Cryptic Comments Made After Indians-Astros 2018 Series No Longer Need Decoding

T.J. Zuppe

While reporters and writers spend a great deal of time attempting to craft intricate and thoughtful questions, sometimes the best inquiries are general and open-ended, particularly the ones that come minutes after a stunning and complete dismantling by the opposition. That's why tossing Mike Clevinger the simple question, "What do you think happened in this series?" proved to be worthwhile after the 2018 ALDS.

Clevinger paused for a moment, exhaled and prepared to carefully select his words.

"It's a lot of stuff -- a lot of things, but I'm going to keep it really short," Clevinger said after the Indians were sent packing by the Astros. "We ... kind of had our backs to the wall before this series started when it came to the analytical side. Everyone was out there giving it their all. But (Houston) just had some really good arms and a good lineup to back it up."

At the time, those words felt as open-ended as my question, leaving us to piece together what that cryptic response could have meant. Was it a shot directed at the organization? The coaching staff? The analytics department? What did it mean?!

It became the quote that launched more than a few think pieces about the state of the team. But given the continued fallout from the Astros' sign-stealing scandal that has resulted in punishment from Major League Baseball and the eventual dismissal of three managers once linked to Houston in some capacity, we now, with the benefit of hindsight, have another plausible reason for that quote. 

And it's not as difficult to decipher as the opposing team's signs.

Now, in fairness, it was worth pondering what Clevinger could have meant moments after Game 3 of the 2018 ALDS. Unfortunately, it was the sort of response that was difficult to grasp until later sitting down to transcribe it. At that point, a follow-up question wasn't possible, nor did writers have a chance to grab him or others the following day as we typically would. Instead, his words were passed around the press box like a modern game of telephone, leaving the blanks to be filled with speculation.

While it was possible that he was simply referencing the Astros' knack for setting the standard in technology, data and translating it to their players, it still felt like a bit of a stretch for him to be taking aim at his own club, at least when it came to describing what happened. That's not to say it was inconceivable, but without further clarification or lacking proper context, it felt difficult to claim it as indisputable fact or the only possibility.

Flash forward: The sound of banging trash cans, strategic whistling, the sight of a strange man in a suit filming into the Tribe's dugout or any other alleged scheme or conspiracy that has since surfaced (and made you consider investing in tinfoil hats) have since changed the perspective. And the speculation? That's now tied to a new question: How much of Houston's performance can be attributed to this scandal?

As for Clevinger's words? Elaborate deciphering no longer needed.

Now, were the Astros, without question, illegally stealing signs or performing any other nefarious activities during that 2018 series? None of us can ever say that with any certainty, and the punishment handed down has only officially been linked to their World Series run of 2017 and at least some of 2018. And even if something outside the scope of the rules was taking place, was it the deciding factor in an absolute domination by Houston in their three-game sweep? Ehhh, it's possible. But, again, none of us can say that definitively. So, while it’s totally fair to wonder about its impact, making sweeping declarations without direct evidence is another stretch, nor is that what we're here to argue or revisit.

(Twitter seems to have already cornered the market on the best conspiracies, anyhow.)

What does appear to be likely: There was a perception that an unfair advantage was absolutely a possibility (and Trevor Bauer had already fanned those flames). Who knows what the sheer thought of that potential does to an opposing psyche. More important, however, it offers a reasonable alternative when it comes to the narratives that grew after that series. Of course, that’s not to say teams like the Indians shouldn’t always be pushing the boundaries on how they can improve every part of internal development and preparation — standing still will leave you behind, and there's no question that the Astros have been leading the charge for several years. They should always strive to be better.

But given what we now know, any gripe players may have had following their quick exit probably wasn't directed within, and that’s an important distinction to now make.