Everyone likes a good underdog tale, and there’s none greater than the story of how the Houston Astros went from worst team in baseball to World Series champs.
In his colorful new book “Astroball: The New Way to Win It All” (Crown Archetype, 272 pp., ★★★ out of four), Ben Reiter explores modern baseball and how a team nicknamed the Disastros could turn things around so quickly. (Reiter should know: He penned the 2014 Sports Illustrated cover story predicting the team would win it all for the first time in 2017, which they did.)
“Astroball” plays like a giant crossword puzzle, as pieces of the team are slotted in leading up to the franchise’s historic moment. Here are five things we learn from the book:
Those who read “Moneyball” or saw its big-screen adaptation starring Brad Pitt as Oakland A’s executive Billy Beane know how statistics and analysis have changed baseball. But Jeff Luhnow and Sig Mejdal, architects of the Astros’ success, designed an evolved version that complemented rather than usurped traditional scouting data.
Working for the St. Louis Cardinals before trying to jump-start the Astros, the pair developed a system that combines stats with scouting data on a player’s family history and personality. Analytics and emotion have been melded into a system that works.
Luhnow grew to hate Reiter’s SI prediction because it magnified every action he made as general manager. His projections showed the team was still several years from being championship-ready.
Adding to the drama, a former co-worker at the Cardinals hacked Astro accounts and leaked almost a year’s worth of company transcripts, jealous because of the attention the team was receiving. Reiter’s words, of course, proved prophetic when the Astros beat the Los Angeles Dodgers in a seven-game thriller last fall to seal the deal.
Starting in 2011, Luhnow’s plan was to use the system he developed with Mejdal, a former NASA researcher, to purge the Astros franchise and restock it with prospect players. Only a handful of the team Luhnow inherited would make it to the 2017 championship team. Through losing, the Astros secured the No.1 draft pick three years in a row. Their first pick was Carlos Correa, a Puerto Rican shortstop who lived and breathed baseball. Correa would become an instant superstar.
The system Mejdal designed wasn’t perfect and couldn’t account for data that couldn’t be quantified, such as team chemistry. After recruiting a number of young players, Luhnow realized he needed a veteran to structure the team around. Carlos Beltran was that player, and he was searching for a World Series to hang his cap on.
Beltran proved to be an invaluable addition off the field, mentoring younger players. During the World Series, Beltran’s attention to detail led him to discover before Game 3 that the Dodgers’ Yu Darvish was tipping his pitches, shifting momentum to the Astros.
The final piece of the World Series championship team came down to two seconds. After the franchise (and Houston) suffered a series of setbacks, including the devastation of Hurricane Harvey, Luhnow knew he needed to do something to give the team hope. He traded three prospects for Detroit Tigers’ ace pitcher Justin Verlander.
The deal was decided on mere hours before the cutoff trade deadline, and Verlander had only 30 minutes to decide if he wanted to go to Houston. The transfer form was signed and filed with a mere two seconds to spare.
Meanwhile, in 2018 at the All-Star break, the winning continues. The Astros look headed for the playoffs once again.