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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Yordan Alvarez has been fantastic. Photo by Getty Images.

The Astros’ slog on mediocrity road has them in Chicago for the weekend with their record at 19 wins and 18 losses. No time like the present to switch roads. Losing two of three in Seattle then winning two of three in Anaheim means it’s a winning road trip if they can take at least two of three from the woeful White Sox.

The schedule is favorable the rest of May if the Astros are good enough to take advantage. After the White Sox it’s three at Minute Maid Park against the sub-.500 Cubs followed by three at home vs. the sub .250 Athletics who look like one of the worst teams of all-time. Then it’s back on the road for three at decent Milwaukee, three at those woebegone A’s, then back home to close the month against the middling Minnesota Twins (for whom Carlos Correa is batting below .200 and been booed by the home fans).

The Astros lineup continues to scuffle overall. They open play in the Windy City ranked eighth among the 15 American League teams in runs per game, but third worst in OPS. It’s not hard to explain with only two lineup regulars having good seasons at the plate to this point. Yordan Alvarez is Yordan Alvarez, meaning offensive superstar. Kyle Tucker has solid numbers, but nothing remotely elite. Tucker’s .789 OPS is lower than he’s finished with in any of his three seasons as an everyday player.

Jeremy Pena has been all right, he’s tied with Alvarez for the team lead with 15 extra base hits but has not made a leap from his rookie season. If Pena is to become a very good offensive player, he simply has to develop better plate discipline. Pena is up to 146 at bats with just six walks drawn. That paltry walks number is more troubling than his 38 strikeouts.

Jose Abreu still shows no signs of getting going. Abreu is still sitting on zero home runs, his OPS has sagged below Martin Maldonado’s. Alex Bregman is still batting just .207 with a weak .663 OPS. The season is six weeks old. Altuve’s return within maybe three weeks is a nearly absolute notable boost to the lineup. Brantley, we’ll see. It’s definitely troubling that after a week of minor league games Brantley’s surgically repaired shoulder is bothering him again, and he is at least temporarily shut down.

It’s not like the Astros have been buried by any means, certainly not in the AL West. Four games out in May is no big deal. However, it is time to start taking the Texas Rangers at least somewhat seriously. They are 22-14 heading into a four game weekend series against the garbage A’s. This shouldn’t hold up but the Rangers have been better than the Astros at every position but left field. The Rangers’ pitching has proving to do over the long haul, but the Astros’ pitching while still good overall is not nearly what it was last year. The Rangers’ farm system is also clearly better than the Astros’ system, so the Rangers are among the many teams that can make stronger offers than the Astros in pursuing upgrades.

Four and a half months of the season remain, but that the Astros are already nine and a half games behind the Tampa Bay Rays already does make the Astros repeating with the best record in the AL fairly unlikely.

Elite run production

Yordan Alvarez has played 31 of the Astros’ 37 games so far this season. In those 31 games he has 34 runs batted in. That is almost certainly an unsustainable pace, but neither of the guys most often ahead of Alvarez in the lineup this season have been good at getting on base. Mauricio Dubon’s .306 on base percentage is poor for a leadoff hitter, Alex Bregman’s sits at a meh .327. When Altuve gets in the lineup and if Brantley’s return ever actually happens, Yordan certainly should have more ducks on the pond to bring around than Dubon and Bregman have provided. Definitely unsustainable is Yordan’s absurd .520 batting average with runners in scoring position. With RISP Yordan is 13 for 25 with 29 of his 31 RBI.

The last player to average more than one RBI per game for a season? In 1999 Manny Ramirez knocked in 165 runs in 147 games played. The last player to knock in 150 in a season? Alex Rodriguez with 156 in 2007. The all-time record for RBI in a season has stood since 1930. Chicago Cubs center fielder Hack Wilson drove in 116 runs that year. In just his home games at Wrigley Field. Overall Wilson amassed a whopping 191 RBI. He also led the world with 56 home runs. Hack Wilson’s listed height was the same as Jose Altuve’s: five feet six inches. Wilson’s batting average in 1930 was .356, but that was nowhere close to what he needed to win the Triple Crown. The Giants’ Bill Terry hit .401, the last National Leaguer to hit .400. 1930 was a freak show offensive season. The batting average for the entire NL in 1930 was .303. The Giants led the league, batting .319 as a team.

Looking for even more Astros content?

Stone Cold ‘Stros is the weekly Astro-centric podcast I am part of alongside Brandon Strange and Josh Jordan. On our regular schedule it goes up at 3PM Monday on the SportsMapHouston YouTube channel, is available there for playback at any point, and also becomes available in podcast form at outlets galore. Such as:

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