner?

Well, Mike Fiers has been called a snitch and has reported death threats and who needs that?

Maybe some players decided to deal with it on the field without going to the media and it seems likely a lot of players didn’t know what was going on. And since we’re entering the realm of speculation (a signpost we passed a couple paragraphs ago) maybe some players and teams didn’t want to call out the Astros because they were up to some shady stuff as well.

According to CBSSports.com, the Boston Red Sox are currently under investigation by MLB for cheating during their 2018 World Series championship season, so this scandal it still being unraveled.

This isn’t the first time I’ve written about cheating in baseball and I get the distinct feeling it won’t be that last.