Astros cheating scandal: Three ways MLB's punishment could hurt Houston on the field

On Monday, Major League Baseball and commissioner Rob Manfred punished the Houston Astros for a high-tech sign-stealing scheme that dates back to 2017. MLB's investigation determined the Astros used illegal electronic equipment to steal signs during their 2017 World Series championship season and early in 2018 as well.

The punishment was harsh and unprecedented, especially given the nature of the offense. Here's what Manfred handed down:

  • $5 million fine, the maximum allowed under the Major League Constitution
  • Astros forfeit first and second round picks in the 2020 and 2021 drafts.
  • GM Jeff Luhnow suspended one year. He was later fired.
  • Manager A.J. Hinch suspended one year. He was later fired as well.
  • Former assistant GM Brandon Taubman suspended one year.

"I find that the conduct of the Astros, and its senior baseball operations executives, merits significant discipline," Manfred wrote in his nine-page report. "... And while it is impossible to determine whether the conduct actually impacted the results on the field, the perception of some that it did causes significant harm to the game."

Houston's reputation as one of the game's preeminent franchises has been sullied and their 2017 World Series victory is tainted to whatever degree fans see fit. Two successful baseball men are gone and the club's next two drafts take a big hit. The $5 million fine is a drop in the bucket for owner Jim Crane, but it is the most Manfred could dock the team financially. 

We know the Astros have a lot of work ahead of them to rebuild their image. What we don't know is how the sign-stealing scandal and subsequent punishment will affect them on the field. Maybe the Astros go out and collectively hit .219/.289/.315 in 2020. That would be something, wouldn't it? I don't think it'll happen though.

With the caveat this is mostly (educated) guesswork, here are three ways the sign-stealing scandal could adversely affect Houston on the field in 2020.

New manager means new strategies

Hinch was regarded as one of the top strategic minds in the game. For example, he used reliever Ryan Pressly in what he deemed the game's most important situation rather than marry him to a specific inning because that's "his inning." Hinch was adaptable too. Remember how he used his starters as relievers to cover for the club's shaky bullpen in the 2017 postseason?

The new manager, whomever it ends up being, means new strategies and a new decision maker in the dugout. Hinch always seemed to be in control of the game. It never sped up on him. With a new manager, who knows? He could be slow to react to a tiring starter, build lineups in a suboptimal way, or use relievers in situations not suited to their skill sets.

Luhnow's dismissal factors into this as well because these days front offices are so involved in on-field matters. I'm not saying the general manager calls down to the dugout and tells the manager to pinch-hit or bring in a certain reliever, but the front office does help develop strategies and game plans. That will change post-Luhnow to some degree.

The Astros remain incredibly talented and the roster is close to manager-proof. As long as the next skipper doesn't do anything egregious like bat George Springer ninth or turn Roberto Osuna into a mop-up man, they'll be fine. Every manager makes a dopey bullpen decisions now and then. Limit those and the players will take care of the rest.

Truth be told, the next manager's toughest job will take place behind closed doors. Manfred's report made it clear the sign-stealing scheme was "player-driven." It's all on the players. Hinch getting fired, Luhnow getting fired, the fine, the loss of draft picks. Manfred put that squarely on the players in his report. Managing the fallout will be the next skipper's top priority.

New GM means roster construction may change

Luhnow was not the most popular executive in baseball but his success was undeniable. He embarked on a deep rebuild in the early 2010s and the result is a roster that has won 100 games each of the last three years. The Astros are the industry leader in analytics because of Luhnow. Look how many teams are trying to copy Houston's rebuild model. It's telling.

The next general manager has big shoes to fill and, inevitably, the next general manager will operate differently. The front office will be run differently, employees will have different levels of input, skills and data sets will be weighed differently. Even if the Astros promote from within to replace Luhnow, a new general manager brings new perspective. It changes everything.

Here is a partial list of roster issues the Astros must address before spring training, general manager or no general manager:

There are two x-factors to consider. One, will free agents steer clear of the Astros following the sign-stealing scandal? For all we know some may have already. At this point in the offseason, most free agents will take whatever they can get, but Houston's reputation is in the tank and a veteran may not want to deal with the headache, if at all possible.

And two, what's the payroll target? According to Cot's Baseball Contracts, Houston's luxury tax payroll would be $229.6 million if Springer and Diaz win their arbitration hearings. That is above the $228 million second luxury tier and Crane may want to get under that, hence the Correa trade rumors throughout the offseason.

I suppose the $5 million fine could factor here as well. That money has to come from somewhere and Crane could order the front office to cut player payroll accordingly. I don't think it will happen, but it could. Getting under the $228 million luxury tax threshold seems like a realistic goal, however, and that would require creativity.

Fortunately, the Astros do not require an overhaul. Their position player core is deep, their bullpen is strong, and when you start a rotation with Justin Verlander and Zack Greinke, you're in good shape. The next general manager has that going for them. There don't appear to be any huge decisions that will require immediate attention on Day 1.

Still, a new baseball operations head means new methods and ideals, and that will permeate down to the roster. Maybe the next general manager will shift away from Houston's spin rate obsession, or target slash-and-dash hitters. Who knows? The general manager is a manager, someone who manages a large staff, but has the final say. Now someone new will call the shots, not Luhnow.

Teams may pitch the Astros differently

Manfred's report revealed the Astros used multiple systems to decode the opposing team's signs and relay those signs to the hitter so he knew what was coming. The most well-known system involved banging a garbage can to indicate offspeed pitch or breaking ball. There was no bang for a fastball, only for something offspeed (changeup) or with spin (curveball or slider).

Here, for the sake of having the data, is how the Astros performed against non-fastballs in 2017 and 2018, the two years Manfred's report says the club cheated. The sign-stealing benefit shows up not necessarily in the results, but in the plate discipline. Houston's hitters swung and missed less often and expanded the zone less often against offspeed and breaking pitches.


Manfred's report saysSwing & miss rateChase rate

2017 first half

Signs relayed to runner at second

28.8%

31.6%

2017 second half

Garbage can method

27.6%

26.3%

2018 first half

Signs relayed to dugout

28.9%

28.2%

2018 second half

No sign stealing

28.6%

28.0%

The sudden and substantial improvement from the first half of 2017 to the second half is damning. Correlation does not necessarily equal causation, but as soon as the Astros started banging on garbage cans to indicate offspeed pitches and breaking balls, their hitters reduced how often they would expand the zone against those pitches. Knowing what's coming helps.

In essence, the sign-stealing helped the Astros change the scouting report. Suddenly hitters who were prone to chasing that slider out of the zone were taking it more than they had in the past. Now the scouting report has changed again. Astros hitters who were not expanding the zone against non-fastballs may start doing so again, and that may affect how pitchers attack them.

This is something that happens on an individual level. To use Springer as an example, he cut his strikeout rate from 23.9 percent in 2016 to 17.6 percent in 2017. What if 23.9 percent is his true talent level and he reverts to being that hitter now? That will undoubtedly change how pitchers approach him. Every Astros hitter could face a similar adjustment.

It could take weeks for opposing clubs to pick up on a hitter's tendencies, but teams are ruthless, and as soon as they find a weakness, they will attack it. Now that the Astros will ostensibly no longer steal signs, some or all of their hitters may soon have a new weakness that can be exploited, and that could be the biggest on-field impact stemming from this scandal.

CBS Sports Writer

Mike Axisa joined CBS Sports in 2013. He has been a member of the BBWAA since 2015 and has previously written about both fantasy baseball and real life baseball for MLBTradeRumors.com, FanGraphs.com, RotoAuthority.com,... Full Bio

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