As the ALCS between the Red Sox and Astros gets set to start, one story is hard to avoid. It would be nice if the headlines for this series were just about the rematch of the 2018 ALCS. However, the daunting shadow of the infamous sign-stealing scandal looms large over the matchup ahead of Game 1.
Players and fans across the league were irate after details surfaced highlighting the Astros videotaping, trash can-banging transgressions. The suspensions to Alex Cora and AJ Hinch were one thing, but the league at large never let the Astros hear the end of it. For a year, opponents had to sit idly by while Houston avoided public reprimand for their actions due to the empty stadiums brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic. In 2021, when the gates opened, it was clear that people weren’t just ready to forgive and forget. Signs, chants, shirts, music, inflatable trash cans, and many other forms of mockery were poured down upon the poor Astros. All of this coming despite the widespread belief that Houston was far from the only team partaking in this taboo practice.
Now, just one season removed from the sanctions coming down, the two teams are back at the top, reigning supreme over the rest of the American League. The success of both of these teams hast to make fans wonder. Was it actually all much ado about nothing? Did sign-stealing not matter after all? Did fans go too far with the public shaming of Houston?
In 2019, Ben Lindbergh of The Ringer did an excellent deep drive into whether or not sign-stealing was actually effective for Houston. I won’t try to recreate that work, but two years later, we can now see the difference. With the benefit of a full season’s worth of statistics, we can look at how and if the Astros performance at the plate has changed. Now that Houston (presumably) isn’t cheating anymore, surely the numbers have taken a hit, right?
The Astros power numbers are down a bit, but they still rank in the top-10 in home runs as a team. Their batting average is perhaps the most interesting statistical change. From 2018-2019, Houston’s average sat at .265. They ranked 7th and 1st in each of those two seasons, respectively. Now, after the scandal came to light and, perhaps more pressingly, losing one of their best hitters in George Springer, Houston’s batting average actually went up. This year it was .267, two points higher, and still the best in baseball. Meanwhile, the Red Sox average sat at .261, good for 3rd in the league.
Despite each team losing their All-Star outfielders in Mookie Betts and George Springer, it hasn’t seemed to matter. This isn’t to say Houston wasn’t stealing signs. They very clearly were. This isn’t to say the Red Sox weren’t stealing signs either. However, after all the hullabaloo, you’d think it would have mattered a little bit more. Instead, both teams are right back in the Championship Series. In hindsight, maybe it wasn’t Houston’s sign-stealing that teams were angry about after all. Maybe it was just teams like the Yankees being sore losers to a clearly better team.
It turns out the reason the Astros and the Red Sox were good had nothing (or very little) to do with cameras in centerfield or banging noises from the dugout or Apple watches. Whether you want to look at that as affirmation for the teams and their success or further damnation for doing it when they clearly didn’t need to is another story. The point is the Astros and Red Sox are good, sign-stealing or no sign-stealing, and the rest of baseball is just going to have to deal with it and enjoy watching from their couch while the two clubs battle for a trip to the World Series.
Photo: (Tommy Gilligan – USA Today Sports)
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