Rob Manfred may not have revoked the Astros’ title, or even penalized any players, but there remain pertinent effects from the trashcan-banging fiasco. During Jose Altuve’s 2017 MVP season and Yordan Alvarez’s 2019 Rookie of the Year season, they both put up historic numbers. The question is whether their stats were inflated by the trashcan-banging and if so, do they still deserve their accolades? Is it plausible to strip them of their awards? No! But can we prove that they didn’t deserve them? Possibly!
Scouring through the last three years of MLB data (2017-2019)—the years when the cheating took place—uncovered astounding results. The disparity in the Astros’ regular-season home/away wOBA may shock you:
Also, according to Baseball Reference’s park factors, Minute Maid Park has been one of the best hitting ballparks. This provides more doubt of why the Astros’ wOBA would be equal home and away. If you know what type of pitch is coming at home, and in all other stadiums you are in limbo when the pitch is thrown, how is it possible that you retain no advantage at home according to the wOBA statistic? There were only two team statistics that exemplified the Astros’ advantage—the first was the strikeout discrepancy.
|2017-2019||Pitching Ks||Hitting Ks||Differential|
The Astros maintained this large disparity in strikeout differential for two salient reasons: they had the best strikeout pitchers in the majors (Charlie Morton, Justin Verlander, Gerrit Cole) over that time. And, from the offensive side, bluntly put, if you know what pitch is coming, you are less likely to strikeout. The second indicator of the Astros’ advantage is the difference in the number of doubles they hit in comparison to their opponents at Minute Maid Park.
The causation between doubles and sign stealing is a troubling connection to make in contrast to the strikeout association. But based on the fact that Minute Maid Park is not curated for doubles (bottom ten in doubles over the last three years), I’d predict that this influx of doubles is a result of knowing what pitch is coming and ultimately making hard contact.
After discovering all the areas where the Astros’ retained advantages, I began to look at Altuve’s stats from his 2017 MVP season. I used a regression model that standardized for Altuve’s away stats per AB, while also calculating for opponents’ stats in Minute Maid Park in order to predict Altuve’s home stats. Results showed there was no decrease in any major statistics, and surprisingly, there was actually a positive regression in a few major stats.
I know this seems inconceivable, but take a look at his home and road splits below:
At Minute Maid Park, Altuve struck out 20 more times—while precisely knowing what pitch was coming! After seeing no obvious discrepancy indicating that the trashcan-banging was benefitting his typical hitting statistics, I thought to myself, maybe, he was hitting the ball extremely hard at home, but was just getting unlucky. After looking at the expected stats such as xwOBA and xBA, I found no validation of that hypothesis. I’d say there’s irrefutable evidence that Altuve should retain his MVP trophy from 2017, despite MVP runner-up Aaron Judge’s contempt.
Álvarez won the AL Rookie of the Year award in a unanimous fashion, receiving all 30 first-place votes. So, revoking his trophy would require a plethora of evidence confirming Alvarez would’ve failed to put up similar numbers without the sign-stealing. Because Álvarez hit significantly better at home than on the road, his stats were deflated a solid degree, according to the implemented regression model. The resulting numbers show that he lost seven doubles, and his overall wOBA dropped from .432 to .419. However, with a .419 wOBA, he would’ve still won by a significant margin. John Means, a starting pitcher for Orioles, finished second but retained a high 4.41 FIP and an ERA of 3.60, which was not close to beating out Álvarez’s regressed numbers. In third place, Brandon Lowe had a .354 wOBA and only played 82 games. Álvarez is an incredible hitter, and the numbers confirm he would’ve won even without the sign stealing, based on his extraordinary stats and poor competition. In his run value chart below, you’ll see that he has positive run value in each strike zone, which is very rare among all hitters, especially a rookie.
Based on prior evidence, the trashcan-banging certainly didn’t affect Altuve’s 2017 or Álvarez’s 2019 season as much as many anticipated. But I still wanted to investigate to see if they hit worse on breaking balls, which were the identified pitches from the banging. Once again, the results demonstrated that there was just a minuscule difference, despite this significant advantage.
After failing to prove Altuve or Álvarez unworthy of their awards, I began to pull on more strings. I wondered if Alex Bregman’s second-place MVP finish this past season may have been wrongfully determined. I took one glimpse at his home/away splits and was dumbfounded once again. Take a look for yourself:
The sign-stealing mechanism seemed to have a minimal impact on regular-season results in comparison to what many expected. The most likely hypothesis affirming these statistical oddities (hitting worse or equal when you know which pitch coming) would be that the Astros didn’t use the sign-stealing mechanism in every at-bat, and most likely utilized it only for important regular-season games (playoff games, obviously). There has been no evidence of this, but using Occam’s Razor, it seems like the only feasible reason for the peculiar hitting splits.
When I set out to research this article, I was expecting polar opposite results. I planned on applying each stat possible to revoke the Astros’ individual accolades. But the numbers demonstrate an objective viewpoint, and there’s no way to grapple with them. This was the most unforeseen conclusion I anticipated to draw, but based on the overwhelming evidence, I’d say this—you should draft Yordan Alvarez, Jose Altuve and Alex Bregman as high as possible in all fantasy league formats! According to ESPN’s fantasy baseball rankings, Bregman is the 17th overall player, Altuve is 29th and Alvarez is 37th. Many fantasy players during the draft will undervalue them because they’ll expect a negative regression with the lack of trashcan-banging at Minute Maid Park, but this is where you can gain an edge and take advantage of your opponents’ misperception and bias. These are all upper echelon hitters deserving of their regular season accolades. Nobody wants to defend the cheaters, but you can’t fall victim to all the narratives when the objective numbers exemplify a different story.
Graphic adapted by Zach Ennis (@zachennis on Twitter and Instagram)