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Sig Mejdal: How Do You Replace True Genius?

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Does the departure of Mejdal and other founding members of the Astros “nerd cave” spell the slow demise of Astros analytic superiority? If so, then what?

Imagine.

So implored John Lennon, so many years gone by. So let’s imagine.

Imagine John Lennon without Paul McCartney.

Imagine Pierre Curie without Marie.

Imagine Abbot without Costello.

Or Wozniak without Jobs.

Ben without Jerry.

Imagine Simon without Garfunkel.

You can’t you say? You mean it’s just not the Beatles without Paul singing Yesterday? That its just not funny without Costello insisting that “Who’s on first?” That there’s no I Phone without there first being Wozniak’s Apple II? That without Garfunkel then all you have really IS just the sound of silence?

What is the sound of one hand clapping?

Synergy

What is it that made all these pairs amazing? Simple. It’s called synergy. Taken alone, each of the people listed above is/was a talented person. But only together did their creativity explode. Only together did their imaginations soar, thinking thoughts, writing songs, making discoveries, inventing technologies, cracking jokes, even concocting liberal ice creams, that no one could have conceived of before.

Together, with these rare geniuses, sparks fly, new realities emerge. Did Jeff Luhnow and Sig Mejdal have synergy? Did their shooting sparks of genius transcend mundane baseball and create Astroball? Can Astroball survive without this couple together? Since Monday that is the question being asked all about Astroland.

Origins

Sig Mejdal and Jeff Luhnow were fated. Both were numbers geeks. Mejdal was a NASA rocket scientist, Luhnow a chemical engineer, economist and MBA.

Both understood cold probability; Mejdal from working as a blackjack dealer in college, Luhnow from working as a management consultant for a casino company.

And yet both Mejdal and Luhnow were fascinated by the ways math and science intersected with humans. Mejdal studied cognitive psychology in graduate school, his main passion being how to use science to make people their best selves. For example, for NASA he proved that naps really don’t replace long sleep cycles.

Along with his rigorous training in science and business, Jeff Luhnow found time to study existentialism, to consider questions that did not have right answers. In one of his gigs before baseball he created computer algorithms to adjust clothing orders to fit properly, counteracting the cognitive biases of customers that caused them to order the wrong sizes.

But for both Luhnow and Mejdal this curiosity with both statistical reality and its interaction with human uncertainty led them to a passion for baseball, a game always deeply steeped in statistics, and yet one in which psychological factors were often dominant. And this at just the time when the real science of baseball was in its infancy.

The point is: Luhnow and Mejdal are both brainiacs, but what makes them baseball geniuses is that super intelligence combined with their passion, their love for the game. That love is what metamorphosizes mere reasoning into true, creative genius. When the genius of one bounces off the genius of the other, then you have something even greater than the sum of the parts. One product of their unique synergy was understanding the importance of creating teams with synergy. That became the essence of Astroball.

Before and After Moneyball

Both Mejdal and Luhnow were privately practitioners of Moneyball before Moneyball ever appeared in Billy Beaneland. As a youth Mejdal subscribed to the newsletters published by the Society for American Baseball Research (SABR) where he learned regression analysis. Later he read Bill James’ Baseball Abstract, the Sabremetrics Book of Genesis. He played a spinner card game called All Star Baseball, and used a primitive Atari computer he programmed to pick the best team from among the legends of baseball on each card.

Young Jeff Luhnow also dreamed of baseball. In grade school he wrote a paper about how he would get his favorite team, the Chicago Cubs, to their first championship in forever. Even before the internet he used his vast knowledge and research skill to become a renowned expert in fantasy baseball.

In 2003 Sig Mejdal read Moneyball, and he found his destiny. He had been doing that kind of analysis for years, and now he just discovered that he could actually make a living doing exactly what he loved doing most as a hobby. He began sending proposals to baseball teams about how he could improve their odds of drafting top players using the most advanced statistical computer models. Almost nobody was ready to listen.

Meanwhile a lightning bolt of good luck struck Luhnow. A man he had recruited to work for his company at the time, who knew of Luhnow’s use of analytics to become the master of fantasy baseball, happened to be the son in law of the owner of the St. Louis Cardinals. Bill DeWitt wanted to be an early adopter of the quickly evolving baseball sciences, and saw in Luhnow the man to bring that science to St Louis. Eventually, Luhnow was made scouting director, tasked with applying the latest in baseball science to the moribund Cardinals draft process.

One of Luhnow’s first tasks in this new job was to find someone to help him with the collation and analysis of the enormous body of information now before him. On his desk sat Sig Mejdal’s brochure, ignored by the previous inhabitant of that desk. Luhnow had found his baseball soulmate.

St Louis Days

Luhnow and Mejdal gradually, but inexorably, changed the culture of drafting at St Louis, and in 2009 had perhaps the greatest draft in baseball history. The analytical framework developed by Mejdal was known as STOUT- half statistics, half scout. It was a crude, early version of Astroball style analysis.

Luhnow and Mejdal did not always agree. In the 2009 draft, 3rd round, the analytics side of the draft department favored a power hitting college outfielder with impeccable performance numbers. The scouts preferred a wild college pitcher with an ERA of 5.65 and peripherals that were just as bad. But boy did he have stuff...whatever that is.

The draft room was completely divided over this pick, but STOUT went with the slugger, even though STOUT took scouting appraisals into consideration. Luhnow, who had seen the pitcher’s stuff with his own eyes, overruled his analytics department, i.e. Mejdal, and picked the pitcher. It was Joe Kelly. Yeah, that Joe Kelly.

By 2013 Luhnow had drafted 21 players who were on that season’s Opening Day roster, more than any other draft director, many of whom had many more years on the job.

This disagreement over Kelly was a transformative experience for both Luhnow and Mejdal, and they determined to find a better and more systematic way to integrate statistical analysis and the “gut.” This better way would become the basis of Astroball.

Astroball

In 2011 an innovative entrepreneur and former college baseball player, Jim Crane, bought the worst franchise in baseball, the Houston Astros. Already intending to fully adopt the revolution in baseball science, one of Crane’s first moves was to hire the relatively inexperienced Jeff Luhnow as General Manager. One of Luhnow’s first moves was to bring on his partner, Sig Mejdal, eventually appointing him to the unique title of Director of Decision Sciences.

The rest, as they say, is History. By 2017 Luhnow and Mejdal had transformed the Houston Astros into the Baseball Champions of the World. They also made TIME magazine’s list of 50 Genius companies in 2018. For More on Astroball read here.

The Future of Astroball

Can the genius and marvelous innovation that is the front office of the Astros continue without the synergy and symbiosis between Jeff Luhnow and his partner from the beginning, Sig Mejdal? The thing about synergy is that it is exceedingly rare, it has an element of serendipity, and the parts are almost irreplaceable. Young lovers have a form of synergy, if only for a while. Can you just fall in love with anybody? When creative partnerships break up, can just anyone fill in?

No doubt there are many smart people in the Astros organization who can fill in, and they will maintain the operation of Astroball. No doubt the algorithms are already written, and the policies for decision science already established.

But the world is on to Astroball. Alex Cora has spread its secrets to Boston, who just beat the Astros in the ALCS. Nerd Cave analysts Mike Fast and Ryan Hallahan are also moving on, and if Astroball was yesterday’s baseball theory of relativity, it could could soon become tomorrows’s tired old dogma.

Can Luhnow find someone new to help him keep the Astros’ analytics ahead of the rest, something absolutely essential for a team trying to compete with major markets like New York and Boston? Or is that impossible? As Heraclitus said, “you cannot step into the same river twice,” A Sig Mejdal/Jeff Luhnow type relationship only happens once, and perhaps a Sig Mejdal for Luhnow is no more replaceable than an Art Garfunkel is to Paul Simon.

Time will tell, but no doubt Jeff Luhnow fully understands the need to maintain the highest level of innovation, and will demand no less from whomever fills Mejdal’s shoes.

There’s another way to look at it. Maybe these changes are all for the best. Synergy can be perishable. That’s why bands break up. And maybe that is why Mejdal and the others are moving on, because, as B.B King said, “the thrill is gone.” Could be that wringing out the old, a little creative destruction, is the necessary harbinger for even better things to come.

As an Astros fan: here’s to hoping. God knows that’s all we had for so many years.

Note: Credit to Ben Reiter and his book Astroball for much of the information found in this article.