Tuesday, July 17, 2018

Astroball Review: Book Cuts Against Conventional Wisdom About Astros Rise

The 2014 season was the low point of the Astros rebuild. While the on-field play of the team improved--the Astros won 70 games for the first time since 2010, and Jose Altuve won the franchise's first batting title. But a series of off-the-field stories raised real doubts about whether or not the team would ever get back to the playoffs. The Astros internal database Ground Control was leaked, and with it, a year's worth of internal trade notes. Bo Porter was fired with a month left of the season. And a bad MRI result for Brady Aiken meant that the Astros did not sign the top pick in the draft. 

But possibly the worst off-the-field story that season was a May 23 article in the Houston Chronicle by Even Drellich that described and derided the "Jeff Luhnow's radical...dehumanizing, analytics-based approach."  

This article is most well known for its quote from former Astro Bud Norris describing the Astros as "the outcast of major league baseball." That quote is featured in the third paragraph of the article and is included as part of the headline chosen by Chronicle editors ("Radical methods pain Astros as 'outcast')  

But the quotes inside the article are more pointed in their criticism of the Astros analytical approach. Jed Lowrie, then of the Oakland As describe the Astros approach as "purely statistical analysis. I think you can't that have approach and expect to have good personal relations." An anonymous player agent said "the Astros view them purely as property that can be evaluated through a computer program or a rigid set of criteria...They plug players into it to see what makes sense."

Drellich also asked the rhetorical question "If a young Astros player or his agent feels mistreated today or is just turned off by the organization's actions, why would he stick around...if comparable opportunities exist elsewhere?"

The thesis of Ben Reiter's new book Astroball: The New Way to Win It All argues that the conventional wisdom described in the article was not all it was cracked up to be. The key to the Astros victory in the 2017 World Series--and to building a team that leads the league in run differential in 2018 and is on its way to another post-season appearance--is the ability of Astros management to understand the psychology of players. In short, Jeff Luhnow and his management team understand the human side of their players, and that gives them an advantage over their rivals.

Of course, the Astros do not lack for analytical firepower, devotion to sabremetric principles, or the ability to run complicated predictive algorithms. Reiter's book highlights each of these elements of the Astros front office and their decision making. The book spends a great deal of time focusing on Sig Mejdal, who worked with Luhnow with the Cardinals and them came to the Astros as the Director of Decision Sciences. Mejdal, who has been promoted to Special Assistant to the GM, Process Improvement, has developed a large set of models and algorithms that the Astros can use to not only predict the future baseball performance of each player, but also to understand his value relative to the rest of baseball.

Yet, Reiter argues, the Astros algorithms, with all of its complicated math calculations and formulae, take into account factors well beyond just "numbers."  These models take into account a wide variety of "soft" factors that focus on the psychological makeup of players and their ability to put aside personal needs for the betterment of the team.

Reiter discusses how the Astros look for a "growth mindset" among their prospects, their willingness to train, eat, make baseball decisions, etc. In short, it's the willingness of a player to improve. The Astros look for this trait in drafting players, and were drawn to Carlos Correa not because he dreamed as a young boy of playing in the majors, but because he put in countless hours of work to become one--rousing his father who had worked two jobs to go out to his local baseball field every night. Reiter identifies Kevin Gausman, Mark Appel, Mike Zunino, and Byron Buxton as the other candidates for the top selection of the 2012 MLB draft. The Astros obviously chose wisely.

Alex Bregman impressed the Astros by being "the right kind of confident; not performatively cocky, a quality that could evaporate during snowballing slumps, but genuinely so, a quality that didn't."  Reiter then concludes this assessment of Bregman by writing something that as an LSU baseball fan, I've known for a long time and as Astros fan, we definitely learned when he threw home in Game 7 of last year's ALCS to retire Greg Bird--"He didn't give a shit about anything but playing."

Reiter devotes a later chapter of the book about the positive influence of Carlos Beltran in the Astros clubhouse in 2017. Using psychological research that examines find that the ability to overcome and transcend clubhouse divides around nationality, language, position, and temperament can add up to six wins of a baseball team, Reiter's reporting highlights the importance of Beltran to creating a focused and together clubhouse in the 2017 season, through a combination of informal friendships and more detailed set-pieces, such as the belts the players handed out to the batter and pitcher of the game.

This book is an update on Moneyball, which of course traced the decision making of the 2002 Oakland As and its General Manager Billy Beane. And while it is unlikely that Astroball will turn into a movie (but hey, if Brad Pitt is willing to trim his hair a little bit, he could make a very good Jeff Luhnow), it does show how baseball management has advanced over the past 16 years. The models and the math are much more complicated, but it is also much more manageable, as teams have beefed up their analytical staffs; the Astros analytics staff works in the "Nerd Cave" in the offices at Minute Maid Park. All 30 teams have amped up their understanding of the numbers part of the game, reducing the advantage that teams like the As through statistical understanding and innovation.

Yet, for the analytical firepower Jeff Luhnow and his band of sabrmetric warriors have brought to the table, Astroball argues that their greatest advantage over other their competitors is their understanding of the human factors that make up the game. In making this argument, Reiter's book provides a valuable contribution. It extends upon the conventional wisdom about the Astros to more successfully describe the methods that allowed the team to put the best team in baseball on the field. In focusing on the so-called "soft factors," Astroball also details where the Astros developed an information advantage over their opponents.