Nearly every story I’ve read about the Houston Astros cheating scandal claims that MLB had handed down “severe,” “heavy,” or “harsh” punishments. I don’t buy it. Commissioner Rob Manfred suspended GM Jeff Luhnow and manager A.J. Hinch for electronic sign-stealing during the 2017 season (they were both fired by the team.) The league fined Houston’s billionaire owner Jim Crane a paltry $5 million (the max allowed) and stripped the team of its first- and second-round draft picks for the next two seasons.
How does fining the team dissuade players from cheating again?
Stealing signs, or trying to figure out pitching patterns, has always been part of organic gamesmanship. Nothing wrong there. And yes, I know that enhanced methods have been part of baseball for a long time. Stealing signs with the help of mechanical devices wasn’t even banned by the league until 1961. It’s likely, for instance, that Bobby Thomson’s 1951 “Shot Heard ‘Round the World” homer was aided with a telescope-and-buzzer system.
Houston players basically employed the same system, electronically stealing signals from a center-field camera at Minute Maid Park and then manually relaying the pitches to the dugout and the hitters. Maybe others teams have done it as well. It’s flat-out cheating.
Baseball will claim that it can’t suspend players who participated in the scheme because it’s too difficult to find out who was involved, too difficult to levy fines, and, since there’s been player movement, unfair to teams that have done nothing wrong. Would the league embrace similar standard if it discovered a player had bet on baseball or used illegal substances? Doubtful.
How many points does being tipped off about a fastball or off-speed pitch add to your batting average? How many home runs? Who knows? It probably matters less when facing an ace, but most pitchers in the Major Leagues aren’t overpowering, and even the ones who are will rely on deception to keep batters off-balance.
So while it’s tough to speculate about alternative outcomes, it’s worth pointing out that the four games Houston won during the 2017 American League Championship Series against my beloved Yankees were all home games — the first two were won by only one run each. The Astros scored five runs in three road games and 15 in four home games. It’s true that most teams perform better at home, and the Astros are loaded with All-Star caliber players, so it’s possible that the eventual outcome would have been the same. We’ll never know, obviously; and that’s the problem.
Players on Astros reportedly told investigators that sign-stealing was “more distracting than useful to hitters.” What else were they going to say? “Sign stealing was really helpful in winning the World Series?” If stealing signs was so ineffective and such a distraction for players, why did Alex Cora export the Astros’ system to the Boston Red Sox (who were already using electronics to steal signs) in 2018? It’s difficult to overlook the fact that the 2017 World Series champion Astros and 2018 World Series champion Red Sox have both been caught up in this scandal.
Major League baseball won’t fine or suspend players who cheat. It can’t overturn championships. But it can punish players by putting an asterisk next to the team’s World Series entry, appropriately tainting it in the record books. This would be the least the league could do to respond to one of the worst, if not the worst, cheating outrage since the Black Sox scandal.