Astros’ Offense Went From Best to Bust After Cheating Exposed

In the first season after a cheating scandal put an end to a years-long sign-stealing scheme that benefited its hitters, theHouston Astros experienced one of the biggest drops in offensive productivity in 100 years.

Measured by weighted runs created plus, a metric that compares baseball offenses with the league average and normalizes for the differences in ballparks, the Astros dropped 25 points from 2019, the fifth-biggest decline in the past century, according to an analysis by Bo McCready, a data-visualization specialist.

The Astros were caught cheating after a former teammate blew the whistle in 2019. For years, players would relay stolen signs to hitters by banging on a trash can to indicate that an off-speed pitch, like a curveball or a change-up, was on the way. Hitters could adjust accordingly, making it easier for them to hit the ball. The scandal resulted in the firing of the Astros’ on-field manager and front-office personnel, plus the managers of two other teams who’d been involved while with the Astros. Major League Baseball didn’t punish any players, citing their cooperation with its investigation.

McCready’s presentation shows that the Houston offense went from the most prolific since the 1927 “Murderers’ Row” New York Yankees, a lineup that featured Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig, to one mired in the middle of the pack.

The precipitous fall wasn’t evident just in advanced stats. Houston’s team batting average, on-base percentage and slugging percentage declined similarly.

As McCready notes, the Astros’ roster this season was pretty much the same as 2019. Stars like Jose Altuve, George Springer and Alex Bregman struggled to replicate their success from years prior. Altuve, the 2017 American League Most Valuable Player who’d led the league in hitting three times with averages of .341, .338 and .346, had by far the worst season in his career, hitting only .219.

While some of the blame might fall on the effect of this year’s shortened 60-game schedule and its smaller-than-normal sample size, questions continue to linger about the legitimacy of the Astros’ recent success. While stealing signs, the team won one World Series, in 2017, and appeared in another last year. They won 29 games this season and lost 31.

The Astros defeated the Minnesota Twins Tuesday in the first game of the wild-card round of the expanded Major League Baseball playoffs.

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