TORONTO – An unsolicited text from a member of the 2017 Toronto Blue Jays popped up on my phone with a pretty straightforward message.
“I’m pissed,” it read.
Context, in this instance, wasn’t necessary. On Wednesday, Houston Astros fan Tony Adams unveiled his website signstealingscandal.com, a remarkably detailed deep dive into his favourite team’s electronic cheating operation during the 2017 season.
Adams listened to every pitch thrown to the Astros during 58 home games to identify how often they used the banging noise central to the pitch identification scheme described by commissioner Rob Manfred in his recent report on the matter.
The findings quickly made the rounds, re-infuriating those who were wronged. Learning of how the Astros cheated was bad enough. Seeing everything laid out pitch-by-pitch and outcome-by-outcome made it all the more maddening.
“The players need to come clean,” read a subsequent text.
According to Adams’ compilation, the Astros were at their sign-stealing best Aug. 4 in a 16-7 pounding of the Blue Jays, relaying to the batter at the plate what was coming on 54 of the 175 pitches they faced that night. That was their highest total in the 58 games examined.
Blue Jays starter Cesar Valdez was roughed up for six runs in 3.1 innings and ended up on the injured list four days later. Reliever Mike Bolsinger, clubbed for four runs in a third of an inning, was designated for assignment the next day. Neither has pitched in the majors since.
“Good people’s lives were altered by fraudulent activities and fraudulent numbers,” texted someone else with the ’17 club.
In terms of real impact, the evidence compiled by Adams is compelling.
Of the 54 pitches the Astros relayed Aug. 4, 26 were changeups, 11 were curveballs, seven were cutters, six were sliders, three were sinkers and one was a four-seamer. The results included six hits – two of them home runs – 23 balls, seven fouls, three flyouts, three groundouts, a popup, five taken strikes and five swings and misses.
Yulieski Gurriel, the older brother of Blue Jays left-fielder Lourdes, turned changeups he knew were coming from Valdez into a homer in the first and a single in the third. Tyler White homered off a J.P. Howell cutter he was expecting in the eighth and singled on a Bolsinger curveball in the fourth. Josh Reddick singled on a Matt Dermody hook while Jake Marisnick did the same on another Bolsinger curve that same inning.
Pretty damning stuff.
Now, there’s obviously no guarantee the Blue Jays win that game without the sign-stealing, but maybe things don’t get quite as out of hand without it, avoiding or easing the chain reaction of roster moves up and down the organization that typically follows such a beatdown.
On Aug. 5, a 4-3 Blue Jays win in the second game of that series, Marco Estrada allowed only three runs over seven innings even though Astros hitters were tipped off to his bread-and-butter changeup 10 times (evidence of how dastardly a weapon that pitch was). The Astros relayed 23 pitches in that game, leading to 11 balls, four fouls, a groundout, a popup, four swinging strikes and two called strikes, but not a single base hit.
The series finale, during which the Astros pinned four runs on closer Roberto Osuna in the ninth inning of a 7-6 comeback win, is perhaps most intriguing, given that they identified 30 of Marcus Stroman’s 118 pitches, locking in on his slider, which they called out 19 times.
Impressively, Stroman held them to only two runs over 6.2 innings despite allowing 11 hits, none on a pitch identified by the Astros. Still, there were 15 takes and five fouls that might have otherwise led to different outcomes, and perhaps that might have allowed him to get deeper into the game.
Shit makes sense now. I remember wondering how these guys were laying off some of my nasty pitches. Relaying all my signs in live speed to the batter. Ruining the integrity of the game. These dudes were all about the camera and social media. Now, they’re all quiet! Lol https://t.co/DuknUCQaRb
— Marcus Stroman (@STR0) January 20, 2020
Regardless, the difference that day came in the ninth, when the Astros identified four Osuna pitches, including cutters that Carlos Beltran turned into a run-scoring groundout and Alex Bregman ripped for a two-run triple. That tied the game for Juan Centeno, who fouled off and took two sliders he knew were coming before winning the game with a single on a fastball.
“We take two of three minimum against them if they don’t know what’s coming,” added the second member of the ’17 Blue Jays.
While the direct outcomes on pitches with the bangs is troubling enough, the way the entire plot played out also altered countless at-bats, too. For example, in the fifth inning of the 7-6 Astros win Aug. 6, Beltran took two sliders and a changeup he was alerted to and was up 2-1 in the count on Stroman, who proceeded to throw a fastball that became a single.
There was no bang before the heater, but then no noise may well have been an indicator, too.
Knowing what’s coming is far from foolproof, of course, as Marisnick struck out swinging through sliders from Stroman in the sixth and Dominic Leone in the eighth, despite being tipped off.
But the more you sort through the data, the more you see how a strategic take or two shifted at-bats into the hitter’s favour, allowing them to eliminate certain pitches and hunt what they want to hit more effectively.
Those details make the scam even tougher to stomach, and while Major League Baseball issued some harsh discipline and the Astros subsequently fired GM Jeff Luhnow and manager A.J. Hinch, there’s no making things right at this point.
On a micro scale, Bolsinger, at minimum, would have gotten some more time in the majors if he doesn’t get hit quite the same way. Valdez, perhaps, doesn’t get fatigue in his shoulder in quite the same way and maybe logs some more frames. The shuffling of bodies up and down the minor-league system to cover subsequent days doesn’t take place quite the same way.
On a macro scale, it becomes difficult to assess how effective the work of Astros officials and coaches really was, work that led some into jobs with other organizations, displacing those who weren’t viewed as being current enough. Were their players dominant at the plate because of how they were developed in the minors? Or were they so good only because they knew what was coming?
Looming over everything is that Manfred still has to rule on the sign-stealing allegations against the 2018 Boston Red Sox managed by Alex Cora, the Astros bench coach in ’17 who is also out of a job (as is Beltran, who parted with the New York Mets before managing a single game).
How many more players will find out exactly how they were unfairly victimized once that’s done? Some pitchers, no doubt, may be tempted to exact vigilante justice, but for most negatively impacted by this scandal, there’s no recourse, no way to rectify the wrongs.
The best they might get is a detailed accounting of exactly how they got screwed, left to wonder what might have been, and to ruminate over how insignificant the punishments seem in relation to that.