Unforgotten Amid the Restart: The Rise and Fall of the Astros
Revisiting the Houston Astros cheating scandal, one of the most notorious in MLB history.
By Tommy Harlan
Updated: July 20, 2020 • 12:25 PM ET
The Houston Astros may play games in front of empty stands this fall.
As late as October 2019, the Houston Astros were known as the darlings of Major League Baseball. Despite being a big city, Houston is a small-town baseball market with a team that had purportedly emphasized scouting, building and developing through the draft, and adding steady veteran leadership to show their young and talented kids the way to be successful. By November 2019, however, the Astros fell from grace.
From 2011-13, the Astros not only experienced back-to-back-to-back losing seasons, all three campaigns ended with 100-plus losses. Astros management had seemingly had enough and began focusing on statistics, looking to find a competitive edge by exploiting all the numbers at their disposal and doing their research.
As the three-year stretch came to a close, management attempted to use every figure they could dig up — from what type of defensive shifts to use on hitters — to ways to increase their pitchers’ spin rate. Nevertheless, the formula and decisions were called to question, as the team didn’t gain traction or begin turning their losing ways around. But the organization was steadfast in their resolve to stick with the game plan and in the 2014 season, they finally started to reap the rewards of their methods.
The Astros were on the upswing and by the 2017 season, they were on their way to another round of 3’s, this time with three consecutive winning seasons and multiple trips to the World Series. Houston’s young talent had finally crossed the threshold and made the leap from the bottom of the pile to one of the rising teams of the future. After years of struggling to earn wins, Houston was now a team looking to form a dynasty and become the staple feel-good story of baseball for years to come. The blueprint was set in place for other small market teams to follow, showing that you don’t have to be a Boston or a New York to have a place in World Series conversations.
You Might Also Like
Then, in November 2019, the clock struck midnight on the Astros’ Cinderella story. What by all accounts was a team riding the high of its successes, suddenly transformed into a pumpkin with no fairy godmother there to fix it. Reports began surfacing that the Astros were stealing signs and communications between opposing pitchers and catchers. We soon-after found out that the Astros took it even further by having a monitor relay a live feed of the opposing catcher. This feed was hidden in a recessed area in the dugout but was used during games. The calls would be relayed to the player at-bat with the banging of a trash can, informing the hitter on what the pitch was going to be.
As reports picked up and gained validity, the Astros were well on their way to becoming the villain of baseball. Houston blatantly looked for shortcuts, while ownership and management did nothing to stop the cheating. A November 2019 report from The Athletic, in which former Astros pitcher Mike Fiers detailed specific allegations, ultimately cracked the case wide open.
As other players and teams began chiming in on the reports, the general consensus was how major of a violation this was that gave the Astros an overwhelming advantage. Nationals pitching coach Paul Menhart put those emotions to words, explaining that pitching against a team locked into your signs is “one of the most unnerving feelings. You feel helpless. You just get ticked off to the point where you lose total focus and confidence.”
While teams felt they were engaged in an unfair fight, opposing pitchers really felt the guilt of their team’s struggles. Menhart added that the pitching staff had to work to overcome a lack of confidence and work to resolve the frustration to keep their pitchers focused.
This only became worse for the Astros as the league investigated and found that the organization was not only cheating, but that they cheated during the entire 2017 season, including the playoffs and through the World Series en route to a championship. At this point, the league had no option but to pass down punishment — the thought of a team cheating its way to a championship questioned its validity and honor.
MLB commissioner Rob Manfred hit Houston with a $5 million fine (the maximum allowed), one-year suspensions for both general manager Jeff Luhnow and field manager AJ Hinch, the forfeitures of both first- and second-round draft picks in 2020 and 2021, and the placement onto baseball's ineligible list of former Astros assistant GM Brandon Taubman. As soon as news of the punishments came down, Houston owner Jim Crane immediately fired Luhnow and Hinch.
Crane, Astros coaches and players offered half-hearted apologies, seemingly looking to make the issue disappear. Instead, their weak attempts at apologizing showed they may not have been afraid of being labeled as villains, as long as they could keep their championship.
When asked about the removals of Luhnow and Hinch, Crane said, “Neither one of them started [the cheating], but neither one of them did anything about it.”
Many players and fans across the nation see this as simply a band-aid move, considering the players who committed the cheating are still active within the league. Because of that, the Astros now have to wear the crown as the villain of MLB. Fortunately (or unfortunately), the Astros won’t have to deal with boos or hostile crowds because of the coronavirus pandemic, although they may be on the receiving end of frequent high and tight pitches.
All of this could have been avoided if the organization had accepted that they committed one of the biggest cheating scandals in MLB history. Had the Astros met the reports with a genuine and sincere apology from the beginning and truly committed to change, who knows where they’d stand today.