I just finished (and greatly enjoyed) Rob Neyer’s Powerball, a book about the application of data analytics in the modern game, highlighting a 2017 game between the eventual World Series Champions Houston Astros and Oakland A’s.
What stood out to me is how Neyer highlighted how the Astros had greatly improved offensively compared to the previous year, giving reasonable justification for those outcomes. But it made me think back to an article I had read just a month prior from The Athletic, “Does electronic sign stealing work? The Astros’ numbers are eye-popping“, by Jayson Stark and Eno Sarris.
Let me give a snippet of the article, which only is available for subscribers.
Their strikeout rate plummeted — at a level unparalleled in the last 100 years.
Their strikeout rate at home took an even more dramatic plunge — and that, too, was unlike anything we’ve seen in the last century.
They developed an uncanny ability to lay off breaking balls below the strike zone — an ability they hadn’t displayed before, and didn’t display on the road. But at the same time, they began crushing every kind of pitch inside the zone — at a rate that didn’t bear much resemblance to the way they’d handled those very same pitches in the past.
These were your 2017 Houston Astros. Remember back, oh, a few months ago, when we just referred to them as the World Series champs? Those were the days. Now we look at them and ask: Were they really that good? How much did they owe to pilfering signs and thumping on trash cans?
Neyer wrote about and lauded those Astros, those cheating, sign stealing ones that are perhaps part of the game’s greatest cheating scandal since the 1919 Black Sox. Yet, there isn’t much online bringing up the connection other than this podcast featuring Neyer himself from December. Neyer only wonders if he could have or should have suspected the cheating.