Tuesday, January 14, 2020

The Disgraceful Secret of the Astros' and Red Sox' Success: Cheating

The Houston Astros have been widely portrayed as a model franchise in terms of utilizing analytics to build a successful team: the Astros tanked to accumulate draft picks, and then they used analytics to decide which players to draft, which veteran players to acquire, and how to maximize the talents of those players during games.

All of that sounds great in theory--but the reality is that the secret edge that pushed the Astros over the top and enabled them to win the 2017 World Series was old fashioned cheating: the Astros stole the opposing team's signs during games and then made noise in their dugout to alert their hitters about which pitch to expect.

If Bud Selig were still the Major League Baseball Commissioner, the Astros would have probably received a slap on the wrist while Selig broke his arm patting himself on the back, which was baseball's version of crime and punisment as Selig presided over the "Steroids Era." Fortunately, Rob Manfred at least has some sense of how serious this offense is: Commissioner Manfred assessed a $5 million fine against the Astros, stripped the franchise of its first and second round picks in both 2020 and 2021, and suspended General Manager Jeff Luhnow and Manager A.J. Hinch for the 2020 season (the Astros subsequently fired both men, neither of whom will be permitted to work for any other MLB team next season). Many baseball insiders have publicly expressed surprise at these supposedly draconian punishments but Manfred--although he showed more sense than Selig, an admittedly low hurdle to clear--did not go far enough. The Astros still go down in history as the 2017 World Series champions, and not one player who participated in the cheating has received any punishment.

It is becoming increasingly hard to understand why Pete Rose is burdened with a lifetime ban, while cheating players such as Barry Bonds, Mark McGwire and Alex Rodriguez are embraced by Major League Baseball, and cheating teams like Houston and Boston (see below) retain their coveted (but forever tarnished) World Series crowns.

MLB has a lot to learn from other sports. In track and field, cheaters like Ben Johnson, Marion Jones and others are stripped of their Olympic and World Championship medals. In cycling, Lance Armstrong's seven Tour de France titles were voided.

If MLB and its leadership had any courage or any sense, Barry Bonds, Mark McGwire, Alex Rodriguez and every other "Steroids Era" cheater would be removed from the record book and banned from Hall of Fame consideration--and the Astros would be stripped of the 2017 World Series title, with every player who was involved in the cheating being disciplined by MLB. Manfred's excuses for not punishing the players--too many players were involved, many of the players play for other teams now, and he did not feel like he could determine the relative guilt of each player--are weak, and provide an open invitation to players to cheat in the future, with the knowledge that if they are caught then they will keep their World Series rings while their manager and GM take the fall.

The investigation into the Astros' wrongdoing revealed that Alex Cora--who played a major role in Houston's cheating as a bench coach--similarly participated in cheating perpetrated by the Boston Red Sox as he served as that team's manager during their 2018 World Series championship season. Cora should be banned for life, and the Red Sox should be stripped of their title--but it is possible that Cora will get off with no more than a one year suspension, and it is likely that the Red Sox will pay a price that does not include losing their championship.

Of course, Boston is another franchise that has been lauded for profitably utilizing analytics.

Analytics have proven their value in many fields, from science to retail to law; law is my profession, and as a Customer Success Manager for Lex Machina--the pioneer and leader in the legal analytics field--I am well aware of the tremendous value provided by analytics that are accurate, complete and relevant. However, this MLB cheating scandal renews the question of just how valuable or reliable baseball analytics are; if the analytics provide a decisive edge, then why would two teams that are deeply immersed in analytics risk getting caught stealing signs?

I have often written about the strengths and limitations of "advanced basketball statistics" and the application of real basketball analytics, but the widely held assumption for quite some time is that analytics work better in baseball than in basketball because baseball is a station to station game of discrete actions, not a free-flowing game of interconnected simultaneous actions.

The Houston and Boston cheating scandals do not "prove" that baseball analytics have no value, but these scandals do legitimately raise the question of how much of an advantage Houston and Boston gained through analytics compared to how much of an advantage they gained by breaking the rules.

Why do I criticize the Astros and Red Sox after previously expressing the opinion that the so-called "Spygate" and "Deflategate" situations involving the New England Patriots were overblown by the media? Simple. The Astros and Red Sox unambiguously and deliberately cheated, and their cheating led directly to the championships that they won. In contrast, the Patriots committed a technical rules violation in "Spygate" that may not have even conferred a significant competitive advantage, and it is not even clear that they did anything wrong in "Deflategate." While baseball pitch signals are concealed, the signals that the Patriots filmed during "Spygate" can be viewed by anyone watching an NFL game on TV; the systematic gathering and collection of those signals for later analysis is not permitted (and that is why the Patriots were punished by the NFL), but this is not the same as intercepting a catcher's signals in real time and banging a trash can in the dugout to let the batter know in real time the exact pitch that is coming. Further, the Astros and Red Sox attempted to conceal what they were doing, while the Patriots' videographers were wearing team colors, and their presence could not have been more obvious if they had been waving semaphore flags. Regarding "Deflategate," independent scientists examined the evidence and concluded that the methodology and conclusions of the infamous Wells Report were flawed.

NFL cheating incidents that should outrage fans include (1) the 2010 Saints putting "bounties" on opposing players en route to winning the Super Bowl, (2) the Denver Broncos circumventing salary cap rules to stack enough talent around John Elway to enable him to win two Super Bowls in the 1990s, (3) the San Francisco 49ers circumventing salary cap rules during the 1990s, and (4) the massive steroid use that fueled the Pittsburgh Steelers' 1970s championship teams (and may be responsible for the sad, early demises suffered by many of the players from those teams).

Of course, the media picks and chooses who to target and who to absolve in these situations. New England Coach Bill Belichick rarely provides useful soundbites to the media, so it is OK for the media to dub him "Belicheat." The Saints were a fairy tale story in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, so their intentional maiming of opposing NFL players is readily forgotten; Gregg Williams, the ringleader of the Saints' bounty scheme, is back in the NFL and is a respected coach, even though some players say that he is still coaching his players to intentionally injure opposing players. Elway's Broncos, and the 1990s 49ers are also popular, so their transgressions are forgotten. The Steelers are part of the NFL's ancient and storied history, so no one cares to examine their widespread steroid abuse.

It will be interesting to see how the media choose to depict the Astros and the Red Sox. For me as a baseball fan, Major League Baseball has not been the same since the strike canceled the 1994 World Series, and then the "Steroids Era" combined with Bud Selig's bumbling (remember the 2002 All-Star Game that ended in a tie while Selig shrugged?) permanently stained the sport and its once-hallowed record book--though, as a basketball fan, I thank MLB for having a strike that lasted so long that it helped push Michael Jordan back to the NBA. This latest scandal just confirms to me that the baseball record book before 1994 was nonfiction, while the baseball record book post-1994 is fiction, replete with fraudulent home runs, fraudulent MVPs and, now, fraudulent champions. This is not to say that other pro sports are pure or flawless, but the past 25 years or so have been brutal for MLB.