Goodman: Beyond 2017 ALCS Loss, Astros' Sign-Stealing Scandal Couldn't Have Worked Out Better For Yankees

Max Goodman

Hindsight is two bangs on a trash can. 

As the allegations of the Houston Astros' sign-stealing scandal were confirmed on Monday -- in one of the most thorough and historic investigations in the league's history -- the Yankees' organization and its fanbase can only sit and ask "what if?"

What if the Astros didn't plant a camera in center field transmitting a feed covertly to a monitor in the tunnel adjacent to their dugout at Minute Maid Park? What if Houston hadn't taken a blatant competitive advantage, electronically decoding opponent's signs and violating the integrity of the game? 

What if the Yankees won the ALCS and advanced to the 2017 World Series?

At this point, the baseball world can only speculate how the 2017 season -- and of course, the postseason -- would have played out differently should Houston have played fair. Maybe the Los Angeles Dodgers take care of business against New York in a Fall Classic matchup. Perhaps it would've been the Yankees' year. The fact of the matter, however, is that the Bronx Bombers were one game away from winning the pennant in 2017. 

In fact, New York was up 3-2 heading to Houston for Game 6 of that American League Championship Series, riding high on a three-game winning streak. Nonetheless, Houston delivered the decisive blows in Game 6 and Game 7 to abruptly end the Yankees' season. 

Monday's report, released by Commissioner Robert D. Manfred, Jr., found the Astros' scheme to be "player-driven and player-executed" throughout the regular season. The only non-players to be involved, beyond the video room technicians who installed the monitor behind Houston's home dugout, was bench coach and current Red Sox manager Alex Cora -- but we'll get to him later on.

Skipper A.J. Hinch -- penalized by MLB with a one-year suspension -- was said to have "had full knowledge of the conduct" and yet "chose to allow it to continue throughout the 2017 Postseason." General manager Jeff Luhnow was dealt the same one-year ban, effective immediately. Both were subsequently fired by Astros' owner Jim Crane.

In other words, to put it bluntly, the Astros were stealing the Yankees' signs in games at Minute Maid Park in the 2017 ALCS. With that in mind, we can look back on Houston's statistical splits from that series and see benefits of illegally exploiting home field advantage.

The Yankees went 0-4 in games at Houston's ballpark in the ALCS -- in those four contests, New York was outscored 15-3. Conversely, at Yankee Stadium in Games 3-5, the Astros managed just five runs with 11 total hits. 

Further, in 18 total postseason games in 2017, the Astros played discernibly better at home, doubling their average runs scored per game and total home runs hit, while adding a 65 point increase to their team batting average (skip ahead to :48 on the video embedded below, courtesy of YES Network, for a comprehensive look at the 'Stros home and road postseason discrepancies).

The Bombers were evidently at a competitive disadvantage and suffered because of it. They then missed the World Series again in 2018, falling to the soon-to-be-champion Red Sox in the ALDS -- Boston, of course, had Alex Cora at the helm and are now under similar investigations for stealing signs electronically during their World Series run.

New York went on to finish the decade without an appearance in the Fall Classic, a disappointment for Yankee fans and their lofty, yet reasonable expectations. Even so, on a random Monday late in an already prolific offseason for the Yanks, news of the Commissioner's findings -- and his office's repercussions -- show the American League is wide open moving forward for the Yankees.

First, Houston's punishments and ensuing dismissal of key personnel -- combined with a seemingly irreversible blow to the organization's integrity -- weakens the Yankees' biggest threat to the American League pennant. 

Every road game for the Astros in 2020 will feature the same conversations, the same spattering of boos and the same distraction. Houston is still talented -- one of the best teams in baseball -- but with one month before Spring Training, the 'Stros need to regroup and find a new manager and general manager. Replacing the skipper that led a skilled core to two World Series appearances in three years, as well as a formerly respected GM that was instrumental in trade-deadline deals for Zack Greinke, Justin Verlander and more, should be easier said than done.

Houston has to do all of that while preparing for their toughest test at a division title since 2016. Anthony Rendon now plays for the Los Angeles Angels, Nolan Arenado could soon be a member of the Texas Rangers and Oakland continues to contend, hovering in the AL West's second spot each of the last two campaigns. Sure, they'll still win the division in all likelihood, beating up on Seattle 19 times as they always do, but the Astros are certainly no longer the front runner to secure home field advantage with the league's best record.

Speaking of AL front runners, it's worth noting Houston lost a 20-game winner and ace-caliber right-hander this offseason by the name of Gerrit Cole -- but that's another story all together. 

Let's just say a deep postseason run, with imminent scrutiny and looming discipline, seems far-fetched at this point in time.

As for New York's division rival up in Boston, their own set of punishments -- especially on their skipper Cora -- are on the horizon. In Monday's press release, Commissioner Manfred specified that the Red Sox manager wouldn't receive his penalization -- for his involvements in both Houston and Boston -- until after the investigation on electronic sign-stealing in 2018 are complete. 

If Hinch got a one-year ban and was found by the investigation to have "neither devised the banging scheme nor participated in it," then Cora's penalty is bound to be stricter.  The same investigation found Cora instrumental in developing the Astros' clandestine strategy -- he reportedly brought similar sign-stealing mechanisms to Boston in his first season as manager. 

That means the Red Sox will potentially have even less time to replace their manager -- unless they fire Cora ahead of time, anticipating a lengthy suspension. Not to mention the club is coming off a down year, finishing 19 games behind New York and in third place in the loaded AL East.

Mookie Betts avoided arbitration last week and J.D. Martinez opted in on his contract with the club earlier in the offseason. If the club starts slow in 2020, however, how much longer will they hold onto their expensive stars? And would those players even consider signing lengthy extensions with a team draped in uncertainty?

All of that being said, for the next several years, the reputations of the Astros and Red Sox organizations have been tarnished significantly by these sign-stealing scandals. Reeling in free agents, attracting veteran coaches and adding bright, budding minds to analytics departments will be even more of a challenge. 

This season presents New York with an opportunity to propel the franchise forward while two other American League powerhouses backpedal. Plus, with Cole now toeing the rubber in pinstripes, the Bombers' first Fall Classic appearance in over a decade -- and perhaps their elusive 28th title -- is a pragmatic conclusion.

Missing the 2017 World Series was heartbreaking. In a way, knowing now the loss was to a team cheating for the entire season makes it sting even more for Yankee fans. But with the start of the new decade comes an opportunity for New York to plow ahead and return to the dominance of the late-1990s while Houston and Boston are on the ropes. 

These aren't the Baby Bombers anymore -- they've learned from their recent close calls and barring injury, are ready to take that next step. The only question left for Yankee fans is how many days left until Opening Day?

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