The Houston Astros spent this week’s All-Star Break being reminded that they’re a long way from escaping the cheating scandal that rattles behind them like a string of empty tin cans. Meanwhile, in Houston, rationalizations run deep: the Astros weren’t the only team doing it, the Astros were scapegoats, you name it. Outside of the Bayou City, fans render a harsher assessment: the Astros would not have won the 2017 World Series without illegally stealing signs, and everything they’ve accomplished before or since is diminished.
Is this fair? Sure, it is.
The Astros opened the door to accusations that they may have used hidden buzzers, electronic bandages, and tiny listening devices because, well, that’s life when you’ve destroyed your good name. Never mind that there’s zero evidence the Astros continued to cheat after the firing of manager A. J. Hinch and hiring of Dusty Baker in January 2020. The Astros have continued to win, getting within one victory of their third World Series appearance in four seasons last fall.
Now, at 55–36, Houston leads the Oakland A’s by three and a half games in the American League West, and the team appears to be cruising toward a fifth straight postseason appearance—its sixth in seven years. The Astros open the post–All-Star Break portion of their schedule on Friday against the White Sox in Chicago, after a week in which the sign-stealing controversy hung over the franchise like a boiling thundercloud.
For the first time ever, the Astros did not have a player representing the franchise at the MLB All-Star Game, which the American League won 5–2 Tuesday night in Denver. Four Houston players were selected, but all four opted out. Shortstop Carlos Correa and reliever Ryan Pressly stayed home with expectant wives, while second baseman José Altuve and outfielder Michael Brantley skipped the Midsummer Classic to rest injuries. Had any of them gone to Colorado for the game, they would have been peppered with questions about sign-stealing and pressured to provide substantive answers in ways they’ve avoided since the Athletic broke the story in November 2019.
Pressly and Brantley weren’t even on the 2017 team, so perhaps national media covering the All-Star Game would have given them a pass. But Altuve and Correa would have faced relentless questioning, especially coming off a weekend series in which the Yankees and Astros engaged in some spectacular trolling. When Yankees outfielder Aaron Judge homered in New York’s 1–0 win over Houston Saturday, he clutched the top of his jersey as if to protect it from being torn off during a home plate celebration.
That gesture was Judge’s way of letting the Astros know he remembered how the 2019 American League Championship Series ended. As Altuve circled the bases after a walk-off homer that clinched the pennant in game six, he wrapped his hands around the top of his jersey to prevent teammates from ripping it off. Altuve’s action led to speculation he’d been wearing an electronic buzzer that signaled what pitch was coming. Judge played coy when he was asked about his callback gesture, saying with a smile that it just happened to be cold in Minute Maid Park last weekend.
In the following day’s game, things got crazy. When Astros catcher Martin Maldonado homered, he pulled down the top of his shirt to reveal he had nothing to hide.
The Astros, who trailed 2–7 entering the bottom of the ninth inning, rallied to win the game 8–7, capped off by another Altuve walk-off home run—and this time, his Houston teammates ripped his shirt off at home plate as part of the celebration.
During All-Star festivities, when a reporter suggested to Judge that Altuve and Correa didn’t show to avoid booing, the Yankees slugger demurred: “You said it, not me. I’m not too sure. I’m not in their shoes.” Only the drama didn’t stop there. A’s starter Chris Bassitt—whose teammate, former Astro Mike Fiers, was the first to speak publicly about the sign-stealing—played down the cheating, saying virtually every team was trying to do something.
Those comments were a reminder—whether or not you think it’s fair—that the scandal will hover over everything this generation of Astros teams accomplishes. In different circumstances, this franchise would be heralded for its smarts, innovation, grit, and ability to maintain success over an extended period of time. In those terms, they’re the very definition of a great franchise.
And this season, the success has continued. The Astros are a joy to watch—as they have been for years. In the last seven seasons, they’ve won 21 more regular-season games—565 and counting—than the next-closest American League franchise, in this case the New York Yankees with 544. In this same stretch, the Astros have won 36 postseason games, which is twice as many as any other AL team, with the Yankees again coming in second with 18.
And this season’s team may be the most remarkable of all. Despite a massive amount of roster turnover, young players have stepped up and helped the Astros keep winning, without missing a beat. In 2019 and 2020, respectively, stars Gerrit Cole and George Springer departed via free agency. Two-time Cy Young–winning pitcher Justin Verlander has missed the entire season while recovering from elbow surgery. Two-time All-Star third baseman Alex Bregman, also injured, has missed a third of the season.
Only three current Astros—Altuve, Correa, and Lance McCullers Jr.—remain from the 2015 playoff team that broke Houston’s nine-season streak of missing the playoffs—and occasionally being among the worst teams in baseball. (Catcher Jason Castro, who was on the 2015 roster, returned this season after playing for three other clubs in the interim.) In the four years prior to the 2015 turnaround, the Astros averaged 104 losses a season.
Only six Astros remain from the 2017 World Series champions (including the injured Verlander and Bregman), and the roster has been rebuilt on the fly. Designated hitter Yordan Álvarez and outfielder Kyle Tucker, both 24, are two of MLB’s best offensive players. Myles Straw and Chas McCormick, who are 26, have taken advantage of their first meaningful opportunities for playing time. The Astros lead the majors in runs, with at least twenty more than any other team. They’re also first in batting average (.269) and on-base percentage (.344). In an offensive era dominated by strikeouts and home runs, the Astros are the exception. Their 672 strikeouts are the fewest in the majors. Likewise, the Astros’ pitchers have a collective 3.60 earned-run average—third-best in the American League—thanks to a rebuilt rotation led by homegrown hurlers Framber Valdez, José Urquidy, and Luis García.
But Houston has its weaknesses. Unless general manager James Click can acquire reinforcements for a shaky bullpen, his starters will likely wear down over the second half of the season. Concerns over relief pitching aside, though, these Astros have passed every other test. Verlander and Bregman aren’t the team’s only injured stars. Brantley, Altuve, and Correa have also missed chunks of time. After announcing he would not play in the All-Star Game, Correa was placed on the injured list due to health and safety protocols, which means he was likely either exposed to COVID-19 or tested positive himself.
Despite those setbacks, FanGraphs projects the Astros to win 95 games and finish 7 games ahead of Oakland in the AL West standings. Only the Dodgers are expected to notch more wins (98), according to the site.
It hasn’t always been pretty, but the Astros have handled the persistent boos during road games perfectly. They’ve avoided engaging in any sort of debate over the team’s previous sins. Instead, they’ve chosen to answer questions with their play. That’s smart, because play is the one thing the team can control. The suspicions and drama and controversy will linger and continue to hound Houston and its fans—perhaps more than is ultimately warranted—but as uncomfortable as the boo-birds can make life for the Astros, the hecklers can’t stop this team from winning.