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Pay close attention to numbers and trends in wake of the sign-stealing scandal

When it comes to offensive metrics, there may not be a team observed more in 2020 than the Astros.

MLB: MAR 20 Spring Training - Yankees at Astros Photo by Doug Murray/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Unless something even more damning finds the light of day, the Astros’ sign-stealing scandal will continue to be the story surrounding baseball for the foreseeable future. Honestly, there is no way around it. They cheated and were eventually caught, thanks to, in part, Mike Fiers and his willingness to go on the record with The Athletic. An investigation led by Major League Baseball ensued and punishment was later issued. The fallout included three managers and one general manager losing their jobs this off season. Loss of draft picks and what was the equivalent of chump change to a club were also part of the deal. A championship season is now tainted in the eyes of the general public. And the overall repercussions are still ongoing as more information is gradually released by the media. The “banging scheme” is one of the most notable scandals to hit baseball in recent memory and will justly be remembered as such.

I have one thought after typing all of that: Trash cans, really?! At least “Codebreaker” and “Dark Arts” sounds somewhat cool, if not a bit uninspiring. At least “banging scheme” was comical. How about “Order 67” or “Operation Pivot Table”? Sorry, that reeks of unoriginality.

Oh, wait, I have more thoughts besides terrible code names. Bear with me for a bit.

Another aspect of the continued fallout for the Astros is what will occur on the field and how that translates into the box score. Any trends in the numbers will be heavily scrutinized right from the start, even in Spring Training. The Astros, for example, have had the lowest average strikeout rate (18.3 percent) as an offense for the last three seasons. If that rate even increases by a few percentage points, the chatter will only increase. The same rationale applies the plethora of offensive performance metrics available, like wRC+, which assisted with illustrating the historic significance of the Astros lineup in comparison to history.

2017-19: Strikeout Rates and wRC+

Season K% wRC+
Season K% wRC+
2017 17.3% 121
2018 19.5% 109
2019 18.2% 125

There is more analysis warranted beyond looking at only strikeout rates and wRC+, but the general point remains. Any adjustments to the numbers or trends, especially towards the detriment of the Astros, will be thoroughly examined by the baseball world. But it is reasonable to point out the following when it comes to the team-wide trends and how those numbers could skew future analysis.

  • The ongoing studies about how the actual baseball and how its ever changing specifications impact offensive production;
  • Changes to the active roster (less meaningful for the Astros in 2020, though);
  • Organic improvements or regressions for hitters from one season to the next

A trend to more closely observe, in my opinion, is related to plate discipline for individual players. For example, Michael Brantley, Alex Bregman, Josh Reddick, and Yuli Gurriel all finished last season among qualified hitters with some of the lowest whiff rates. All four, for context, placed in the top twelve in that category. Brantley, who signed with the club last offseason, historically has a low whiff rate, so that is understandable why his rate only continues to remain low. But the other three Astros, who joined the club as early as the 2016 season or arrived no later than the 2017 season, won’t experience the same benefit of the doubt. This thought process also goes with the likes of Jose Altuve, George Springer, and Carlos Correa, or any player with ties to past seasons under previous management. Right or wrong, in context or not, that is simply the reality the Astros built for themselves.

Based on what we’ve read in various reports, the sign-stealing wasn’t just isolated to home games, but also extended to road affairs through alternate means. Regular season or postseason, it didn’t seem to matter. That means all splits should be viewed carefully, regardless of venue or situation. Then there is the continued rumors, outlandish or not, of other methods (buzzers, hi-tech bandaids, various wearables, etc.) in relaying the signs to the hitter. While former manager A.J. Hinch’s interesting response to the use of buzzers was understandably pointed back to MLB’s report, it was also less than reassuring. Until more concrete proof emerges on that front, I caution you, the reader, to have a discerning eye. Of course, it pays to have a discerning eye in all situations, to be clear.

Although it is debatable on the overall effectiveness of the “banging scheme,” there is no doubt that there is some sort of value to glean from knowing the pitch before it is thrown through ill-gotten means. That’s simply not OK. As such, the offensive numbers posted by the Astros in preceding years should be met with at least a skeptical viewpoint. As someone who points to numbers and statistics as trusting measuring sticks in analysis, I have to now be careful what I use without the proper context involved. Sign-stealing is now part of that context. To be clear though, it isn’t probable any analysis will fully determine the precise extent of who benefited the most, or the least, from the scheme and its various shadow forms without a shred of doubt. Even with the impressive research done by Tony Adams, Rob Arthur of Baseball Prospectus, and Jake Mailhot of FanGraphs, I doubt we will ever have a completely satisfactory answer into exact impact that this scandal created as it pertains to both the hitters and opposing pitchers. That is, unfortunately, just the nature of this beast.

What a freaking offseason, am I right? Spring Training is somehow here and present, which is another depressing thought in its own way. The only positive thoughts I have had towards the Astros this winter was Dusty Baker listens to Eric Clapton and Too Short along with the hiring of James Click. Excuse me while I go listen to some Clapton right now.