Ben Reiter – Astroball: The New Way to Win It All
In 2014, the Houston Astros were the worst team in baseball. That summer, Reiter wrote a shock Sports Illustrated cover story hailing them as 2017 World Series champions. Could a team enduring a third consecutive 100-loss season really turn around that far, that fast? They did, and right on schedule. The Astros won the 2017 World Series, just as Reiter predicted three years earlier. Reiter’s book is about how it happened.
Jeff Luhnow became Houston’s general manager before the 2012 season, after showing impressive under-the-radar acumen in the St. Louis Cardinal’s front office. Luhnow and his team clearly had a strategy in mind, and it went above and beyond the Moneyball approach Billy Beane pioneered in the early 2000s to turn his budget-conscious Oakland Athletics into perennial contenders.
Traditional baseball strategy relies on gut instincts. Beane was the first executive to lean heavily on sophisticated statistics, trusting them over the eyes and instincts of veteran scouts to decide which players had potential, or which strategies work best during a game. Luhnow’s approach is a more of a marriage of analytics and scouts.
The break between the Moneyball approach and Luhnow’s approach isn’t nearly so stark in practice. But keeping that in mind, it is a useful narrative device for sussing out what turned Houston around so quickly—and apparently for the long haul.
Indeed, the Astros made it to the World Series again in 2019, falling to the Washington Nationals. And their roster looks like it will remain strong for the foreseeable future. But at the same time, some of the bloom has come off the rose since Reiter’s book came out. In the 2019 stretch run, the team acquired a relief pitcher, Roberto Osuna, who was serving a suspension for domestic violence. A team executive responded to criticism of the move by shouting loudly after an important playoff win how glad he was they picked him up—directly at a crowd of female reporters. He was soon fired, though their have been complaints about the front office’s culture becoming arrogant and not an entirely healthy work environment.
As of this writing, the Astros are also being investigated by Major League Baseball for violating the game’s sign-stealing norms during their championship 2017. it is acceptable, though technically illegal, to steal the other team’s signs with your eyes only. It is against baseball’s written and unwritten rules to steal them with outside technology such as binoculars or cameras, which the Astros allegedly did. It will be interesting to see if the Astros can overcome their scandals and possible hubris and maintain a dynasty that has the potential to become one of baseball’s most dominant.