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)


Jake of All Trades said...

This is the greatest summary of “this week in baseball” that I’ve read. Bravo!

Question: Did you look at where the drop off in batter Ks season to season ranks all-time? (What was/is the previous record for improvement in that category from one season to the next?)

GK said...

An update from my occassional foray in listening to Boston sports talk radio

(a) MLB report is released one evening, and Astros can GM and manager within an hour. Even a puppy knows Cora is dead man walking. The next morning CHB in the 10 to 2 radio - tells everyone that his "sources" say that Cora will ride this one out. Cora is gone by that afternoon.
(b) Buck Showalter is apparently a suitable candidate to replace Cora( according to talking heads on the radio, not sure who, but not CHB). Allude to the need for a senior figure to come and "clean up" the place. Make deliberate move to not mention Bobb V.

Paul Hickman said...

Another triumph of quality & accuracy for CHB !!!!!!

allan said...

Yeah, I heard about the CHB column. I'm trying to completely avoid him.