The cycle of a cheating scandal, in the popular imagination, goes something like this: Greatness, followed by suspicion and eventual exposure of the misdeeds, followed by the satisfying post-cheating period where the swindlers are shamed and, most importantly, taken down a notch.
Baseball is again awash in concerns about “cheating” amid MLB’s dramatic midseason crackdown on foreign substances. And again, echoing the steroids era and the Astros cheating scandal, we risk overstating the impact of the edge gained by evading the rules.
Yes, brazen and mischievous cheating should be condemned and banished — though in the current case, pitchers’ use of sticky substances was so ubiquitous it’s hard to say it conferred anyone an unfair advantage. Sticky stuff is a phenomenon that changed the shape of the games rather than the winners. The rush to reassess results is an understandable fan impulse in response to the rabid swirl of conversation, but it’s almost inherently detached from reality when it comes to this sport, and winds up obscuring history more than clarifying it.
The travesty of cheating in baseball is not that it dramatically alters the actual outcomes on the field, but that it often kneecaps our collective appreciation of greatness that likely would have been attained anyway.
And the 2021 Houston Astros — owners of the best record in the American League and the best offense in MLB by a mile — might be the most persuasive evidence yet that baseball is a difficult game to trick.
The Astros can still really hit
Baseball is not like marathon running or blackjack. There’s no corner to cut, no simple way to pluck the most desirable outcome from the deck. At its core, the game is decided by a blend of impossibly complex abilities that are distilled into a defining split-second collision — pitcher vs. batter, bat vs. ball, a microscopic Oklahoma drill at 100 mph.
There are, of course, illicit ways to tilt that moment in a hitter or pitcher’s favor, but they tend to be more marginal than the uproar around the Astros sign-stealing scandal would lead you to believe.
Whoever gets the better of that fraction of a second most often tends to win.
The Astros lineup is once again historically good at winning that battle. After the 2019 Astros lineup equaled the famed 1927 Yankees and the now disgraced 2017 version came close, the 2021 iteration is again threatening to become the best offense in the history of baseball by wRC+, FanGraphs’ all-in-one park- and era-adjusted measure of offensive prowess.
Entering Friday’s action, having won 11 in a row, the Astros are batting .281/.352/.459. As a team. They’ve got 20 points on second place in batting average (the Blue Jays) and 15 points in on-base percentage (the Dodgers). Plate discipline, that upshot of processing speed and hand-eye coordination and trained baseball intelligence, is their signature. The gap between their 18.6% strikeout rate and the second-best team is larger than the gap from there to 23rd.
Carlos Correa is leading the charge and inserting himself into the AL MVP race (+6600 odds at BetMGM) as an alluring darkhorse, batting .305 with 14 homers and nearly as many walks as strikeouts.
But if there’s an avatar of this lineup’s undeterred excellence, it’s José Altuve. An uncharacteristic slump amid the upheaval of the shortened 2020 regular season looked temptingly like comeuppance … until he went supernova in October and nearly slugged the Astros to the World Series. This year his numbers are back in line with his career, which is to say he has walloped 17 homers while batting .295 and almost never striking out.
How to view the Astros going forward
It won’t feel good for Yankees or Dodgers fans to realize Altuve would have probably slayed them with or without the trash can banging scheme, but it’s important to understand the difference between the wrongdoing and its effects. As Joe Sheehan reiterated in a recent issue of his newsletter, there’s plenty of evidence that the sign stealing had little to no effect. And without the shadow of the scandal, we might be talking about Houston’s place in baseball lore:
With each passing season, it becomes harder to dismiss what this organization has built offensively. Even as the roster turns over around the core, the Astros continue to be an absolutely incredible bat-to-ball team. Starting in 2017, when the Astros made a series of personnel changes intended to increase the team’s contact rate, the Astros have by far the lowest strikeout rate in baseball.
The Astros now have the best run differential in baseball and an increasingly clear path to the World Series assuming they can stay ahead of the Oakland A’s in the AL West.
BetMGM now gives the Astros the third-best World Series odds at +800, behind only the Dodgers and the talented but inexperienced White Sox. If health and their young pitching cooperates, it seems reasonable to say they will surpass the White Sox at some point as the AL favorites.
With Correa and ace Zack Greinke approaching free agency, it may also be a last best shot of sorts for the Astros as new GM James Click and manager Dusty Baker navigate a future that will rely less and less on the core that powered the post-rebuild teams. Still, there are younger bats like Yordan Álvarez and Kyle Tucker adding to the dominance, and at least part of the team’s success has been in developing and identifying this form of talent.
If the Astros make another deep run in October, they will undoubtedly be cast as the villains. Perhaps that’s a fitting way for the narrative to flow toward truth. After all, persistent dominance would have bestowed that status upon them at this point with or without the scandal.
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