Was Sign Stealing the Pivotal Factor in the Astros’ 2017 ALCS Victory?

January 16, 2020

In the 2017 American League Championship Series between the Astros and Yankees, the home team won all seven games. In light of the revelation that the Houston Astros that year used electronic devices to steal opposing pitcher signs and relay such helpful information to their batters just before the pitch, partisan claims have been made that this unfair advantage for Houston threw the outcome of that series.

Although Houston’s illegal use of electronics to steal pitchers’ signs is not debatable, an examination of box scores from that series greatly downplays the likelihood that sign stealing determined the series’ winner. One sees that the Yankees scored only three runs in the four games played in Houston, one each in the first three of those games and none in the final and decisive seventh game of the series. In games one and two, the Yankees managed just five hits apiece. After winning games 3, 4, and 5 back at Yankee Stadium, the Yanks had seven hits in a 7-1 loss in game 6 and three hits in the final game’s shutout loss.

The Yankees ran into very good pitching, and that’s the main reason for their defeat. Moreover, in spite of Houston’s electronic sign-stealing in home games, Astros hit and run production was not particularly abundant, either. Houston collected 5 hits in game one, 6 hits in game 2, 7 hits in game 6, and 10 hits in game 7.

Houston’s most prolific hitter that year and in the ALCS was Jose Altuve, who is rumored to have largely ignored the advanced pitch tips because he found such last-second information distracting from his successful approach to hitting. Altuve batted in four runs that series with a batting average of 0.320, an on-base plus slugging average of 0.974, and two home runs. Of Houston’s other regular hitters, only Carlos Correa and Alex Bregman got on base in more than a quarter of their plate appearances.

This empirical counter-evidence is reminiscent of the record of Shoeless Joe Jackson in the 1919 World Series. Jackson was the star player for the Chicago White Sox and was among several so-called “black sox” players thereafter suspended for life after it was proven that the result had been fixed in a gambling scheme. Jackson’s career batting average of 0.358 ranks third all-time, and he also performed superbly in the 1919 World Series, with six runs batted in, one home run, a batting average of 0.375, on-base percentage of 0.394, and an on-base plus slugging percentage of 0.956.

Copyright 2020, Larry Greenberg. All rights reserved. No secondary distribution without express permission.



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