hat happens when Big Data analytics proves an insufficient foundation for success in business? How can the so-called “human factor” be integrated into a framework that enhances a statistical approach?
These are the questions Ben Reiter grapples with in Astroball, a persuasive study of the making and rise of the Houston Astros, once a Major League laughingstock and now the 2017 World Series Champions. In engaging fashion, Reiter updates Michael Lewis’s groundbreaking 2003 bestseller Moneyball by showing how human judgment can guide and complement an analytical approach, and in particular how two Astros executives, Jeff Luhnow and Sig Mejdal, forged a champion out of a perennial loser by doing so.
Moneyball exposed a fundamental transformation in the business of baseball. Led by Billy Beane, the pioneering general manager of the Oakland Athletics (incidentally, my long-time favorite baseball team), the approach so colorfully depicted by Lewis revolutionized Major League Baseball by studying data anomalies, exploiting inefficiencies, and challenging the game’s received truths. Moneyball privileged the predictive power of hard statistics over the “gut feels” of traditional scouts whose admiration for a prospect’s physical or mental makeup often clouded their judgment.
Beane’s relentless focus on previously underappreciated statistical categories like on-base percentage led the small-market, low-payroll A’s to great success in the early 2000s, where their record (at least in the regular season) matched or exceeded that of behemoths like the New York Yankees and Los Angeles Dodgers. Moneyball quickly caught on, though, and Beane’s protégés adapted his approach to big-market juggernauts like the Boston Red Sox and Chicago Cubs, both of whom captured their first championships in roughly 100 years soon thereafter.
But like the great nation it emblemizes, baseball is a breeding ground for continuous innovation, and as Moneyball became the new normal, a new approach began to take hold as Luhnow, a Northwestern MBA and onetime McKinsey consultant, teamed with Mejdal, a former NASA biomathmetician, and arrived in Houston from the rival St. Louis Cardinals at just the right moment.
Reiter, like the team he covered for Sports Illustrated, was ridiculed for predicting in a June 2014 cover story that the Astros would win the World Series in 2017. Mired deep in last place, and having suffered another losing campaign after three consecutive 100-loss seasons, the Astros were certifiably the worst team in half a century.
But in Luhnow and Mejdal, Reiter saw the makings of a new revolution. In the once-mocked, now-legendary SI piece, “Houston’s Grand Experiment,” which would become the first chapter of Astroball, he explored how the front office sought to “synthesize quantitative and qualitative information about players” and displayed the courage to fail badly in order to rebuild its farm system from the bottom up.
Decrying the stale “dichotomous” Moneyball-vs.-human debate, Mejdal contends that for many in the business, “it’s either the scouts or the nerd, in the corner of the room. But from the very beginning in St. Louis, Jeff framed it as an and question.” The question was not which framework to use, but rather how to combine both of them. And combine them he did in a program he called STOUT—half stats, half scouts.
The Astros, writes Reiter, “synthesized human observations into their probabilistic models, and made humans responsible for triaging—and sometimes rejecting—the results.”
The team put their model to work in selecting the first player overall in the amateur draft for three straight years, owing to their abysmal record, and they netted young stars Carlos Correa, George Springer, Dallas Keuchel, and José Altuve—promising prospects who currently form the team’s core.
Houston slowly began emerging from the basement, finishing only second-to-last in 2014; posting a winning record and actually making the playoffs in 2015; and, following a disappointing 2016, notching the second-best record in the league in 2017 and entering the postseason as modest favorites.
Not every move was successful, however. The team abandoned a then-struggling 26-year-old lineup mainstay named J.D. Martinez who had failed to live up to his promise but took extra time in the 2013-14 offseason to fundamentally remake his swing. The same J.D. Martinez is now an MVP candidate with the Boston Red Sox who in 2018 led the American League in runs batted in.
The Astros also drafted stud pitcher Brady Aiken with its top pick in 2014 only to discover through an MRI that he suffered a significant risk of blowing out his elbow. Yet they made lemonade even out of that, converting the Aiken failure into a pick the following year they would use to select Alex Bregman, who would go on to become the Most Valuable Player of the 2018 All-Star Game.
The key for Luhnow and Mejdal was identifying “players who were unsatisfied with their lot, who possessed an uncommon drive and ability to improve. A growth mindset, they called it.”
And indeed, to get over the final hump and vindicate Reiter’s championship prediction, the Astros still needed to add two critical pieces, neither of which had been adequately valued by Megdal’s algorithms.
The first was veteran outfielder Carlos Beltrán, a former ‘Stro and a bilingual slugger with considerable playoff experience whose sensible, if unconventional, “bonding strategies” yielded strong team chemistry.
The second was another veteran, pitcher Justin Verlander, a Cy Young Award- and MVP-winner and a future Hall of Famer who had excelled in postseason play, including in the World Series. The team sacrificed top future prospects to obtain the fireballer from the Detroit Tigers, and even then, they almost didn’t make the August 31 trade deadline.
In the end, both Beltrán and Verlander played significant roles in Houston’s World Series victory, a story Reiter retells in his characteristically bracing style.
Few scribes today can match Michael Lewis’s ability to just plain write, whether about sports, politics, or economics. But Reiter’s engaging account adeptly blends a journalist’s nose for a good story, a writer’s nuanced sympathy for his characters, and an industry trend-spotter’s analysis of important new developments. A worthy update of Moneyball indeed.