The Athletic’s Evan Drellich and Ken Rosenthal reported on Nov. 12 that the Houston Astros had used technology to steal signs in 2017. They had installed a camera in centre field to watch the opposing catcher’s signs to the pitcher; someone in the dugout would then bang a garbage can loudly to alert their own hitters as to what pitch was coming. Stealing signs is acceptable if teams can pick up the patterns on their own but using cameras is a step too far. The Astros wanted to win baseball games, but they ignored competitive spirit to do so. The “win-at-all-costs” mentality has a long history in sports, and, more recently, it has been a big factor in ruining them.
About 30 years ago, Sports Illustrated writer Daniel Okrent invented Walks and Hits per Inning Pitched (WHIP), a statistic to assess pitcher performance. Okrent could calculate the statistic by hand, given the easy mathematics. He checked box scores every morning for his rotisserie fantasy baseball league—the first ever—in which friends drafted teams in order to see who would be the best baseball general manager. This story, in and of itself, was okay: They were simply friends having fun.
However, fantasy baseball, and fantasy sports more broadly, have transformed from fun into a cruel money-making machine. Startups DraftKings and FanDuel turned it into a daily game to win money. In daily fantasy sports, players are assigned monetary values and managers must put together the best lineup while staying under the salary cap. The Astros first hired their now-former Assistant General Manager Brandon Taubman because of his Ivy League credentials and a financially successful fantasy sports endeavour. He, like many savvy mathematicians, created algorithms to exploit matchups.
“Sometimes there were mispricings,” Taubman said to The Athletic in 2018. “One of the big advantages was paying attention to which players were mispriced and taking advantage of that.”
The rhetoric in baseball media has since matched the way we talked about fantasy sports to the point where fans no longer discuss the ins-and-outs of good play on the field. Instead, we debate whether that team should have made a trade or whether a player is a “valuable asset.” Most fans are not on the players’ side. In a sense, they are general managers in their own minds. As a result, real baseball has become such a fantasy to some that they forget that real people are involved, both on and off the field.
This change in how we watch sports was highlighted during an outburst from Taubman after the Astros advanced to this year’s World Series.
“Thank god we got [Roberto] Osuna!” Taubman yelled to three female reporters. “I’m so f***ing glad we got Osuna!”
Osuna, the team’s closer, had just blown the save, but it is clear why Taubman yelled at who he did. Sports Illustrated’s Stephanie Apstein reported that Taubman directed his outburst at one reporter in particular who was wearing a domestic violence awareness bracelet. Osuna had been suspended for 75 games the year prior under the Domestic Violence Policy; the Astros acquired him in a trade from Toronto for a lessened cost due to his suspension. Taubman saw his new closer as a mispriced asset, rather than as a domestic abuser, and that is abhorrent.
The Astros’ leadership defended Taubman at first and issued a statement effectively calling Apstein’s report a false accusation. Yet, strong reporting won out, and the league began an investigation into the events. When others confirmed Apstein’s account, the Astros finally fired Taubman in what felt like a case of too little, too late.
The Houston organization is the prime example of a broken system. Teams are preoccupied with how to maximize their value—winning each and every game however they can—which neglects serious problems like players with histories of domestic violence. The Nov. 12 report exposing how the Astros stole signs in the year they won the World Series came out to much fanfare but no real surprise. Baseball’s human element has already gone missing.