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Column: Andre Ethier didn’t win a World Series ring. He blames analytics for sign stealing

Andre Ethier drives in the Dodgers' only run during Game 7 of the 2017 World Series.
(Ezra Shaw / Getty Images)

Before talking about the possibility he was cheated out of the championship he sought for more than a decade, before explaining why the Houston Astros should retain their World Series trophy, Andre Ethier wanted to make a point.

“Let’s back up for a second,” Ethier said.

He wanted to identify what he perceived as the real culprit of the Astros sign-stealing scandal.

“This,” he said, “is all a byproduct of analytics.”

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Game 7 of the 2017 World Series was the last game Ethier ever played. He drove in the Dodgers’ only run in a 5-1 defeat.

Yu Darvish, who the Astros crushed in the 2017 World Series, says consequences would be greater if a similar sign-stealing scandal occurred in his native Japan, columnist Dylan Hernandez writes.

Ethier spent his entire 12-year career with the Dodgers, retiring as the franchise’s all-time leader in playoff games.

The 37-year-old makes his home in Phoenix, where he coaches the oldest of his four children in flag football, basketball and baseball. Retirement has granted him a perspective that made him more concerned about big-picture problems in Major league Baseball than whether he might have been a victim of a sign-stealing scheme.

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Ethier, who spoke by phone while on a family vacation in Utah, prefaced his thoughts by acknowledging his distaste for baseball’s analytics movement.

“How much should you allow front offices to really be able to keep manipulating and changing the game?,” he said. “There’s only so much they can get out of this analytical data that a human baseball player can actually go out and execute. What does it lead to next? Well, these guys in these front offices have to keep justifying themselves by bringing something else to the table.”

“When you feel like you played the best you can play in a series as a team and you don’t win, everyone obviously looks for an excuse of why they didn’t win. Is this an excuse? Yes. Is it a valid one? I don’t know.”

Andre Ethier

Under since-fired general manager Jeff Luhnow, the Astros were considered one of the most sabermetrically advanced teams. Although the commissioner’s report described their cheating operation as player-driven, the Wall Street Journal obtained a letter the league office sent to Luhnow that revealed that the algorithm used to decode stolen signs originated in the Astros front office.

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Part of the problem is that front offices believe they help determine the outcomes of games. Before games, they provide coaches and players with data on the likelihood certain pitchers are to throw certain pitches in certain counts.

Ethier offered a hypothetical example in which a front office provides its players with information that shows a pitcher throws a slider 70% of the time in a particular count. But what if the data doesn’t produce results?

“So what do they start doing?” he said.

Pretending to be a front office executive, he said, “Well, we know we can use these cameras and we can actually get the for-sure 100% answer.”

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Ethier wasn’t surprised by the revelations about the Astros, who used a camera to steal signs and relayed that information to hitters in the batter’s box by banging a trash can.

“These types of rumors have been said for a while about teams, specifically the Astros and the stuff they were doing,” he said. “I definitely heard about the cameras, the cameras in center field trained on the catcher.”

Ethier was sidelined most of the 2017 season with a back injury. He played well enough in September to earn a spot on the Dodgers’ 25-man playoff roster. The team went on to reach its first World Series since 1988.

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“I knew after that series that this was going to sting really bad, even without knowing if they were doing anything,” he said. “I felt like we, as a team, played as great as a team can play during that playoffs, and especially in that series. I mean, we were clicking on all cylinders and it just seemed like we could never get ahead.”

Ethier recalled how he felt after the Dodgers won in Game 6 to extend the series to seven games.

“Going back to my house, all the friends and family around, were like, ‘We’re going to win the World Series,’” Ethier said.

He envisioned the euphoria he would share with the fans who supported him his entire career.

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But that was as close as he got.

Dodgers infielder Tyler White had some playing time with the Houston Astros in 2017. White is declining to speak in detail about the Astros’ actions.

Asked if he thinks he might have been cheated out of that moment, Ethier replied, “I don’t let that thought creep that far. Sitting here today, once it was over and those couple weeks were over, I, for the most part, put it behind me.”

At the time, he didn’t suspect anything particularly nefarious. In retrospect, he wonders how the Astros whacked around not only relievers such as Josh Fields, Kenta Maeda and Brandon Morrow, but also frontline pitchers such as Clayton Kershaw and Yu Darvish.

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“What did they have on those guys that led to that?” Ethier said. “Did it affect at-bats? Yes, 100%, I believe it affected at-bats. Did it affect the outcomes of games? Well, if it affected at-bats, most likely it affected games. But did it affect the overall series? We’ll never know. And we can sit there playing what-ifs the whole time, but we’ll never know.

“When you feel like you played the best you can play in a series as a team and you don’t win, everyone obviously looks for an excuse of why they didn’t win. Is this an excuse? Yes. Is it a valid one? I don’t know.”

Like many of his other former teammates, Ethier said he’s bothered by what he perceives as a lack of remorse by the Astros.

“Everyone’s complaining about the punishments and complaining about the apologies,” he said. “On the other side, they’re saying everyone deserves a second chance. But in all these great second chances they bring up and reference, all those people owned up to what they did and how they did it.

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“Lance Armstrong said how he cheated. Alex Rodriguez said how he cheated. Tiger Woods said how he cheated. But these guys still haven’t been out saying, ‘Yeah, we were doing this. This is what we were doing.’ They just said, ‘Yeah, we did something,’ but they’re not saying how they did it. . . .

“You keep seeing denials: ‘Oh, no, we didn’t do that, though.’ What did you actually do then? Let’s see what you actually did. If you guys have nothing more to hide, then just come out and say what you really did.’ But there’s obviously something more to hide if you’re not coming out with what you guys really did.”

Having said that, Ethier doesn’t think the Astros should be stripped of their championship.

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“That opens up a whole other thing,” he explained. “Do you take away all the games all these teams played with steroid guys on their teams?”

Ethier admitted the Dodgers used video to decode other team’s sign systems, but did so only before and after games. Manager Dave Roberts said this was true.

“In no way, shape or form did we do anything close to resembling [the Astros’ system] in ’16 or ’17 in our playoffs runs,” Ethier said. “Were we trying to use video to find catchers’ signs and ticks and stuff like that? Yeah, 100%. Or pitchers if they’re tipping? Yes. But we had no in-game way of relaying the sign.”

Ethier’s solution is to make video unavailable not only during games, but in the three hours before and one hour after them.

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“When I came into the league, we had one little video room with two screens in it and it was a blurry KCAL feed of the game coming from the truck,” he said. “And then all of a sudden, a couple years later, you come back and there’s six screens in there, five TVs, zoom-in, 27 cameras you can access, all this stuff. Then they start putting up launch angles and the velocities and the spins and all this stuff.”

Ethier repeated his disdain for analytics.

“Just let players play,” he said.

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Desire by the front offices to control games, he believes, is ruining the sport.

“There are still star players, but not across teams anymore,” he said. “On some teams, they’re just all platoon. We’re lucky enough to be a part of the Dodgers, where we have Cody Bellinger and Mookie Betts now. But name that player on the Diamondbacks. Name that player on the Pittsburgh Pirates. They’re all-platoon teams.”

Ethier, who plans to visit the Dodgers’ spring training camp next week, encouraged fans of the team to focus on the upcoming season instead of the championship lost to the Astros.

There’s no sign-stealing program that can replicate the excitement of a Bellinger home run, no algorithm that can re-create the feeling of watching Betts send a ball into the gap.

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“That’s a pretty good way to move on past this,” Ethier said.


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