Late into the night of October 30, 2019, the Houston Astros looked like baseball’s team of the decade. They had a two-run lead on the Washington Nationals in the winner-take-all seventh game of the World Series, potential future Hall of Famer Zack Greinke on the mound, and an offense that seemed capable of generating runs on command.
Then it all came crashing down. It wasn’t simply that they lost the game, and with it, what would have been their second championship in three years. No, the team’s real problem didn’t hit until two weeks later, when a much deeper scandal broke: The Astros, it turned out, had been cheating.
On November 12, The Athletic reported that Mike Fiers, who pitched for Houston from 2015 to 2017, had revealed that, during his tenure with the team, the Astros secretly “stole signs” from visiting teams, intercepting communications between opposing pitchers and catchers and relaying them to the batter. The setup was surprisingly simple: A camera in the Astros’ home stadium relayed a feed of the catcher to a monitor situated in a recessed area where an Astros player was sitting near home plate. That player decoded the opposing team’s signals, then banged on a large trash can to inform the hitter what the next pitch would be.
As the story was corroborated—including by isolating the audio signature from the trash can and confirming its success in predicting the next pitch—MLB launched an investigation. The result, revealed last week, was devastating: The league identified a widespread scheme to break some of its most sacrosanct rules and levied heavy punishments on the Astros. Two team officials, the general manager Jeff Luhnow and the manager A. J. Hinch, were first suspended by MLB and then fired by the team. In the process, the scandal has already started to reshape narratives surrounding not only the Astros’ success, but also a full decade of baseball history.
If there was a trend in baseball in the 2010s, chances are the Houston Astros embodied it. In the era of the baseball “superteam,” theirs was arguably the most dominant, winning at least 100 games in three straight years (even if the stretch netted them only one World Series victory). As debates raged about the propriety of “tanking”—losing on purpose to amass draft picks who would lead the team to success down the line—they seemed to tank hardest of all, posting at least 100 losses and placing dead last in MLB every year from 2011 to 2013; the gambit ultimately paid off in a wealth of homegrown stars, including Carlos Correa and Alex Bregman.
The second baseman José Altuve’s 2017 MVP season made him a poster child for the “fly-ball revolution,” in which slap-hitters more known for beating out grounders suddenly started crushing home runs. These players were aided by a “juiced” ball, whose tendency to fly farther than ever before was scrutinized under a literal microscope (and using literal cannons). Houston’s ace pitchers Justin Verlander and Gerrit Cole posted historically great seasons, racking up strikeouts at an unprecedented rate as the league’s overall strikeout rate skyrocketed.
The Astros’ highly trained scouts and “Nerd Cave” of statisticians earned a reputation for identifying, acquiring, and developing players who had slipped under other teams’ radars; pretty soon, other teams caught on, and began hiring away the team’s off-field personnel in hopes of replicating the results. The organization was on the cutting edge of baseball strategy. They were pioneers in “shifting” their defense to better account for opposing batters’ tendencies and teaching pitchers to increase the ball’s spin rate on the way to home plate. Many of the team’s hitters sought out batting coaches to help tweak their swings and maximize their potential.
It wasn’t all rosy, though. By the time their 2019 campaign ended, the Astros had developed a reputation for a cutthroat, win-at-all-costs mentality that sacrificed the human element of the game for marginal gains on the playing field. The mid-2018 decision to trade for the pitcher Roberto Osuna while he was serving a league-mandated suspension for violating MLB’s domestic-violence policy cemented that reputation. The team’s brass struggled to square Osuna’s signing with their previous commitment to a zero-tolerance policy for abuse of any kind.
Houston only heightened the controversy in October, when a team executive appeared to gloat about the signing to a group of female reporters, at least one of whom was wearing a ribbon to raise awareness of domestic violence. (Ironically, the incident occurred after a playoff game in which Osuna gave up a late game-tying home run to the New York Yankees’ DJ LeMahieu, threatening the Astros’ eventual trip to the World Series.) That, too, was part of the story of the 2010s: The league and those around it debated the efficacy of policies toward players’ off-field transgressions as part of a conversation about the trade-offs between the ruthless pursuit of success and the game’s underlying humanity.
The sign-stealing scandal recasts the Astros’ decade in a harsher light, underscoring their missteps and calling into question their successes. What once looked like a triumph of player development and a validation of the deepest tank job the league has ever seen is now swamped by a team-wide plot to violate MLB’s rules. Just as Spygate and Deflategate cast shadows over the New England Patriots’ dynasty, the Astros’ 2017 title will forever be suspect—especially given that Houston had to edge out two teams in hard-fought seven-game series to win their 2017 title.
Just as Barry Bonds’s home-run records and MVP awards are arguably tainted by allegations of performance-enhancing-drug use, there will be questions about whether the team’s sign stealing gave Altuve the edge he needed to beat out the New York Yankees’ Aaron Judge for 2017’s American League MVP award. Even once seemingly benign threads, such as a 2017 story about the Astros shifting the angles of their TV cameras, look sinister with the revelation that those changes were key to their illicit activities.
But because the team so thoroughly typified baseball’s 2010s, the scandal has deeper ramifications. The Astros’ winning seemed to vindicate the controversial, decade-defining strategies they employed to get there, especially their apparent commitment to tanking. Article after article heralded how their decision to bottom out ultimately led to their coronation, memorably encapsulated in the juxtaposition of two Sports Illustrated cover stories: The first, from 2014, mused that the outfielder George Springer, drafted as Houston approached its nadir in 2011, could one day lead the team to glory and become the 2017 World Series MVP; the latter, from 2017, celebrated the prediction coming true. The Astros’ success was even cited to give succor to other fan bases wondering why their teams seemed to be taking the same path.
The same will no doubt hold true for the other tactics the team employed. The edges the Astros obtained on offense by employing advanced statistical analyses and tinkering with how hitters swung the bat are now arguably inextricable from the edge they gained by filming opposing pitchers and banging on trash cans. That’s not to mention the ever-present possibility that the scheme could be merely the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the prevalence of sign stealing within MLB or other unfair tactics the Astros may have used to gain an advantage.
The scandal is already reverberating around the league. Alex Cora, a team coach centrally implicated in the scandal, went on to lead the Boston Red Sox to a World Series victory the next year as that team’s manager. Amid rumors about his new team stealing signs and the revelation of his role in Houston’s misdeeds, Boston fired Cora the day after the Astros ditched Luhnow and Hinch. Carlos Beltrán, who hung up his cleats after winning the World Series with the Astros in 2017, may see a hit to his Hall of Fame case because of MLB’s assessment that he was a main culprit in the “banging scheme.” He’s already seen his near-term future affected by the news: After being hired to manage the perennially tumultuous New York Mets in November, he and the team announced on Thursday that they were parting ways.
Houston’s punishment may prove a fitting entr’acte for a decade expected to bring chaos to the league. In late 2016, MLB and its players’ union staved off a looming labor dispute, ratifying a collective-bargaining agreement that has left many unsatisfied, leaving some analysts and insiders to predict greater discord—and potentially the first players’ strike since the mid-1990s—when it’s renegotiated in 2021. Simmering tensions over the sport’s stagnant free-agency market (record-busting contracts at the top aside) and concerns about teams’ unwillingness to spend money on players have only aggravated players’ grievances with MLB’s higher powers.
Allegations that the league is tampering with the ball itself—“juicing” it for the regular season, leading to skyrocketing home-run rates, before “de-juicing” it for the playoffs, slowing offense to a crawl—have only grown louder as MLB struggles to respond. Major changes, including the potential introduction of robot umpires to call balls and strikes and new restrictions on pitcher usage, will have to prove themselves quickly, lest they further inflame tensions between players and management. And this all comes as the sport stares down a triple barrel of diminishing ratings, increasingly long games, and fewer balls put in play than ever.
For now, the main conversation surrounding the Astros’ perfidy has been whether the punishment fits the crime. Are steep fines and lost draft picks enough to deter future cheaters? Or should the league take more drastic steps—up to and including vacating the Astros’ 2017 title—to reflect the severity of Houston’s wrongdoing? But as the baseball world seeks clarity, an even bigger question is coming into view: How do we make sense of a decade whose defining team may have never been what we thought it was?
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