When does it become a big deal?

As accusations continue to mount, how much leeway and goodwill does the 2017 World Series title buy the Astros?

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Let's start off with the obvious: The latest Astros "scandal," an allegation of electronic sign stealing, is already being vastly overplayed in the media. The Astros aren't the only team to do it, and the original story even said it is widespread. But the Astros have become easy targets, because they are good on the field, and they have made themselves easy targets by continuing to find controversy.

Taken each individually, none of the incidents involving the team warrant the coverage they have gotten. But collectively, maybe it is time to stop giving them a pass.

Cheating is part of baseball's culture

First, however, some context. Make no mistake, teams have been looking for edges every year since baseball began. Spitballers are in the Hall of Fame. The sport turned a blind eye to steroid usage for years because it led to TV ratings and butts in the seats.

Corked bats. Scuffed balls. It has been there forever.

Stealing signs is part of the game and has been forever. Anything to get an edge. If you aren't protecting your signs? That's on you. Where the Astros got in trouble was using technology to do it, and while even that is up for debate, it does cross a line. Also, the "other teams are doing it" excuse rings hollow.

Does it taint the 2017 World Series? Of course not, no matter what you might read from bitter journalists. The trash can beating would have never worked in a playoff game. But when you keep adding everything up, it gets harder and harder to just dismiss all of the things the Astros have been accused of over the past few years. A look at some of the highlights or lowlights:

1) Where it all started

When the Astros were losing 100 games every year, no one cared. They were a cute story of a team blowing up everything and starting from scratch. When they started to win, they were the smartest guys in the room, guys who used analytics to gain an edge on other teams.

When you beat teams like the Yankees and Dodgers, however, you know there will be sour grapes. That's life. You punch the big boys in the mouth, you make enemies.

Everything started turning when the Astros acquired Roberto Osuna after his 75-game suspension for domestic violence with the Blue Jays ended in 2018. Most of Astros Twitter defended him.

The fan excuses: Nobody knows what happened between the two of them. The court cleared him. The Astros did their "Due Diligence." He deserves a second chance. No big deal.

The reality: It was a bad look, plain and simple, and a move they did not need to make. But hey, we gave them a pass because they are the lovable Astros.

2) Tyler/Trevor Bauer

In 2018, then-Indians pitcher Trevor Bauer implied Astros pitchers were doctoring balls. The infamous "spin rate."

The fan excuses: Dude is just bitter. The Astros are just good at improving pitchers. No big deal.

The reality: Probably sour grapes. But is it impossible they are doctoring balls?

3) The first sign stealing accusations

In the 2018 ALCS against the Red Sox, and Astros employee with a camera was investigated for alleged sign stealing. MLB cleared the Astros.

The fan excuses: They were cleared. Nothing to see here. No big deal.

The reality: Probably nothing to see here.

4) The Verlander issue

Earlier this season, the Astros refused to let a reporter into the locker room because of a beef with Justin Verlander.

The fan excuses: It's the reporter's fault. Verlander said he was unethical, so they had every right to keep him out. No big deal.

The reality: This was a bad look, no matter what kind of beef there was. And it was unnecessary. It also created a beef between the Astros and the media, which is never a good idea.

5) Whistle while you work

In this year's ALCS, Yankees players thought the Astros were signaling signs by whistling.

The fan excuse: This is dumb. How could you even hear whistles? No big deal.

The reality: Yeah, no big deal at all. Silly. Not worth even mentioning, but that's what happens when things start adding up.

6) The Assistant GM

In what became a circus, an Astros assistant GM's apparently drunken yelling at an SI Reporter led to his firing.

The fan excuse: The reporter made herself the story and it was way overblown. He was just drunk. No big deal.

The reality: Lying about it was the biggest problem. It could have been handled much better and maybe it would not have become a media bleep storm. But it was poorly handled. Again.

7) Forcing out the Ryans

The Astros reassigned Reid Ryan, replacing him with the owner's son. As a result, Nolan Ryan removed himself as a consultant.

The fan excuse: What did Nolan really do to help the team? If Jim Crane wants to start grooming his son, why not now? Reid Ryan got his job because of his father, too. No big deal.

The reality: Nolan is a local legend, beloved in the baseball community. Reid is a self-made businessman who did a great job for the Astros and was an ambassador for the team. He got everything he had on his own. Sure, if Crane wanted his son more involved, there's nothing wrong with that. But forcing out the Ryans was another bad look.

8) The Mike Fiers report

Finally, this week's news where former pitcher Mike Fiers said the Astros were using technology to steal signs in 2017. A Chicago White Sox pitcher confirmed it (forgiving the fact that on the at-bat in question, the pitcher got an out).

The fan reaction: They were better on the road than at home. It's not like they did it all the time. It did not impact the playoffs or World Series. Fiers is a punk. Where was all that sign stealing when they blew Game 7 against the Nationals? No big deal.

The reality: Fiers is indeed a rat. The lowest of the low. He should take a cue from Carlos Beltran, who is a stand-up guy. But the reality is they cheated. To what extent? Who knows. Did it make a difference? Maybe in a game or two. Did it win them a title? Not at all.

The bottom line

Taken individually, are any of these incidents that bad? (Well, the Osuna deal and the banned reporter, but that's up to the individual to judge). Throw in the Yuli Gurriel racist incident at the 2017 World Series, how players like Alex Bregman and Josh Reddick are hated by pretty much everyone that is not an Astros fan, and you can see why the rest of the world is piling on. It is the price of success; if this were the Cincinnati Reds, would anyone care?

Of course not.

But still, at what point do you quit dismissing these incidents as no big deal? At what point does it become a pattern? When do we stop excusing it? Winning a World Series covers up a lot of sins. That's always been the mindset; winning is all that matters. And the Astros have won.

But we have to ask, how much more good will does it buy them? It's not unlike a relationship, where the other person has given you the best times of your life. Then the cheating accusations start. But you ignore them, because, boy, you love that person. It's just talk, right? No big deal.

Until it becomes one.

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TO BE THE MAN, YOU GOTTA BEAT THE MAN!

The answers in the outfield are becoming clearer than the Astros hoped

*Note: Some Advanced Statistics, courtesy of Baseball Savant, do not include Thursday night's game against the Diamondbacks. Others, courtesy of Fangraphs, do include Thursday night's game*

The Corpus Christi Hooks Twitter account confirmed that Yordan Alvarez is alive and able to take swings, meaning the slugger's return to the Astros lineup is getting closer. Alvarez will get a bulk of the DH at-bats. With Springer being the primary center fielder, and Brantley being the primary left fielder, Dusty Baker will have to choose between Josh Reddick and Kyle Tucker for his primary right fielder. Who should he choose?

How do you boil down picking between two players to one question? What is the most important thing to judge a hitter on? The answer

The better player is the player that does the most damage consistently.

Sounds easy, right? But how do you judge that?

  1. Hard Hit %
  2. BB:K
  3. Contact %

Why these three? Well, hitting the ball hard usually leads to damage, so it is good to hit the ball hard. A player that walks and strikes out roughly the same amount is generally pretty consistent, so BB:K ratios closer to 1:1 (this is extremely rare, and a vast majority of MLB hitters are worse than 1:2) are good. Lastly, players that make contact a lot not only can generally do more of the little things like moving runners over, lifting a ball with a runner on third, or executing a hit & run, but also they generally don't swing and miss at their pitch when they get it. Action happens.

Kyle Tucker has a hard hit % of 38.5% so far in 2020. That is 55th in MLB amongst players with at least 25 batted balls (Tucker has 26). For context, Padres star third baseman Manny Machado is ranked 54th with 38.9%, thorn-in-the-Astros-side Kole Calhoun is t-58th at 37.9%, and Padres star shortstop Fernando Tatis leads the big leagues at 66.7% (wow).

So, more than 1/3rd of the time Tucker makes contact, he hits it hard. That's pretty good...But how often does he make contact?

Tucker has a contact % of 75.6%, meaning he makes contact with the baseball three out of every four times he swings the bat. That is 88th amongst qualified hitters. He is 1% worse than the slumping Jose Altuve, tied with that guy Kole Calhoun again, and about 1% better than the also-slumping George Springer. Tucker is far from elite at putting the bat on the ball, but he isn't terrible either.

However, despite hitting baseball's hard one-third of the time and making contact three-thirds of the time, Tucker strikes out entirely too much. His 29.3% K-rate is the 35th worst in baseball, and he doesn't offset the strikeouts with a lot of walks either. Tucker walks just 7.3% of the time, which is the 62nd lowest. Ultimately, Tucker has a BB:K ratio of 0.25, which is 49th in MLB right now.

Lastly, while it isn't part of the criteria above, Tucker doesn't have a very diverse batted ball portfolio. Tucker hits the ball to the pull side 65% of the time, and he's hit it on the ground 50% of the time. Eventually, teams will start placing heavy shifts on him, and those balls that have snuck through holes in the early parts of the year won't anymore.

But, is Josh Reddick any better? While none of Tucker's numbers blow you away, they aren't terrible, and he's a young prospect that needs playing time to develop.

Reddick has a 31.3% hard hit % so far in 2020, about seven percentage points below Tucker. 31.3% places Reddick in 96th place, between players like Marcus Semien and Yuli Gurriel. So, Tucker has Reddick beat here, but it isn't by a landslide.

Reddick has a contact % of 80.5%, which is 50th in MLB right now. He's better than Tucker by 5%, and he's in the top quartile in baseball. Reddick also sprays the ball around when he makes contact, hitting the ball to center field 43.8% of the time, right field 37.5% of the time, and left field 18.8% of the time. His ground ball rate is also 31%, almost 20% lower than Tucker's. That would explain why Reddick and Tucker's Barrel % (hard hit baseballs hit in the most desired exit velocity) are within a percentage point of one another despite Tucker having a seven point hard hit advantage.

Lastly, Reddick doesn't strike out very much. He strikes out 14% of the time, which is the 34th best K% in baseball (funny enough, Gurriel and Brantley are 33rd and 32nd). While Reddick doesn't walk a ton either, he walks more than Tucker, clocking in four percentage points better at 11.6%. That results in a BB:K ratio of 0.83, which is tied with Bryce Harper and Freddie Freeman for the 30th best in MLB.

Throw in the fact that Reddick plays significantly better defense, and it's really a no-brainer who should play. Astros fans might want the sexier and newer model in Tucker, but it isn't time to trade in old reliable just yet. When Yordan Alvarez returns, Josh Reddick is the right answer in right field.

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