In 2014, Ben Reiter ’02 declared on the front page of Sports Illustrated that the Houston Astros, the worst baseball team in half a century — coming off a 2013 season in which they lost 111 of their 162 games — would win the 2017 World Series.
Reiter, a history major during his time at Yale, had written about baseball for Sports Illustrated for over a decade. His story initially drew derision from baseball experts, but, on Nov. 1, 2017 the Astros were crowned World Series champions, and Reiter’s claim proved prescient.
“Everyone knew how awful the Astros were at that time, which kind of sparked two questions in my mind,” Reiter said. “One, why are they so unbelievably awful, and two, what is the plan here or is there even a plan to get better? I knew it would take an open mind, because everything you read was how the team was being run cynically or ineptly, and that to do a story about it, you’d need a level of unprecedented access to their inner workings, because you’re not going to write a story about a team that bad from the outside.”
Reiter’s book Astroball, which he will be discussing at the Yale Bookstore on Thursday at 6 p.m., provides the inside story of how the Astros rose from worst to first in the span of four years. In doing so, the book tries to identify the next wave of thinking in baseball and the wider world of big data and the analysis of human capacity and potential.
Michael Lewis’ book Moneyball, since adapted into an Oscar-nominated movie starring Brad Pitt, signified the advent of baseball’s statistical revolution, which placed an increased focus on advanced sabermetrics and a decreased emphasis on traditional characteristics like the eye test. The Astros combined the two disciplines into a fusion that combined crucial statistics like on-base percentage with human instinct and gut feelings, eliminating the combative relationships between statisticians and scouts.
That synthesis manifested itself in some of the most important decisions that spurred the Astros turnaround from worst to first. In most American sports, the worst teams earn the first draft pick the next year, but despite the franchise’s struggles, the Astros’ prospects rated as some of the weakest in the game. The management team that took over after the disastrous 2011 season emerged from nontraditional baseball backgrounds: General manager Jeff Luhnow double majored in economics and engineering at Penn before working for five years at McKinsey.
“Once I sat in on the meetings, I realized that not only was there a plan, but it was a very logical and new one,” Reiter said. “It seemed to me, from everything that they were saying, that it had a chance of success.”
Perhaps the most important decision made by the new regime was to draft 17-year-old Puerto Rican shortstop Carlos Correa with the first pick of the 2012 draft. Both the Astros’ area scout, Mike Elias ’06, a former Yale baseball pitcher, and the former rocket scientist Sig Mejdal, who headed the team’s data analysis operations, concurred that Correa was the best player available, a bet that paid off handsomely, as the talented shortstop has emerged as the face of the franchise.
The other key ingredient to the Astros’ rise came in the emphasis on “growth mindset,” the ability of a player to use statistical data to alter and improve his performance in various areas. The Astros identified players who had struggled with the traditional evaluative approach to baseball, and convinced them to made crucial adjustments to their pitching style or swing that transformed them into solid contributors or stars.
Reiter emphasized that this focus on melding traditional approaches with advanced analytics isn’t limited in its application to baseball. That adage holds true for all sorts of recruitment.
“The most influential class for me in college was Fred Strebeigh’s [’74] advanced nonfiction writing class,” Reiter said. “One of the many things that he taught us was that you always need to look for its higher meaning, its higher significance in the world. You should never write a story that begins and ends on the subject in itself, you need to contextualize it as to what it means and why it’s important. That’s how I approach every story I write, but especially this one, about how this idea might have resonance beyond sports.”
The final ingredient to the Astros’ World Series success originated from a focus on team chemistry and a study by two psychologists on fault lines in baseball, a designation that can run between pitchers and hitters; older, highly-compensated players and poorly-paid younger ones; or between players of different nationalities. Fault lines can account for three extra wins or losses over the course of a season, a margin that could mean the difference between playoffs and bust.
After winning 101 games in the 2017 season, the Astros faced off against the 104-win juggernaut Los Angeles Dodgers and their collection of highly paid superstars in the World Series. After the two teams split the first six games, the Astros battered Dodger fireballer Yu Darvish for five runs in the first two innings of the decisive Game 7 en route to a 5–1 win. The big blow came on a home run from outfielder George Springer, his fifth of the series and a fitting contribution for the one player on the roster who predated the Luhnow era.
With one World Series championship in the bag, the Astros are on pace for another 100-win season this season. With stars like Correa, Springer, Dallas Keuchel and José Altuve looking at many more prime years and locked up to long-term deals, the Astros look set to remain in championship contention for at least the next half-decade, the purest vindication of their process.