In 2014, Sports Illustrated columnist Ben Reiter wrote the now famous cover article about the Houston Astros titled “Your 2017 World Champions; the Houston Astros.”
After three straight seasons with the worst record in baseball and more than one hundred losses, it was an audacious prediction, downright ludicrous. Even Astros fans, even those who understood “The Process,” considered the timing premature, and that’s not even taking into account the long odds against even the best team going all the way.
Of course, as you all know, Ben Reiter turned out to be a prophet, and even sweeter, the cover boy, George Springer, was World Series MVP. Was it destiny?
In 2018 Ben Reiter treated Astros fans, and fans of baseball everywhere, with his book, Astroball, an analysis of the inside workings of the Astros organization that pulled off such an improbable and amazing turnaround. It is a highly readable and illuminating insight into the brains that transformed the “Lastros” into World Champions. For the TCB review of his book go here.
What follows is the interview which Mr. Reiter so generously agreed to in which he elaborates on some of the key points in his book and answers a few questions of particular interest to Astros fans.
If I understood the premise of Astroball, it is that the Astros had learned to incorporate intuitive insight into their baseball calculus in order to enhance both the scientific and intuitive understanding of the game. This helps them optimize decision making beyond what a pure statistical analysis could do, to catch the “breakout” that computers miss. I know the following question forces you to oversimplify, but if forced to choose, what percentage of Astroball is cold science, and what part is baseball intuition?
The Astros are quite certainly a data-driven organization. They believe – rightly – that a modern baseball organization simply has no chance of competing without fully embracing the power of analytics, nor of staying competitive without continually pushing past the “bleeding edge,” as they call it, of what analytics can do. Some of that effort has to do with quantifying the previously unquantifiable – in other words, trying to turn what used to be baseball intuition (like scouts’ “gut feels”) into cold science, as you call it. But, as I cover in depth in Astroball, one of their great strengths has always been the recognition that even the best of algorithms will always be imperfect; that, as the British statistician George E.P. Box once wrote, “All models are wrong, but some are useful.” I’d argue that even in this data-heavy era – perhaps especially now – the magic that separates a very good, consistently competitive club from a champion still lies in that extra 10% of decisions you make which your data might not clearly support, forcing you to simply make a call. I don’t think that will ever change.
You gave Carlos Beltran a lot of credit for the Astros’ success in 2017, mainly for his role in helping to build good team chemistry. In 2018 he was gone, and team batting, with basically the same cast, declined from 22% above league average, to 10% above league average. Do you think that some of that decline is attributable to the absence of Beltran, (and one could add Alonzo Powell and/or Alex Cora), or was this decline solely attributable to natural regression?
It’s multifactorial. The club likely missed Beltran, Powell, and Cora; precisely how much is impossible to say, in part because the things they contributed was so hard to measure, anyway. There was some regression. But remember, A.J. Hinch went 64 days last season – between June 25 and August 27 – without being able to write the names George Springer, Jose Altuve, and Carlos Correa into the same lineup. Correa was clearly unwell into the playoffs, and Altuve was also compromised, as he had surgery the day after the ALCS concluded. That the Astros still finished sixth in the majors in runs despite having the heart of their lineup ripped out for so long speaks to the deeply thoughtful way they’ve been structured to withstand such developments, and to their tremendous depth, which came from sources both expected (Alex Bregman) and not (Tyler White).
Given the emphasis that you believe the Astros place on team chemistry, were you surprised, like many of us here in Houston, by the Roberto Osuna trade? Do you think Jeff Luhnow is concerned with moral considerations in his baseball decisions, or is the only thing he values is what best helps him build a winning team?
Short answer: yes, I was surprised, at first anyway. Longer answer: Luhnow believes that chemistry and character is important, in part because of how it can allow players to improve beyond what even his staff’s projections predict is possible for them. But a significant alleged lack of character is not disqualifying, clearly, and it can be overwhelmed by all of the other inputs in any given decision. One of Luhnow’s qualities has always been an extremely thick skin, and a higher tolerance for intense outside criticism, whether that’s related to losing so many games between 2012-14, failing to sign Brady Aiken, or trading for Roberto Osuna. He’s always seen winning as a cure-all. The Osuna acquisition was deeply morally questionable, and still is, and still carries significant downside risk if, say, Osuna becomes involved in another criminal matter. However, one rival GM told me not long ago that he thought that about 25 other teams would in retrospect have made the same move Luhnow did, given how it’s worked out since.
Who was more responsible for the release of J. D. Martinez, Jeff Luhnow or Bo Porter?
There is little question that Luhnow wanted Porter to give J.D. Martinez more than 18 at-bats during the spring of 2014 – to demonstrate whether the swing changes Martinez swore he made over the winter were real – and that Porter chose to play guys like Robbie Grossman, L.J. Hoes, and Marc Krauss instead. There’s also little doubt that what happened with Martinez contributed to Porter’s dismissal that season. However, the Martinez situation was more symptomatic of a relationship that had become strained, in which the manager was not on the same page as his front office, and in modern baseball that’s not a situation from which the manager usually emerges with his job. Still, at the end of the day the manager doesn’t release players; the G.M. does. So I’d say Luhnow simply has to shoulder more responsibility for that decision, and I’d imagine Luhnow agrees, even though he wishes Porter had done things differently as well.
You said that the Astros learned from the mistake they made releasing Martinez. You said very little about another very questionable decision, the Carlos Gomez trade. Do the Astros consider this trade a mistake, and if so, what have they learned from that decision?
The Astros always focus on process over outcome; that’s really a central theme of Astroball. So sure, the Gomez trade was a mistake, but only in part because he didn’t do very much in Houston in 2015 and they lost in the ALDS. That was the outcome. The process involved trading four good prospects to the Brewers for a couple months of Gomez and two and a half years of Mike Fiers. All four of those prospects have already become big leaguers, and one of them is now arguably the most dominant relief weapon in the game, Josh Hader. I think that trade affirmed for the Astros, once and for all, the value of top prospects to an organization’s long-term health, and doubled their resolve not to part with them for almost anything, least of all a potential quick fix. That’s why James Paxton is a Yankee right now, not an Astro: because Forrest Whitley isn’t going anywhere, and neither is Kyle Tucker or Yordan Alvarez, unless some truly extreme value proposition presents itself. Mike Trout hits the block, or something.
You did not mention pitching coach Brent Strom in Astroball, even though the Astros have an amazing track record, almost a Midas touch, in transforming the careers of pitchers who come their way. Do you think Strom deserves credit for these turnarounds, or is he just conveying knowledge acquired in the “nerd cave?”
When you write a book like Astroball, which is about so many talented people doing so many different and novel things, you have to make some tough choices for the sake of character development and narrative. A few readers have reasonably complained that I didn’t write enough about Marwin Gonzalez, and Strom probably falls into that category, too. Even so, Strom does deserve a lot of credit for his work. Yes, the Astros provide pitchers with more analytical tools to improve than any other organization; some of the Indians’ pitchers even complained about the information gap, as we might call it, after this year’s ALDS. The Astros have invested (at all levels of the organization) in technologies like Rapsodo, which can instantly measure the spin rate and horizontal and vertical break that a pitcher throws, and high speed Edgertronic cameras, which can allow pitchers to zoom in to clearly see how their fingers behave on each delivery, and how their wrists pronate. Justin Verlander was famously amazed at the new resources he suddenly had at his disposal when he came over from Detroit in 2017. Those resources can enable a pitcher to figure out how to throw the most effective versions of his pitches as often as possible, and even to design new ones from scratch. But they’re not worth a whole lot without the right coach in place to help pitchers determine exactly how to use them, how to incrementally – day by day – train to effectuate the changes those tools indicate might be helpful, and even to get the pitchers to buy in to begin with. Strom is the right coach, and was certainly a factor in the transformations of Justin Verlander, Charlie Morton, Gerrit Cole, and Josh James – among many others – into the Astros versions of Justin Verlander, Charlie Morton, Gerrit Cole, and Josh James. In a winter in which so much of the Astros’ front office and coaching talent has either been poached by or left for other organizations (one of the perhaps inevitable perils of extreme success), the club is fortunate that it appears Strom will be sticking around. Astroball is about how the Astros have managed to effectively combine man and machine to get the best out of both, and Strom’s a key part of that