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January 22, 2014

Pebble Hunting

Do the Astros Deserve to Be Shamed?

by Sam Miller

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On Aug. 8, 1950, the Boston Braves’ star hitter Bob Elliott motioned toward base umpire Al Barlick and asked him to move. Barlick, standing behind the pitcher, was in Elliott’s line of vision and distracting. Barlick obliged.

That gave Eddie Stanky an idea. The Giants’ second baseman walked over to the spot Barlick had vacated. Over the next four games against the Braves and Phillies, he would intermittently go back there and do what the newspapers called The Eddie Stanky Semaphore Wave, or, simplified, the Stanky Maneuver. He’d wave his arms, mimic the pitcher’s motion, and do all manner of distracting dances, from directly behind the pitcher’s release point.

“Umpire Al Barlick said the arm waving tactics ‘made a farce out of the game,’” according to one newspaper account at the time. Phillies manager “Eddie Sawyer, generally calm, called the action illegal, unsportsmanlike; labeled it ‘bush league’ baseball.” Stanky, shamed, briefly agreed to stop doing it, but after a Phillies player slid hard into one of his teammates (knocking the fielder unconscious), he went back behind the mound in the fourth inning on August 12th. “The antics had provoked a storm that upset players, umpires, team managers and fans,” the Associated Press reported that week. “It indirectly led to one of the stormiest free for alls in Shibe Park history. It caused a game to be played under protest. It resulted in $25 fines against two players who started the fracas." It was, though, totally legal.

So what do we think about Stanky? He was doing everything he could to try to win. He was within the limits of the rulebook. He was ingenious. He was entertaining. He showed hustle. He had a drive to win, and a responsibility to his team to try to win, and anything less than he did would have been shirking this responsibility and betraying this drive.

But, also: Ugh. The Stanky Maneuver wasn’t a real strategy. It was tacky. It was bad manners. It was a loophole that existed only until somebody exposed it, at which point it would be closed for good, either by rule (it was) or by shaming and unwritten rules. The rest of the league perhaps hadn’t thought of it, because it was silly; or perhaps had thought of it and hadn’t used it, because it was unsporting. Either way: Stanky went somewhere nobody else was willing to go. He did it to win, but is that enough of a justification? Can there really be no obligation that a participant has to the game other than complete commitment to victory?

***

In 2002, Jonah Keri introduced the Success Cycle. You might recognize it from such baseball articles as practically every transaction write-up, fake trade proposal, team preview, team review or free agent analysis written in the 12 years since. The idea is simple, intuitive, unimpeachable: A team that is rebuilding has different short- and long-term incentives than a team that is on the cusp of competition.

Recognizing a team's place in the cycle is perhaps the key element in any team's game plan, because it drives decision-making. If a GM misreads his team's place in the cycle, he may get overaggressive and commit too much cash in an effort to win before a core is in place, and quickly fall back to the rebuilding stage. On the other hand, being too passive with a team ready to win can cost the franchise a shot at a pennant.

Intrinsic in this idea is permission to punt. We all, every one of us, can I’m sure agree that in at least some cases a team with a very poor short-term outlook and more promising long-term outlook can be forgiven for getting somewhat worse—trading a veteran for prospects, passing on free agents, perhaps carrying a lower payroll than the franchise’s fundamentals might actually allow—in the interest of the long-term health of the franchise. We condone getting worse to get better. I think we all agree on that. What we don’t necessarily agree on is how far this allowance goes.

The Astros, of course, are the purest implementation of this idea that we’ve ever seen. They went into the 2013 season with a payroll that was very nearly the theoretical minimum; they managed to shed even further as the season went on, trading their two of their only players with actual service time: Bud Norris, two and a half years from free agency; and Justin Maxwell, three and a half years removed. For this, they generated an almost trademarkable brand: The Houston Astros, Rebuilding The Right Way.

They lost 111 games. Since MLB expanded to a 162-game schedule in 1961, there’s one team that has had a worse three-year run than that, and it’s the expansion Mets. Houston would have to win 74 games this year—a 23-game improvement—to avoiding having the worst non-Mets four-year stretch. “The team hit rock bottom yesterday,” owner Jim Crane finally said, after a 15-game losing streak to end the season. And as the season went on my impression was that a competing viewpoint was getting louder: This is no way to win.

We had never seen a team try so aggressively to be bad. Now we have. So, after a year of watching the Astros go full-measure on badness, and after an offseason that suggests they are finally (maybe) trying to pull out of it and move into the next stage, we have to ask whether this is the right way to win, or whether it’s just another Stanky Maneuver: bad form, bad for the game, a loophole that existed long enough to be exposed but, ultimately, something that needs to be prevented.

***

Were there moments that were shameful? Like, outright “we oughta be ashamed of this”-ful?

Probably. Like in September:

According to television’s official scorekeeper, nobody in the 20-county Greater Houston area watched the Astros’ game Sunday at Cleveland.

The score was 9-2 in favor of the Indians on the scoreboard and 0.0 for Comcast SportsNet Houston — the regional network owned by the Astros, Rockets and NBC Sports Group — in the daily report compiled by the Nielsen Co., which measures television viewing levels.

It was the first time in Houston, where games have been broadcast on cable outlets since 1983, and perhaps the first time in the history of Major League Baseball that an MLB game had no measurable viewership in its home market.

If that sounds bad, consider this: according to that there news account, they weren’t even watching the Astros game at Big Woodrow’s or Lucky’s Pub. Not even at Big Woodrow’s! This is, as shameful data points go, pretty shameful. The point of professional baseball, after all, is to be observed by interested people. Or, another way: If three Astros infielders chase a pop-up and comically crash into each other before one throws the ball 40 rows into the stands and nobody is there to GIF it, did it really happen?

But of course that overstates things. The Astros’ attendance, for instance, actually went up from 2012. Boosted, no doubt, by the team’s first tour as an American League club, and by the 40,000 fans who showed up for Mariano Rivera’s final game (or, at least, final time in uniform). But the Astros outdrew the Rays and the Indians. This was an embarrassing season, no doubt, but it set no new thresholds for empty stadiums. Some people spent money and, presumably, enjoyed themselves.

You’ll argue that this is still pretty pathetic for a team that was, a decade ago, in the league’s top 10 in attendance. But consider the Mariners. A decade ago, Seattle led the league in attendance. Since then, the Mariners have arguably tried too many times to be competitive, and yet for all those good intentions they drew all of 110,000 more fans than the Astros last year year. With Felix Hernandez, with a team that won 20 more games than Houston, and with nearly quadruple the opening day payroll of the Astros, they drew 1,000 more fans per game. Losing is losing, apparently, as far as fans are concerned. If the Astros have truly turned their city’s franchise into farce, it isn’t obviously apparent. (The Astros still wallop Congress in public opinion polls!)

So if they’re not the shame of the city, are they at least the shame of the league? It’s not, after all, appropriate for major-league teams in pennant races to be playing against Triple-A clubs that just aren’t trying. The A’s and Rangers went 32-6 against the Astros. How can this be allowed to stand?

But of course every division has a team that, at least by the end of the season, just isn’t trying to some extent. They all have a team that traded veterans away for prospects. We’re talking about scale here, about the line when acceptable tanking/acceptable sucking becomes embarrassing tanking/embarrassing sucking. Did the Astros really get there? They lost 111 games, but that’s not all that different from 105 losses (seven non-Astros teams in the past 14 seasons) or even 100 losses (19 non-Astros teams since 2000). It looks worse that the Astros have been this bad for three years in a row, but so long as they don’t truly test the limits of bad play then the persistence of their badness is between them and their fans. If instead of losing 106, then 107, then 111, the Astros had lost 90, then 95, then 139 games, it would be something that baseball would have to deal with. As is, they were shockingly competent, considering they weren’t trying, like at all.

So, yes, the A’s and the Rangers went 32-6 against them. But we’ve already, for some reason, accepted unbalanced schedules. The presence of the Astros didn’t throw the schedules completely out of orbit or anything; it was just one bad team in a division. And these head-to-head records can overstate the mismatch. The Angels went 9-10 against the Astros. The Tigers went 15-4 against the Indians.

So in both roles—as entertainment draw, and as competitive opponent—the Astros were terrible, mockable, but basically, barely, credible. They weren’t the worst team of the century; they weren’t the least-watched team of the century. They probably justified the strategy: With only the faintest nod toward actual effort, they managed to not actually break anything.

But man was it hard to watch. Harder than I expected, and even harder in retrospect.

***

Look at this dope:

A few months ago, writing about swapping corner outfielders every few batters to capture a defensive platoon advantage, Russell Carleton wrote this:

In United States culture, it’s not nice to look like you’re trying too hard, especially for such a small reward and when you look weird doing it.

The “small reward” isn’t applicable here, but the optics of trying too hard (in this case, to try not at all) are. No team had gone alllll the way with this strategy before, I have to imagine, because when you go stand behind the pitcher and start dancing and being sort of a dick it looks terrible. People don’t want to look terrible, but also: when something looks terrible, or annoys everybody, the loophole gets closed, for good. (Once you lose Gammons, it’s a fair guess that you’ve lost the industry.)

Jonah’s Success Cycle forgives a degree of tanking, but there is a point where tanking will go too far. If, for instance, the Astros had refused to let their young pitchers actually pitch at all, because why waste their precious few pre-labrum-tear bullets on games that don’t matter? Or if they hadn’t let their pitchers throw sliders. Or if they had kept every single player with an option in the minors, rather than start their service times. If they had traded Jose Altuve to a competitive team for a prospect and a PTBNL, and the PTBNL was Altuve. If they didn’t let their baserunners slide. If they’d lost 139 games, something would have to be done.

We saw the closest a team has gotten to that point, and now we get to decide what we thought of it—to decide whether this was too far, whether we want other teams to do this, over and over, cycling through waves of failure that offer no pretense of in-game competitiveness. And I think, at this point, you can respect the Astros for their commitment and ingenuity; they almost certainly didn’t have a better and realistic way to get competitive in a (relative) hurry. Three years ago, they were arguably the worst big-league team in the league and they had arguably the worst farm system in the game. (This fantastic piece at Crawfish Boxes imagines what the Bizarro Astros would look like now if Luhnow had never traded a single veteran piece. Answer: Bad, hopeless.) And, to their credit, the guys in uniform tried to win. Their September lineups were filled with regulars; Jonathan Villar and Altuve played every game in September.

But you can respect them for their commitment and ingenuity without applauding it, and without wishing to ever see another team try it. I don’t ever want to see a team like the Astros again. If there aren’t going to be rules against this, then I’m coming around on shame.

Sam Miller is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Sam's other articles. You can contact Sam by clicking here

Related Content:  Houston Astros,  Tanking,  Eddie Stanky

17 comments have been left for this article. (Click to hide comments)

BP Comment Quick Links

tmangell

Sam, great idea for a story, but I think the article misses an important point: what type of prospects did the GM get for trading off the team's desired assets? How does BP's Top Ten Prospects list look now, compared to the start of the season? I'm not objective in this case, since I wish that the 'Stros had never left the NL and I detest Jim Crane, but, as both a Cardinals fan and a BP fan, I root for Jeff Luhnow and Kevin Goldstein and want their efforts to pay off.

I think Gammons makes an important point: a team can tank a season for a high draft pick, the reason I believe MLB should allow draft picks to be traded.

I never would have guessed that Houston outdrew Tampa Bay and Cleveland in attendance - wow!

All in all, great piece, Sam!

Jan 22, 2014 04:21 AM
rating: 1
 
Myrick

Enjoyed this article..thanks.

Jan 22, 2014 06:17 AM
rating: 1
 
John Carter

Stanky Maneuvers are entertaining at first, but one would get tired of it after awhile. It does seem childish - like when I used to base coach and yell "I got it!" on pop-ups to the infield.

I didn't think the Astros' season was so disgraceful. It is far less depressing than being lousy and not building for the future. Fans need to appreciate the value of patience.

Jan 22, 2014 06:39 AM
rating: 2
 
bscheidt

Personally, I think if they put resources into turning it around, they should be applauded for saying we stink and we need to get worse before we can get better. This is much preferrable to things that happen in Miami for instance. If I were a fan of the Astros, I would understand this and would also prefer it to the team that is mediocre and keeps adding a piece or two here that keeps them mediocre but never gets them into real consideration for a championship. As far as tanking for a better pick, the question is why? How often does the best player in the draft turn out to not be the #1 overall selection? Quite frequently I'd guess so moving up to #1 really doesn't help unless there is a once in generational talent available. I would guess the gains of moving up to 1st is far outweighed by the loss of revenue if you intentionally tank games at the major league level.

Jan 22, 2014 06:53 AM
rating: 2
 
jedjethro

I just hope a few years down the road "In Luhnow we trust" isn't the next Dayton Moore "Trust the process."

It's interesting that both guys came from organizations that were lauded at the time as standards for the industry and both were given a LOT of leeway.

Jan 22, 2014 07:05 AM
rating: 4
 
ClaytonThompson

I for one think that the Astros' strategy takes a whole lot of courage and should be applauded. This might be a stretch of an analogy, but I liken it to an addict committing to go to rehab rather than simply hiding his addiction from his family and/or self medicating. It takes a lot of honesty to admit that you have a problem and submit yourself to a total life makeover.

So, if you forgive my stretched analogy, I think teams that do what the Astros are doing should be commended. I think they deserve no criticism whatsoever.

Jan 22, 2014 07:56 AM
rating: 3
 
nyyfaninlaaland

They certainly have the right to engage in the strategy and they are clearly trying to rebuild the organization form the ground up.

What has always struck me as odd is how teams can be financially rewarded for doing so and there are so few complaints. It has to gall other owners to at least some extent (some more than others of course) that a team will engage in this strategy, typically significantly negatively imopacting their revenue, but wind up increasing their take form the Revenue sharing system - obviously with the caveats that have been imposed regarding such based on market size.

It always seemed to me there should be a "poverty tax" in the revenue sharing system (opposite of the Luxury Tax) that reduced payouts to teams for reducing payroll below a certain point and in turn revenues. In essence rebuilding is often partially financed by the opther clubs.

It's important that teams can engage in rebuilding strategies, but the other teams shouldn't have to shoulder a chunk of the cost via growing revunue sharing payments. I'm not saying cut them off - it could be a tax system that grows given the number of offenses just like the top end Lux tax. That way the charlatans (I'm looking at you Mr. Loria) can't profit from the system repeatedly.

Jan 22, 2014 10:07 AM
rating: 3
 
rweiler

One reason that there might not be any complaints is that if all teams were trying to maximize winning *right now*, then it wold drive up salaries for everybody as there would be increased competition for above replacement level talent. For example, the Yankees only had to be worried about outbidding a handful of teams for Tanaka. If teams have to spend money, it drives up salaries for everybody.

Jan 22, 2014 10:17 AM
rating: 1
 
bpholcomb

In a way, that is exactly what happened under the Drayton McLane/Ed Wade years. McLane knew he was going to sell the team but would not be able to sell high during a rebuild, so he kept pumping money into free agents (and a new TV deal, but that is a separate argument), and essentially refused to acknowledge the need for a rebuild. Ed Wade went along with this plan, although in the last couple of years it was evident that he realized it was time to start a rebuild.

As an Astros fan, I am likely pretty biased, but I love the new approach, where Luhnow came in and realized that he had to completely burn everything, from the bigs down to the rookie leagues, and start completely over. In just his 3 years, the farm system has become arguably the strongest. Luhnow has been using drafting/development strategies similar to those he used with the Cardinals, but because the framework for success was not yet there, he had to essentially start over from scratch, and if things go according to the plan, the Astros should become a competitive team again within the next 2-3 years, and maintain their success for several years.

Jan 22, 2014 12:16 PM
rating: 1
 
PeterCollery

Excellent work. Love the Stankey comparison and think you did a great job of examining both sides of a question that had never occurred to me.

Don't tell anybody, but BP is *way* underpriced.

Jan 22, 2014 08:14 AM
rating: 0
 
garciamckinley

Indeed. I'll offer my first comment here to say what a great read this was.

Jan 22, 2014 18:46 PM
rating: 0
 
rweiler

Realistically, what choice did they have? We don't know how many 10's of millions they had to throw at Kevin Goldstein to lure him away from BP. That said, I don't have a problem with the Astros blowing up the team. It was a bad team before, and it's still a bad team, but at least with more hope of getting better fairly quickly. This happens all the time in the NBA and nobody complains about it. There teams that don't do it end up like the Golden State Warriors and LA Clippers used to be; perpetually just one piece away from mediocrity.

Jan 22, 2014 09:49 AM
rating: 5
 
bpholcomb

As an Astros fan, I realize I am likely biased, but I have to say I disagree with the premise of the article. I don't think the Astros set out to lose on purpose, but rather to put out young guys in order to develop players (some of whom may end up being pieces in a future competitive team) with major league experience, and give younger, higher prospects more time to develop in the minors. They are, essentially, rebuilding, and although they did not try to lose on purpose, one consequence of throwing all the kids out there was losing often. They have proven this offseason that they are willing to put effort into winning, offering more money to both Abreu and Tanaka than the entire payroll was last year, and fixing major holes in the outfield and bullpen by signing free agents.

A side note on the game that received a 0.0 rating: First, it competed with the Texans game. This was in September, when the Texans, although they never really played excellent football, were still off to a 2-0 start. With the Texans as preseason Super Bowl picks by some experts and the football culture that exists in Texas, most fans would choose the Texans over the Astros, even if the Astros were not so laughably bad. In addition, Comcast SportsNet is currently in bankruptcy hearing and the subject of a lawsuit between Jim Crane and Drayton McLane, due largely to the fact that only Comcast subscribers in the greater-Houston area can see it. When you consider that many people don't have Comcast and therefore cannot watch the Astros or Rockets combined with the fact that the Texans, at the time still holding fans' optimism, were playing against the defending Super Bowl champs, it is really not so surprising that nobody in Houston was watching the Astros.

Jan 22, 2014 12:29 PM
rating: 4
 
misterjohnny
(925)

This column will have a little different feel next year if the Astros are equally bad.

Now that all of the AL teams have come through town, you won't see quite the same bump in attendance.

The Bud Selig Victory Tour (tm) will not have the same draw as Mariano Rivera.

Most importantly, the Houston Sports Net is currently in bankruptcy and there is fighting amongst the owners. The big problem: Directv, Dish, AT&T, and Time Warner aren't willing to pay for a channel that no one watches. Since no one in Houston cares enough about the Astros to switch to Comcast, the others won't carry it.

That is the penalty for Houston tanking. They own 47% of the sports network, but the Rockets own 30%. They are trying to compete, paying for Dwight Howard. They need the Astros to be competitive in order to get carriage. The Rockets ownership has got to be angry with the Astros for not even trying and costing the network carriage and revenue.

They will be the least watched team in 2014 if they are just as bad as 2013.

Jan 22, 2014 13:14 PM
rating: 0
 
Michael Bodell
(89)

I think there are rule changes that can help this.

First, the draft should arrange picks so the top pick goes to the best record that doesn't make the playoffs (and then next best and next best until you have all the non-playoff teams and then do the playoff teams in reverse order of when they were knocked out and their record). This means every team has an incentive to win. And since the top pick in MLB is usually a risky player or doesn't instantly become a great player (no Lebron James's) I don't think many teams would rather have the top pick than make the playoffs (although maybe the 1 and done super wild card loser should get the top pick instead and go down from there, not sure).

Second, have revenue sharing impacted by your record (positively) and your local market (negatively) but not by your actual revenue or costs. So if you are a fantastically winning team you get slightly more revenue sharing and/or owe slightly less revenue sharing. If you are a terrible team you get way less revenue sharing and owe way more revenue sharing. You shouldn't get hurt for having invested in the organization or the fan base and being a mid-market or small-market that happens to be high-revenue. And you shouldn't get a pass when you are a mid-market or top-market team that looks like a low revenue team because you've under served your market.

Third, have some percent of the gate receipt, the home and visitor media rights, the shared internet media rights all go to the winning team. This in effect increases the marginal value of a win for all teams and encourages teams to spend a little more because there will be a bigger financial win fall in going from 110 loses to 95 loses than there is today.

If you make changes like the above then you massively disincentivize the extreme tanking. If that isn't enough, there is always relegation.

Jan 22, 2014 23:43 PM
rating: -1
 
R.A.Wagman

The Stanky story reminded me of something similar that occurred a few years back in the NHL. Look up the Sean Avery interference rule. It was within the rules at the time he just stood in front of the goalie waving his arms, but was seen as so obnoxious (being Sean Avery, that isn't hard to do), that the league adopted a new rule mid season to put an end to it.

Jan 23, 2014 05:20 AM
rating: 0
 
BP staff member Matt Kory
BP staff

Great piece, Sam. One thing to add, if I may. I wrote a piece for the Old Time Family Baseball blogathon that looked at total spending since 1998 (the farthest back I could find salary data). The 2013 Astros spent 0.7 percent (not seven percent, less than three quarters of one percent) of the total money spent on salaries by all teams that season. That's the second smallest payroll by percentage since '98. Only the 2006 Marlins spent less, 0.6 percent. Only two other teams spent less than one percent ('08 Marlins and '03 Devil Rays). So the amount the Astros spent on payroll relative to the rest of MLB wasn't historically low, but it was pretty close.

Jan 23, 2014 12:52 PM
 
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