Recently, Major League Baseball has been embroiled in arguably its biggest scandal since the height of the steroid era. What started as a rumor that the Houston Astros were using illegal means to steal opposing teams’ signals has exploded into a multi-team investigation. The league has already handed down an unprecedented punishment for the Astros, fining the team $5 million, suspending the manager and general manager for a full season (both were fired by the organization thereafter), and stripping the club of its first two draft picks in 2020 and 2021 – and the consensus is that even this punishment wasn’t enough.
As more comes to light, and more rumors spread (such as the unproven allegation that some Astros players even wore devices under their jerseys that buzzed to alert them to what pitches were coming their way), there are growing calls for individual players to face punishments. And as we learn more about who was involved, additional figures around baseball are experiencing consequences. The Red Sox and Alex Cora “parted ways,” and the Mets fired Carlos Beltran; both men having been associated with the Astros at various points during the club’s sign-stealing operation.
It’s clearly a bad look for Major League Baseball, but perhaps the biggest shame of all was that until this happened the Astros were viewed as a team that did everything right. Years ago they made a clear effort to rebuild through the draft. They developed their own players, made strategic acquisitions, and built up an analytics-based approach, and suddenly they blossomed into arguably the best team in baseball these last three or four seasons. Now, unfortunately, we have to wonder how much of it was real – as well as how this will all affect the outlook for a team that was expected to compete at the forefront of the American League once again in 2020.
It would be easy to simply assume a negative outlook heading into baseball’s preseason this spring. However, we now actually have more math- and analytics-based analyses to consider, thanks to the rise of sports betting services in the U.S. That is, while the ordinary sports punditry is liable to overreact to a situation like the one we’ve seen with the Astros, professional bookmakers will look only at the numbers, the raw quality of teams, and the statistical likelihood of wins and losses, thus providing us with a way to step back and consider the Astros purely in baseball terms. In this way, the new bookmakers we’ve seen sprouting up around the U.S. can actually be helpful to the average fan, whether or not said fan is interested in betting on sports.
In this case, the MLB betting outlook for 2020 still favors the Astros to be a strong team. While detailed odds for the World Series or for individual divisions won’t be made clear until we’re a little bit closer to the season, the futures markets show the Astros as a top-tier contender in the American League, and, really, MLB as a whole. Currently, bookies favor only the Yankees over the Astros in the American League, with the Astros’ odds at a pennant still topping those of the Red Sox and Twins (the teams next highest in the bookies’ estimation) by a fair margin.
So, we might ask, how can this be the case when the team has faced such significant turmoil? Not only have the Astros lost their manager and general manager, they may have lost their edge. We don’t know how Houston’s lineup will perform without its sign-stealing operation in effect. Well, when one looks closer there are reasons for optimism despite all this.
Those reasons begin with the pitching – which ought to make the Apopka High faithful happy. That’s because the Astros’ rotation is still led by Justin Verlander – one of the most dominant pitchers of the 21st century so far – and Apopka’s own Zack Greinke, who joined the team via trade in the middle of the 2019 season. Houston lost its best pitcher when Gerrit Cole signed with the rival Yankees in December. But Verlander and Greinke still make for a very strong one-two punch, and as far as we know the Astros were never doing anything to give their pitchers the same unfair advantage they were working on for their hitters. So regardless of all the other changes, Houston will enter 2020 with stellar pitching once more.
On the hitting front, meanwhile, we should expect the Astros to decline. If indeed the sign-stealing operation was giving hitters as much of an advantage as people around the league seem to believe it might have, the absence of said operation should cause averages and power production to dip across the board. And yet, it’s also reasonable to suggest that the Astros’ lineup was so strong these last few years that it can drop off significantly and still be among the best in the game. Case in point, last season the Astros’ hitters featured five of the top 20 averages in the American League; the Yankees, who were widely viewed as having one of the most potent offenses in the league, had one. In theory, then, the Astros’ hitters could drop about 20 points across the board and the team would still be quite strong at the plate.
Finally, lest we forget about defense beyond pitching, we should also acknowledge that Houston ranked third in all of baseball in fielding percentage in 2019. That defensive prowess is based on pure talent, and shouldn’t be affected whatsoever by the scandal or the end of the sign-stealing operation.
All in all, it’s easy to imagine this going either way. It’s certainly possible that the Astros’ offensive production takes a bigger dive than expected, that the team has lost its motivation, and that the loss of Cole means the pitching is merely good, but not great. However, considering all the factors above – as well as that these players are likely to want to prove themselves capable without cheating – we’d expect that the MLB bookies’ outlook will prove more accurate. The hitters should remain strong, Greinke and Verlander should be dominant, and perhaps most simply of all, this is still one of the best teams in baseball on paper.
Whatever happens though, the Astros are going to be one of the most intriguing stories in sports in 2020.