Did the Astros cheat in 2019?

In the first inning of Game One the 2019 World Series, played in Houston, the Astros jumped on Max Scherzer for two runs, the only ones they scored off of Max in five innings. The big blow was a two-out double by Yulieski Gurriel that, if memory serves, was nearly a home run.

If I recall correctly, Scherzer said in a post-game interview that the Astros seemed to know what pitches were coming in the first inning, and that the Nats had to change their signals. More recently, after the cheating scandal broke, Kurt Suzuki, Scherzer’s catcher in Game One, declared that the Astros were stealing signs in that game.

Suzuki seemed to point to the Gurriel at-bat. He said: “When Max Scherzer has two strikes on you and he throws one 98 miles per hour near your head and you smash it — come on, nobody does that.”

Scherzer avoided further damage in that inning by striking out Carlos Correa. He also struck out Michael Brantley and Max Bregman that inning, which suggests that the Astros might not have known what Scherzer was going to throw. But Suzuki says, “We got a couple of big strikeouts when their crowd was so loud they couldn’t hear.”

On this evidence, I can’t say with confidence that the Astros were cheating in the first inning of Game One.

However, the comments of Suzuki and Scherzer were enough to make me look at the Astros’ batting statistics for four seasons — 2016-2019. The Astros admit to sign stealing in 2017. It seems clear (as we’ll see in a moment) that they didn’t do this in 2016. It seems unlikely that they did in 2018. If there’s a year in doubt, it’s 2019.

Let’s first compare 2016 and 2017. In 2016, the Astros scored 724 runs. The next year they scored 896.

OPS (on-base percentage plus slugging average) is, with adjustments for ballpark effects, the industry’s core measure of batting productivity. In 2016, Houston’s OPS was .736. In 2017, it was .824.

In both years, Houston hit no better at home than on the road. In fact, the Astros were a bit more productive on the road in both seasons. Minute Maid Park in Houston is considered a little more hitter friendly than the average major league stadium.

In 2018, the Astros regressed to something closer to their 2016 numbers. They scored 99 fewer runs than in 2017, and their OPS wasn’t significantly better than it was in 2016. Their walk total was almost the same as in 2016.

The 2018 Astros hit better away from home than in Minute Maid park.

In 2019, Houston improved not only on the 2018 numbers, but also on those from 2017. The Astros scored 920 runs compared to 896 two years earlier. Their OPS increased from .896 to .920.

The improvement over 2017 doesn’t seem very significant and might be the product of an increase, league-wide, in offensive productivity. But the improvement from 2018 is marked.

What jumps out in the 2019 numbers is a big difference in Houston’s numbers at home and on the road. Whereas in 2016-2018 Houston hit somewhat better on the road, in 2019 the team hit much better at home.

At home, the Astros scored 489 runs compared to 431 on the road. At home, their OPS was .878 compared to .819 on the road.

The other big change is with bases on balls. In 2016-2018, Houston’s walk totals were in the low to mid 500s. In 2019, the total jumped to 645.

Because the 2019 numbers are much more in line with those of 2017 than 2016, one might conclude from this that the 2019 Astros were using the same outlawed sign stealing practices that the 2017 Astros did. But there’s an obvious problem with so concluding. In 2019, Houston’s lineup was radically different than the one in 2016.

Of the nine regulars from 2016, only three remained — Springer, Correa, and Altuve. Bregman and Gurriel were also on the 2016 team, but played sparingly.

The problem can’t really be solved by using the stats from just these players. Springer, Correa, and Bregman were all just getting started in 2016. They hadn’t nearly reached their primes. Gurriel was mature in 2016, but it was the Cuban’s first year in the major leagues.

However, the 2019 Houston lineup wasn’t vastly different than the one in 2018. And, of course, the overlapping players (six of nine starters) were only one year older.

All six of the overlapping players — Gurriel, Altuve, Correa (when he wasn’t injured), Bregman, Springer, and Josh Reddick — hit much better in 2019 than in 2018. In 2018, Correa and Springer looked rather like they did in 2016.

I don’t conclude from these numbers that the Astros cheated in 2019. Perhaps the Astros suffered a “World Series hangover” in 2018. Maybe other factors, such as guys playing hurt, were a factor. However, the numbers do suggest the clear possibility that the Astros cheated throughout the 2019 regular season.

If the Astros did cheat in 2019, maybe the form and methodology changed from 2017. Otherwise, why did the team’s number of walks increase so dramatically from 2017? Why did the Astros hit so much better at home than on the road?

Maybe in 2019, the focus was on identifying off-speed pitches to convert weak contact into favorable counts and walks. Maybe the Astros improved their ability to steal signs at Minute Maid Park. Maybe the dramatic change in these numbers have nothing to do with sign stealing.

We need to see what happens this year. If the performance of Houston’s returning batters is comparable in 2020 to what it was in 2019, we should conclude that the Astros did not cheat in 2019, at least not during the regular season. Otherwise, it will be awfully tempting to conclude that they did.