On Jan. 13, 2020, MLB commissioner Rob Manfred released his findings and announced the Houston Astros’ punishment for electronically stealing signs during the team’s 2017 World Series run. Manager AJ Hinch and GM Jeff Luhnow were each suspended one year by MLB before they were both fired by the Astros, and even in a pandemic, the fallout of the scandal has been in the headlines throughout the 12 months since.
One year later, we asked our panel of MLB experts to weigh in on how much their view of the Astros has changed, what the next year of fallout could bring for MLB — and how the team will be treated when fans eventually return to ballparks.
How do you view the Astros one year after their punishment?
Jeff Passan: Because the entire story of the Astros’ cheating remains untold, the granular details that allow a richer understanding — such as which players not only benefited the most from the sign-stealing scheme but which sought it out — are elusive. Absent that, the story is an organizational one, and it’s why, for all the focus on a few individual players, the distaste for the Astros’ organization, writ large, overwhelms it. Even though George Springer was around during the cheating, fans are yearning for their team to sign him, even if they still hate the Astros. Is that logical? No. Is that right? No. Is that going to change? No. The Astros are the villain fans didn’t realize they wanted.
Alden Gonzalez: I still see the stars who dotted the Astros from 2017 to 2018 — Carlos Correa, Springer, Jose Altuve and Alex Bregman, just to name the most prominent — as supremely talented players who didn’t need to skirt the rules in order to excel but did so anyway because they were able to get away with it. It’s a snapshot of a fundamental truth about human behavior, particularly at the highest levels of certain industries, and how external pressures and inherent insecurities often prompt people to weigh what is achievable ahead of what is ethical. Not an excuse, just a harsh reality — one Major League Baseball experienced when performance-enhancing drug use ran amuck 20 years ago.
We’ll never know if the 2017 Astros could have won the World Series without their elaborate sign-stealing scheme, which is really a shame. That was a dominant group of players that should be remembered more fondly. Alas, they have only themselves to blame.
Buster Olney: When you take a step back and think about the talent that Jeff Luhnow assembled, it really was one of the most talented groups of ballplayers we’ve seen in recent decades. Altuve might one day make a speech in Cooperstown, Springer will finish his career as one of the most prolific postseason heroes in history, Bregman is among the best players in the game, Justin Verlander should be a unanimous HOF selection — and you could continue to list the superlatives. No matter what else happens for the players individually, however, the first paragraphs in any historical reference will always reference sign-stealing. Like it or not, this is their legacy.
David Schoenfield: I mostly view the current Astros as a dynasty in decline. Gerrit Cole is already gone, Springer and Michael Brantley are free agents, and Verlander (who will likely miss the season after Tommy John surgery), Correa, Zack Greinke and Lance McCullers Jr. are all free agents after 2021. Longtime star Jose Altuve is now 31, coming off a bad 2020, and plays a position where players often don’t age well. I enjoyed watching the 2017-19 Astros, but the cheating scandal obviously leaves a permanent stain on their accomplishments. As that team now scatters into the baseball winds, the most interesting thing about the franchise is no longer its past, but what it will do in the future.
Joon Lee: As a reminder of how easy it is to overstate the declaration of a dynasty after a World Series victory. This happened with the Chicago Cubs after they won the World Series in 2016 as well, but when a bunch of young stars like Jose Altuve, Alex Bregman, Carlos Correa and George Springer help propel a team to a World Series victory, it’s easy to imagine them making their way back multiple times and perhaps hoisting the trophy again.
Just a few years later, Gerrit Cole is no longer on the team and Justin Verlander is missing the season due to Tommy John surgery. That core group will never receive another opportunity to redeem themselves after the cheating scandal put a massive asterisk on their 2017 title, and it will be how we remember them within the context of baseball history when we look back.
Bradford Doolittle: I don’t look at the current Astros differently than I do any other team. They are a talented club with a Hall of Fame manager and a young GM who is trying to transition some key spots on the roster. I guess in the back of my mind, I am hoping that the key holdovers from 2017 who had worse-than-expected seasons last year (Jose Altuve, Alex Bregman, Carlos Correa) bounce back, if only to validate how good they were in past seasons. But there is too much water under the bridge to keep trying to stitch a scarlet letter onto an entire franchise. These are now the Dusty Baker-James Click Astros.
Which is the real Astros offense: The team that hit .240 with a .720 OPS in the regular season, or the one that led Houston to a Game 7 of the 2020 American League Championship Series?
Olney: Without Springer — assuming he moves on to another team through free agency — it’ll be really hard for the Astros to replicate the kind of production they had prior to the 2019 season. And one of my big questions about the team is the long-term impact on Altuve, and whether he’ll regain the joy that he had always played with before news of the sign-stealing scandal broke. I never thought that Roberto Alomar was the same player after his spitting incident, partly because it was really tough for him to cope with the angry responses he heard when he played on the road.
Lee: I agree with Buster here. The talent in this lineup moving forward simply isn’t the same, especially with the loss of Springer. Altuve represents a massive pivot point in projecting the ceiling of this team’s offense, and when you combine the potential long-term impact of the scandal on his mental psyche at the plate on top of my own personal concerns about his aging curve as a player given his size/frame combined with his style of play, he represents the team’s offensive X factor.
Passan: It’s easy for me to say the postseason offense, because at every increment of the 60-game season, I figured the Astros were about to break out. They didn’t, snuck into the playoffs at 29-31 and then looked like their pre-scandal selves. While potentially losing Springer and Brantley this winter thins out their lineup, their best hitter, Yordan Alvarez, returns after playing just two games last year. Bregman, Correa and Altuve all will seek to be most standard versions of themselves and silence the notion that they were creations of cheating, even though their amateur and minor league excellence far predated that. And with Kyle Tucker assuming a middle-of-the-order spot, the Astros might not be the most potent offense in baseball, but their form should be much closer to the 2020 postseason than the regular season.
Schoenfield: According to the advanced metrics like weighted runs created, the 2019 Houston lineup was one of the best of all time. Some parts of that will now be gone, but as we saw in the playoffs, when the Astros hit .270/.352/.442, this can still be an above-average lineup. Remember, we haven’t even seen Alvarez for a full season and his rookie season indicated he has the ability to be one of the top three or four hitters in the game.
Doolittle: Definitely the postseason version, and if Houston brought back the same roster this year, I’d expect it to project as one of the best offenses in baseball. Of course, Springer was a major component in that and losing him is a big deal. Still, the Astros project at the very least to be in the upper third of offenses in baseball. I don’t expect many of Houston’s subpar performances from the 2020 regular season to be repeated.
Gonzalez: I prefer to look at it on an individual basis because of the natural turnover. It’d be easy to say Altuve batted .219/.286/.344 because he didn’t know was coming, or that Bregman’s OPS fell by 214 points because he wasn’t hearing trashcan banging, or that Correa posted the worst weighted runs created plus of his career because he suddenly had to guess on breaking balls. But it’d be just as easy to look around the league and take note of all the really great hitters who performed well below their career norms because the 2020 season was so unconventional. This is still a very good offense.
What do you think the next season will bring for the Astros?
Schoenfield: It could actually bring another playoff appearance in what might be a soft AL West. The A’s look ripe for a potential decline, leaving the division wide open, and if the Astros get better seasons from Altuve and Alex Bregman in combination with the return of Yordan Alvarez, the offense could bounce back from its 2020 struggles. Even without Verlander, there is depth in the rotation. The issue is that the supreme confidence the Astros once held disappeared in 2020. They need it to return in 2021.
Passan: All depends on the playoff format. The American League West isn’t quite the disaster that the National League Central is, but it’s pretty close. Oakland might enter the season as the prohibitive favorite, but the A’s are likely to lose a number of key components to their reigning division title winner. The Los Angeles Angels have the stars in place but still haven’t cobbled together a rotation or bullpen of much substance and need a catcher. Seattle is at least a year away. Same with Texas. So an Astros team with that offense, a rotation with Zack Greinke, Lance McCullers Jr., Jose Urquidy and playoff breakout Framber Valdez. Yes, they need bullpen help badly, and losing out on Liam Hendriks and Blake Treinen left them scrambling, but the Astros very easily could find themselves back atop the division — or, because of the weakness in the West, in a wild-card spot.
Lee: There’s still the makings of a good team here. Given the dynamics of the COVID 2020 season, I tend toss a lot of the numbers of last season out the window because of their relative small sample size within the context of a baseball season, but it will certainly be interesting to see how Jose Altuve and Alex Bregman bounce back after putting up disappointing numbers last year. The lack of Verlander doesn’t hugely diminish the odds of this team being able to make a run to the playoffs given what looks like a wide-open AL West.
Olney: They will continue to compete, but without Verlander for most of the year, without Springer, it’ll get more and more difficult for them.
Gonzalez: They’ll be a slightly lesser version of what they were in 2020, which was a slightly lesser version of what they were in 2019, which, in the end, will probably mark the true end of this team’s dominant run. Cole is now elsewhere. Soon, Springer and Michael Brantley likely will be too. And a year from now, we might be saying the same thing about Correa, Verlander and Greinke. The development of their young pitchers and the reemergence of Yordan Alvarez might keep the Astros relevant through September this year, but it won’t be the same. Nowhere close.
Doolittle: The Astros need to add two starting outfielders, or bring back either or both of George Springer and/or Michael Brantley, but as things stand, Houston is the clear favorite in the AL West. Its margin of error is smaller with Justin Verlander on the shelf, Springer likely to land with another club and lackluster positional depth. But we saw in the 2020 postseason just how good the Astros still are and I expect them to back in the playoffs in 2021, trying to get Dusty Baker that first managerial World Series crown.
When fans return to ballparks, how will the Astros’ reception on the road compare to what it would have been in a normal 2020 season?
Olney: So long as there are core members from the 2017 team wearing Astros uniforms, fans of other teams are going to be on full blast when Houston goes on the road.
Social media responses gave a lot of insight into this reality during the 2020 season: Any time you posted a neutral note about one of those core Astros players, you’d trigger a tsunami of backlash, of words about cheaters and cheating. It’s never going to get easier for these guys, leading to the larger question of how they’ll cope with the jeers and the anger.
Lee: These Astros are not the same Astros, but I don’t think it will matter to many baseball fans. It’s going to take a long time for baseball fans, both the die-hard and casual, to associate this team with anything other than its cheating scandal.
Passan: It’s still going to be bad. Not as bad as it would’ve been in 2020, but a year of festering anger and resentment — and Altuve, Correa and Bregman remaining with the team — makes booing and jeering an inevitability, regardless of road venue. It’s likely to be focused far more on the faces of the scandal — those hitters who were around in 2017.
Schoenfield: As a kid growing up in Seattle and going to Mariners games in the Kingdome, there was nothing more fun than booing (and occasionally beating) the Yankees. Why? They were the Yankees; we didn’t need a reason. Well, fans have a reason to boo the Astros and they will not shy away from the opportunity.
Doolittle: There won’t be organized protests and events like there would have been last year, or not many of them anyway. AJ Hinch is in Detroit and will be booed for years to come when he appears on the field. Springer, Altuve, Correa, Bregman — all will face boos for the rest of their careers, and I’d expect the boos to be louder this year than they will be in seasons to come. I would be shocked if the general vitriol aimed at the Astros will be anything like what it would have been if the 2020 season had unfolded in a normal fashion. I mean, who boos Dusty Baker?
How much has the Astros’ scandal changed the sport?
Passan: In the same way PEDs did: not very much. The behaviors that led the Astros to the scheme — a deep and unrelenting desire to win; moral flexibility; professional ingenuity — can’t be eradicated. The people who executed it or didn’t stop it are almost all back. AJ Hinch and Alex Cora are managing again. Springer is about to sign a mega-contract this year and Correa next. Jim Crane still owns, and is very hands on in running, the Astros. Rob Manfred is commissioner. The only people missing are GM Jeff Luhnow and assistant GM Brandon Taubman, and that’s due as much to personal feelings about each as it is their ties to the scandal.
Perhaps the most demonstrable change is the rift between fans and the sport they love. It’s not that they fundamentally dislike baseball. That’s a hard thing to do. It’s baseball. They’re simply frustrated by the fact that a World Series was won by a team that throughout the year used such egregious cheating methods and that it was allowed to stand with what amounted to a slap on the wrist.
Schoenfield: The history of baseball is the history of players trying to get an edge — legally or illegally, whether it’s stealing signals, corking bats, doctoring the baseball and even, in the early days, tripping runners as they ran the bases. This scandal isn’t going to stop that (just look at the current controversy surrounding pitchers using sticky concoctions to improve their grip, even though it is technically against the rules).
MLB banned all in-game video in 2020, although that was due to COVID, not the Astros’ cheating scandal. While some players blamed their struggles in 2020 on lack of that in-game video, I would love to see MLB permanently ban it, which would make stealing signs more difficult. Leave the technology to pregame study. Play the game like it’s played in little league or high school.
Lee: I smirked at some of the over-the-top reaction from some of the players and teams around the league when the Astros were caught cheating when it’s widely known around the league that using video to steal signs was not an uncommon practice. We see some sort of cheating nearly every day at the ballpark by just staring at the mound and watching pitcher after pitcher using some sort of sticky substance on a glove or hat to up the spin rate of his pitches, something many around the league acknowledge as a widespread practice.
The influx of new technology has shown how much spin rate can affect a game on a pitch-by-pitch basis, and I’m not sure it’s possible to quantify the cumulative effect over the course of a season of a team stealing signs or pitchers increasing their frame rate. I personally believe MLB should better regulate the use of video during games, but I also believe that we should stop kidding ourselves and just legalize the use of approved sticky substances for pitchers if people around the game are just going to accept its use.
Olney: There is finally a general recognition of the rules about using electronics for sign-stealing among players and staffers, having seen through videotape how the Astros benefited — and this could’ve been the case dating back to September of 2017, if commissioner Rob Manfred had come down hard with sanctions and enhanced rules after the Red Sox’s Apple Watch situation.
The greatest practical impact is how hitters no longer have access to video. At a time when the constant use of in-game video to review swings and opposing pitchers has become part of the process, for some hitters, this is a paralyzing change.
Gonzalez: Like Dave said — it remains to be seen because we haven’t had a traditional season since the scandal. The banning of in-game video was framed as a health-and-safety issue to keep players in the dugout and prevent them from crowding together indoors. I don’t think banning the use of in-game video — and, thus, suppressing technology, which has become so crucial to the way a modern player prepares and functions — is the long-term answer. There are ways to allocate more resources to policing its use without severely punishing innocent players who rely so heavily on it. We want players to be the best versions of themselves. Diminishing that because MLB didn’t react firmly enough in the first place would be wrong.
Doolittle: There’s an age-old criticism of scientific-based innovation that goes something like this: We get so wrapped up in proving that we CAN do something, that we sometimes forget to ask if we SHOULD.
Baseball has been racing headlong into a technological revolution for most of this century, and in many ways, we’re just starting to come to grips with some of the unintended consequences of these new tools. The boundary between competition and sportsmanship has always been more blurry in baseball than the sport cares to admit, but there are boundaries. The Astros’ scandal brought front and center just what some of those boundaries are, or at least what the fans want them to be. At the end of the day, that’s what matters: the confidence that the fans of the sport have in what they are watching.