Why the Astros' Postseason Dominance Could Be Terrible for the MLB
In January 2020, the baseball world was taken by a storm with the unveiling of the Houston Astros' sign stealing scandal. The MLB confirmed after an investigation that the Astros had illegally used technology at their home games to steal the opposing team's signs during the 2017 regular season and postseason as well as for part of the 2018 season. The news was even more distressing considering the Astros had just narrowly missed out on a world championship in 2019.
The baseball world immediately cried foul and demanded that they punished accordingly, with some even demanding they be stripped of their 2017 World Series title. In the end, MLB levied a punishment upon the Astros that consisted of a one-year suspension to GM Jeff Luhnow and manager A.J. Hinch, a 5 million dollar fine, and the loss of first and second-round draft picks in 2020 in 2021 (Luhnow and Hinch were subsequently released by the Astros). Immediately, the question arose whether the punishment had gone far enough to address the egregious offenses committed by the organization.
Despite their participation in the scheme, none of the Astros players received punishments for their actions (although Carlos Beltran did end up having his offer for manager of the Mets rescinded). Despite the shakeup in management, the Astros would theoretically still have all the pieces to compete at the same (or similar) level the following season. Given the intense anger and frustration many fans felt toward the Astros following the unveiling of the scandal, it certainly seemed that it would be in MLB's best interest for the team to see an immediate decline in competitiveness.
However, MLB still has an obligation to facilitate fair play for all teams, and thus the Astros were able to play their 2020 season as they normally would have, minus their old manager and GM. The departure of Gerrit Cole to the Yankees had many feeling optimistic that the perceived cheaters would be out of the playoff picture to make room for more honest teams. And interestingly, under normal circumstances, the Astros would have been out of the picture. In the shortened 60-game season, the Astros finished 29-31, a record that normally would guarantee a team's elimination from postseason contention. But the team that had benefited off illegal methods earlier now benefited from the Covid-19 postseason modification agreed to between the MLB and the MLBPA.
The plan expanded the field from 10 teams to 16, with the top 2 teams from each division being guaranteed a spot. Therefore, Houston, playing in a relatively weak AL West, grabbed a spot after finishing second in their division. They qualified for the postseason as the only team out of the 16 with a record under .500, a threshold even the rebuilding Miami Marlins managed to surpass.
Once in the postseason, however, the Astros seemed to hit another gear. Despite having lost Justin Verlander early in the season to injury (thereby leaving them without their top two starters from the previous year), they managed to quickly eliminate the Minnesota Twins in a 2-game sweep. Their dominance continued in the ALDS against the Athletics, who were unable to rebound from a 2-0 deficit in the series, thus allowing the Astros to advance to the ALCS after winning the ALDS 3-1.
Now standing in their way is the No. 1 seed Tampa Bay Rays, who have already jumped out to 1-0 series lead. But it experience certainly rests on the side of the Astros, as they have now been to the ALCS 4 straight seasons. Players like Jose Altuve, Alex Bregman, and Carlos Correa, despite having less than stellar regular seasons, benefit from the fact that they have been in this situation before, whereas many of the Rays have not.
MLB may have a pressing issue on their hands, then. If the Astros are to continue their dominance for the rest of the series and secure a World Series berth, it could send a clear message to the fans that the punishment levied upon the organization was not harsh enough. How could it be, if the team were to bounce right back into the World Series?
Admittedly, this aspect, namely the fact that anything can happen, is one of the reasons so many enjoy sports, but it would cast a very negative light on the MLB should a team mostly the entire baseball world is rooting against (excluding Houston fans) find success so quickly after their offense has been revealed. With baseball already struggling to appeal to the younger generation of fans, this possibility, should it occur, could have a drastic impact on the future of baseball.