January 28, 2020

Electronic Strike Zone Will Be Tested During Spring Training, But Will Not Actually Be Used In Games

Commissioner Rob Manfred was "completely inaccurate" when he said MLB would be using an electronic strike zone in exhibition games this spring, according to the Major League Baseball Umpires Association.

The umpires' union clarified that automated balls-and-strikes software (or an electronic strike zone) would be used behind the scenes during nine spring training games. The on-field umpires will make all rulings during the games as usual.

Manfred had announced:
We're going to be using it during spring training and in some of our minor leagues this year. The way it works is the camera calls the ball or strike [and] communicates to an earpiece that the umpire has in his ear. And from the fan's perspective, it looks exactly like it looks today. We believe, over the long haul, it's going to be more accurate. It will reduce controversy in the game and be good for the game. We think it's more accurate than a human being standing there.
The Major League Baseball Umpires Association followed that news with its own statement:
Reports that MLB will use 'robo-umps' to call balls and strikes in spring training games this year are completely inaccurate. ... Our understanding is that a camera-based tracking system will be running in the background during some spring training games for technology development and training purposes. But any game in which a Major League Baseball umpire is working will have a human calling balls and strikes. ...

[The umpires' union] has never opposed the use of technology to improve the accuracy of calls, including on balls and strikes, if it can be done while protecting the integrity of the game. We do not claim to be perfect and we work constantly to improve our performance. But no automated system will be perfect either, and we have concerns about potential fundamental changes to pitch-calling that will need to be accepted by both the players and the fans.

To achieve this new contract with the owners, however, we agreed that MLB can use [the electronic strike zone], if important conditions are met, and after a process through which umpires will have direct input into when and how the technology enters Major League games, including spring training games. We believe our involvement will be crucial to preserving fair play if the owners are determined to introduce this fundamental change. We bargained hard for these protections, and the process we negotiated has not even started. Use of ... technology in spring training games this year would be premature and would violate our new agreement. We have received absolutely no word from the Office of the Commissioner that MLB intends to do that.
MLB tested an electronic strike zone last season in the independent Atlantic League and the Arizona Fall League.

According to Jacob Bogage of The Washington Post, a source "with knowledge of the system's rollout said Manfred is eyeing activating the digital strike zone in the big leagues in as soon as three seasons".

Bogage reported that "tensions remain high" between umpires and team owners, with the umpires believing Manfred is moving too fast to introduce technology into the officiating of baseball.

MLB and the umpires' union are also discussing the possibility of having some umpires wear microphones at some point this season for announcing the verdicts on reviewed calls and/or explaining rules.

Four members of the House of Representatives (two Democrats and two Republicans) introduced a resolution last week urging MLB not to eliminate 42 minor league teams. MLB made its proposal last year to eliminate short-season leagues and reduce the number of farm teams with which each club is affiliated.

One of the teams that could get the axe is the Lowell Spinners, the Red Sox's Short-Season A-ball team in the New York-Penn League. (The (Burlington) Vermont Lake Monsters, the Athletics' affiliate in the same league, is also on the list.)

January 25, 2020

What's The World Got In Store

I began receiving The Will Leitch Weekly Newsletter about three months ago. "Volume 2, Issue 95: Shrug and Destroy" arrived this morning.

Leitch begins:
I have been in the same room as Donald Trump five times in my life. I know the dates for all five. Somehow, I think he'd like that. I can't imagine much in this world that would make Donald Trump happier than a person knowing the precise date of every time he'd been in the same room as him. I assume this is the first thought every time he sees someone: I bet this person knows exactly how many times he's been in the room with me. With enough will and brute force, you can create the reality you desire.
Leitch recounts each time, from 2012 to 2020. It's not essential reading, but it's not dull, either.

Leitch also posts a weekly "2020 Power Rankings" of Democratic presidential candidates. He hasn't written much about the campaign since I've been receiving the newsletters, but he does offer a warning that "next week’s newsletter is my official endorsement newsletter". And there's this:
I like Hillary Clinton. I voted for Hillary Clinton. Four times! (Twice for Senate in New York, once in the 2016 Democratic Primary and once in the 2016 general election.)
A little later on:
Currently Listening To
"Shouldn't Be Ashamed," Wilco.
That's an interesting (and presumably unintentional and unrelated) juxtaposition. Voting for Hillary Clinton once is something of which a reasonably well-informed, liberal person should absolutely be ashamed. And four times? Including in the 2016 primary? Unless you have remained willfully ignorant of current events for decades, I cannot fathom it. Voting for her even as the lesser (but not by all that much) of two evils strikes me as an overly repellent act. Perhaps Leitch is not liberal; maybe he's cemented himself in that mythical "center" that has been steadily and unerringly moving to the right for 40+ years.

Also, this reminds me that I promised to track various bullpen performances last season after reading an extremely silly thing Leitch wrote about the Yankees' pen. ... Is it even worth doing at this point? (Maybe it can be a spring training project.)

January 24, 2020

Reports: Red Sox Discussing Possibility Of Mookie Trade With Padres

Please let this end up as a great, big nothing. ... I still refuse to entertain the thought of Betts not wearing a Red Sox uniform in 2021.

Dennis Lin, The Athletic:
In the latest sign of their ambitions, the Padres have discussed a trade centered around Boston Red Sox outfielder Mookie Betts, sources told The Athletic. ...

Recent talks between the teams have focused on sending a significant amount of prospect talent and outfielder Wil Myers to Boston, according to sources. Multiple people familiar with the discussions characterized an agreement as unlikely, and the industry consensus is that Betts will be in a Red Sox uniform on Opening Day. Yet both sides appear to have legitimate interest.

The Padres have sought for more than a year to move the remainder of Myers' contract, which will pay the underperforming outfielder $61 million over the next three seasons. Betts, over the last three seasons, has been worth more wins above replacement than any player other than Mike Trout, and even at a salary of $27 million, the 27-year-old is rightly considered a bargain. ...

For the Red Sox, adding multiple prospects from one of the game's top farm systems would boost their own sagging talent base — a base that might be further weakened if the team, presently under investigation for its role in baseball's sign-stealing scandal, is docked draft picks, as the Houston Astros were.

Meanwhile, exchanging Betts for Myers as part of the acquisition cost would at least help the Red Sox in their quest to get under the $208 million luxury-tax threshold. The Red Sox, who have yet to cut payroll, have about $230 million committed for 2020, including Betts' one-year, $27 million deal, a record for an arbitration-eligible player. The two sides reportedly spoke earlier in the offseason about swapping the contracts of Myers and veteran starter David Price, who is owed $96 million through 2022, but the Padres seemingly have limited interest in such a scenario. ...
Alex Speier, Globe:
There's no sign that such conversations at this point represent more than an exchange of ideas. But as of Thursday night, evaluators suggested that such talks were ongoing.

Under general manager A.J. Preller, the Padres have spent years building one of the deepest farm systems in the game. But after nine straight losing seasons, San Diego sees a chance to emerge as one of the better teams in the National League. ...

While the Padres discussed the possibility of acquiring a starting pitcher from the Red Sox earlier this offseason, the need to include Myers in a deal underscores that San Diego lacks the payroll space to consider an acquisition of both Betts and one of the Red Sox starters such as David Price and Nate Eovaldi. In all likelihood, if the Sox and Padres were to consummate a deal, it would see only Betts going to San Diego – meaning that the Sox would still have to make one or more additional moves in order to get below the luxury tax threshold.

Partly for that reason, some members of the industry expressed skepticism that the Padres and Red Sox will line up a deal. The Dodgers, by contrast, continue to look like a superior match in a potential Betts trade given both their superior financial resources (they have the financial bandwidth to trade for Betts and much of a Sox starter's contract, as well as a need for rotation reinforcements) and an excellent farm system. There is a broader question of the Red Sox' willingness to deal Betts prior to a 2020 season in which they intend to contend. Dealing Betts in the wake of last week's departure of Alex Cora could prove particularly ugly from a public relations standpoint. ...

So what might that mean in the case of a Padres trade for Betts? A look at the Padres' 40-man roster offers some possibilities. ...

January 22, 2020

After ESPN's Jessica Mendoza Embarrasses Herself, Pedro Martinez Says The Same Thing, Trying (And Failing) To Have It Both Ways Regarding Players Who Expose Cheaters

Jessica Mendoza is guilty of a huge conflict of interest, as she is an announcer on ESPN's Sunday Night Baseball while also working as a special adviser for the Mets. Mendoza also embarrassed herself last week by criticizing former Astros pitcher Mike Fiers for telling The Athletic about the Astros' illegal sign-stealing schemes. Mendoza said Fiers was wrong "to go public with it" and "start all of this".
To go public, yeah, that didn't sit well with me. Honestly, it made me sad for the sport, that that's how this all got found out. This wasn't something that MLB naturally investigated, or that even other teams complained about ... but that it came from within. It was a player that was a part of it, that benefited from it during the regular season when he was a part of the team. ... I totally get telling your future teammates, helping them win, letting people know. But to go public with it and call them out and start all of this? It's tough to swallow.
Mendoza also revealed her deep ignorance about the sign-stealing scandal. Two days before her comments, Alden Gonzalez and Jesse Rogers (two ESPN writers, colleagues of Mendoza) reported that the Commissioner's office had received several complaints about possible cheating. It appears that MLB did not "naturally investigate" those complaints until some allegations were made public.

Is Mendoza also angry at Ken Rosenthal and Evan Drellich for reporting on these allegations instead of quietly slipping a note to Rob Manfred? If Fiers had not gone to the media with what he knew, MLB would have (knowing everything we do about MLB) continued to sit on and ignore those complaints. Mendoza is free to disagree about that assertions, but to say those complaints did not exist is wrong.

After she came under fire online, Mendoza went to Twitter and flip-flopped, praising what she previously said had not sat well with her. (She also defended her employment conflict of interest.)
Thought it was important to clarify my earlier remarks about the sign stealing situation in MLB. Most importantly, I feel strongly that the game of baseball will benefit greatly because that sign stealing matter was uncovered. Cheating the game is something that needs to be addressed and I'm happy to see the league is taking appropriate action. The point I should have been much more clear on was this: I believe it's very critical that this news was made public; I simply disagree with the manner in which that was done. I credit Mike Fiers for stepping forward, yet I feel that going directly through your team and/or MLB first could have been a better way to surface the information. Reasonable minds can disagree. Ultimately what matters most is that his observations were made public and the game will be better for it.
It saddens me to read Pedro Martinez's comments, made last weekend, which are identical to Mendoza's initial complaints.
If he was to do it when he was playing for the Houston Astros I would say Mike Fiers has guts. But to go and do it after you leave the Houston Astros because they don't have you anymore, that doesn't show me anything. You're just a bad teammate. ... If you tell me that Mike Fiers is coming to my team and you already threw your team under the bus, the team that you used to play for … Now everybody knows you are going to have a whistle-blower in any other situation too. Whatever happens in the clubhouse stays in the clubhouse and Fiers broke the rules. I agree with cleaning up the game. I agree that the fact that the Commissioner is taking a hard hand on this, but at the same time players should not be the one dropping the whistle-blower.

If you have integrity you find ways to tell everybody in the clubhouse, "Hey, we might get in trouble for this. I don't want to be part of this." You call your GM. You tell him. Or you call anybody you can or MLB or someone and say, "I don't want to be part of this." Or you tell the team, "Get me out of here, I don't want to be part of this." Then you show me something. But if you leave Houston and most likely you didn't agree with Houston when you left and then you go and drop the entire team under the bus I don't trust you.
Pedro is not making sense. He is trying (and clearly failing) to have it both ways. He says "whatever happens in the clubhouse stays in the clubhouse" and Fiers broke that important rule by telling others what went on there.

But Pedro has to make a stand against cheating and tell us he believes in "cleaning up the game", so he says Fiers should have called his GM or MLB's offices. He also says Fiers could have called "anybody" or "someone" and told them what was going on in the clubhouse. Which is exactly what Fiers did.

January 21, 2020

Schadenfreude 265: Captain Intangibles Non-Unanimous Edition (A Continuing Series)


Someone is totally not getting a gift basket.

Post Staff:
Derek Jeter fell one vote shy of becoming an unanimous Hall of Famer on Tuesday night, drawing outrage from many on social media. ...

Jeter officially received 99.7 percent of the vote [396 of 397 votes].


Ken Davidoff, Post:
Well, how about that? For once in his charmed baseball life, things didn't go absolutely perfectly for Derek Jeter. [JoS: Things did not go so great for him in 2004, to mention one example that springs to mind. He was also booed at Yankee Stadium during an 0-for-32 skid. And he was known as Mr. 27 for a while around these parts because, for a few weeks, he made the game's final out (instead of driving in the game-tying or winning run(s)) numerous times.]

Although, if any true justice existed in this universe ... Jeter would be a unanimous Baseball Hall of Famer right now. ...

Three hundred ninety-seven BBWAA members voted on this year's class. Three-hundred ninety-six, including all 13 voters from The Post, checked Jeter's name. ...

So who is Voter 397? For now, he or she remains private, under no obligation to disclose. The Hall wants the writers to make their choices without fear of public scrutiny and some members take that road. And look, should this person declare, there will be some uncivil discourse, and that won't be right. The low stakes don't merit such fury. ...

Consider that an astonishing 23 voters out of 432 turned down Willie Mays in 1979, his first year of eligibility. Then nine (out of 415) didn't support Hank Aaron in 1982. Fast-forward to 2016, when Ken Griffey Jr. established a new benchmark by tallying 437 out of 440. ...

It's not that Jeter deserved the unanimous support because of what he meant to the game or any such syrupy pablum; his life will go on just fine. It's that logic deserved a unanimous Jeter vote.

Mark Hale, Post:
In the sports version of "who's the identity of this mystery person," you can call Derek Jeter's Hall of Fame dissenter. . . Deep Vote.

But unlike the eventual emergence of the famed Watergate mystery figure, the fascinating question of "who didn't vote for Derek Jeter for the Hall of Fame" might be one for which we never learn the answer.

Voters for the Baseball Writers' Association of America are not required to publicly reveal their ballots for the Hall of Fame. ...

Jeter's dissenter remains unknown and will only be revealed if the voter himself/herself confesses — or is outed by someone who knows the truth.
Sarah Valenzuela, Daily News:
After it was announced the legendary Yankee captain received 396 of 397 votes, every Yankee fan in the universe screamed in ... fury.


Bill Madden, Daily News:
Where have you gone, Derek Jeter? A nation turns its lonely eyes to you.

Originally, it was Joe DiMaggio for whom Paul Simon wrote those lyrics ...
Oh, was it really Paul Simon, Bill? And DiMaggio? Huh. I didn't know that.

What a disappointing way to begin a column for which you had years to prepare, with the most hackneyed, yawn-inducing, cliche. Jesus, even Jeter didn't suck that bad leading off.

Madden then regurgitates all the bullshit (or "the syrupy pablum" mentioned above by Davidoff) to which we were subject throughout (and too long after) Capt. Intangibles's career (we know the truth). Likewise, DiMaggio was a moody, greedy, selfish, cheap, controlling, friend of the Mafia, as detailed in Richard Ben Cramer's Joe DiMaggio, The Hero's Life.

Fun Fact: Mike Trout has already collected more WAR in 9 seasons than Derek Jeter did in 20 seasons!




January 20, 2020

Giants Hire Alyssa Nakken As Assistant Coach (First Woman On An MLB Coaching Staff)

Alyssa Nakken will be an assistant coach for the San Francisco Giants in 2020, as part of manager Gabe Kapler's staff. She will be the first woman on a major league baseball coaching staff.

Nakken, 29, first worked for the Giants as an intern in 2014, editing and logging the amateur video that scouts would load into the system and inputting scouting reports into the database.

Andrew Baggarly, The Athletic:
[Nakken] will travel full-time and be in uniform for batting practice, but will not be among the seven uniformed coaches allowed to be in the dugout during games.

But Nakken will suit up and throw batting practice. She will hit fungoes. She'll be in every pregame meeting. She will assist in baserunning and outfield defense. ...

Her background stood out to Kapler, who had interviewed newly hired Yankees minor-league coach Rachel Balkovec for a role on his major-league staff and was seeking to put together a staff that embraced diversity in every aspect.
Kapler:
Diverse in thought, in background, in ethnicity, in socioeconomic experience. We just wanted to create as diverse a staff to the degree we were able so that we can be a reflection of the players in our clubhouse and also in our community. ...
The really important message is that experience comes in all shapes and sizes. You look at our coaching staff and the immediate reaction is that it's young and somewhat inexperienced, and traditionally, that's true. But experience is also having a perspective that is wide ranging and diverse, and that includes having taught people at many different levels and ages and many different backgrounds. A lot of our coaches have a long history of consistent and diligent coaching. ...

She's an elite athlete and can translate those skills to help our players get better. She's resourceful, a good communicator, organized and clear in her thoughts and delivery. Before this job is anything, it's teaching. She brings a well-rounded skill set that is unusual to find in a coach. And she's extremely equipped to execute initiatives. Part of coaching is managing very large projects, which she's done in the past. All of those things are important when you're developing players and developing a culture. ...

I think she's going to be a great coach. Merit and the ability to be a great coach trumps all. And I think that players are very receptive to anything and to anyone who can help them get better.

At Least 12 Teams Have Been Accused (By Players Or Anonymous Leaks) Of Cheating; MLB Really Does Not Want To Investigate All Of Them And Hopes You Forget All About It

With a new week starting today, I figured I might as well dump a bunch of stuff related to the sign-stealing scandal since I had no time to craft it into anything coherent.

Former pitcher Jack McDowell (1993 AL Cy Young winner) alleged during a radio interview on Friday that Tony LaRussa created an illegal sign-stealing operation at Comiskey Park in the late 1980s. LaRussa managed the White Sox from 1979 to 1986.

McDowell said LaRussa had a camera installed that could zoom in on opposing catchers' signs. A light in an outfield Gatorade sign, controlled from the manager's office, let batters know what pitches were coming.
"I'm going to whistle-blow this thing now, because I'm getting tired of this crap. ... [La Russa] was also the head of the first team ... with people doing steroids. Yet he's still in the game making half a million. No one's gonna go after that. ... This stuff's getting old, where they target certain guys and let other people off the hook. ... Everybody who's been around the game knows all this stuff.
La Russa was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 2014.

McDowell said illegal sign-stealing has been going on for decades, but everyone in the game has collectively decided to ignore the issue, just as they did regarding steroids.

Logan Morrison agrees. In a now-deleted Instagram post, the veteran first baseman described the Commissioner's report as "FAKE news" and said the Astros were cheating in 2014:
Hello fans. Just wanted to take some time to educate everyone on this sign stealing 'scandal' we have going on. This is all something I have witnessed or heard. So many teams are doing this. Exactly how many… I'm not sure.

The Manfred report that came out is straight FAKE news. This started in Houston well before [Alex] Cora got there. I was playing in Seattle in 2014 and every time we went into Houston you would hear this banging. No one put two and two together. Seattle fans may remember we came with in a game of going to the playoffs. Felix should have won a CY young that year. But couldn't get pasted [sic] the 5th in Houston.

I know from first hand accounts that the Yankees, Dodgers, Astros and Red Sox have used film to pick signs. Just want you guys to know the truth. I personally think it's a tool in a tool belt to pick signs, but if we are going to be punishing people for it. Don't half ass it.
Bonus LoMo: In 2017, Morrison (with 24 home runs) did not receive an invitation to the Home run derby, but Gary Sanchez (who had 13) did. "I remember when I had 14 home runs. That was a month and a half ago." In 2018, Morrison called Yankees fans "stupid" for being upset with his comments. You can't fix stupid, you know?"

Ken Rosenthal comments re his interview with Altuve after Altuve hit the home run that won the pennant for Houston:
All those asking if I "knew something" when I asked Altuve about refusing to allow teammates to rip off his jersey . . . hardly. In my rush to get onto the field, I did not even see Altuve cross home plate. Producer suggested question in my ear as I conducted the interview.
In the noise and nuttiness of the moment, Rosenthal did not follow-up after Altuve gave the extremely strange answer that his wife would be mad if his teammates ripped his jersey.

Rosenthal's latest article on this issue includes this knee-slapper: "Not one Astros player told MLB investigators he understood he was committing a violation, a source said."

More Rosenthal:
•  If players who use performance-enhancing drugs are disciplined for cheating, why not players who participated in the Astros' scheme? ...

•  [W]hy shouldn't players cheat if they are impervious to punishment?

The Astros' hitters not only escaped penalty, but also presumably benefited from their wrongdoing as well, producing better numbers, landing bigger contracts.

Yet MLB has answers — valid answers — to each question. ...

As Manfred wrote in his decision, "assessing discipline for this type of conduct is both difficult and impractical."

Difficult because while virtually every player had some involvement or knowledge of the scheme, Manfred could not determine with certainty which players did what. Impractical because of the large number of players involved, and because 12 of the position players are now with other clubs while four no longer are active.
Claiming that disciplining obvious cheaters would be "impractical" if there are a lot of offenders is nonsense. Can Rosenthal really be suggesting (or agreeing with the statement) that there exists a tipping-point of cheating, after which MLB can only throw up its hands and let everyone do whatever they want? Is that truly a "valid" response? If teams have a lot of vacant roster spots, there are plenty of players in the minors to fill them.

Rumors about the Astros had proliferated since 2017. Yahoo Sports wrote a column about the trash can in 2018. The Yankees raised complaints in 2019, after they had hired Beltrán as an advisor. Alex Bregman told The Athletic in October that from the front office Beltrán "helped out the Yankees this year a lot. Like a lot a lot."

JJ Cooper, Executive Editor, Baseball America, Twitter (@jjcoop36), January 16, 2020:
The wearables rumors have been floating around for months. It is not clear how much MLB investigated them.
On Sunday (yesterday), Jose Altuve called reports that was wearing a buzzer during games "ridiculous. MLB did their investigation and they didn't find anything."
Believe me, at the end of the year everything will be fine. We are going to be in the World Series again, people don't believe it. We will. We made it last year. We were one game away [from] winning it all. ... You don't want anybody to call you [a cheater] like that. But like I said I have two options, one just cry and one go out there and play the game, and help my team. You know which one I'm going to do.
Alex Bregman was asked if Houston's players wore buzzers. He said "No." and called the claims "stupid".
The commissioner and league came out with the report and the Astros did what they did. ... I have no thoughts on it.
Orioles pitcher Josh Rogers saw Bregman's comment and tweeted: "Just plead the 5th bud. Cause your guilty."

Zach Kram, The Ringer, January 13, 2020:
Nine Key Takeaways From MLB's Houston Astros Sign-Stealing Punishment

1. The "Banging Scheme," as Manfred's report terms it, evolved over time

2. That scheme extended through the postseason

3. Manfred had effectively given the Astros a chance to avoid detection and punishment, and they didn't take it

4. Take note: Banging is preferable to other forms of communication

5. It’s unclear whether the scheme actually worked

6. Astros players were at least somewhat concerned about getting caught … so they grew more secretive instead of stopping

7. Hinch attacked a TV, twice

8. The same qualities that helped propel the Astros to victory were the basis for their undoing

9. This saga isn't over—Alex Cora's punishment is coming, and it will be severe
Some amusing snips from Kram:
"[T]hey eventually determined that banging a trash can was the preferred method of communication."

"Here's a wacky parenthetical from the report: 'Witnesses explained that they initially experimented with communicating sign information by clapping, whistling, or yelling, but that they eventually determined that banging a trash can was the preferred method of communication.' Someone needs to uncover everything about the meeting in which this determination took place. Did the Astros run scientific tests? Did they control for confounding variables? The people demand answers."

From MLB's Report: Hinch "believed that the conduct was both wrong and distracting. Hinch attempted to signal his disapproval of the scheme by physically damaging the monitor on two occasions, necessitating its replacement." Kram: "Could he have used his words to tell his players to stop? Maybe! ... Instead, he chose to take his frustration out on the monitors themselves. This is why clear and healthy communication is important."
Ben Lindbergh, The Ringer, January 13, 2020:
All signs suggest that MLB would have been happy not to stir up this sign-stealing story. MLB knew that the Red Sox used technology to steal signs in 2017, and Jeff Passan reported in 2018, per anonymous MLB players, that the Astros had passed signs via trash can. MLB subsequently upped its preventative measures in response to sign-stealing rumors swirling around the sport.

Yet not until Fiers went on record in The Athletic's initial report did MLB grudgingly launch an investigation. Even then, Manfred stated, "I have no reason to believe it extends beyond the Astros at this point in time," which was far-fetched at the time, considering that The Athletic's report cited a source who described the practice as "pervasive."

And not until The Athletic linked the 2018 Red Sox to sign stealing did MLB acknowledge that publicly. Tom Verducci reported that when Manfred called Red Sox owner John Henry to inform him of the investigation, Manfred said, "I've got no choice here," which doesn't make it sound as if Manfred was eager to follow the sign-stealing trail.

For consistency's sake, though, MLB will have to follow that trail if it leads anywhere else. It's quite likely that the Astros and Red Sox weren't the only two teams engaging in at least low-level forms of illegal sign stealing; every team has a video room and must have been tempted to use it improperly. On Monday, MLB player Logan Morrison suggested that the Dodgers and Yankees have also "used film to pick signs." In 2018, members of the Brewers suggested that the Dodgers were stealing signs. In November, BBWAA member Jeff Jones reported that multiple players had told him that the Brewers and Rangers have stolen signs electronically, and Yu Darvish fueled further speculation about the Brewers.

None of that smoke has turned into fire, but it's probably risky for any MLB fan base to proclaim its team pure or complain too loudly about losing to known sign stealers. That said, Manfred will have to be poked pretty hard for the league to acknowledge that the scandal extends beyond Boston and Houston.
Scott Miller, Bleacher Report, October 2, 2019:
Sign stealing and sign relaying always has been a part of the game, but digital theft gained entry as an unintended consequence of instant replay expansion in 2014, several MLB sources agree, and has spread as rapidly as a computer virus ever since. ...

"The paranoia is off the charts," Astros ace Justin Verlander says. "You saw that last year with us. People thought we were doing something. We were trying to make sure the Indians weren't doing anything. That was just us being paranoid."

Predictably, nobody in the game is willing to publicly finger those who were cheating or those whom they believe might be cheating. But given assurances of anonymity, several league sources indicate the Astros, Dodgers, Red Sox, New York Yankees and Arizona Diamondbacks have been especially adept with technological surveillance. One source mentions the Cubs and Washington Nationals dabble a bit "but not as much as others." Another source says the Indians, while still another notes the Toronto Blue Jays and Texas Rangers once were suspected as well. ...

"I think it's unfair to say we've been the face of any of this, the Astros," Houston manager AJ Hinch says. "It was very public for us. We admitted our mistakes of trying to make sure that other teams were not breaking the rules, and in turn we were the ones that had the unfortunate incident in Cleveland and then in Boston. ... I think it's unfair to think that we are the only team that has been curious about everybody else's actions. ... I think it's been largely cleaned up over the year." ...

[For the 2019 season,] the league enacted a series of rules ...

"It's been a great thing," Colorado Rockies manager Bud Black says. "[Digital thievery] was prevalent, and now it's not." ...

Asked whether he saw things during the '17 World Series that made him suspicious, Dodgers manager Roberts pauses for several seconds before finally allowing, "I think the Astros did everything they possibly could to give themselves the best chance for success." ...

Though the Rockies' season is finished, they were a playoff team in 2017 and 2018 and quickly realized—or, at least, suspected—how many clubs were stealing signs.

"The preparation for us was learning how to switch the signs in the middle of an at-bat, the middle of an inning and doing it a lot," Wolters says. "I would say, like this year, we've had at least 10 or 15 different sign sets each inning. Then we would switch our cards each inning. You go through a whole game, you go through 50 or 60 different sign sets."

That math adds up to more than 100 different signs in a given game. And, Wolters says, the Rockies are constantly throwing them away and making new ones. ...

Players and managers alike give MLB high marks for the steps taken this year to combat digital thievery, with most saying they think it is receding following its 2017 peak. ...

"Look at the talent in this clubhouse, and you tell me," Correa says in defending the Astros. "We're great hitters all the way around. We work hard every day, and the fact that people try to take that credit away from us is disrespect to our abilities. This year is 2019, and you've got five, six guys with a .900 OPS on the team. We've got MLB officials in the video room and everywhere, and we have the best numbers of our career as a team. So what are you going to say?"
Michael Baumann, The Ringer, January 14, 2020:
Electronic sign stealing is the cause célèbre of the day, but it's penny-ante shit compared to other behaviors that stem from the same societal disease that views rules, norms, and human beings as obstacles to be navigated around or run over on the way to the goal.

It is from this toxic stem that electronic sign stealing sprouted, as well as other even more insidious fruits: suspicious leaguewide spending freezes, service-time manipulation, improprieties surrounding the recruitment of amateur free agents, PEDs, starvation wages for minor leaguers, and a litany of other sins that are far more odious to fans and deleterious to the soul than sniffing out an upcoming breaking ball.

This is the disease, and MLB is treating one symptom. There's no profit in finding a cure.
Michael Baumann, The Ringer, November 13, 2019:
Astros owner Jim Crane made his billions running a logistics company that's settled discrimination lawsuits and war profiteering charges. And for as much of a beating as Luhnow's current employer is taking in the press, at least the Astros haven't inspired a New York Times headline that said they "Helped Raise the Stature of Authoritarian Governments," like Luhnow's former employer did.

That history forms a base layer that invites observers to make connections among sign stealing, Taubman, the club's mass layoffs in its scouting department, a string of ham-fisted and hostile PR actions against reporters, and the shenanigans the club played with 2014 no. 1 pick Brady Aiken, among a litany of other offenses ranging from the penny-ante to the truly stomach-turning.

In a vacuum, this sign-stealing scandal is bad. The Astros might have influenced a championship by breaking the rules and ought to suffer the prescribed punishment for doing so. (Even if their execution was more folly than a mustache-twirling, real-world evil plot.) But in context, it's the latest car in a freight train of misbehavior.
Craig Calcaterra, NBC Sports:
[W]here does baseball go from here with all of this?

Before we answer that, we have to answer a threshold question: is baseball more interested in stopping future illegal sign-stealing or is it more concerned with simply putting out P.R. fires like the Astros and Red Sox stories have become?

That's not a rhetorical question born of cynicism. As you'll recall, when the Houston allegations first hit, MLB — after an initial, apparently mistaken bit of honesty in which it said it did not plan to limit its investigation to the Astros — said that it would only be investigating Houston and had no reason to look beyond them. They're not idiots. They know it was bigger than Houston. They just wanted to contain the fire that was currently burning. Once the allegations regarding the Red Sox came out, however, that position became untenable for Major League Baseball and they went wider. But only to Boston, it seems. They don't seem to be following up on those seven or eight teams Verducci mentions. I am pretty confident that they're going to blast Alex Cora with 100,000 megatons of Manfredian Justice and then declare the matter closed. At least until the next time.

If we've learned anything in the Rob Manfred Era we've learned that when there is a relatively simple and straightforward solution, baseball will take a more complicated one.
Tom Verducci of Sports Illustrated had a long interview with Rob Manfred "on the occasion of the upcoming fifth-year anniversary of his commissionership":
Paranoia about sign-stealing and the misuse of technology has grown so wild that some news reports suggested the Astros may have relayed signs with the use of a buzzer embedded in bandages on the skin. ...

"I will tell you this: we found no Band-Aid buzzer issues," Manfred told SI. "There's a lot of paranoia out there." ...

This is the story of how the temptation of technology ensnared baseball ...

On January 16, 2014, MLB announced the approval of an expanded, challenge-based replay system. ...

The unintended consequence of getting calls right on the field gave players easy access to real-time video. Many replay monitors, on the premise of expediency, soon moved from the clubhouse to positions closer to the dugout, as the Astros did at Minute Maid Park.

By 2017, teams had figured out that access to live video provided a competitive advantage. ...

Now that Manfred has swung his hammer, he has to decide on how to assure a corrupt-free game in a high-tech world. The answer is either more technology or less technology, and he's not sure which path is correct. ...

"Longer term, for example, the idea of having a technology solution that eliminates some guy putting fingers above his cup might be a better answer." ...

On the other hand, why not eliminate as much technology as possible? If cameras and monitors are causing such subterfuge, why not turn them off as soon as the first pitch is thrown? Video rooms are locked. The only monitor available to a team is the replay one with the MLB security official standing next to it.

"That's the first path," Manfred said. ...

Asked if more protocols will be in place for Opening Day, he replied, "Absolutely."

Two of baseball's past three World Series champions created advantages with the misuse of technology. One investigation concluded Monday and another is underway. ...

"Whenever you have an allegation that the outcome of a game was altered by a rules violation," Manfred said, "that falls into the category where fans believe the competition has been affected, and it's an integrity issue. The integrity of the competition."
Whenever you have an allegation that the outcome of a game was altered by a rules violation ... it's an integrity issue.

And yet Manfred does not believe that statement is true when it comes to umpires violating the rules by altering the strike zone, whether through an inability to track pitches, a desire to have the game end sooner, deference to a veteran at the plate or on the mound, a bias against a certain player, perhaps a rookie or someone who has argued with the umpire in the past, or good old incompetence. Those violations, which change the outcome of games every single day, are okay with the Commissioner.

A song parody, sung to the tune of an odious piece of garbage:
Brand Name (SoSH):

A.J. Hinch, crossed the line, Luhnow gone, heavy fine
Draft picks lost, rings are not, owner sad for getting caught
Crane denied part in team's making up the clanging scheme
Taubman censured in the text, Cora, Beltran might be next
We didn't blame Mike Fiers
Can was always banging, since the curveball's hanging
We didn't blame Mike Fiers
No, we didn't hush it, but our barrels crushed it!
We didn't blame Mike Fiers...

January 19, 2020

J.D. Martinez Is Confident Investigators Will Not Find Much Evidence Against 2018 Red Sox

Most Red Sox players and coaches attending the annual Winter Weekend did not talk directly about the on-going MLB investigation into whether the 2018 Red Sox were guilty of illegally stealing signs.

J.D. Martinez did. The Athletic, WEEI, and MLB.com reported his comments:
I'm excited for the investigation to be over with just so that they can see that there was nothing going on here. [A reporter asked: That's what they'll find?] I believe so, yes. ...

I was in there [the video room], so I saw straight up. Everyone seems to forget that in 2016 and 2017, this was a really good team. They won 93 games those two years and then we just got better. Like I said, I'm excited for it. Really not allowed to comment on it, but we'll see what happens.
Rafael Devers also had a fairly direct answer. When asked if the team had done anything wrong, he said: "No. I don't think so."

I want to think Martinez would not have bothered to say anything if it wasn't true. We will know for sure in a couple of weeks.

Rob Bradford writes:
While Martinez's comments were on-the-record, out in front of cameras and microphones, multiple sources involved in the 2018 championship run have been echoing the same tone as the designated hitter/outfielder behind the scenes, suggesting that the Red Sox are innocent. ...

One major league source said there is currently a belief that MLB's findings are trending to be released sometime in the first week of February.
Other comments:

Christian Vazquez:
I don't want to talk about what happened. ... [I]t's tough to make comments on that. I know our manager got fired, but it's tough to answer those questions.
Jackie Bradley:
[W]e'll find out when you all find out. Your guess is as good as mine.
Nathan Eovaldi:
I feel like it's going to pass and everything is going to be fine.
Ron Roenicke (bench coach):
[T]o have an allegation made that deters from that feeling of what we accomplished, it's hard. Your friends hear that. Your family hears that. And they question, like everybody else has. So to do something that good, and then have it maybe tarnished some, it's tough.
Carlos Febles (third base coach):
It's an ongoing investigation. We're not allowed to comment about that at this point.

January 18, 2020

Rob Manfred Has Zero Credibility - With Players And With Fans - And It's His Own Fault


Bradford William Davis, Daily News:
On Thursday, Tommy Pham posted a picture of a wrinkle on Jose Altuve's jersey. ...

The Padres outfielder, who was eliminated by Altuve's Astros while with the Rays in 2019's ALDS, posted it in response to an MLB statement about the rumored use of electronic buzzers by Astros hitters to signal the upcoming pitch. "MLB explored wearable devices during the investigation but found no evidence to substantiate it," the league told reporters on Thursday after players egged on rumors of Astros hitters using electronic buzzers.

That's a somewhat weaker denial than commissioner Rob Manfred gave Sports Illustrated on Monday. "I will tell you this: we found no Band-Aid buzzer issues," Manfred said three days ago. "There's a lot of paranoia out there."

It was the latest evolution in a neverending spate of allegations against the Astros, and conspiracies about rampant sign-stealing across baseball. ...

Pham's response, a response then echoed by players across the league, shows how quickly trust has eroded between the game's players and its leaders.

How did we get to a place where a burner account baldly lying about being Carlos Beltran's niece has more equity with fans and players than the league? ...

On sign stealing, Rob Manfred said that MLB's investigation "revealed no evidence to suggest that GM Jeff Luhnow was unaware of the banging scheme," referring to the trash can Astros personnel whacked from the dugout to relay stolen signs to Houston batters. Mere sentences later, Manfred wrote, "there is both documentary and testimonial evidence that indicates Luhnow had some evidence of those efforts, but he did not give it much attention."

In other words Luhnow was aware of the sign-stealing attempts but not what is, literally, the loudest part of the sign-stealing attempt. Good luck parsing that. ...

But while blaming Luhnow, Manfred absolved Astros owner Jim Crane. Relying on Crane, Luhnow's boss — to steer the Astros to integrity is ridiculous, and that's before you get to his scandal-ridden business career. ...

Manfred said Crane was "extraordinarily troubled and upset by the conduct of members of his organization" and claimed Crane "fully supported" his investigation. Yet, moments after the report was released, Crane rejected Manfred's assessment of his franchise and its problematic culture. ...

Baseball's commissioner has tasked the Astros' owner with cleaning up a problem he does not believe exists.

It makes sense, though, in a larger pattern of Manfred minimizing the scandal before a full reckoning had come.

After Mike Fiers blew the whistle to The Athletic, Manfred vehemently denied the widespread nature of sign stealing. "I have no reason to believe it extends beyond the Astros at this point in time," Manfred told ESPN's Jeff Passan in November.

The same report that fingered the Astros hinted that other teams were also cheating. Guess what: It extended beyond the Astros. ...

Manfred's credibility among fans is gone. If the players don't believe him either, then how can he run their game?

Manfred's promised "really, really thorough investigation" has prompted more questions than conclusions; any reason to believe Manfred fades with every reported article, suspicious video clip and blurry tweet.



Craig Calcaterra, Twitter:
Major League Baseball's "we do things only when the PR becomes a big problem" approach is probably something Manfred should rethink.

I mean, they were doing nothing despite obvious suspicion inside the game and only acted in response to The Athletic story. Then said "just the Astros, no one else." Then another story, then Red Sox get investigated. So . . .

. . . when Manfred says "no evidence of devices!" he has no credibility. And of course, given that he only reacts, he is inviting Pham and other players to go public. Because that, obviously, is all he responds to.

It's like Selig and PEDs. Nada until Caminiti and Canseco went public in 2002. And then only actual action in response to more external pressure over years.

In some instances, sure, as a leader of a pubic-facing institution you don't go crazy unless you have reason to. But when it deals with the very basis of your business - competitive integrity - you had better be more proactive than reactive.

Anyway: this is what happens when your priorities are out of whack. And MLB's priorities, while always questionable to some degree or any toner, have been more out of whack under Manfred than at any time in decades. So none of this is terribly shocking.

January 17, 2020

On Thursday, Baseball Lost Its Mind. One GM: "This Is the Greatest Thing I've Ever Seen."


Some people have complained that the punishments leveled by MLB on the Houston Astros for cheating in 2017 were not tough enough. But if the Astros hire Buck Showalter to replace AJ Hinch as manager, those people will likely change their minds. They may even feel the Astros have been punished too severely.

One day after "baseball lost its mind", former pitcher Jack McDowell (1993 AL Cy Young winner) alleged during a radio interview on Friday that Tony LaRussa created an illegal sign-stealing operation at Comiskey Park in the late 1980s. LaRussa managed the White Sox from 1979 to 1986.

McDowell said LaRussa (who was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 2014) had a camera installed that could zoom in on opposing catchers' signs. A light in an outfield Gatorade sign, controlled from the manager's office, let batters know what pitches were coming.
I'm going to whistle-blow this thing now, because I'm getting tired of this crap. ... He was also the head of the first team ... with people doing steroids. Yet he's still in the game making half a million. No one's gonna go after that. ... This stuff's getting old, where they target certain guys and let other people off the hook. ... Everybody who's been around the game knows all this stuff.
McDowell said everyone in the game has collectively decided to ignore the issue of illegal sign-stealing, just as they buried their heads in the sand regarding steroids. But they may not be able to cover up the issue any longer.

In a now-deleted Instagram post, veteran first baseman Logan Morrison described the Commissioner's report as "FAKE news" and said the Astros were cheating in 2014:
Hello fans. Just wanted to take some time to educate everyone on this sign stealing 'scandal' we have going on. This is all something I have witnessed or heard. So many teams are doing this. Exactly how many… I'm not sure.

The Manfred report that came out is straight FAKE news. This started in Houston well before [Alex] Cora got there. I was playing in Seattle in 2014 and every time we went into Houston you would hear this banging. No one put two and two together. Seattle fans may remember we came with in a game of going to the playoffs. Felix should have won a CY young that year. But couldn't get pasted [sic] the 5th in Houston.

I know from first hand accounts that the Yankees, Dodgers, Astros and Red Sox have used film to pick signs. Just want you guys to know the truth. I personally think it's a tool in a tool belt to pick signs, but if we are going to be punishing people for it. Don't half ass it.
Fun Sidebar Tidbit: During the 2017 season, Morrison (with 24 home runs) did not receive an invitation to the Home Run Derby, but MFY Gary Sanchez (who had only 13) did. Morrison: "I remember when I had 14 home runs. That was a month and a half ago." In 2018, Morrison insulted Yankees fans who were upset with his comments. "You can't fix stupid, you know?"

Also on Friday, Ken Rosenthal commented on his postgame interview with Jose Altuve after Altuve's home run sent the Astros to the 2019 World Series:
All those asking if I "knew something" when I asked Altuve about refusing to allow teammates to rip off his jersey . . . hardly. In my rush to get onto the field, I did not even see Altuve cross home plate. Producer suggested question in my ear as I conducted the interview.
Unfortunately, amid the noise and nuttiness of the moment, Rosenthal failed to follow-up after Altuve gave the extremely strange answer that his wife would be angry if his teammates ripped his jersey.


Rosenthal's latest article on this issue includes this knee-slapper:
Not one Astros player told MLB investigators he understood he was committing a violation, a source said.
Rosenthal writes that MLB's decision to not punish any Astros players "frustrated some executives and baffled many fans". And he had some questions:
•  If players who use performance-enhancing drugs are disciplined for cheating, why not players who participated in the Astros' scheme?

•  After MLB offered players immunity for honest testimony, what will compel players to tell investigators anything more than, "I have no recollection," if they only get punished for lying?

•  What kind of message does it send that players can get away with what the Astros did while getting their manager and GM fired and costing their team $5 million and four high draft picks?

•  And finally, why shouldn't players cheat if they are impervious to punishment?

The Astros' hitters not only escaped penalty, but also presumably benefited from their wrongdoing as well, producing better numbers, landing bigger contracts.

Yet MLB has answers — valid answers — to each question. ...

As Manfred wrote in his decision, "assessing discipline for this type of conduct is both difficult and impractical."

Difficult because while virtually every player had some involvement or knowledge of the scheme, Manfred could not determine with certainty which players did what. Impractical because of the large number of players involved, and because 12 of the position players are now with other clubs while four no longer are active.
Claiming that disciplining obvious cheaters would be "impractical" because "because of the large number of players involved" is nonsense. Is Rosenthal suggesting that there is a tipping-point of cheating, after which MLB would throw up its hands and let everyone do whatever they want?

It sounds as though if a team wants to cheat, it's best to have the entire roster involved. That way, if they are caught, there will be no punishment (whereas it would be easy to suspend two or three guys). Regardless, there are plenty of players in the minors to fill any team's suddenly-vacant roster spots.

Jeff Passan, ESPN:
Baseball lost its mind Thursday. Every sport endures this: part-cleansing, part-reckoning, part-recalibration — a day to release everything, good, bad and otherwise, a full-throated scream into the void. It was inevitable, building up over the previous three days, each unforgettable in its own right. History will treat Thursday as a footnote, even if it said as much about the sport's current state as Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday combined.

It started with a discussion about whether the player who helped expose the game's biggest cheating scandal in a century was a whistleblower or a narc, moved on to the firing of a manager who hadn't even managed a game, degenerated into anonymous Twitter accounts lobbing entirely uncorroborated accusations of even worse cheating, giddily grew into a miasma of conspiratorial, frame-by-frame breakdowns of jerseys and lip-reading and confetti. It was a beautiful, ugly, transfixing, maddening, godforsaken mess, simultaneously addictive and repulsive. For one day, baseball felt like a real modern sport, full of verve, and not one stuck in the morass of its past.

"This is the greatest thing I've ever seen," one general manager said midafternoon, when — and this is a real thing — he called to ask whether the fired New York Mets manager actually had a niece who was tweeting about the 2019 Houston Astros wearing buzzers under their uniforms that let them know which pitch was coming. "I want to take this day and freeze it in time so I can keep living it."

By the end of Thursday, Major League Baseball and a target of the accusations both had chimed in, players across the sport had offered their feelings on the matter — a matter that still, it is important to note, has zero factual backing — and the 12-hour fire hose of raw, uncut content had satiated the masses with plenty of leftovers for the next day. ...

What unfolded Jan. 16, 2020, then, wasn't some anomalous event, a string of accidents and coincidences and happenstance. It was an evolutionary byproduct of a baseball world gone bonkers, one in which the ridiculous — hammering a trash can with a bat — is true. Just because you're paranoid, Joseph Heller might have said, doesn't mean they aren't wearing buzzing Band-Aids. ...

MLB had addressed 2019 in its report: "The investigation revealed no violations of the policy by the Astros in the 2019 season or 2019 Postseason." Suddenly, this was up for debate ... The crowd grew louder and ... wondered whether there was a there there.

They want to believe there is — that the Astros didn't just stop after winning the World Series or losing to the Red Sox in 2018, because that's illogical. Who finds grand success with something and ... stops? The Astros cheating in 2019 makes more sense than it doesn't. The Astros advancing beyond the trash can to something more technologically advanced does, too. And in this moment, where baseball is vulnerable, where the bounds of believability have been stretched, the plausible feels probable ...

Technology is baseball's lodestar; its limitlessness is something to be exploited by those who found no moral or ethical issues with the trash can. The buzzer will not go away because reason dictates it oughtn't. ...

When asked a week after the initial Astros story broke about the possibility of a wide-ranging, independent investigation to ensure a full accounting of baseball's cheating, Manfred said he did not believe one was necessary.

That approach, sources said, has not changed -- not even with Crane saying after firing Luhnow and Hinch: "The commissioner assured me that every team and every allegation will be checked out, and he'll conduct the same investigation he conducted on us." ...

Reclaiming control after a calamitous day like Thursday could take time. ...

This sign-stealing scandal poses by far the greatest threat of Manfred's commissionership ... Thursday synopsized what Manfred faces: a scandal that no matter how tidily he tries to bow-wrap it remains, at least for now, maybe forever, amorphous, full of surprises, ever ready to grow another tentacle. ... It's there, coiled and poised, all possibility, every day ready to lose its mind like Jan. 16, 2020.
Passan also reports that two players told him during the Astros/Red Sox 2018 ALCS that "Astros players had been hitting a garbage can to share stolen signs. Major League Baseball said it was investigating. Nothing came of it."

Last November 18, Joel Sherman of the New York Post reported rumours of buzzers:
In recent days I have had scouts and executives talk to me about a variety of methods they think have been or could be employed, such as a realistic-looking electronic bandage placed on a player's body that buzzes in real time to signal what is coming — one buzz for a fastball, for example — if the surveillance determines what type of pitching is coming. One person I spoke to has ties to the Astros and said he already had spoken to MLB's investigators.
Now that we have heard banging during Astros home games on numerous videos, we know there was something going on. But MLB was content to bury whatever information its investigation(s?) — garbage cans and bandage buzzers — found. Indeed, MLB buried even the existence of the investigations.

Joon Lee, ESPN:
When allegations that the Houston Astros had stolen signs electronically during their 2017 World Series championship season surfaced in November, Jimmy O'Brien was sitting in his new apartment in Harlem, waiting for some Verizon workers to finish setting up his cable internet. ...

When O'Brien read in The Athletic's report that a banging sound could be heard from the Astros' dugout whenever a changeup signal was given by an opposing team's catcher, he quickly began scouring the MLB.TV archives, using his cellphone as a hot spot. He was far from the only one to track down Chicago White Sox reliever Danny Farquhar's now-infamous 2017 appearance in Houston, but within two hours, O'Brien had pulled the video demonstrating the banging, added his voice-over commentary, and tweeted it out.

With his phone buzzing from an influx of Twitter notifications, O'Brien called his girlfriend.

"I think I opened a can of worms," he said. ...

[And so began] MLB's first uniquely 21st century scandal. ...
Eric Stephen (SB Nation) is correct when he writes: "We are at this chaotic moment in baseball history because of MLB’s sloth-like pace in cleaning up the electronic sign stealing in the first place."

Finally, I was looking at some stats last night. There are likely many explanations for the increase or decrease in these numbers, many of which may not be related to cheating, but I still thought it was interesting.

The Astros had the most batter strikeouts in the American League for three consecutive seasons (2013-2015). They had the second-most in 2016, missing the top spot by only 30 whiffs. Then, in the magical year of 2017, they had the fewest of any AL team and that has continued in the last two years:
Astros - Most Batter Strikeouts - AL Rank Among 15 Teams
2013 - # 1 in AL - 1535 K
2014 - # 1 in AL - 1442 K
2015 - # 1 in AL - 1392 K
2016 - # 2 in AL - 1452 K (30 fewer K than Rays)
2017 - #15 in AL - 1087 K
2018 - #14 in AL - 1197 K
2019 - #15 in AL - 1166 K (110 fewer than #14 team)
In 2017, the Astros cut their strikeouts at the plate by 365! Only six of the AL's 15 teams had fewer strikeouts in 2017 (as compared to 2016). (The average team had 47 more strikeouts.) The next best performances by an AL team were Cleveland, who had 93 fewer strikeouts (1,246 to 1,153), and the Twins, who had 84 fewer strikeouts (1,426 to 1,342).

There was also a significant jump in the 2017 Astros' offensive stats, as they gained 35 points in batting average, 27 points in on-base, and 61 points in slugging. The team OPS increased by 88 points while the league average increased by only 9 points.
       AVG   OBP   SLG   OPS
2016  .247  .319  .417  .735   (AL Avg: .257 / .321 / .423 / .744)
2017  .282  .346  .478  .823   (AL Avg: .256 / .324 / .429 / .753)
2018  .255  .329  .425  .754   (AL Avg: .249 / .318 / .415 / .734)
2019  .274  .352  .495  .848   (AL Avg: .253 / .323 / .439 / .762)