Must-Click Link: Inside the Astros front office

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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.

MLB executive: Bruce Maxwell’s kneeling may keep him from finding work, not his arrest

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In September 2017, former Athletics catcher Bruce Maxwell became the first major league player to kneel during the national anthem, joining the handfuls of NFL players who had been doing the same to protest police brutality and racial inequality. Maxwell’s effort was laudable, but he got into trouble a month later when he was arrested for aggravated assault with a deadly weapon and disorderly conduct. Maxwell allegedly pointed a gun at a food delivery person.

Maxwell, 27, played sparingly for the Athletics in 2018 and then was designated for assignment at the beginning of September. He officially became a free agent on November 2 and has had trouble finding work in the month-plus since.

Susan Slusser of the San Francisco Chronicle reports that Maxwell fired his agent, Matt Sosnick on Thursday because he’s still jobless. According to an unnamed MLB executive Slusser spoke to, “It’s the kneeling thing that might keep him from getting another job, not the arrest. Owners aren’t going to want to deal with that whole anthem issue.”

That makes a lot of since since abusive players haven’t had too much trouble finding new work otherwise. Addison Russell, Jeurys Familia, and José Reyes, among others have either stayed with their teams or quickly found new work. Given the relatively weak catching market, had Maxwell only had the assault charge, there is no doubt he would have been signed to be a backup catcher somewhere.

In the NFL, Colin Kaepernick — who popularized kneeling during the anthem — has remained unsigned even though teams have opted to sign and start clearly inferior quarterbacks like Mark Sanchez, Josh McCown, Ryan Fitzpatrick, Jay Cutler, Matt Barkley, and Sam Bradford, among many others. Team owners tend to run conservative in terms of politics, so they may not like the protest to begin with, then there is the public blowback to signing such a player as those who dislike such protesting make up a slight majority in the U.S., according to various polls including one done by the Washington Post.

It’s worth noting that Maxwell has a career .240/.314/.347 triple-slash line in 412 plate appearances. We’re not talking about J.T. Realmuto or Buster Posey here. That being said, there have been 15 other catchers to have put up a lower aggregate OPS since 2016 (min. 400 PA). One of those players, Derek Norris (.600 OPS since 2016), signed a minor league contract with the Tigers just three months after being suspended by Major League Baseball for violating its domestic violence policy. Makes you think.