Book Review: Astroball, The Cover and understanding today’s success


Chipalatta goes where Chipalatta has never gone before with a book review of “Astroball” by Ben Reiter. This is one of many sports-related gifts your dutiful servant received between Father’s Day and his birthday this last summer and, this one is specifically relevant with our Astros and their off-season losses, dealings and additions.

If Ben Reiter’s name seems a bit familiar it is because it was his article on the Astros rebuild that resulted in “The Cover” on Sports Illustrated. It was June 2014. The Astros had spent three seasons in the absolute dungeon of the major leagues with 100 losses and the worst record (and top draft position) in each season. They had taken baby steps in 2014 and when George Springer appeared on the cover of SI “predicting” the Astros as 2017 World Champions they were tied for the third worst record (36-48) in the majors with the Colorado Rockies. Of course, the SI Cover was a bit tongue in cheek in that the article was about a different approach that might work out or might not.

But the SI editor at the time decided to go for the angle that the Astros were doing something different that might end up ruling the day and so a planned cover of Michelle Wie winning the 2014 U.S. Open was replaced by a team that had torn themselves apart and were in the process of creating something much better than they had been. But they had not yet proven a thing.

Reiter’s book is an easy read and includes a lot of things true Astro fans know, lots of things they suspected and some things that will probably be a surprise. But if you want to understand a lot more about the decision-making process that took a team with meh MLB results and a terrible farm system and turned them into one of the best teams in the majors with one of the best farm systems, this book is highly recommended.

A few things that stood out to this reader…

  • “The Process” has been created in iterative steps and loop learning along the way. Jeff Luhnow brought former blackjack dealer and rocket scientist Sig Mejdal into the Cardinals fold to bring analytics into a scout oriented world. But the Cards ignored his first draft recommendation Jed Lowrie (who they added to the Astros twice later on) and drafted an also future Astro in Tyler Greene, who had a short and uneventful MLB career that was far below Lowrie’s career.
  • In subsequent drafts, there were times when Luhnow used the analytics pick instead of the scouting pick and even though these at times were successful, he was not satisfied with the process. Luhnow and Mejdal worked on how they could merge pure analytics that might predict how a college pitcher would do in the pros and historical information that showed that a particular scout was right X% of the time on Y types of picks.
  • The 2009 Cards’ draft was an outstanding one as the Redbirds picked up future major leaguers up and down the draft – Shelby Miller (1st rd), Joe Kelly (3rd), Matt Carpenter (13th), Trevor Rosenthal (21st) and Matt Adams (23rd). But one of the things that Luhnow took away from this draft was why the best player in this draft, Mike Trout, was picked 25th, six picks after the Cards picked Miller and four picks after the Astros picked Giovanni Mier (OMG!). Was there a way to analyze a guy who came out of a non-baseball hotbed like New Jersey and make sure he wasn’t missed?
  • In the section devoted to the Astros’ scouting of and eventual drafting of Carlos Correa, they mention the San Diego Padres (who had the 7th pick in the 2012 draft) were also scouting him. The person scouting him? A.J. Hinch
  • Another “learning” experience for the Astros was the handling of J.D. Martinez. History told them that a super high percentage of hitters who say they’ve been working to change or improve their swing at Martinez’s age are just blowing smoke. But Martinez had realized that his swing did not look like any of the swings by the top hitters in the game and worked the off-season to fix it. The Astros gave him very few at-bats in the spring and then let him go and of course, he has turned into one of the very best power hitters in the game. They did some soul searching and changes in process to try and avoid this type of failure in the future.
  • They also intimate that Bo Porter‘s lack of use of Martinez that spring was something additional that they held against him when they let Porter go.
  • They talk about the Cardinals hacking by former Luhnow disciple Chris Correa. The motive they come up with is jealousy. The hacks began right after the Astros’ SI cover appeared and they think that Correa was hacked (sorry the pun) that the Astros were getting such coverage when they had not really earned it and based on a process he felt they had taken from the Cards.
  • They do talk about some of the gripings that some former Astro players had with what they thought was the over-use of statistics, defensive shifts and how they felt the team treated them as chips instead of humans at times.
  • They zero in on how Justin Verlander was the perfect fit for the team. He had pitched poorly at the beginning of 2017 but used analytics and study to change his grip in the middle of the season to slow down his slider and give it more break. He was a sponge when he came to the Astros using all the analytics they could pour into him to improve himself.
  • Another thing they talk about is how to value players for more than what they do on the field. Why do some guys like a David Ross seem to make teams better without being a superstar himself? How does a player become a “glue” guy or someone who can span across cliques in the locker room to help the team become a TEAM? This leads into a long discussion about….
  • Carlos Beltran. They emphasize how much study that Beltran would do of opposing pitchers and how he came to the Astros and not only helped their hitters look at tip-offs or “tells” from other team’s pitchers, but even talked to the Astro pitchers like Dallas Keuchel about what “tells” he had picked up from them. In the World Series, he passed along a slight glove wiggle that Yu Darvish had that tipped the type of pitch that was coming. They also talk about how a player like George Springer, who often had problems with slowing down his swing, would listen to another player, like Beltran, in lieu of a hitting coach.
  • It can be questioned if the writer is over-emphasizing the contributions of Beltran to the overall success of the team. It reminds one of when the movie Apollo 13 came out and there were mumblings about how they over promoted the part that Gary Sinise’s character (the astronaut left behind due to medical concerns) played in the drama. In this case, they talk about how Beltran started the tradition of handing out WWE belts after games and how he started the disco music/fog machine celebrations in the locker room after wins. Its been documented that the belts were started by WWE fan Josh Reddick and the disco/fog machine had started with George Springer a few years before. But it does appear that Beltran was important in spanning between the different groups on the team and making sure that the Spanish speaking players were included in everything.

In the end, it was a very interesting read that should help one to understand how things evolved to create the excellent situation the Astros find themselves in today and what may happen in the future. It will be interesting to see if the losses of Sig Mejdal and Mike Elias, who played big roles in the development of “The Process”, hurts the Astros over time.

84 comments on “Book Review: Astroball, The Cover and understanding today’s success

  1. You have never done a blog post quite like this. It is wonderful.
    I didn’t ever link the Astros failure with JD Martinez to Porter, but it does make sense. Who was JD supposed to go to, to make people realize he had found something good? Porter never seemed like much of a listener.
    Is Martinez the new Beltran? Lots of talk about how the Red Sox have seen Martinez spend hours a day studying opponents and about how he has influenced others in that clubhouse.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Thank you for the kind words old pro. This was one of my favorite posts to write – because it tied to something that explained a lot of how my favorite team was re-energized and the back room machinations that tied to it.

      What I found that was interesting was how they were not afraid to look at their own flaws. Some teams would just shrug off and say – well we cut JD because he had not performed up to snuff in the previous years. Instead they said to themselves, what did we miss and why did we miss it? They are even applying an apparatus to bats that can help them look at a hitters bat speed, angle of impact etc to see if a player has actually changed their swing (for better or worse).

      Like

    • Very interesting synopsis. I’ll have to pick up a copy. I did wonder if they got some of the JDM information wrong…so I started googling. My recollection was that he revamped his swing following his release and not before. I also thought he pulled a hamstring in early spring training 2014 which severely limited his at bats. I found this article that backs up what the book has to say:

      Liked by 1 person

    • I’ve read a few articles by now, thanks! I’m slowly watching some football lately, mostly to do with occasions for gathering. I miss the old days of Cliff Branch, Mercury Morris or John Elway. Different eras, not this era as much. Never understood the Mario Williams draft, paying so much for David Carr, and I never really looked back in spirit. They just seem 2nd rate, but as you say there are some good players today deshawn Hop and Watt. There ya go, a football plug.

      Now, can we just Play Ball again?? I’m still mostly mulling over Op’s idea to acquire Realmuto. And also mostly how that relates to keeping Reddick. And Cruz, which seems like a no-brainer actually. It just really would put the SQUEEZE on too many current players, I fear.

      Liked by 1 person

      • mercury morris wow. there is a blast from the past. morris went to west texas state university in canyon tx. the buffaloes! duane thomas of dallas cowboy superbowl fame also went there. it was quite the program for a few years, even though enrollment was small and the location somewhat remote. i played a kids incorporated all star game in buffalo stadium when in grade school. fond memories. thanks for the that reference grayson.

        Liked by 1 person

  2. I think one of the other things that hits hard is how “Astroball” is very different from “Moneyball”.

    Moneyball – both the book and especially the movie made old time baseball men (Art Howe took particular offense for good reason) look like Cro-Magnon buffoons. This guy looks like a player and that one does not was the basis for their scouting it seemed. The thrust of that story was that analytics was the be all end all.

    In Astroball – the front office does apply a ton of analytics to the sport, but they realize there is value to the human side of the equation. Luhnow in preparation for the draft brings in everyone. Scouts are allowed to voice their opinions and to tout specific players who they believe are hidden gems. The Cards drafted Rosenthal who had only pitched 4+ innings of college ball and their scout recommended him after seeing him pitch only 1-1/3 inning. But they valued his opinion.
    But they also valued the analytics end – but worked to include both in their valuations.

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    • very interesting post dan. i vote you go in whatever direction you please when deciding what to write about. this one was different and refreshing. the thing i come out with after reading your cliff notes of the book are that luhnow is indeed a different kind of gm. the fact that he wants all the info and from all sources gives me confidence that the large majority of his decisions will work out. its a satisfying feeling indeed when you read about these kinds of innovations, changes and success and its YOUR team! thanks for this post.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Relating to Astroball revelations, some of the names that came public after the Chris Correa episode in terms of who we might use as trade pieces, really made Luhnow lose some credibility, I felt. Unless he is the type to be very clear to his players that their presence is only for the betterment of the team, and any given moment that could change. Being a performance-based game, and being an org bent on tracking of that performance, communicating and implementing is huge part of that process,.. but alas

    The game can change as quickly as Carlos Correa’s back weakness.

    Like

    • Give me the name of one team in the major leagues that doesn’t make moves like Jeff Luhnow does. If a team doesn’t make moves they don’t keep up. And who today goes to the players every time they make a decision? Every team’s players know the system, every team’s fans know the system and every front office knows the system. The way teams do business now was determined years ago when free agency was installed. Luhnow is no more responsible for the way things are done than anybody else is. Blame it on baseball because MLB itself is responsible for the way things are now.
      And anything that happened as a result if what Chris Correa did is Chris Correa’s fault, not Luhnow’s.

      Like

  4. Back to the Realmuto discussion, I’d rather pay Grandal and give up the draft pick than surrender Tucker, Whitley, or any other top chips in the system. The biggest problem is finding a contract length on which he would agree.

    The real comparison should be a catcher in Houston against catchers across the league. There were only seven catchers who qualified for the batting title last season (Realmuto, Grandal, Molina, Contreras, Barnhart, and Perez). Only one of those played in the AL. I’d be trying to find someone who doesn’t lose you games rather than thinking that Realmuto adds wins to the team. He probably doesn’t move the needle much. His ceiling is probably a little higher than 2018 based on his splits and getting out of Miami…but realistically he’s about the same offensively as Josh Reddick.

    Liked by 2 people

  5. Random thoughts of a guy who will have forgotten this by tomorrow:
    *I think Machado is going to sign with the Yankees. Their SS’s injury and pending free agency has opened that hole up. Did the Yankees just get under the cap in order to avoid penalty or to make a run at a guy that they need?
    * I think the Astros would get the most value out of Brantley if they put him in LF and gave him 600 PA’s there. Cleveland got 3.5 WAR out of him there in 2018. The reason they kept him there was because they had a DH who was good enough and established enough to keep the Indians from being tempted to move Brantley around.
    *Roster Resource currently has the Astros about $26 million short of the potential estimated penalty line of $207million. This figure includes POTENTIAL incentive bonuses included in player contracts. It also includes spending on new contracts for June draftees. It also includes potential contracts for add-ons to the 40-man that might occur during the year. All of these things get totaled up at the end of the fiscal year 2019, which goes into the explanation of teams not knowing what their full spending expenses are until the very end of the season. All the figures are totaled up for the year and then the teams who are over the $207million spending cap will be told what their penalty figure is. The penalties to the Red Sox and Nationals for their overspending in 2018 were announced a couple of weeks ago. 2019 could be the first time the Astros have ever come close to the spending cap. Their next few moves will determine what they end up spending for the year. Crane talked about perhaps getting close to that limit if the club feels they need to in order to get them to their goal.

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    • Boston got hit for just under $12M and Washington is paying $3.8M. The other penalty on Boston is their first draft pick drops from #33 to #43 based on a newly introduced rule.

      Liked by 1 person

  6. The A’s pick up Profar in a 3 way trade with the Rangers and the Rays – sending reliever Pagan to the Rays and some other prospects, draft picks and international signing bonus money going multiple places, Profar will likely be the poor man’s replacement for Lowrie who was the Marwin for the A’s.

    Like

  7. Joe Kelly just signed with the Dodgers. Astros will not miss him when they are playing against the Red Sox and would like to get back to the World Series and face him.

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  8. I really enjoyed reading this book report. It puts my thoughts of Luhnow in a completely different light.
    I do remember reading Jason Castro’s thoughts on how then Astros (Porter)
    Refusing to give JD a chance that spring even though he had spent the winter re-inventing his swing.
    Very refreshing post Dan. Guess I’ll have to buy the book.

    As for the Realmuto discussion, the only thing about our current catching situation is the discomfort or maybe lack of confidence the pitchers have in Stassi. I’ve always believed a good relationship between catcher and pitcher
    Is vital to winning.

    Liked by 1 person

  9. As previously reports, the coffee into my old computer make it go black. What I failed to report was this new computer (maybe Windows 10) makes me sign in for every comment. I also have to sign in for every “like” – which is does not register. So it appears that Sandy , DaveB and I have broken up. Not true. It just does not record the “likes”. It also does not register “likes” to 1OP but he is so insolent that he doesn’t care on way or the other. And Merry Christmas to all of you.

    Liked by 1 person

  10. I see next year as a breakthrough year for nephew. Nothing would me me happier.
    Seriously though, I don’t believe the Astros ever gave him a real chance.

    Like

  11. Nephew needs to lose about 30 pounds of blubber, and turn it into muscle. Get on a high protein diet, and bulk up his legs and chest. Tyler knows what he needs to do to keep a job, all he needs to do is *do it*. We all thought Reed would come to spring training to take over 1st base. He came to training looking like a new guy…..unfortunately he couldn’t quite catch up to MLB pitching.
    J.D. Martinez was never going to get another chance here. He HAD to get away from all the negativity that sourounded, him here. I was glad for him to leave and find himself again. I think (my opinion only) Luhnow is afraid that will happen to Jake, therefore he keeps him here. “Hope springs eternal”.
    I’ve been quiet the last week or so nursing my heart from missing out on Charlie. I guess I thought if he left us he would turn back into a turnip and lose all the information he was given here. ANY BODY OTHER THAN THE TAMPA BAY RAYS! *THE* most disfunctionional team in MLB! Ok…..now you know and yes, my husband has heard all about it….bless his heart. I like the Brantley signing. The outfield is set now. Becky⚾

    Liked by 2 people

    • We put nephew on Bud Light. If it’s good enough for you, it’s good enough for nephew. You ever posted an .888 OPS? God Bless you Sandy for having the humanitarian understanding of Tyler’s plight. It’s mostly a jelly donut issue. With his support system around him, he’ll overcome, but no thanks to Becky. 30 pounds of blubber? That’s harsh and cruel.

      Like

  12. When I saw Jose Altuve (who was probably 23 at the time) have to get between Bo Porter and Corporan in the dugout, I knew Bo was in over his head. It is one thing to not stand up for your players, it is totally different when you decide to punch one of them out.

    Liked by 2 people

  13. It’s holiday doe season and arrogant Grampa got a nice doe. Fat was a half inch thick on her. I know who has been eating the corn.
    Will get back to baseball soon. Got to make two big pots of chili today.
    Truly blessed.

    Liked by 1 person

  14. Daveb…..ok, Tyler might not have 30 pounds of blubber…..but the boy *needs* to get in shape. I don’t mean to be “harsh and cruel”, but I think you know what I mean. I WANT Tyler White to get the chance to DH, but I still think Luhnow is looking for a professional DH like Nelson Cruz.
    OP….you made me hungry just thinking about Deer meat chili! When you fry up the back strap think of me! One of my favorite things to eat!

    Like

  15. Man…..I wish the Astros were in the mix for Cory Klubler. How scary would a Verlander, Cole, Klubler be!! I wouldn’t want to face these three guys! I know…..I’m dreaming , but a girl can hope can’t she ?!!!

    Liked by 1 person

  16. Do we really need a DH with Brantley in the picture? What we need is a catcher. A good one that the pitchers can trust.
    We also need a starter. I’m still puzzled about letting Morton walk unless there’s more to the story.
    Will be dreaming of Venison chili tonight. I haven’t had any since my husband became too disabled to hunt any more.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I am with you Sandy. First, no qualifying offer. So he just walks. Get no draft pick. So the FO must think he has arm or shoulder issues. Then the report is the Astros offered him one year plus an option year. So do they think his arm is only going to last this year?

      If all of that is true, it REALLY makes no sense.

      Like

      • As it has played out we offer Morton a 1year deal with an option (allegedly) but did not issue him a QO. I find this strange and if we were going to offer him a 1 year deal why not offer the QO unless we offered him significantly less than the 17.9MM. Strange to say the least.

        Like

      • I did not read the report you guys are speaking of, but if the option was a club option, I think Luhnow simply felt like we’ve seen the best of Charlie. And then Charlie’s wife made him take the guaranteed 30. I don’t see anything strange from either side. In fact I’d probably have told Charlie to listen to his wife.

        We got 340 plus mostly quality innings from Charlie over the past two years, including post season play. I don’t think he comes close to those figures again.

        Liked by 1 person

      • Strange you said that. I was wondering how would I feel about Morton if I look up in August and he pitched 30 innings. Hope it doesn’t happen, but he cratered toward the end of this year. So it is definitely a possibility.

        Like

  17. Interesting that Keuchel, Marwin, Gattis, Sipp, and Maldonado haven’t been signed yet. Of course neither have Harper, Machado and some other notables. Maybe late season signings but does this tell us anything?

    Like

  18. The *REAL* reason Charlie signed with the Rays, is they have a home 30 min from the Tampa Rays park. I’m sure his family of 4 had a LOT to do with that decision. That’s the end of the Charlie Morton discussion.

    Like

  19. -There are still a lot of free agent pitchers out there. If the Astros decide to sign a reliever, it would free up a current pitcher to move into the rotation.
    If the Astros sign a starter if means that somebody like Peacock can stay in the bullpen. I think the Astros are in a good spot, pitching-wise.
    -Fangraphs says that with their current projections you can throw a blanket over the Red Sox, Astros, Yankees and Dodgers. I will include this link with their projections for the current Astros WAR position by position and on the right is the 30 teams listed and their projected WAR. https://www.fangraphs.com/depthcharts.aspx?position=ALL&teamid=21
    -I think this offseason is a lot more interesting with more teams involved with trying to make their team better. Last year there were a lot more sellers and this year there are more buyers.

    Liked by 1 person

  20. Merry Christmas all of you treasured friends! I hope you have a wonderful blessed day tomorrow. We have no little ones to play Santa for anymore so I’m sure my kids will share their favorite Christmas stories at lunch tomorrow!
    Speaking of my kids……..I have a daughter back in the fold again gone for almost 15 years. I have prayed and worried for soo many years about her, just hoping she was alright. She was by herself in Detroit. God answered my prayers on His time I just had to be patient. The week of Thanksgiving she came back home. My heart is full knowing she is here to stay……that’s ALL I wanted for Christmas. I hope all of you have a great day visiting and eating with your precious families I know I will❤

    Liked by 3 people

  21. Mel Torme dropped by last night.. He wrote this little ditty and left it on the hearth, after drinking the milk and eating the cookies:

    The hot stove’s gonna come down to the wire;
    there’s not much happenin’ with our ‘Stros.
    Michael Brantley looks so fine in new attire,
    and I guess we’re cool with Chirinos.
    But everybody knows Bryce Harper and Realmuto,
    could help to make next season bright.
    Only Jeff and his tight-lipped F.O.
    know if those guys are still in sight.

    Is the rotation still in play?
    We’ve lost Keuchel, CFM, and LMJ.
    I bet Brent Strom is gonna spy,
    to see Brad and Collin’s ERA’s climb high . . . .

    And so, I’m offering this humble song,
    to those who love Oranges and Blues.
    May . . . our great guys . . . all stay healthy and strong . . .
    And bring us lots of Double-U’s!

    Liked by 3 people

  22. Gene Autrey showed up at my place a little after Mel Torme left. He refused a glass of egg nog, and said he had something he needed to get off his chest. He pulled out his guitar and started to sing. I wrote down as much as I could. It went something like this:

    You know OP and DaveB and Becky and AC;
    you know Devin and Dianne, Sandy and Dan P. . .
    But do you recall, the most sad-faced blogger of all?

    Bopert, the sad-faced blogger;
    always thought we’d crash and burn.
    He never thought Crane’s partners,
    would spend the cash to make the turn.
    All of the other bloggers, said to give the guys a chance;
    but they never convinced Bopert, to step back from the ledge and dance.
    Then one day in ‘Seventeen,
    a trophy came to town.
    Bopert, you of empty glass, why you still wearin’ that frown?

    But we here at Chip’s blog love you,
    even if we disagree.
    Bopert, our dear sad-faced homey,
    come back and hoist a hot tod-dee!

    Liked by 4 people

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