Did Cheating Actually Help the Houston Astros Win the World Series?

Two social psychologists examine the elaborate cheating scheme the Astros employed in 2017

Minute Maid Park, the baseball stadium in Houston
Minute Maid Park, the baseball stadium in Houston

The 2017 Major League Baseball season will be remembered for the elaborate cheating scheme the Houston Astros engaged in throughout a season they would end with a World Series championship. 

That season, the Astros reportedly used video cameras to steal the opposing team’s pitching signs and then used a signaling system to get the info to their own hitters, proved the ultimate high-risk/high-reward undertaking. The World Series champs were eventually disgraced when news of the scandal leaked out. Several key team leaders lost their jobs and the team itself was fined $5 million and received other punishment as well.

But they did win the World Series. So: was it worth it?

Two social psychologists wanted to find out. So they crunched a bunch of data and concluded that this complicated cheating scam didn’t actually help them win the World Series.

In fact, the data analysis found – oddly enough – that most Astros hitters that season actually performed better in road games – when the team most likely wasn’t able to cheat – than in home games when it did so.

“I know it sounds crazy,” said William Krenzer, a social psychologist at Duke University and instructor in the university’s Science and Society program. “In the games where they definitely cheated, there is little or no evidence of a significant surge in hits or runs”

Krenzer and fellow psychologist Eric Splan, now a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Delaware, are graduate school buddies with a mutual love of baseball – Krenzer an Oakland A’s fan, Splan a supporter of the San Francisco Giants just across the bay. They passed time in graduate school at San Francisco State University applying scholarly research tactics to baseball statistics, and when the cheating scandal emerged, they decided to look into it.

They turned to a baseball blogger for their core data set. The crux of the Astros cheating centered on the stealing of signs the opposing catcher was sending to his pitcher. By stealing these signs using video cameras, the Astros knew what pitch would next be thrown to their hitters. That information was then relayed in real time to the Astros batter – on the other side of the ballpark – by a series of loud noises, or ‘bangs,’ on a trash can lid. 

Astros fan blogger Tony Adams listened to every single pitch during Astros home games that year and logged each time he heard a banging noise. He recorded about 1,100 bangs over the course of about 8,200 pitches. He put his data on the web, and Krenzer and Splan dug into it, comparing every at bat during which an Astros player had an advantage to every at bat during which the batter had no advantage. 

A few findings: 
●    There was no statistically significant difference in the number of strikes, in-play outs, or hits when the Astros banged the signal; 
●    There was, however, a 5 percent increase in the number of balls called on pitches in which the Astros hitter was signaled. This could be because hitters are more prepared for the pitch or because a breaking ball – one that curves on its way to the batter – is more likely to fall outside the strike zone, the researchers posit.
●    Many Astros batters, including several of the team’s top players, actually hit worse at home – when the cheating should have given them an advantage – than on the road. Krenzer and Splan looked at each hitter’s weighted on-base average – which evaluates a player’s overall offensive contributions per at-bat – and found that most players performed essentially the same at home and on the road. Three players, Brian McCann, Jose Altuve, and Marwin Gonzales, actually hit worse at home. Only one, Jake Marisnick, was substantially better in games where the cheating occurred.

Remarkably, in 81 home games, Astros batters took just 43 fewer strikes from breaking balls when there was an audible signal from the dugout, accounting for just three more total hits over the course of the entire season’s home games. 

“Of course, the caveat is that while there isn’t a lot of change, the three additional hits across the season could have been three game-winning hits,” Krenzer said.

To Krenzer and Splan, the big head-scratcher is why the Astros took such a massive risk, given the role statistics and analytics play in baseball.  

“Did the Astros cheat? Absolutely. But, did this cheating help the Astros? No. Not really,” Splan said. “What's most surprising is seeing a team at the forefront of advanced analytics, completely ignore the data, and continue to utilize such a futile and unethical scheme." 

(The duo’s research was a labor of love; they are not submitting the findings to a peer-reviewed journal)