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Tipsheet: Pandemic allows Astros' cheating scandal to fade away

Tipsheet: Pandemic allows Astros' cheating scandal to fade away

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'It's over now' - Astros eager to put scandal behind them

FILE - In this Feb. 23, 2020, file photo, a fan holds a sign during a spring training baseball game between the Houston Astros and the Washington Nationals in West Palm Beach, Fla. The Astros spent much of the off-season reeling from a sign-stealing scandal that cost manager AJ Hinch and general manager Jeff Luhnow their jobs. Veteran Dusty Baker took over as the manager of the AL champs just before spring training. The change didn’t stop the Astros from being the villains of baseball this spring. (AP Photo/John Bazemore, File)

Fans won’t get to boo the Houston Astros this season, since the ongoing pandemic will keep fans out of stadiums during the 60-game sprint.

The Astros won't hear about their 2017 scandal, at least not from folks in the stands.

But opponents may bring it up from time to time.

“It’s going to be interesting,” A’s pitcher Sean Manaea said during a recent radio interview with 95.7 The Game. “The fact that they cheated just makes it (stink), but doesn’t dispute the fact that they’re really, really good. We still got our work cut out for us, but I don't know, it’s a (crummy) situation. It’s going to be fun facing them, but it’s going to be weird.”

Could things get a little chippy? Perhaps.

“You guys are already legit,” Manaea said. "Why do you need to cheat? … I really don’t have that much respect for any of those guys.”

A’s pitcher Mike Fiers spilled the beans on the Astros’ cheating, but he wants to turn that page this season.

“Yeah, we’re not worried about that,” Fiers told reporters during a video conference Tuesday. “We’re focused on us as the A’s — there are a lot more teams than Houston.”

And . . .

“Right now, if we’re worried about that, we’re thinking in the wrong thought process going forward. We’re trying to get ready for the season, we know what we have to do that. Being out here, competing, practicing together and getting everything right for Day 1.”

The Houston Astros paid a big price for those shenanigans. General manager Jeff Luhnow, a former Cardinals executive, got fired. So did manager AJ Hinch. Both were suspended for this season, so they couldn’t move on to another club.

The Astros will also lose first- and second-round draft picks this year and next, and the franchise paid a $5 million fine.

But did the Astros actually benefit from their sign-stealing and trash-can banging? A couple of baseball-loving social psychologists poured through the available data and concluded that they really didn’t.

“I know it sounds crazy,” William Krenzer, an instructor in the Duke University’s Science and Society program, told Duke Today. “In the games where they definitely cheated, there is little or no evidence of a significant surge in hits or runs.”

Krenzer and fellow psychologist Eric Splan, a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Delaware, analyzed data created by blogger Tony Adams.

Adams listened to every pitch during Astros home games in 2017 and logged each time he heard the trash can banging. He recorded about 1,100 bangs over the course of about 8,200 pitches. 

“(The) commissioner said the Astros also used clapping, whistling, and yelling to indicate pitches. I was not able to identify those methods,” Adams noted. “I’m not saying the Astros didn’t use them, I just couldn’t detect them.”

The bottom line assessment: On pitches when there was banging, there was no statistically significant difference in the number of strikes, in-play outs, or hits.

Many Astros batters, including several stars, actually hit worse at home than they did on the road – where the team wasn’t equipped to steal signs with video surveillance.

“Did the Astros cheat? Absolutely,” Splan said. “But, did this cheating help the Astros? No. Not really. What's most surprising is seeing a team at the forefront of advanced analytics, completely ignore the data, and continue to utilize such a futile and unethical scheme." 

Here is what folks are writing about the Astros:

Richard Justice, MLB.com: “We use phrases like ‘mental toughness’ in discussing athletes, and the Astros were going to have theirs tested in 2020 in wake of the 2017 sign-stealing scandal that was revealed last winter. So, yes, having no fans or fewer fans is a break for them on the road. The Astros were originally scheduled to play their first road games in Oakland and Anaheim, which was going to be a preview of how the season would go. Now the booing may have been postponed until 2021. All things considered, an advantage, right? Perhaps not. The Astros said they’d never trade the thrill of a packed ballpark — even a packed ballpark of booing fans — for the empty ones they’re likely to have for at least a while in 2020.”

Matt Snyder, CBSSports.com: “Potentially all of the 2020 MLB season could be played behind closed doors without fans. That means Dodgers, Yankees and other fans won't have their chance to get their chance to boo and heckle the Astros mercilessly in person. The Astros scandal has rightfully taken a back seat. Even if fans are allowed at some point this season, we aren't talking full houses with loud boos raining upon the team. A handful of opposing players have also been outspoken about the Astros cheating scandal and some on-field payback was expected. Due to the league's health and safety protocols, though, fighting will carry significant penalties in 2020 and the opposing players likely won't want to risk losing a large chunk of the small season to a suspension. Say what you will about new manager Dusty Baker, but he's one of the most likable personalities in baseball. A baseball lifer, he's as good a guy as you'll come across. He wasn't involved the scandal, either, so that kind of takes some of the wind out of the sails of the Astros being a villainous team, no?  As you can see, there are many reasons to believe the Astros got out of being a villain in 2020.” 

Tim Brown, Yahoo! Sports: “On the question of whether there remains a mandate to hate the sullied and dastardly Houston Astros, there should first be a reminder to consider life over the past four months and ask if a baseball player or team is even worth that sort of emotion. Onward. The Astros did cheat, they were caught, they do have rings and a trophy to show for it and these things do burn deep, so the guess here is a few months without the Astros — or the game — changes little. Empty ballparks may alter the volume, but personal demons and public trolls will have their say, somehow, as nothing is so drafty as an exposed conscience. It has been mentioned — often, actually — how a suspended season saved Astros players from the nightly ridicule that would come in places such as Oakland, such as New York, such as L.A.-adjacent Anaheim, such as anywhere that is not Houston. But, then, that’s a rather shallow view considering, you know, why the season was suspended. Given the option of boos or none, in that case, Astros players almost certainly would vote boos and whatever else the bleachers thought they had coming.”

MEGAPHONE

“It doesn’t really matter — I guess it’s not something to think about, like I said, just the game of baseball is what we need to think about right now.”

• A's pitcher Mike Fiers, on the Astros not having to hear fans booing them this season.

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Jeff Gordon is an online sports columnist for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.

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