Some forms of cheating are just part of baseball. Like a pitcher subtly, or not so subtly, applying a foreign substance to the ball on the mound between every pitch. Yet someone with a blob of pine tar on their arm or neck or glove will get inspected and ejected from the game every once and a while.
Even more, certain types of sign stealing are okay — like a baserunner relaying signs to a hitter — but MLB bans the use of technology as a means to do so. Back in February of 2019 the commissioner’s office even tightened the rules limiting technology available to clubs in-game. The same Tom Verducci article revealed that “about six teams [in 2018] were commonly understood to have installed in-house cameras in center field that were trained on opposing catchers’ signs, according to one general manager. Several other teams were under heavy suspicion.”
On Monday, MLB handed down some of the harshest punishment ever for electronic sign-stealing and the after effects sent shockwaves through baseball. Between the Astros and Red Sox, two managers and a general manager ended up losing their jobs. Some people are even calling for the Astros to be stripped of their 2017 World Series title, worried that the outcome of meaningful games had been affected.
Which brings us to the Orioles — facing a continual uphill climb, to put it mildly — who haven’t played in any meaningful games since 2017. But they have played the Astros since then, albeit sparingly. So now seems like as good a time as any to look back a few years at the O’s-Astros history alongside the trajectory of the Houston cheating operation.
The Orioles last made the playoffs in 2016 under the direction of Buck Showalter and Dan Duquette. They went 89-73 during the regular season, including a 1-6 record against the Astros that included a -15 run differential.
The O’s ended up losing to the Blue Jays in the wild card game. Based on the timeline laid out in this Mike Axisa piece, that was the season before the Astros implemented their sign-stealing scheme, which lasted until sometime during the 2018 season.
Back in 2016 before everything started, the Orioles actually fared pretty well against the Astros in Houston. The ‘Stros may have had a .869 OPS in seven total games against the O’s, but at Minute Maid Park they only hit .208/.257/.434 with a .691 OPS, allowing Baltimore pitchers to put up a 3.21 ERA and 1.04 WHIP over the course of three games in hostile territory.
In the Astros’ World Series title year, 2017, the Orioles went 1-5 against the would-be champs with a -12 run differential. The O’s were swept in Houston in late May, getting outscored 15-6 in three games, which capped off a seven game losing streak that saw their record fall from 25-16 to 25-23.
Houston’s lineup did very well against Baltimore that year with a .952 OPS in 219 total at-bats, which included a batting line of .317/.355/.545 with an even .900 OPS at Minute Maid Park. Oriole pitching had a 5.63 ERA and 1.50 WHIP in those three games down in Texas.
After sneaking into the playoffs and getting eliminated immediately the year before, 2017 wound up being a bigger disappointment for the O’s, who finished 12 games below .500 at 75-87. And we all know how 2017 ended for the Astros...
According to Houston Astros cheating scandal: 10 things we learned..., the Astros started the 2018 season with the sign-stealing system in place but did not finish it that way. It’s unknown exactly when during the year they stopped.
Since the Orioles played their second series of the season in Houston in 2018, I think it’s safe to assume the Astros hadn’t ditched their little operation yet. The O’s lost those three games at Minute Maid Park by the way, getting outscored 19-9.
Houston hit .238/.323/.413 with a .735 OPS against the Orioles in 223 total at-bats. But at Minute Maid, the Astros hit .295/.378/.495 with a .873 OPS. In those three games, covering 24 innings, the O’s pitchers allowed 28 hits and 19 runs (18 earned).
So why am I sitting here complaining about a few meaningless games between a downtrodden franchise and a powerhouse the last couple of years? A lot of people will say it doesn’t matter. The Orioles were terrible those years so the Astros would have decimated them either way, cheating or no cheating.
Did any of it really matter in terms of helping the Astros beat the Orioles or any other team? You be the judge.