You run in from the field, grab your bat, and get ready to lead off the bottom of the first at Minute Maid Park. You sneak a quick glance down the stairs towards the clubhouse below. As you step up to the plate, you know you’re not alone.
Anyone who’s read up on scandals throughout history knows how these things play out. Whether it’s President Nixon and Watergate or the players listed in the Mitchell Report, these types of events generally follow the same patterns. This recent development from the Houston Astros is not unique in that regard.
Initial reports expose wrongdoing, fans say it’s just one report.
Witnesses corroborate their stories; they say the witnesses have a bone to pick with the accused.
Undeniable evidence piles up; they say it didn’t affect outcomes.
I’ve seen a bunch of statistics thrown around on Twitter proving that it did, in fact, help them. So, I wanted to do my own analysis to show just how much of a difference stealing signs can make.
You’re staring down the pitcher. You hear a *bang bang* from the dugout; curveball. The ball looks like a belt-high meatball leaving the pitcher’s hand. You know better though. You hold up and watch it break by your ankles. Ball 1.
One of the immediate results of knowing whether or not the ball is going to break is a lot less whiffing. Swing and miss rate (swings and misses/total pitches) is available on FanGraphs as far back as 2002. Let’s take a look at League Average, League Best, and the Houston Astros over that time period.
The first thing that sticks out to me is the massive drop-off between 2016 and 2017. That 3% drop in swing and misses is the largest drop of any team since documentation of this stat began 17 years ago.
In addition to Astros hitters having the most miraculous turn-around ever documented, they also set the pace for the entire league for three full seasons. Prior to this, no other team had ever led the league even twice in a row.
In other words, the improvement and consistency the ’17-’19 Houston Astros displayed when it comes to not whiffing was unprecedented.
You dig back in as the pitcher reads the signs from the catcher. *Bang*, changeup on the way. It looks like it might be an inch or so inside, but you know it’s staying there. You pull that front foot back and launch it over third base. It sails towards the stands, but hooks foul. Count at 1-1.
This pattern can be seen across all plate discipline metrics. In comparing 2010-2016 to 2017-2019, the Astros went worst to first in Contact % and O-Contact % (how often they made contact when they chased balls outside the zone). I feel like words don’t do those numbers justice, so here’s a chart showing year over year.
The Astros, seemingly out of nowhere, decided they were going to go from an absolute train-wreck to baseball champions at deciding when and where to swing the bat. Now the big question; did this translate to run production?
You see the pitcher shake off a couple of signs. He starts his windup, and you didn’t hear anything from the dugout. Fastball. Just below the waist but nothing you can’t handle. You launch it into the gap for a leadoff double. You give a quick wink to the dugout to let them know it’s on.
Batting average on balls-in-play (BABIP) is great at telling us the quality and results of the contact made. Again, if you know what pitch is coming, things are probably going to play out better for you. In 2019, the Astros BABIP was 22 points higher at home than on the road. That’s the biggest difference they’ve had in either direction this decade.
Those same 2019 Astros had a phenomenal wRC+ of 136 at home. That number dropped 22 points on the road. That home/road drop was by far the largest in the league, except for the Rockies who basically play on the moon.
This is quickly turning into the most elaborate sports scandal in decades. More comes out every single day and more is coming. We don’t what their punishment will be just yet, but we know they cheated, and we know it helped.