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Will There Be Fantasy Fallout for the Astros?


The Houston Astros have landed in hot water this offseason after receiving sign-stealing allegations against them dating back to their World Series championship season of 2017. A long and thorough investigation by MLB has confirmed that the elaborate scheme to notify batters of specific pitches was indeed true, and the organization is now facing the consequences. This form of cheating orchestrated by players and the coaching staff will forever tarnish the franchise's name and put an asterisk beside their championship title, whether we believe it actually impacted the team's results or not.

A recent conspiracy has suggested that the Astros players have gone as far as wearing buzzers under their uniforms to subtly get notified of what the pitcher was throwing. While it's easy to get riled up over every image of a ripple in a jersey, MLB has found no evidence to verify these claims, but that hasn't stopped the baseball world from speculating. This debate may not ever get put to rest and is a topic for a different time as we explore the fantasy implications from the fallout of these scandals.

Other than watching Jomboy's entertaining videos on YouTube, it's difficult to determine exactly when and how much this advantage truly aided the Houston offense over the past three seasons. Knowing what pitch is coming doesn't necessarily mean it will be a hanging slider or a juicy changeup over the plate every time. Players still have to react in the split second whether or not to swing and still be able to put the barrel on the ball. The one thing we do know is that they primarily gained their unfair advantage at Minute Maid Park, so we'll dive into the individual player's home/road splits to find any evidence that could impact their fantasy value for the 2020 season.

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Alex Bregman (3B/SS, 8.8 ADP)

Alex Bregman played his first full season in 2017 and has improved every year statistically, including in plate discipline metrics. He's only one of a few players that walked more than he struck out last year, but his 5.2% BB%-K% was the best mark among all big leaguers. Bregman's numbers have unsurprisingly followed suit at home every year, but looking at the chart below, they've seen slightly better growth on the road.

Slash Line HR Walk Rate K-Rate Pull% Hard%
Home .285/.388/.509 41 13.3% 13.1% 45.4% 37.1%
Road .292/.394/.556 50 13.4% 13.1% 45.7% 38.2%

A batter should be more inclined to pull the ball and hit it harder if he knows what's coming, but this wasn't the case for Bregman, who posted slightly superior away numbers. There's not enough here to significantly bump the 25-year-old down the draft board as he seems to be developing as a top-tier major-league hitter genuinely.

 

Jose Altuve (2B, 31.9 ADP)

Perhaps the most controversial Astros batter that has stemmed from "buzzer-gate" is local fan favorite Jose Altuve. After swatting the walk-off home run in Game 6 of the ALCS against the Yankees, the former AL MVP has turned baseball fans into professional lip readers doing our best Sherlock Holmes impression as we rewatch the footage of him crossing home plate.

Altuve has possessed strong plate discipline metrics since entering the league in 2011, but didn't show much for power slugging just 19 bombs from 2012-2014. He saw gradual success with 15 in '15 and 24 in '16, but doubters will always question how a player 5'6" in stature could slug 31 long balls in 124 games last season. Part of it has to do with a different conspiracy, which involves a juiced ball that seen home run records get shattered across MLB, and the other part is for you to decide by looking at the data below.

Slash Line HR Walk Rate K-Rate Pull% Hard%
Home .306/.372/.608 18 9.2% 13.4% 48.3% 38.8%
Road .291/.336/.500 13 5.9% 16.4% 51.6% 42.5%

Altuve undoubtedly produced better home numbers in 2019, especially in regards to plate discipline, despite lagging batted ball metrics. He's posted superior road splits up until this season, so this could be the law of averages evening itself out, or there could be some foul play involved. If you side with the latter, then a decline in power numbers could mean a better return in stolen bases providing his legs are fully healthy in 2020. Whatever you believe in, the fact is Altuve is still one of the best hitters at the position, but I wouldn't fault anyone for fading him in drafts since he'll be on the wrong side of 30 this May.

 

Yordan Alvarez (OF/UT, 39.2 ADP)

Yordan Alvarez stormed onto the scene in 2019, bashing 27 dingers and 78 RBI in 87 games helping him take home the AL Rookie of the Year trophy. The hulking slugger crushed pitchers at every minor league stop, so it wasn't surprising to see him keep the momentum going in his first taste of the majors. The chart below shows Alvarez produced much better results at home, but his batted ball metrics didn't particularly stand out, so it's not as conclusive to say a form of cheating helped the youngster.

Slash Line HR Walk Rate K-Rate Pull% Hard%
Home .349/.441/.699 14 13.8% 23.1% 38.5% 51.6%
Road .272/.379/.605 13 14.4% 28.2% 38.4% 50.5%

It would do nothing beneficial for Alvarez's professional development as a big-league hitter for the Astros to tell him what pitch was upcoming. He definitely wouldn't have received help in the minors, and his .212 home BA in the postseason should assure you they didn't try to gain an edge with him when the stakes were highest. Alvarez is one of baseball's brightest power/average hitters of years to come, and if anything, should get nudged up draft boards.

 

George Springer (OF, 41.8 ADP)

George Springer has provided the Astros with a stable leadoff hitter for the last handful of seasons, with it leading up to a career year in 2019. He established new highs across the board with a .292/.383/.591 slash line, 39 homers, and 96 RBI. Springer's next best season came in 2017, where he clubbed 34 round-trippers to a crisp .283 BA, but is it a coincidence his most productive seasons have occurred during this cheating era or can we chalk it up to development?

Slash Line HR Walk Rate K-Rate Pull% Hard%
Home .280/.364/.503 46 10.2% 18.5% 39.6% 36.4%
Road .279/.366/.521 49 11.4% 19.8% 40.9% 39.8%

Judging by the splits, it appears Springer was as good, if not better away from the juice box over the previous three seasons. He was even better on the road during the 2019 campaign with a 3.7% K%-BB% and 21 HR away from Minute Maid compared to a 13.4% K%-BB% and 18 HR at home. Entering his age-30 season, the former World Series MVP shouldn't receive a fantasy downgrade as a player that significantly relies on sign stealing.

 

Carlos Correa (SS, 91.4 ADP)

Carlos Correa has had a difficult time staying healthy despite his ripe age of 25, but he's proven to have an impactful bat whenever he's on the field. His 162-game pace since the beginning of the 2017 campaign translates to 33 HR, 115 RBI and a .278 BA, but how much faith can we put in these results? By looking at his splits, it still doesn't show us anything egregious that can say one way or another that sign-stealing aided the shortstop.

Slash Line HR Walk Rate K-Rate Pull% Hard%
Home .277/.363/.499 29 12.0% 22.3% 37.0% 34.1%
Road .279/.353/.504 31 10.3% 21.6% 31.6% 39.5%

Correa produced a much higher pull-rate at home, but didn't hit the ball nearly as hard as what we'd expect from a player with knowledge of the pitch. His plate discipline was comparable while he displayed less power at home even though Minute Maid Park ranked third in HR Park Factor for right-handed bats in 2019. Correa's inability to stay on the field should be the only reason to bump him down your draft list for the 2020 season.

 

Yuli Gurriel (1B/3B, 117 ADP)

Yuli Gurriel played his first full season in the bigs in 2017 after years of success in the Cuban leagues. He's shown a tremendous ability to put the ball in play by keeping low strikeout and walk rates throughout his short career, but his 31-HR season in 2019 draws some curiosity. After clubbing 31 big flies over his first two seasons combined, can we blame Gurriel's outburst last season on sign stealing or perhaps a possible juiced ball?

Slash Line HR Walk Rate K-Rate Pull% Hard% Fly-Ball Rate HR/FB
Home .311/.351/.615 19 5.4% 12.2% 45.4% 41.4% 37.9% 22.1%
Road .287/.336/.479 12 6.6% 9.3% 45.3% 36.3% 40.6% 10.6%

Gurriel undoubtedly had more success in the power department at home last season thanks to an elevated HR/FB that doubled his away number. This production also sky-rocketed above his career 11.0% HR/FB at home that he held at the beginning of the season. His pull rate remained the same, but it's a bit odd to see his plate discipline numbers suffer at home. Perhaps Gurriel's potential knowledge of the pitch made him more aggressive, but seeing how he's never shown much power at all before this season; I'm more skeptical of a pre-2019 baseball impacting his 2020 performance.

 

Michael Brantley (OF, 127.1 ADP)

Michael Brantley joined the Astros for the 2019 campaign and provided sterling results with a .311 BA and 22 homers as a heart of the order bat. His success as a big-leaguer dates back to his days with the Indians, where he established a commendable 10.7% K-rate, 7.8% walk rate, and a .295 BA after 10 years with the organization. Brantley's home/away splits show he continued producing at the same rate before joining the club last offseason.

Slash Line HR Walk Rate K-Rate Pull% Hard%
Home .312/.375/.509 12 8.1% 10.4% 42.3% 40.3%
Road .311/.369/.497 10 7.9% 10.4% 38.1% 43.0%

As you could have guessed, there's nothing to suggest that Brantley was dependant on knowing what delivery was coming his way in 2019 other than a small increase in pull rate. The 32-year-old has shown tremendous year-to-year consistency, despite a couple of injury-shortened seasons, and is a near-lock to keep producing at a high level in 2020.

 

Conclusion

What the Houston Astros did to gain an edge in 2017 (and anything possibly after) is impermissible and a travesty to the game that we all love and enjoy. While there were certainly times that the players benefitted from knowing the pitches, the stats show they didn't necessarily need to rely on the intel to help them win 101 games and the World Series in 2017. This scandal overshadows the dynamic talent that these hitters still possess, but at the same time casts darkness on each individual's integrity as an honest ball player and human being.

As far as devaluing the hitters in this lineup, there's not enough in the numbers to give them a downgrade for fantasy purposes. I'd feel less confident about a player leaving Coors Field or the impending return of a non-doctored baseball in 2020 to impact a player's season than Jose Altuve not knowing how to hit a slider anymore because no one told him it was coming.

We can all have our opinions and biases about this scandal, but the damage is done, and we can't change the outcome of what history has created. MLB has persevered through the Black Sox, pine tar, and steroids, and will now focus on putting these events in the rearview mirror. If it were up to me, all players involved in the trash can method of cheating would have also received a steep penalty. Instead, they will feel the wrath from fans and opposing teams throughout the 2020 season and beyond, which may be punishment enough.

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