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Did the Astros’ sign-stealing knock a few Orioles pitchers out of orbit?

Even if the Orioles of 2017-19 weren’t exactly threatening to steal any titles, at the individual player level, it’s less clear that the cheating had no ill effects.

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MLB: MAY 28 Orioles at Astros
Spoiler Alert: this Alec Asher start would turn out as ugly as these 2017 Memorial Day-themed uniforms.
Photo by Leslie Plaza Johnson/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

I know, I know—we’re all sick to death of the Houston Astros’ cheating scandal: we’ve got to get on with our lives, move forward, turn the other cheek. But between MLB’s decision not to punish any players for acts that may well have forever tainted the 2017 World Series (hey, at least Pete Rose sees the irony), the astonishingly harsh words for what the Astros did coming out of soft-spoken guys like Nick Markakis, and a still-steady trickle of details emerging on how long and how deep the scheme ran, I’m not convinced it’s time yet for business as usual.

Three days ago, Bleacher Report ran a startling piece on pitchers who’d had terrible outings against the Astros in 2017 and 2018, and later reflected on what had happened. One of those guys was current Orioles righty Alex Cobb, then an eight-year veteran in his best career season for the Tampa Bay Rays. On July 31, 2017, Cobb took the mound against the Astros and got walloped, giving up eight runs and nine hits in three innings in a 14-7 blowout. According to data from Sign Stealing Scandal, a website that tracks the number of Houston trash can bangs in a given game, the Astros “were whaling away” that night, including 20 bangs with Cobb on the mound and 19 more against his likewise doomed successor, Chase Whitley.

Looking back, Cobb was particularly appalled at the fact that the Astros showed “no mercy,” banging well into the late innings of blowout games—probably, he guessed, to “jack up” hitters’ statistics. In my opinion, even worse is the fact that after these games, the ‘Stros would sometimes go up to pitchers and try to convince them they were tipping their pitches. One of them did it to Cobb, prompting a panic about his mechanics. “He wouldn’t tell me what it was,” Cobb said, of a player he declined to name. “He just told me it was something with my glove.” There you have it: not only did the Astros cheat, they shamelessly gaslit losing pitchers to cover their tracks.

Cobb, of course, would be fine, inking a generous four-year contract after the ordeal. (OK, in fairness, Orioles fans are still waiting to see how that one plays out.) But for other guys, the beating endured at the hands of the Astros was tantamount to a one-and-done. The guy who relieved Cobb in that fateful game, Chase Whitley, was optioned to the minors that same night, and made just eleven big-league appearances after that. The Athletic has tracked nine other pitchers who were blown out by the Astros and demoted soon after. One of them, well-known to Camden Chatters, is ex-Oriole Tyler Wilson, optioned the day after giving up three hits and one earned run in 1.1 innings against Houston on May 27, 2017. He made one more appearance on July 4, 2017, and hasn’t appeared in a major league game since. He’s currently pitching for the LG Twins of the Korean Baseball Organization.

That got me wondering: what other Orioles hurlers were laid low by the Astros cheating machine? Between 2017 and 2018, the Orioles faced the Astros in Minute Maid Park on six occasions.

Orioles-Astros Games Played in Houston Between 2017 and 2018

Date Result Pitchers Notable Performances Repercussions, if any
Date Result Pitchers Notable Performances Repercussions, if any
May 26, 2017 L 0-2 Kevin Gausman, Mychal Givens Gausman (6.2 IP, 2 R)
May 27, 2017 L 2-5 Wade Miley, Tyler Wilson, Richard Bleier, Darren O'Day Miley (5 IP, 4 R), Wilson (1.1 IP, 1 R) Wilson optioned 5/28, DFA'd 9/1/17
May 28, 2017 L 4-8 Alec Asher, Ubaldo Jimenez Asher (2 IP, 6 R), Jimenez (6 IP, 2 R) Asher optioned 7/2, DFA'd 3/28/19
April 2, 2018 L 1-6 Chris Tillman, Miguel Castro, Richard Bleier, Darren O'Day Tillman (4 IP, 4 R), Castro (2 IP, 1 R), Bleier (1 IP, 1 R) Tillman DFA'd 7/20 (?)
April 3, 2018 L 6-10 Mike Wright, Mychal Givens, Pedro Araujo, Nestor Cortes, Jr. Wright (5 IP, 3 R), Givens (1IP, 2 R), Araujo (0.2 IP, 4 R), Cortes (1.1 IP, 1 R) Cortes DFA'd 4/10, Araujo DFA'd 4/3/19 (?)
April 4, 2018 L 2-3 Dylan Bundy, Miguel Castro, Brad Brach Bundy (6 IP, 2 R), Castro (1 IP, 1 R)

Unfortunately, the Sign Stealing site only has bang data for one of the six games. (Anyone want to comb through the game footage for the remaining five and count bangs?) But, still, interesting. That game was on May 28, 2017, where the Orioles lost 8-4, mostly on the strength of one bad inning. After a clean first where the trash can made it out only once (helping George Springer foul off a curveball), things spun out of control for Orioles righty Alec Asher (remember him?) in a second inning where ten Astros came to the plate and scored six runs on six hits. (And eighteen bangs.)

First, cleanup hitter Carlos Correa saw this sequence: cutter [bang bang], curveball [bang], and cutter [bang]—single. Three bangs later, Carlos Beltran walked. Evan Gattis struck out on five straight fastballs (no bangs). Marwin Gonzalez and Yuli Gurriel (bangless) both doubled off of Asher fastballs. Nori Aoki saw six pitches, heard three bangs, then rolled over a changeup. Springer stepped up again, saw five pitches (four bangs), and took a fastball deep into the stands. Josh Reddick fouled off a fastball, then tripled off a curveball. Altuve (bangless) singled. Finally, Correa grounded out to end Asher’s miserable night and bring on Ubaldo Jimenez, who staunched the bleeding—mostly—with six innings of two-run (and ten-bang) ball. Asher made three more starts for the Orioles in 2017, got optioned to Triple-A on July 2, and after some appearances out of the bullpen, got cut for good in March 2018.

To draw some sort of conclusions from all of this, it’d be hard to say that poor showings against Houston ruined the careers of the otherwise-promising Wilson, Asher, Cortes Jr., and Araujo. (Only two of them—Cortes Jr., on the Mariners’ 40-man, and Asher, now trying to win a bullpen spot with the Twins—are still in big-league baseball.) But it’s not crazy to think that these outings may have shortened those careers, even, perhaps, for a declining Chris Tillman. Furthermore, the MLB minimum salary in 2017 was $535,000, with players on pro-rated contracts making about $3,300 per game. Now compare that to the $12,000 or so that some minor-league pitchers were making in a season, and you can see how premature demotions are far from trivial. (This, incidentally, is the theory driving one pitcher to sue the Houston Astros for lost wages.)

Again, these guys weren’t aces in the making. “Ain’t nobody cares about Chase Whitley. I get it,” says Cobb’s former Rays teammate, brushing away attempts at sympathy. But as flash-in-the-pans like Whitley know, the Astros didn’t just do it to the fringe guys. They did it to everybody, including a lot of hard-working guys who might have hoped for better. Thanks to the great sign-stealing scandal, there may be many failed or marginal big-leaguers out there wondering right about now, what might have been.