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The St. Louis Cardinals Picked The Right League To Cheat In

Only in baseball can $2 million in cash, plus the Nos. 56 and 75 overall picks in the draft, seem like chump change. That’s what the St. Louis Cardinals were forced to give the Houston Astros as punishment for hacking into Houston’s scouting database several years ago. All told, it was an unprecedented penalty to be levied against a baseball team for an unprecedented act of espionage.

Yet compared to cheating scandals in other sports, the Cardinals got off easy. Using the various draft-value charts floating around in the sports analytics blogosphere, let’s compare the relative value of the picks St. Louis relinquished with the consequences of some of the NFL and NBA’s biggest cheating scandals in recent memory. (We’ll put aside any monetary penalties, simply because each sport has its own salary structure, making those kinds of cross-league comparisons difficult.)

According to research conducted by The Baseball Analysts, a sabermetric blog run by Rich Lederer, the 56th and 75th picks in the MLB draft tend to produce about 4.9 wins above replacement over their careers. How much is that? Losing 5 WAR over, say, a 10-year span decreases the average team’s odds of winning at least one World Series in the decade by 1.4 percentage points.1

By contrast, consider the New England Patriots. For their role in Deflategate, they were stripped of the No. 29 pick in the 2016 NFL draft, plus a fourth-rounder (let’s say No. 1302) in 2017. According to Chase Stuart’s draft value chart, those picks tend to produce about 43 total points of approximate value over their careers, the loss of which over a decade would cost a team 4 percentage points from their odds of winning at least one Super Bowl in that span.3 And the Patriots’ penalty for Spygate seven seasons earlier — losing the 31st pick in the 2008 draft — would lop 3.2 percentage points off a team’s odds of winning at least one championship in a 10-year period.

(Similarly, the New Orleans Saints’ Bountygate scandal, which cost them a pair of second-round picks, carried a penalty that would decrease the average team’s odds of winning a Super Bowl over the next decade by a whopping 4.4 percentage points.)

The granddaddy of all league-imposed draft-pick sanctions probably belongs to the Minnesota Timberwolves, who lost five first-rounders for an under-the-table agreement with forward Joe Smith that attempted to circumvent the NBA’s salary cap rules. Although two of the picks were eventually restored, those that weren’t were worth about 61 career win shares, according to research by founder Justin Kubatko.4 Losing that many wins over a 10-year period5 would reduce an NBA team’s championship odds for the decade by 6.5 percentage points — a crushing blow that helps explain why Kevin Garnett had to leave Minnesota to win his first championship.

In light of those comparable scandals in other leagues, the Cardinals got away with a relatively light slap on the wrist. But then again, in a sport where the World Series favorite only has a 15 percent chance of winning it all in any given year, every single point of championship probability counts.


  1. Based on a logistic regression for MLB teams since the 1994 strike.

  2. That’s the final non-compensatory pick of the fourth round, which would go to the Super Bowl champion; our Elo prediction model currently favors the Patriots to beat the Falcons on Super Sunday.

  3. Based on a regression since the NFL playoff field expanded to 12 teams in 1990. I also assumed a replacement-level NFL player would produce about 6 points of AV over that span.

  4. Note that it’s impossible to reconstruct exactly where the Wolves would have drafted in an alternate universe without the penalty, because the sanctions changed their roster for years to come. But going from their actual records, they would have owned the No. 13 pick in 2001, No. 23 in 2002 and No. 28 in 2004 — which add up to a value of 61 WS.

  5. While also adding back in the roughly 8 win shares generated by replacement-level players.

Neil Paine is a senior sportswriter for FiveThirtyEight.