Did the Houston Astros cheat against the KC Royals?

KC Royals (Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images)
KC Royals (Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images) /

Major League Baseball’s recently concluded investigation reveals that the 2017 World Series champions employed technology to steal opponents’ signs throughout their title season. Did they cheat the KC Royals?

The 2017 Houston Astros, a supremely talented team that won 101 regular season games and a World Series championship, cheated. Pure and simple, they cheated, stealing opposing catchers’ signals throughout the season via a technology-based system that gave “home cooking” a new meaning and broke baseball’s rules. The KC Royals and their fans have to wonder if the Royals were victims of the Astros’ ugly scheme.

The reports that Houston may have been using technology to steal signs and tip their own batters to coming pitches surfaced in November and are now fact. Baseball Commissioner Rob Manfred released a nine-page summary of Major League Baseball’s investigation Monday. Its findings shook the game.

Whether the Astros’ scheme affected their seven 2017 games against KC is impossible to determine–as the Commissioner’s report makes clear, “There are so many factors that impact the outcome of games that addressing that issue would require rank speculation.” That it could have helped Houston is one of the points: getting an edge was the purpose of the scheme and that it lasted throughout 2017 and part of 2018 suggests it was to some extent successful. If it wasn’t, the Astros would have abandoned it long before they did.

There is little, if any, doubt that the cheat was available to Houston for the Royals’ early April 2017 visit. MLB’s report found the scheme was used “throughout” the 2017 campaign and the Astros began using a live feed from the center field camera at “the beginning of the 2017 season” to detect and figure out signs from opponents’ catchers to pitchers. The signs were then relayed to players who, upon reaching second base, tipped Houston hitters. (Upcoming pitches were tipped by banging on a trash can beginning “approximately two months” into the season).

So it is reasonable to assume the Astros could steal KC’s signs during the teams’ three-game series April 7-9. Houston had opened at home by winning three of four against Seattle before the Royals arrived; if the Astros were stealing signs against Seattle, it certainly didn’t hurt. But KC won two of its three games at Minute Maid Park; if the Astros’ cheat was on, it certainly didn’t help.

Perhaps the scheme was so new that the Astros hadn’t mastered it in time for the KC Royals’ visit–it wasn’t until about two months into the season that, according to the report, the players improved their system by installing a monitor near the dugout where they viewed the signs, deciphered them, and signaled pitches by banging on a garbage can, thus eliminating the extra time required to relay signs to runners on second and, importantly, eliminating the very need to wait for teammates to reach second, a feature that increased the number of tips.

Or perhaps the Astros didn’t cheat against the Royals because they didn’t take them seriously. But championship-caliber teams don’t tend to blow off any opponent, especially at the professional level, and the Royals were still seemingly formidable. The 2015 championship nucleus was still mostly intact, not due for free agency until season’s end.

Or maybe the scheme just didn’t work very well. There seems to be no evidence that Houston used it on the road (the vital center field cameras wouldn’t be available for a traveling cheat) but the Astros’ record at home, where they clearly cheated, was actually worse than their road record. Houston was 48-33 at Minute Maid but 53-28 on the road, where they scored 106 more runs than they did at home.

Manfred is right–no one will ever know with certainty how many Houston victories the sign-stealing scheme produced. Baseball is a game of variables so numerous that assigning a precise, singular causation to any given win is rarely, if ever, possible. It may be easy to ascribe a win to a perfect game, but someone had to drive in the winning run–is the run the determining factor, or is it the perfect game that prevented the loser from scoring more runs than the winner?

It isn’t, then, so much the outcome of individual games, or to whom go the spoils of a 101 win season and world championship, that now lie at the disturbing heart of this scandal. Baseball isn’t taking away the Astros’ 2017 World Series trophy or their title. No one is taking away the players’ rings or their World Series shares.

Instead, the problem is that it happened. The 2017 Astros were so extraordinarily talented that cheating shouldn’t have even entered their minds. But cheat they did, settling not for the accepted method of sign stealing–their naked eyes–but for what Manfred says were cameras, monitors, cell phones, smartwatches and dugout phones. And the scheme was accepted–the report describes how the players were involved, bench coach Alex Cora appears to have been instrumental in it, and manager A.J. Hinch said he didn’t approve of it, but didn’t stop it.

Houston’s cheat threatened baseball’s very integrity, if not in verifiable impact, then in its potential to provide an edge not otherwise available to hitters, place pitchers at a disadvantage too big to overcome, and affect game outcomes. The threat was palpable, its stain ugly.

And it is that very thing–that the Astros’ scheme so threatened the game’s integrity–that cheated the KC Royals. And every other big-league team. And the fans. Everyone got cheated and, in a way, everyone lost.

Manfred levied his punishment. He fined the Astros $5 million, took away their first- and second-round draft choices for the next two years and suspended their general manager and manager, who the team quickly fired. Cora’s Red Sox, also under MLB investigation for using technology to steal signs, will have a new manager this season–it took slightly more than 24 hours for the Sox to fire him after Manfred released his report.

But what of the players, those most involved in the scheme and who stood to first reap its benefits? Manfred didn’t discipline any of them, saying in part that so many were involved that it would be too difficult to determine individual degrees of accountability and culpability, and that some were now with other clubs.

The Commissioner should have at least fined those perpetrators he could identify, but fines might not square with one-year suspensions for management personnel. Manfred may simply have believed that no discipline was easier than meting out equal discipline; after all, it sounds like he might have been suspending the bulk of a team. This is not an excuse, but a possible explanation for Manfred’s reasoning.

The story of the cheating scheme is sordid; the Astros’ chapter is now all but closed, but Boston’s remains open. And we’ll never know if the KC Royals were cheated out of the one game they lost in Houston in 2017. But they were cheated nonetheless.

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Fortunately for the KC Royals, it’s difficult to imagine retired manager Ned Yost or General Manager Dayton Moore tolerating an Astros-like scheme; in fact, and considering the club’s culture, it’s difficult to imagine any of the Royals employing such a plan. They are much more the cheated than potential cheaters.