THE YEARLY READER

2017: Astronomical! (The Scandalous Cut)

The Houston Astros defeat the favored Dodgers in an exhilarating and exhausting seven-game World Series—but the trophy will soon be tarnished.

2014 Sports Illustrated Cover with George Springer

As the Houston Astros struggled to regain major league relevancy in 2014, Sports Illustrated boldly envisioned a world title within three short years. The prediction would be spot on.

(Editor’s Note: This article was originally written at the end of 2017, before reference could be made to the Astros’ cheating scandal which broke into public view two years later. This update takes that scandal into account.)

In June of 2014, the Houston Astros encountered what some suggested would be the biggest obstacle to their ongoing, inescapably extensive and unorthodox rebuild: An appearance on the cover of Sports Illustrated.

The Astros had reason to be nervous. For years, an unusually high percentage of those highlighted on SI’s cover would, in the weeks and months to follow, suddenly lose the greatness that got them on the front page in the first place. Conspiracy theorists called this the Sports Illustrated Cover Jinx. The Cleveland Indians could certainly vouch for its legitimacy; in 1986, SI plastered some of their star players on the cover for their baseball preview issue and proclaimed that they would win the World Series. Instead, the Indians went on to lose 101 games.

So here were the Astros and then-rookie outfielder George Springer being heralded on the front of the magazine as baseball’s world champions—three years out, in the year 2017.

And for once, Sports Illustrated got it right.

But two years later, the Jinx would strike back—and the Astros would have no one but themselves to blame.

Fast rewind to the start of the 2011 season and an Astros franchise that was completely lost. After an exciting and largely productive first decade at Minute Maid Park that yielded three postseason appearances and their first-ever pennant, the Astros looked tired and burned out with no solutions in sight thanks to a badly weakened farm system and an exodus of star players. Owner Drayton McLane didn’t seem to care anymore, an assumption that gained traction once he sold the team to local businessman Jim Crane.

The new owner knew that he had inherited a situation that wasn’t going to be remedied overnight. Like many other teams of the time going through cyclical patterns of success and failure, the Astros were not going to Band-Aid through a patch-and-pray approach for a quick but limited fix. They had a better idea: Burn it all down, rebuild from the ashes and develop a potential dynasty.

Burn it down they would. The Astros were, by the record, miserable during the first three years under Crane’s watch, averaging 108 losses a season—including a franchise-worst 111 in 2013. Minute Maid Park became a silent morgue, while nobody outside the ballpark tuned in to watch. Literally; one local telecast of a late-season Astros game drew a 0.0 rating.

To find the light at the end of this dark tunnel, Crane built up a front office that took the recent trend of statistical analytics and gave it extra dimension by addressing factors such as a player’s health history and work ethic. Leading the effort was former St. Louis exec Jeff Luhnow, who oversaw a proprietary database so curious to others within baseball, an employee back in St. Louis decided to hack into it—costing him a 46-month prison sentence, and the Cardinals $2 million and a couple of draft picks.

Gradually the Astros turned the corner thanks not so much to Lunhow’s early moves but to two young draftees from the McLane Era. Venezuelan native Jose Altuve, all 5’6”, 165 pounds of him, developed into a perennial batting champ, stolen base leader and Gold Glove recipient at second base, while southpaw Dallas Keuchel—not highly thought of when the topic of top Astros prospects came up—went from borderline Triple-A pitcher to A-list ace once he developed a slider that tripped up opponents. But some of the Crane Era’s early cadets were also starting to make an impact; outfielder George Springer made an immediate impression and became part of a trend of leadoff hitters doubling as free-swinging sluggers, while Puerto Rican shortstop Carlos Correa—the #1 pick in the 2012 amateur draft—debuted in 2015 at age 20 and, with all-around offensive potential and rapid upside, looked to become the star of stars at Houston.

Just a pair of years removed from their atrocious 51-111 showing in 2013, the Astros looked as if they might beat Sports Illustrated’s World Series prediction to the punch by two full seasons—qualifying for the postseason via the wild card under rookie manager A.J. Hinch and coming within one game of knocking out the eventual world champion Kansas City Royals in the divisional series. But the Astros tripped up and disappointed in 2016, missing the playoffs. From there, the team would try anything—anything—to bounce back. Thus the Houston front office began looking for an advantage beyond on-field talent and cutting-edge analytics.

MLB’s fledgling video review system would innocently give them that opportunity.

An Astros intern approached Jeff Luhnow with an idea: Take notes of opposing catchers’ signs on the Astros’ video review monitor during a game, apply them to a Microsoft Excel file and use it decode the signs. That information would be passed on to the Astros’ dugout. Formally, the program was called Codebreaker; informally, it was “dark arts.”

Sign stealing had been around as long as the game itself, but it traditionally had been the work of baserunners with a view of the plate, making subtle moves to alert the batter what type of pitch was likely coming. Beyond that, there was the occasional claim of bullpen pitchers or scouts sitting behind the outfield wall using binoculars or cameras to relay opposing signs. But Codebreaker took it to a whole new level, a sign-stealing method for baseball’s digital age, developed by analytics nerds carrying more operational weight in the front office.

In the run-up to the 2017 season, Sports Illustrated’s baseball experts were largely skeptical of the magazine’s boast about the Astros three years earlier; only one of eight writers picked Houston to win it all, while four of the seven others didn’t even think the team was capable of winning its division. Had they known about the scheme the Astros were about to unleash upon their opponents—and not reported it to MLB—they would have thought a bit more highly about the team’s chances.

Put into action from the get-go, Codebreaker was effective in theory, but it lacked the element of a streamlined, quick-turn execution. So the Astros dumbed the process down to a more efficient means. They set up in a monitor showing the game in the tunnel between the dugout and clubhouse, placed a garbage can nearby and banged on it—with a massage gun, it was later revealed—for the hitter at the plate to hear. If the can was banged, an off-speed pitch was coming. If there were no bangs, it would be a fastball. Houston hitters couldn’t guess pitch location, but they could time their swings more accurately.

The cheating scheme, used mostly during home games, allowed the Astros to punch it out of the gate in 2017 and build an 11-game lead over AL West opposition before May was even over; by the All-Star Break, Houston’s record stood at 60-29—easily the best first-half performance in team history. It wasn’t just that the Astros were winning, it was how they were winning—binging on runs as rarely a week went by where they didn’t put up 10 on the board at least once. Sometimes, they’d do it two or three or even four times.

The banging became more rampant as spring turned into summer. It wasn’t unusual for Astros hitters to be given advance notice of off-speed deliveries as much as 30 times a game; on August 4 against Toronto, the can banged 54 times, and the results were telling as Houston romped to a 16-3 victory. While one or two opposing pitchers smelled a rat with their ears, it was somewhat remarkable that visiting teams didn’t figure out the scheme, run over to the Astros dugout and smash the monitor. Such violence was left to Houston manager A.J. Hinch, who at one point took a bat to the screen as a way of voicing his disapproval—but beyond that, he never fully put his foot down to end the scheme, perhaps because it would put him at odds with a front office which hatched the plan. It was a decision he would come to regret.

BTW: The Astros’ bang-the-can-happy 16-3 rout of Toronto spelled the end of pitcher Mike Bolsinger, who was rocked by Houston bats and released by the Blue Jays the next day—never to pitch in the majors again. When Houston’s cheating scheme became public knowledge over two years later, Bolsinger sued the Astros, stating that the team had illegally deprived him of his ability to make a living in baseball.

BTW: How do we know the number of times the Astros banged the trash can per game in 2017? A graphic designer/Astros fan named Tony Adams went back and looked through 58 Houston home games archived online and notated the number of pitches preceded by an audible banging of the can.

In a year where home run totals accelerated into record territory across the majors, the Astros—fueled by their cheating methods—all but led the way, blasting 238 out of the park to finish a close second to the New York Yankees’ 241. Eleven different Houston players wound up with at least 10 to tie a major league record. Clearly, this was not your father’s Astros team of lore when Jose Cruz led the team with nine homers—but then again, Cruz never had the benefit of a monitor, trash can and a teammate to bang on it in the dugout tunnel. 

Whether illicitly or not, the Astro taking the charge offensively was Jose Altuve, who brought home the AL Most Valuable Player award with his third batting title (at .346), his fourth straight campaign of at least 200 hits and team leads in runs (112) and steals (32). More than assisting was George Springer, who paced the team with 34 homers and matched Altuve with 112 runs, and Carlos Correa, hitting high gear with a .315 average, 24 homers and 84 runs batted in—figures all the more impressive considering he missed nearly a third of the season to injury. 

That the Astros piled up the runs was a boon for a pitching staff that was less than top-notch. After suffering through an off-year in 2016, Dallas Keuchel returned to All-Star form and gave the Astros at least one source of strong stability in the rotation—until he suffered a neck injury that kept him out for two months. In his absence, the Astros managed to maintain a winning pulse despite a staff ERA of near 5.00.

Jose Altuve

After hitting a period of stagnation in mid-summer, two totally disparate events—none of which had to do with cheating—recharged the Astros back to prime contender status in the final week of August.

One was Hurricane Harvey, a biblical-level cataclysm that swamped Houston and southeast Texas with over 50 inches of rain, displaced over a million people and caused a whopping $200 billion in damage—making it the most expensive disaster in U.S. history to date. Like the Yankees after 9/11 and the Red Sox after the 2013 Boston Marathon bombings, the Astros came together, united more closely as a unit and gave their all, on the field and off it, to the badly stricken region—even if they initially had to do it from afar, as one home series was moved to St. Petersburg, Florida while floodwaters surrounded (but did not reach) Minute Maid Park.

The other pivotal moment came when Justin Verlander arrived in Houston. The tall, veteran right-hander had been a virtual icon in Detroit for 13 years, but the Tigers were looking at a rebuild of their own and began a clearance sale of their pricey star talent, with the $28 million-a-year Verlander as the headlining bait. Vested with the power to approve or decline, Verlander hemmed and hawed over a deal to the Astros and finally said yes—with literally two seconds to spare before the midnight deadline on August 31. The nail-biting acquisition would be worth it for the Astros, as Verlander won all five of his starts while posting a fantastic 1.06 ERA in a Houston uniform to end the regular season.

Verlander, Altuve and, more clandestinely, the cheating scheme starred as the Astros survived the AL East’s top two teams in the playoffs. In the ALDS against the Boston Red Sox, the pint-sized Altuve homered three times in Game One alone while Verlander bookended the series with a pair of victories—the second coming in a 2.2-inning relief stint. Next up in the ALCS were the rejuvenated New York Yankees, who pinned a surprising first-round defeat on Cleveland—which soared late in the year with an AL-record 22-game win streak—and were über-powered by rookie sensation Aaron Judge (52 home runs, 114 RBIs, 128 runs, 127 walks). In a taut seven-game series, the Astros hit just .120 in three losses at Yankee Stadium, but naturally (wink-wink) fared much better back home, winning all four games—not so much behind prodigious hitting but, instead, by stifling pitching. Verlander led by example, going the distance in a 2-1 Game Two victory, followed by seven more dominant innings in Game Six—setting up a Game Seven triumph in which Charlie Morton and Lance McCullers Jr. combined for a three-hit, 4-0 shutout. The Astros grabbed their second-ever pennant in bang-bang fashion, winning all six AL playoff home games.

 

BTW: The Astros became the first team to earn pennants for two different leagues—having previously won the 2005 flag as a member of the National League.

For all of their offensive muscle, tough-minded pitching and as-yet-unexposed dugout tunnel shenanigans, the Astros still came into the World Series as underdogs. That was easily understood given the opponent: The Los Angeles Dodgers.

The Dodgers entered 2017 having won the NL West for each of the previous four seasons, but continually found frustration in October with failure to reach the World Series. Interestingly, the team instituted a stand-pat attitude during the offseason, re-signing incumbent free agents (third baseman Justin Turner, starting pitcher Rich Hill and closer Kenley Jansen) while making only one modest acquisition by bringing on second baseman Logan Forsythe from Tampa Bay. Already strained with a projected Opening Day payroll of $240 million—or nearly $10 million per player—the Dodgers exhaled confidence with their current roster and a robust farm system. But when that confidence was tested through a poor 9-11 start, two players came completely out of nowhere to re-ignite the pilot light. 

Over the previous three years, Chris Taylor looked to be nothing more than a utility spare part, just happy to have a clubhouse stall at the major league level. That all changed when coaches corrected a flaw in his swing, turning the 26-year old from benchwarmer to borderline All-Star. Ultimately settling into the leadoff spot, Taylor thrived in a breakout campaign for which he hit .288 with 21 home runs, 72 RBIs and 17 steals. 

Taylor’s breakout partner would be Cody Bellinger, a promising farmhand who began the season at Triple-A—resigned to the likelihood that his time with the Dodgers would come later than sooner amid a crowded cast of prospects. But later became now when a plethora of injuries at the top necessitated an earlier-than-expected promotion. With a gorgeous and majestic upper-cut swing, the left-handed bashing Bellinger exceeded even his own expectations with a record-setting debut—belting nine home runs in May and another 13 in June, including 10 over a 10-game stretch, to become the latest in a string of young boppers (Trevor Story, Gary Sanchez, Aaron Judge, et al) to set marks for this many home runs over that many games to start a career. Opposing teams scrambled to get the book on Bellinger—but once they did, it still wasn’t enough to stop him as he bulked up his home run total to 39, breaking Frank Robinson’s 61-year-old mark for a NL rookie. 

With the born-again Taylor and blockbusting Bellinger firmly in tow, the Dodgers became virtually unstoppable. From its 9-11 nadir, Los Angeles won 26 of its next 40 games—then really applied the pedal to the metal, capturing victories in 52 of its next 61. With this mind-blowing run of success running the Dodgers’ record to 87-34, the goal of winning 100—something the Dodgers hadn’t achieved in 43 seasons—seemed to be a shoo-in; reaching 110 for the first time in franchise history easily seemed an approachable target, given they only needed to go 23-18 for the balance of the season to get there. Reporters and fans alike thought bigger, and deduced that the Dodgers had a shot at breaking the all-time season record for wins. 

Sports Illustrated, perhaps feeling perky as the Astros were on target to fulfill the mag’s 2014 forecast for 2017, put the Dodgers on its cover in late August with the headline, “Best. Team. Ever?” Cue the jinx: The Dodgers immediately tumbled into an eye-opening slide, losing 16 of 17 games. Their only win came when they eked out a 1-0 decision at lowly San Diego thanks to a commanding effort from ace Clayton Kershaw. Fortunately for the Dodgers, they snapped out of it and won 12 of their final 18, securing the majors’ best record (at 104-58) and reclaiming their upbeat vibe headed into the postseason.

Having conquered the regular season, the Dodgers looked to shed the postseason monkey off their backs by nabbing their first pennant in 29 years, the longest such drought in franchise history. The quest would prove to be pleasantly easy, considering the competition. They brushed away the potent (and surprising) Arizona Diamondbacks in a three-game NLDS sweep, then effortlessly took apart the Chicago Cubs in five games at the NLCS, as the defending champions came off looking badly hungover from their historic triumph of a year earlier.

In the first Fall Classic in nearly a half-century to pit two teams with over 100 wins, Chris Taylor showed off his new and improved self to the Astros by homering on Dallas Keuchel’s first pitch of Game One at Los Angeles, setting the tone for a 3-1 victory helmed on the mound by Kershaw. The Dodgers had another 3-1 advantage late in Game Two but couldn’t hold it, as closer Kenley Jansen showed rare mortality by allowing a run-scoring hit in the eighth and a game-tying homer to Marwin Gonzalez in the ninth. The latter poke ignited a home run derby, with five more blasts to follow in the next two innings as the Astros ultimately survived with a 7-6, 11-inning win. 

Game Two’s late-night fireworks would have nothing on what was to come in Game Five back at Houston. 

With the series tied at two games apiece, it was crucial for the Astros to win Game Five; losing would force them to win the final two games on the road at Los Angeles, without the benefit of a trash can. The Astros’ prospects didn’t look good when the Dodgers bolted out to an early 4-0 lead for Kershaw, who seldom blew four-run leads—because opposing hitters seldom laid off his off-speed deliveries. Except on this night, by an Astros team that was continuing to perpetrate baseball’s most corruptive plot since the Black Sox Scandal. 

In the fourth and fifth innings, the Astros quickly came to life, erased Kershaw’s lead, added to their own, and knocked the future Hall of Famer out of the game. Some may have chalked it up to Kershaw just losing it, but there were two telling signs. One, he walked three batters over those two fateful frames, when he rarely ever walked anyone, period. There was also this: Kershaw threw 51 of his nasty off-speed pitches over 4.2 innings of work—and the Astros didn’t swing at a single one. That certainly had to be a first for Kershaw—or any pitcher, for that matter. 

After Kershaw’s early departure and the curious circumstances surrounding it, the track meet was on. Both teams battled back and forth, with a slew of home runs (seven in all) flying out of the yard and reducing relievers from both sides to shreds. On this night, it was the Dodgers’ turn to send the game into overtime with three in the ninth, but the Astros still prevailed on a run-scoring single in the 10th punched up the middle by young third baseman Alex Bregman to win the wild affair, 13-12.

The Late Show, Starring the Houston Astros

With two thrilling extra-inning contests in the World Series, the Astros continued their postseason tradition of taking games past the ninth inning. As shown below, only the Mets had a higher percentage of postseason games (through 2017) that went overtime—and barely.

Highest Percentage of Postseason Extra-Inning Games by Team

Back at Los Angeles, the Astros failed to clinch in Game Six with a 3-1 loss; they didn’t fail in Game Seven. Houston piled up five early runs as they jumped all over Dodgers starter Yu Darvish—a mid-season acquisition having a miserable World Series after being counted on to provide rotation strength. The early 5-0 lead in this offensively live series didn’t seem safe to some, but the Astros held down the fort without having to score again, as five Houston pitchers (capped by Charlie Morton’s four innings of relief) combined to allow a mere run on six hits for the night to take the game, series and championship, the Astros’ first after 56 years of trying. 

Despite hitting a lowly .230—.267 at home with the trash can at the ready, but only .201 on the road—the Astros bashed a World Series-record 15 homers. Five of those came off the bat of series MVP George Springer, the Sports Illustrated cover boy of three years earlier. 

People may have been laughing at the Astros back in 2014. In 2017, they had become impressed. 

Three years later, in 2020, they would become angry.

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