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Documenting the bangs

You have to admire the dedication to craft.

Did not age well

Like so many in Houston, Tony Adams and his family had to flee their inner-Loop home when Hurricane Harvey pushed Houston’s bayous out of their banks in August 2017.

Weeks later, Adams watched the 2017 World Series from the couch at a friend’s house, celebrating the Astros’ victory. Last fall, though, he was left crestfallen by allegations that the Astros had resorted to electronic sign-stealing en route to the 2017 championship.

Adams, however, did not fret in silence. As a web developer and graphic designer, he had the skills to discern what the Astros had done and the ability to document their actions in a comprehensive fashion that not even Major League Baseball chose to provide.

Accordingly, Tony Adams’ signstealingscandal.com website, which documents 8,274 pitches of 58 Astros games in 2017, has become a milestone of baseball scholarship — a public footprint of how the Astros did or, in some cases, did not, abuse technology for their own benefits in 2017.

“This is a difficult subject for Astros fans,” Adams said. “I think any reasonable fan has hurt feelings about it. The fact that it happened during our one World Series championship, I can’t help but think differently about that World Series.

“The Astros were so good in 2017 that I expected them to win the World Series, which you never want to do as a fan. I don’t think they needed to do this, which is what makes it so tragic.”

Adams devised a computer program that allowed him to discern 1,143 pitches at Minute Maid Park in 58 games that were preceded by banging sounds. The bangs were delivered by Astros players hitting a trash can after picking up signs captured by a centerfield camera to signal the batter that a breaking pitch or off-speed pitch was on the way.

Baseball scholars already are parsing Adams’ data for clues and trends, which he said was his goal. A portion of the website logs each pitch and the result of the at-bat, using his observations linked to data from MLB’s Statcast pitch-tracking system.

A writer for Baseball Prospectus determined that the sign-stealing caper may have hurt the Astros as much as it helped them. Writers for The Athletic speculate that data for at-bats by George Springer, Evan Gattis, Carlos Correa and Jake Marisnick could help explain why each batter reduced strikeout totals significantly in 2017.

Adams, meanwhile, tries to leave interpretations to others.

“People are able to see that there are certain players who probably had less involvement with the banging scheme,” he said.

Chief among that group was 2017 American League MVP Jose Altuve, who ranked near the bottom of the list in terms of the percentage of pitches on which banging sounds were recorded. Adams said he was meticulous about his research but was particularly precise regarding Altuve, giving each of his at-bats a second listen to make sure he wasn’t missing anything.

I’m really glad he did this, because the efficacy of many well-known ways of cheating in baseball – spitballs, corked bats, PEDs – is very much an open question. The best solution to sign stealing may well be an abundance of evidence that it doesn’t help the teams that try it. This isn’t conclusive, of course – not all of the pitches were charted, other teams may have been more efficient at this than the Astros, other methods of cheating or further refinements to this type of cheating may pay greater dividends – but it’s at least a pragmatic argument against the practice, for those times when the moral and ethical arguments fall short. Gotta start somewhere. A recent episode of the Effectively Wild podcast contains a thirty minute interview with Adams if you want to know more about this. Kudos for the good work, Tony Adams.

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2 Comments

  1. brad says:

    Am I missing something here?

    Every single Astros player, including Altuve, knew the team was institutionally attempting to cheat. What else do you need?

    This an attempt to untaint what will be forever be a tainted WS win will not work.

    The asterisk is there forever.

  2. […] here for more on Tony Adams, and here for that USA Today story. Bolsinger was never a particularly good […]