Astros Sign-Stealing Scandal: How to Value Houston Hitters
The sign-stealing scandal involving the Houston Astros has been the talk of the sports world in recent weeks. Since being broken by The Athletic in November, the story has continued to evolve and taken on a life of its own. Major League Baseball has handed down penalties, three teams have parted ways with their managers, and internet sleuths across the globe have offered opinions and video evidence of specific instances in which this occurred. There are many unknowns still to be answered, but for our purposes, the question is this – how does this affect fantasy? Specifically, does this change our projections and values for Houston hitters? Considering four Astros hitters are being drafted in the first four rounds of most drafts, this could have quite an impact.
According to the investigation, most of the malfeasance took place during the 2017 season. Reports suggest that the more sophisticated version (to the extent that we can call banging on a trash can “sophisticated”) of the scheme began on May 19, 2017. The investigation concluded that the cheating stopped at some time in 2018 and did not occur in 2019. If we are to take that report at face value, then I will focus mainly on 2017, with some numbers thrown in from 2018 and 2019 for context. To see what the impact may have been on specific players, I studied the hitters who were on that club and who are being drafted universally in 2020. The names on this list include Alex Bregman, Jose Altuve, George Springer, Carlos Correa, and Yuli Gurriel.
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2017 Astros Splits
First, here are the home and road splits of the players in question for the 2017 season. We’ll start with the basic categories found in most Roto leagues.
At first glance, it does not appear that stealing signs did much good. All five players had higher totals in runs, home runs, and runs batted in on the road than at home. However, there is more to this than simple totals. I thought that such an advantage would have to be reflected somewhere within their batted ball profiles. Then I thought about some of the numbers that may be affected if a batter knew what pitches were coming. After doing a little more digging, I found this:
I figured that if hitters were aware of what pitches were coming, they would by and large have a better walk-to-strikeout ratio. It is much easier to exhibit patience at the plate and wait for your pitch. It is also a lot easier to lay off that 1-2 slider just off the edge of the plate if you know it’s coming. To that end, most of the hitters did experience a more favorable ratio at home, with Altuve being the lone exception. I also figured that the quality of contact would be better because a hitter is less likely to be fooled into making weak contact if they have advanced knowledge of the upcoming pitch. On that front, the results were a bit inconclusive. Save for Altuve, the hitters had a higher quality of batted ball at home, but not by a margin that points to an obvious advantage.
I wanted to dig into the individual hitters and their profiles a bit more. First, I focused on Altuve. He won the American League MVP that year, after all. As noted above, a cursory glance at his 2017 splits suggests that whatever was going on did not help Altuve in any tangible capacity. At home, he had an .834 OPS and a 130 wRC+. Decent numbers for sure, but he was unbelievable on the road. His OPS shot up to 1.081, he had a 189 wRC+, and he had more walks than strikeouts. These results did not quench my thirst, so I dug a little deeper. I looked at his results against different pitches in home games beginning on May 19 compared to the rest of the season.
Just like his overall home/road splits, these numbers do not indicate much of an advantage during the split when compared to his other 2017 at-bats. Some numbers that did change. For example, Altuve had a swing rate of 40 percent and a whiff rate of 5 percent inside the sample against changeups. When facing changeups in all other at-bats, however, those rates were 54.1 and 13.4 percent, respectively. His foul ball rate versus changeups was also much lower at home. All three rates were also lower in the sample against curveballs. This could be a result of the sign-stealing. Then again, it could be simple variance. To that point, the same three rates were all higher inside the sample against sliders. Simply put, if Jose Altuve was cheating in 2017 home games, he was either bad at it or he did an incredible job of hiding it.
Alex Bregman is an interesting case. His totals inside and outside of the split are virtually identical. That would suggest that he did not benefit much either. But when I noticed that Bregman finished 2017 fifth in xwOBA (expected weighted on-base average) against curveballs, my interest was piqued. Sure enough, he mashed curveballs within the sample. He went 8-for-15 with four extra bases against these curveballs. When facing the 31 curveballs outside of the sample, Bregman had just eight hits with three of them going for extra bases. He did not hit changeups or sliders particularly well regardless of setting. It may be worth noting though that he hit four home runs inside the sample in 69 at-bats ending in a curve, change, or slider. Outside of it, however, he homered just three times in 140 at-bats.
On the flip side, a look at what Bregman has done since may provide some insight. In 2018, Bregman hit .386 against opposing curveballs. Last year, he again hit over .300 and slugged .694. The man loves him some Uncle Charlie. I do not believe the narrative that Bregman gained a prohibitive advantage in 2017 as a result of this scheme. If anything, he could have used some of it last season. Bregman raked on the road but struggled at times at home. If he performed as well at home as he did on the road. He likely would have won the 2019 American League MVP. As for this study, I chalk up his 2017 curveball splits to simple variance in a small sample size.
Carlos Correa was the lone Astro studied who had a better batting average at home than on the road in 2017. That split is a bit greater within the games following May 19. Have we finally found the golden goose? Well, Correa did have a career-low 25.0 chase percentage in 2017. He also had some additional odd splits that season. Outside of the given sample, he struck out roughly twice as many times as he walked. That is in line with his career norms. Inside the period in question, however, he struck out much less frequently. That includes just two strikeouts in 46 plate appearances against left-handed pitching. But his swing percentage on pitches just outside the strike zone (labeled “Chase” pitchers per Statcast) was right in line with the league average.
Correa has experienced wild swings tied to his productivity throughout his career. These swings are often tied to his health. He looked lost at the plate for much of 2018. The inclination may be to believe he was the beneficiary of Houston’s chicanery in 2017 but not in 2018. But when you realize he was playing through a back injury, it puts some of that year’s numbers into perspective. Correa bounced back in a big way in 2019, though in limited action. He slugged 21 home runs in just 75 ballgames. Correa also posted career-bests in barrels per plate appearance and xWOBACON (weighted on-base of at-bats generating contact). 2017 was Correa’s best season in many ways, but it was not beyond the realm of anything else he has put together at various points throughout his career.
Let us marvel at the wonder that is Yuli Gurriel. The man is an old-school hacker. He had only six walks and 16 strikeouts in nearly 200 plate appearances in the timeframe in question. His results within the sample are in line with those outside the sample. As I discussed with Altuve and Bregman, you can get caught up in the minutia when trying to analyze splits such as these. That goes double for when you are attempting to analyze splits within the splits. Look at Gurriel’s numbers below.
In the games in which the sign-stealing system was most prevalent, Gurriel destroyed fastballs and changeups. He hit over .350 and slugged .670 in those 79 at-bats versus those two offerings. Meanwhile, he struggled mightily against the curve and slider. Outside the split? Almost the exact opposite. He tattooed sliders to the tune of six round-trippers in just 64 plate appearances. From this data, it is almost impossible to conclude what kind of effect this system had on Gurriel. If anything, his 2019 numbers could raise more red flags than anything. He hit more home runs just at home last year than he had hit total in any of his other three seasons. Gurriel can turn on a fastball like few others in the game, and the Crawford boxes out in left field at Minute Maid Park have been the destination for many failed attempts to get in on Gurriel.
Finally, we have George Springer. As you can probably guess by now, most of the numbers below do little to conclusively prove that Springer benefited from this orchestrated cheating system. However, if you are looking to be convinced otherwise, perhaps there is some ammunition in the charts to follow. Consider this – in the first homestand in question (May 19 – May 28), Springer went just 7-for-37 with 12 strikeouts. Included in that stretch was an 0-for-8 mark with six punchouts against opposing sliders. After that homestand, he proceeded to bat .291 with just 20 strikeouts in 151 home at-bats, including just a single whiff in 25 plate appearances. Is it possible that Springer was simply late to the sign-stealing party but decided to jump on board after his early slump?
And herein lies the problem. As I have inferred in various spaces in this article, there is no definitive way to know the exact impact of the system the Astros employed. It probably helped to some degree, but both the circumstances and the results vary. They vary by player, by homestand, and even by at-bat and by pitch. it is difficult (at best) to say with any real certainty what the Astros hitters gained from them having advanced knowledge of pitchers. But they have cast doubt upon themselves by their actions. Did Springer make what we would characterize as a normal adjustment from June 2017 through the remainder of that season? Maybe. Was Correa able to thrive at home because he was healthy? Possibly. But we don’t know. This is the area where savvy fantasy owners may be able to take advantage.
I found little evidence that this tactic made a significant difference in the Astros’ offensive performance. That does not mean it didn’t happen, or that it didn’t help on some level, or even that it is remotely acceptable. However, I am not going to alter my values on Houston’s hitters heading into 2020. What I have found interesting in recent days is that mine does not seem to be the consensus opinion. Though it may be slight in most cases, Houston’s hitters have endured a decrease in their recent ADP. The picture on the left is the ADP of these hitters in NFBC drafts conducted from January 1 through January 14. The one on the right is ADP from January 15 through January 21.
I am not in love with Altuve this season. Or at least I wasn’t at his previous ADP. At some point, however, he is going to be the best available player on the board. The fact that he has dropped nearly a full round in a week is significant. A further drop could be in store in the coming weeks. Altuve is still a top-50 player and will be a value if he continues to drop. Gurriel has also dropped nearly a round in the last week. I think his decline is more Statcast-based than anything having to do with this scandal, but it is noteworthy nonetheless. I also think that if any of these hitters get off to slow starts, they should be buy-low targets. You can likely sell the story that any underperforming Astros are simply not as good without artificial help.
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