Spring is here and baseball is finally returning from what has been a tedious offseason for just about everyone involved. Of course, at the heart of the frustration lies the now-infamous sign-stealing scandal that undoubtedly gave the Houston Astros a disproportionate competitive advantage en route to their 2017 World Series championship. However, while fans, players and front office execs alike are all justifiably upset with the Astros’ cheating, one former pitcher has particularly good reason to not only be frustrated with the ex-champions, but also take them to court.
On August 4th, 2017, Mike Bolsinger of the Toronto Blue Jays entered the game in the 4th inning to relieve as they were trailing the Astros 7-2. With a runner on and two outs, Bolsinger’s outcomes are as follows: walk, three-run home run, double, walk, single, walk, warning-track fly out. As a result of the horrendous outing, his ERA ballooned from 5.49 to 6.31 (league average was 4.36 that year) while his WHIP went from 1.66 to 1.81 (avg. was 1.33) and the Blue Jays promptly designated him for assignment after what would prove to be his final game in the big leagues since.
Given his stats —and if we’re being honest the eye-test too— it is clear Bolsinger certainly was never a Cy Young candidate by any means, yet the degree to which he gets teed-off seems oddly high. You can watch the entire appearance here, but the MLB’s investigation confirms part of what we see unfold in the clip: the Houston batters knew what pitches would be delivered before they were even thrown and allegedly used the trash-can-banging system on 12 of the 29 pitches Bolsinger threw. So, the question becomes, “If the Astros had not stolen signs, would the results of Bolsinger’s appearance be different in a way that would have ‘saved’ his job?”
The official way in which this civil suit is being framed is whether or not the Astros engaged in unfair business practices and negligence via a “duplicitous and tortious scheme of sign-stealing.” Though initially filed toward the Astros organization on February 10th, the original grievance contained Doe defendants, essentially defendants to-be-named later, which reportedly likely include Astros Owner Jim Crane.
The significance of his involvement in this lawsuit stems from Commissioner Rob Manfred’s summary of Crane’s role in the scandal. Manfred wrote, “Jim Crane was unaware of any of the violations of MLB rules by his club,” plainly exonerating him. However, after the year-long suspensions and subsequent firings of general manager Jeff Lunhow and manager A.J. Hinch, Crane is the last man standing among a splintered front office and has been able to keep himself isolated from any sanctions. While it remains to be seen how directly the lawsuit aims to implicate Crane, it is possible that more details about his understanding —or lack thereof— of the cheating are made public which would inevitably drag out the controversy even further.
Odds are that the lawsuit will never reach trial, however if it did how would it play out? The only thing close to a baseball crime of this magnitude traces back to 1919 when eight members of the Chicago White Sox were accused of intentionally losing the World Series in exchange for a share of the profits from a gambling syndicate. So, while there isn’t a true precedent, a couple factors will outline the way the case proceeds.
First, grievances dealing with a player’s salary are covered by a labor law preemption, meaning that the Collective Bargaining Agreement between the MLB and MLBPA will govern any bargain between the feuding parties. To that end, the Astros can appeal the court to dismiss the lawsuit so that Bolsinger must arbitrate. There are several considerations that follow and make this aspect of the proceeding much more complex, however SportsIllustrated has covered these nuances in depth here for those who want to go a step further.
More interesting, however, is the question of whether or not the “Astros game” truly caused the derailing of Bolsinger’s career. As his aforementioned stats show, 2017 was already shaping up to be a make-or-break season for the 6’1″ righty as he was carrying a mediocre 6.83 ERA from the year prior into his first (and only) season with the Blue Jays. Yet, despite forfeiting 21 earned runs in just 27.2 innings in that 2016 season, 2015 provided a lot of hope for Bolsinger’s future in the league when he started 21 games, tossing 109 innings to the tune of a cool 3.62 ERA.
So, did Bolsinger, a 10th-round pick who never cracked any top-prospect lists, truly have a potential future that was unfairly derailed by Houston’s cheating? Or was his 2015 season just a fluke and his departure from the big leagues always inevitable? The most challenging aspect of all of this is that this outing against the Astros proved to be his final appearance in the MLB, so it is easy to hypothesize the “what ifs” that could have changed the course of history. Yet, I’m inclined to think that Bolsinger’s career would have been effectively over regardless of how bad a bashing the Astros gave him on that August 4th game.
Between his uninspiring rise from prospect obscurity to what seemed to be a failed starter-turned-reliever experiment, Bolsinger had the profile of someone destined to be in the MLB just for a cup of coffee while teams try to figure out if he has the “it” needed to stay. Toronto took a flier on him and despite returning to Triple A and posting an electric 1.70 ERA over 47.2 innings, its clear that the Blue Jays and the rest of the league were ready to move on from him.
These considerations are why this lawsuit figures to be so complex and monumental. Bolsinger’s attorney, Ben Meiselas of LA-based Geragos & Geragos, has a steep case to make, but successfully represented Colin Kaepernick in his collusion grievance against the NFL. The ramifications of any settlement that may be reached are far-reaching traveling all the way up to the office of the Astros owner and could prompt more players to follow suit (no pun intended). In any case, the dark cloud of Houston’s sign stealing scandal that looms over baseball won’t be going away any time soon.