The other day we teased the cover from this week’s Sports Illustrated in which the Astros are touted to be the 2017 World Series champs. That was just a grabber, of course. The content behind it is this in-depth story by Ben Reiter about the inner workings of the new Houston Astros.
The big story you know: it was an awful team that had a bare cupboard in the minors when new ownership took over and installed Jeff Luhnow as the GM who, in turn, hired Sig Mejdal as the team’s Director of Decision Sciences. It’s still a pretty bad team at the major league level, but now some top prospects are starting to make an impact and hope seems to be around the corner.
But how are they getting from that terrible A through this currently promising but still unsuccessful B and on, hopefully, to the Championship C? By consuming all of the data they possibly can, be it statistical, scouting and everything in between. Making decisions based on probabilities, subjective judgments, objective judgments and human tendencies alike — filtered through Mejdal’s decision sciences methodology — to come up with all of the answers teams have struggled to reach since the beginning of baseball history:
To that end Mejdal and his analytics team—which has grown to four and occupies an area in the Astros’ offices that they have named the Nerd Cave and decorated with a Photoshopped image of scientists examining Vladimir Guerrero in mid-swing—created an evaluation system that boils down every piece of information the Astros have about prospects and players into a single language. The inputs include not only statistics but also information—much of it collected and evaluated by scouts—about a player’s health and family history, his pitching mechanics or the shape of his swing, his personality. The system then runs regressions against a database that stretches back to at least 1997, when statistics for college players had just begun to be digitized. If scouts perceived past players to possess attributes similar to a current prospect, how did that prospect turn out? If a young pitcher’s trunk rotates a bit earlier than is ideal, how likely were past pitchers with similar motions to get hurt?
The end result is expressed as a numerical projection which roughly translates into how many runs the player can be expected to produce compared with what the team is likely to have to pay him.
The first image I get is the Deep Thought computer from “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy,” tasked with finding the answer to life, the universe and everything. And maybe it is like that in more ways than merely its attempt to take in all possible variables in an effort to get a single answer. Maybe, because baseball is filled with so many uncertainties and unexpected developments, it will yield the right answers but the Astros will find they have been asking the wrong questions. There will always be limits to data, be it numerical or subjectively collected data. There will always be unexpected developments.
Maybe that means the Astros do win the 2017 World Series. Maybe they do it sooner. Maybe they plod along for a decade never quite getting where they’re wanting to go. We can’t know that from where we sit and, if they’re being honest, the Astros brass can’t know that too terribly much more than we do. But it’s very cool to see the inner workings like this, and it’ll be quite fun to watch it all unfold.