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.