One day toward the end of last year, Tony Adams sat down and started to craft a computer program that would do the unthinkable. It would prove that the Houston Astros — the same Houston Astros he had rooted for since 1977 — were cheaters.
What followed is perhaps the most methodical dive into the Astros’ sign-stealing scandal we’ve seen, and certainly the most methodical by an Astros fan. He listened to every pitch to an Astros batter in 58 home games, every game he could find audio for in 2017. That was 8,274 pitches he scoured, trying to find the banging noise that Astros hitters used to signal to their teammates in their now infamous cheating scheme. He spent 50 hours doing this, each one stripping away a bit of pride he had about that 2017 Astros championship. He found more than 1,100 bangs.
It was a diehard fan confronting his own worst nightmare.
“I was a little hesitant. I’m documenting my team cheating,” Adams told Yahoo Sports. “But in some ways, I wanted it to come from an Astros fan, so I knew it was honest.”
This is the biggest baseball scandal since the era of performance-enhancing drugs and battle lines have been drawn since the first story came out alleging the Astros’ scheme and the first video followed, basically proving what was being reported. By the time Major League Baseball handed down penalties against the Astros two weeks ago — a $5 million maximum fine, year-long suspensions for their manager and general manager that turned into firings from team owner Jim Crane, and the loss of draft picks — the baseball corner of the internet had turned into Houston vs. Everyone.
It wasn’t hard to find Astros apologists pointing fingers at other teams. But Adams, a 54-year-old web developer and graphic designer, retreated to a different corner. He sought his own answers.
“I was just wanting to know the scope of it,” Adams said. “Initially, I wasn’t trying to find anything or disprove anything. Anybody who saw the videos, it takes 30 seconds and you know. Yeah, they cheated. There’s no denying it.”
But he wanted to know even more — beyond what was being sleuthed out by people on Twitter and Reddit, many of them New York Yankees fans feeling wronged by their 2017 postseason loss. For this, Adams took a very scientific approach. Others, he figured, were working backward. They had determined the conclusion and were just looking for evidence to support it. He wanted to do something different.
His goal was to gather all the evidence and see what it told him.
What we learned about the Astros’ cheating
Adams published his findings Wednesday when he unveiled the website signstealingscandal.com, with game-by-game breakdowns, player data, graphs and downloadable data for other baseball data-crunchers to build on.
There are many takeaways from Adam’s research, most of which add context to what we already know from MLB’s report, but some of it — like which players seemed to benefit the most from the trash-can system — is new.
Adams says his aim was not to analyze the data as much as present it. It wasn’t about judging players, he said, but about knowing the truth.
But here’s some of the data that stands out:
The Astros didn’t really start using the 2017 trash-can system a lot until the end of May. In April games, Adams found between one and five bangs during entire games. On May 28, there were 28. By June 12, there were 36 bangs in a game.
By the end of June, the scheme was in full swing: 40 bangs on June 29, 44 on June 30. It peaked at 54 bangs on Aug. 4, a game the Astros won 16-7 against the Toronto Blue Jays.
Astros using cameras to steal signs, a breakdown pic.twitter.com/rncm6qzXxw— Jomboy (@Jomboy_) November 12, 2019
Sept. 21 is interesting because that’s the day White Sox pitcher Danny Farquhar noticed the bangs while on the pitchers’ mound. There were 41 that day. In three home games to finish the season after that, there were only two bangs total.
The players who heard bangs the most during their at-bats? Perhaps not who you’re expecting. According to Adams’ data, the list was topped by Marwin Gonzalez with 147 total bangs (or 18.9 percent of his pitches), while back-up players like Tyler White (26.4 percent), J.D. Davis (28.6 percent) and Max Stassi (25 percent) got the highest percentage of bangs. None of them remain with the Astros for 2020.
Jose Altuve, who was the American League MVP that season, was the lowest of the Astros’ star players at 2.8 percent, while Alex Bregman (16.6 percent), George Springer (14.9 percent) and Carlos Beltran (18.1 percent) were all considerably higher.
His Astros research process
This all started as what Adams called a “fun programming challenge” and then turned into a larger undertaking.
The first step was writing an application to download data from Statcast, MLB’s player- and pitch-tracking system. He downloaded videos from YouTube of Astros home games and synced up the data with the audio of the games. From there, he created a spectrogram that showed the audio frequencies surrounding each pitch.
Adams says he started to notice patterns in the banging. At first, he hadn’t assigned the data to individual Astros hitters, but decided that was an important element to add.
Once he got into the groove, he said he could go through an entire game in 15 minutes, listening for the bangs and logging the data. It’s important to note that his study was only about the trash-can bangs, because it was something he could account for in audio frequency. He couldn’t seek out data on whistling or buzzers or any of the other things the Astros are accused of doing. But looking for bangs proved to be enough work.
He started during the holidays when he had a few weeks off work, then finished his research in the mornings before work or at night before bed.
“I wouldn’t do it again because of the time involved,” Adams says. “I just wanted to get the data out so other people can use it.”
That he did. His website signstealingscandal.com both displays the data he collected, grouped by player and game, and also allows others to download it to build upon or analyze.
“This is the first step,” he said.
Wrestling with his fandom
What’s next? It’s a perfectly logical question, both for the Astros and Adams.
“Not everyone participated at the same level,” Adams said. “So there’s a story that hasn’t been told about whatever was going on in that locker room. Maybe that story will be told eventually. There could be books written about this and what was going on.”
Like others in Houston, Adams also had to come to grips with the reality that he is entering a new chapter of his fandom. He can’t possibly go back to being a diehard Astros fan, can he?
“It helped me process it all,” he says. “Just the scope of it. They were a good team. They were talented. They were favored to go to the World Series that year. I told my wife they were going to win the World Series that year and I’m not that much of an optimist. I think they could have done it without cheating, but we won’t know now.”
A big question that goes right to his core as a fan: Will he go to an Astros game this year?
“I’m not sure,” Adams said. “I think eventually I might, but I don’t see how I can look at that banner up there and look at it with pride.
“If they were to take the banner down voluntarily, that might go a long way.”
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