GM's OFFICE: Projections, psychology, and the Astros scandal

On an episode of the TGFBI podcast in mid-January, it was the first question I got asked. Earlier that day, MLB had released the report on the Astros sign-stealing scandal that had confirmed earlier reporting of the trash-can-banging scheme. The day’s news revolved around the suspension, then firing, of Houston GM Jeff Luhnow and Manager A.J. Hinch (though curiously, the plan was characterized as entirely player-driven). But the question was fair enough, given what we do here:

Will you be adjusting the 2020 player projections given what we now know about the Astros?

My answer was “No,” and the reasoning was the same as it’s been for our response to the PED era, or the 2020 Rabbit Ball, or any one of a number of similar factors that occur “outside” of a player’s skillset—most of which we find out after the fact. My reasoning has been that the amount of the effect of this “outside force” has on a player’s performance is not quantifiable. And if it’s not quantifiable, then any adjustment we would make on a player’s projection would merely be guesswork. 

For (a ridiculously simple) example: Sure, Brady Anderson hit 50 HR at age 32 in 1996 after averaging 15.5 HR the four seasons prior. If those extra HR were a result of PEDs (unquantifiable assumption #1), just how many of them were due to a performance enhancer (unquantifiable assumption #2)? Even if we knew that going into 1997, there would be no way of reliably accounting for it in our 1997 projection.

So my answer to the question about our 2020 projections given the Astros scandal followed similar logic. In many ways, I feel sign-stealing has parallels to the PED era. Players are always looking for any edge they can get. They thrive—and have already succeeded, given their place among the world’s best—in a competitive environment, and in the midst of that drive to improve, sometimes that moral line becomes fuzzy. That doesn’t excuse the behavior, but gives some reasoning for it. 

There is a big difference between PEDs and a real-time, technology-aided sign-stealing scheme, however. The PED issue, when it’s distilled down, is one player making one decision. Yes, there are a multitude of other factors, but still the decision to willingly take a performance enhancing drug is still solitary. For the Astros, it’s not a solo game. The team benefits from individual performances (again, assuming they get an edge), but in some sense they are working together. Stealing signs and communicating to the batter what pitches are coming between the moment the catcher gives the sign and the pitcher delivers a pitch is not something one player is able to do entirely on his own. And in that case, it makes it even more difficult to specifically isolate just what the exact advantage is, which would make our performance projection adjustment credible.

However, with all that has transpired between the MLB’s release of the report and the opening of camps, I think things have shifted. Now, I feel there’s an argument to be made that while it might be disingenuous to make a quantifiable adjustment to our projections, there’s a psychological risk factor at work that we might want to consider as we enter draft season.

Given how the Astros have collectively responded to the report/suspensions/aftermath over the past month—with the most recent data point being Thursday’s press conference—I think it’s fair to wonder if their 2020 hitter projections, and maybe even the pitcher projections, now take on another layer of risk. 

One way we here at BaseballHQ signify risk is via our Reliability Ratings, a three-part grading system that examines a player’s Health, Experience and Consistency over the past few seasons. On the A-F letter grade scale, we rate these different elements separately, but the upshot is that the lower the grades a player compiles in these sections (compounded if there's more than one), the less confidence we have in that player’s projection due to increased risk. 

The psychological risk of the current Astros, however, is not based on their number of DL days over the past season, or the consistency of their numbers each year, but rather on the potential toll that the cheating scandal will have over the course of the 2020 season, and as a byproduct, on individual player production. 

Admittedly, this is a different way of thinking about risk and projections here at BaseballHQ. Usually, when evaluating players’ season-long performance, we stay out of the psychological element and keep our projections practical and strive for them to be “objective.” Again, things that can be measured, specifically in the pitcher vs. batter matchups that take place throughout the season. One of the reasons we strive to stay out of more subjective issues during our projection is that we never know the full story on any given player in real-time. 

For instance, this cheating scandal—no one knew its depth until recently, several years after the height of its implementation. Or the PED epidemic; we only found out about that definitively years after. Additionally, more traditional ways we’ve thought about this topic have been, how does a player’s home life affect his preparation? What hidden injuries are taking more toll that we know? Are family matters that are causing him to lose concentration? In sum, there is just no way of us or any other projection model understanding and adjusting for these factors in real-time. 

But in this instance—the enormity of the Astros sign-stealing scheme—could well have an effect on the 2020 season, and we still have a chance to adjust. What we are suggesting is that fantasy players might want to consider how the collective weight the recent revelations could affect Houston players’ performance. Granted, this is an extrapolation exercise, but as we think specifically about 2020, let’s itemize what we know that could have an effect on any given Astros player’s psyche:

• Despite all their gains in putting modern analytics to use to build a winning team, the Astros organizational climate seems less than optimal. The most recent example is Thursday’s opening-of-camp press conference, which was largely seen as a disaster from an accountability standpoint. A pre-scandal example is the team’s initial soft-pedal response to former assistant GM Brandon Taubman’s lewd outburst to a group of female reporters after the team won the 2019 ALCS. In short, this team has not recently been good at public relations when it’s under stress; the players are the on-the-field representatives and it’s conceivable that the environment affects them negatively, also. 

• Players will get asked about video feeds, banging trash cans, buzzers and broken TV monitors all season long. On every road trip to a new city, that will be the story that journalists will want to write. Of course players still on the team from 2017 will get questioned, but also those on the 2020 team will hear and be around it every day. It’s a reality-show storyline that emotes a visceral reaction from fans and even other players. References may slow down as the season wears on, but they will not entirely go away. There will be an undercurrent of the scandal around the clubhouse for all of 2020. Will the players be able to normalize this as they go about their business of playing baseball games? 

• Opposing fans at every other stadium will be outraged at the Astros. If you drew up a reason to hate an opponent, this scandal is silver-platter material. The team delivers on one of the oldest (and mostly unfounded) accusations in the rivalry book: that a team who won a championship is tainted because they cheated. Again, the PED comparison is worth making. It’s one thing for home fans to razz a visiting Barry Bonds for involvement in PEDs. That’s one individual player; teammates can find ways to block it out. But here, when a whole stadium can legitimately spew vitriol at the team as a whole for an undeniable transgression that was part of a championship victory? That’s some serious pressure for individual players to work through.

• The cheating will be a season-long reference point no matter what the Astros do on the field. Say they falter or go through a slump early on … or worse yet, fall short of expectations. The narrative will be either a) they were never that good anyway and are now paying for their deal with the devil, or b) the pressure of trying to play through such a scandal is taking its toll. Alternatively, if they play well, stories will be how they “conquered” this roadblock, overcame adversity, or, worst of all, How do we know they’re not still doing it? The point is that by the nature of this scandal, it will become a natural reference point for the 2020 season. Fueling more all the more questions through the season's entirety. 

• We have no idea just how on-the-field opponents will react. Will the other team just refuse to comment during pre-game interviews? Will they answer, but be pointed in their words? And potentially worst of all, will they physically retaliate against the Astros on the field? We’re seeing threads of this already from players around the game, and we’re not yet halfway through February. The Mike Bolsinger lawsuit; the stories of Chris Archer, Seth Lugo, and likely many more who got bombed in a visit to Minute Maid, and whose results from those visits permanently remain a part of the recordbooks. My hunch is that more of these narratives will continue to come to the fore. And that’s just “off” the field. What if a wronged pitcher takes it upon himself to “pitch inside” towards Astros hitters? If (or once) that cycle begins, who’s to say where it stops? This is yet another important layer of pressure that all Astros players will likely have to navigate in 2020 that could affect results on the field.

• The Astros overcompensate on the field. Players try to prove that they personally are above the scandal, but end up pressing so much that the delicate intensity/natural talent equilibrium is broken. Yes, some athletes could use this situation to drive them to further success … but can everyone handle that? The scandal's tentacles add one more layer of self-pressure that could results in players choking on their own expectations. More specifically, what happens when Alex Bregman or Jose Altuve or any hitter goes into a slump? He’ll likely need to get used to responses related to how much more difficult hitting is when one doesn’t know what pitch is coming. Players "pressing" when they are slumping is a common problem; it will be compounded for the Astros given their situation.

And really, the list could go on, especially if (or as) more details on this specific scheme emerge. It is this sense of uncertainty that makes me wonder if we should all be adding some additional element of risk into our projections for all of the Astros players.

We’re in this rare state where we have some facts, know some parts of the story, and yet can make real-time adjustments (even subjective ones) in terms of player projections. We can imagine how the psychological factors of this situation, as outlined above, could well affect player performance in the season ahead. The evidence calls us to think about player risk in a broad sense—extending it to a whole MLB team—rather than assigning risk in terms of the likelihood of Player A meeting or not meeting his projection. 

Is the case enough to say "no" to rostering Josh Reddick? To rostering George Springer? How about Alex Bregman? Granted, these are world-class athletes—in so many ways, not like you and me—and maybe their mental toughness allows them to shut out (and/or shut down) the outside forces that will shadow them throughout the 2020 season. Perhaps they will fully reach their projections on the field. 

Or, maybe each player’s humanity, the way in which he responds to a mountain of psychological stress—just like you and me—takes it toll, and affects their on-the-job performance this season. In February, this risk can’t be quantified. 

But it must be considered. 

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  For more information about the terms used in this article, see our Glossary Primer.