The Houston Astros make for delicious villains. The perpetrators of baseball’s biggest cheating scandal in a century inadvertently made certain it stuck. First, they used a very memorable method to steal signs back in 2017 — relaying the upcoming pitch by making noise with trash cans, a method commissioner Rob Manfred dubbed “the banging scheme.” They won the World Series that season, which added the whole specter of ill-begotten gains.
Between employing the scheme in 2017 and getting found out after the 2019 season, the Astros victimized two of the largest, loudest fan bases in baseball — the Dodgers and Yankees — and signed two recognizable star hitters — Jose Altuve and Alex Bregman — to long-term extensions. It didn’t hurt that their crime dovetailed beautifully with a common method of ridiculing professional athletes: Signs. Nor did the coincidence that their otherwise delightful mascot, Orbit, could easily be a cousin of Oscar the Grouch, the “Sesame Street” character who resides in, what else, a trash can.
What cemented their role as MLB’s chief antagonists is the fact that they just keep showing up on the screen.
The Astros are back in the World Series for the fourth time in six years, and for the second straight season. When they host the Philadelphia Phillies for Game 1 on Friday night — and especially when they hit the road for Game 3 — they will again swing into a nation mostly taunting, jeering and wishing bad things upon them. That’s only just. If you’re one of the many doing the booing, though, it’s time to consider what exactly the Astros are now.
Are they cheaters? Or are they simply the era’s most dominant winners?
Disentangling the banging and the winning
They could, of course, be both.
Baseball fans know that one of the greatest harms of cheating is the way it pulls a rug out from under reality. We know it because of how difficult it has been to reckon with the legacies of the greatest players from the 1990s and early 2000s. In particular, the all-time single-season and career home run records have been forever sucked into the maelstrom kicked up by rampant use of performance-enhancing drugs.
You don’t have to disavow or disregard Barry Bonds’ all-time marks — 73 and 762 — to lament their uneven footing. There is little room to enjoy them amid the brawl over whether to look at them at all. The same erosion of trust drags even fairly attained achievements, like Aaron Judge’s 62-homer season, into the same bog. We can’t discern how many home runs Bonds, Mark McGwire or Sammy Sosa would have hit without their alleged use of performance-enhancing substances. And even for those who want to fully appreciate their greatness — which was certainly worth celebrating regardless of any steroid enhancement — the unanswerable questions make it a more arduous task.
We are far enough removed from the 2017 Astros to more thoroughly assess the quandary that remains unanswerable in the case of steroids: How much of the success was entangled with the cheating?
As deplorable as the Astros’ brazen racket was, you’d be hard-pressed to come to the conclusion that it was a significant factor in their winning. At Baseball Prospectus, Rob Arthur surmised as much using data from the time of the sign-stealing operation. When accounting for both the pitches that they signaled in correctly and the pitches they signaled in incorrectly, Arthur wrote in early 2020, “the net effect of the banging comes astonishingly close to being zero. Nothing. Statistically, for all the work and effort that went into the cheating scheme, the grand result of it, at least as measured in this way, turned out to be no runs at all.”
With at least four seasons now on the ledger without the sign-stealing (reports on the scheme indicated it may have been ongoing for part of 2018), we can also clearly see that the major hitters from the 2017 Astros have maintained their excellence as much as you could possibly expect.
First baseman Yuli Gurriel, center fielder George Springer and third baseman Alex Bregman have all posted better offensive seasons — by park- and era-adjusted OPS+ — than their 2017 performances in the years since. Shortstop Carlos Correa has repeatedly come close to matching his. And Jose Altuve, the 2017 AL MVP who teammates and researchers say did not use the cheating scheme, matched his 2017 OPS+ (160) with this season’s performance.
Adding to the frustration and lingering suspicion among other fan bases, the Astros have remained steadfastly ahead of the curve in legal ways, even after the suspension and dismissal of general manager Jeff Luhnow. That’s evident in the star players who have emerged since 2017, like 2022 lineup anchors Yordan Alvarez and Kyle Tucker, and rookie shortstop Jeremy Peña. But also in ways totally unrelated to sign-stealing and, indeed, hitting. Their 2022 success is built atop a groundswell of unheralded pitchers who they developed into dynamos.
The signs of an era-defining powerhouse
If we’re going to be honest about the vitriol expressed in the boos and the trash can jokes, we’re going to need to acknowledge that the Astros can be deserving of both their immense success and the baseball world’s scorn.
Another World Series triumph would establish them as the 2020s version of Derek Jeter and Joe Torre’s New York Yankees dynasty, just with even better reasons to root against them. That group — led by the Core Four that included Jeter, Andy Pettitte, Jorge Posada and Mariano Rivera — sustained a remarkable degree of regular and postseason success, a sort of omnipresence that no team has approached since, until these Astros. From 1996 to 2007, which was Torre’s time at the helm, the Yankees had a .618 winning percentage in more than 120 playoff games. In the current Astros run, from 2015 to now, they are winning at a .605 clip in 86 games. That would be a 98-win pace in a full season, and this is coming in games played exclusively against the league's best.
The Dodgers, who have played 100 playoff games over the past decade and matched the Astros in regular season dominance, have a .530 winning percentage in the postseason. Which is normal! Most teams simply do not and cannot sustain this sort of upper hand in October over that many games. The Boston Red Sox, who have won the World Series twice in the past decade but often cratered in between, have a .604 playoff winning percentage, but in only 48 games.
This combination of consistently playing in October and consistently winning is incredibly rare, and it can’t be passed off as a forbidden fruit of the sign-stealing scheme. We are way beyond that.
We don’t need to deny their tremendous power, or concoct buzzer-wearing conspiracies to write off stars like Altuve. Plenty still understandably despise Manfred’s decision to grant players immunity, but we probably got to the bottom of this affair — and scoped out the spectrum of other teams’ sign-stealing efforts — only because of that. It’s also worth noting that the actions of former assistant GM Brandon Taubman — who taunted female reporters over the team’s trade for alleged domestic abuser Roberto Osuna — and Luhnow’s attempt to cover for him were always more galling signs of moral rot than the players’ clandestine efforts to win more baseball games.
Not recognizing the significance of the Astros, at this juncture, is cheating yourself out of appreciating an all-time great team, and an all-time team to root against. Like the early 2000s Yankees, who eventually served up wildly satisfying defeats at the hands of the Arizona Diamondbacks, the Florida Marlins and eventually the curse-breaking Red Sox, these Astros might be the most compelling final boss lording over their sport in the 2020s.
You can root for their challengers — the 2019 Nationals, 2021 Braves and now the 2022 Phillies — while acknowledging that there’s a towering baseball powerhouse in Houston. The ethical failure of the 2017 team doesn’t make it any smaller. It just paints it a lurid shade of black.