Houston Astros players

Baseball is in many ways the perfect laboratory for data experiments. Individual performance is far easier to isolate than in other team sports. (Getty Images)

Features | From Pivot Magazine

A talent for numbers

In his new book about the Houston Astros’ spectacular turnaround, author Ben Reiter finds a big business takeaway: when it comes to predicting the performance of a team, on the diamond or in the boardroom, daring matters just as much as data

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Prediction is hard, “especially about the future,” runs a wry Danish proverb dear to Sigurd Mejdal, universally known as Sig. The son of Danish and Colombian immigrants to America, a former Lockheed Martin rocket scientist with a side MA in cognitive psychology, and a master of baseball analytics, Sig is one of the key figures in Ben Reiter’s new book, Astroball: The New Way to Win It All, an engrossing story about professional baseball, and about much more than that.

In the first half of this decade, the sad-sack Houston Astros racked up three consecutive 100-loss seasons while managing the remarkable feat of playing games that sometimes recorded local TV ratings of 0.0, meaning Nielsen couldn’t verify that anyone at all had tuned in. In 2014 Reiter, a baseball writer who bought into what management was doing to turn the team around, cheekily predicted—on the cover of Sports Illustrated, no less—that the flailing Astros would win the World Series in 2017. They did.

That might explain Reiter’s book contract, but not the “new way” itself. Big Data is an obvious but only partial answer. Sig’s analytic chops were certainly crucial: as the Astros’ Director of Decision Sciences, his ability to gather and scrutinize data like never before created the equivalent of a stock-picking screen, only this time the picks were human stock, namely prospective players. But Sig is also a fan writ large, a sweating, screaming, literally towel-chewing onlooker in big games. He cheered on a hand-picked player to pull off a championship series-changing play at home plate, even though he knew the percentage decision was a safe throw to first.

At their best, Sig and Reiter’s other central figure, Astros general manager Jeff Luhnow—the man who hired Sig—relied on their data but not to the bitter end. They rarely forgot the classic warning on mutual funds prospectuses: “past performance is no guarantee of future results.” Brain and gut, they learned, sometimes painfully, have to be in synch: the data is the tool, not the master. Humans, and their ability—and willingness—to develop and to take chances, are still the key.

When a flailing organization with new leadership applies new ways of thinking, everyone needs to buy in—especially the old guard

That’s what gives Astroball relevance far beyond baseball. In the 15 years since the publication of Moneyball, Michael Lewis’s account of the pioneering efforts of Billy Beane and the Oakland Athletics to use statistical analysis to guide their player choices, the tide of Big Data has crested over sports, academia, government and business. There are now so many ways of gathering information and consequently such explosive growth in data sets, Reiter argues, that the apparently predictive information is often foolishly allowed to call the shots. Just ask Hillary Clinton, the writer suggests, whose data scrapers were confident that campaigning in the industrial Midwest in 2016 would be a waste of resources.

Baseball is in many ways the perfect laboratory for data experiments. Individual performance is far easier to isolate than in other team sports. The financial risks and rewards involved are huge and relatively quick to manifest themselves. Years of losing saw Astros’ revenues sink to US$175 million in 2014, a take that almost doubled in only three years when the World Series champions brought in US$347 million. Forbes now reckons the value of the team, which owner Jim Crane bought for US$465 million in 2011, at US$1.65 billion.

Book cover for Astroball by Ben Reiter

The stakes in Houston were therefore high, higher than they had been in St. Louis, where Luhnow (and Sig) ran the scouting department for the Cardinals. There Sig developed a draftee evaluation system called STOUT (meaning half stats, half scouting). But although both the old-line scouts and new statistics guys had input, they still often failed to understand each other’s rationales or to trust that their side had a fair hearing. That left Luhnow to essentially flip a mental coin with some draft selections, creating a dampening effect on organizational morale. Given the scope of his authority in Houston—now he ran the whole team, not just the scouts—and the raw talent that consistent losing brought in through the draft, Luhnow wanted to do better.

Big Data proved helpful in an unexpected way. The “gut” choosers, the scouts, began to have data about themselves measured—if they ranked players they approved of high on a scale, how did those players turn out over the years? If a large number of high-rankers turned out badly, or if low-ranked prospects excelled at statistically improbable rates, even the most hidebound scout was willing to consider adding or subtracting evaluation points.

The nerds’ willingness to allow that their algorithms were not perfect was just as important. The analytics, too, bore their creators’ cognitive prejudices, including a bias toward information for its own sake. In 2009, Sig and Luhnow’s Cardinals passed on drafting New Jersey native Mike Trout, not because their data told against the future two-time American League MVP, but precisely because they didn’t know much at all—climate means northerners play fewer games than southerners while growing up.

Astroball is a great baseball story, but Reiter is convincing in the claim his book has larger lessons.

In Houston, management made it clear to the scouts that it valued their experienced opinion, while the scouts realized their own thoughts could be usefully plotted against results. Under Luhnow, both sides came to feel respected and part of the process when they fed information into the Astros’ decision-making machinery, and that morale-building peace between old and new hands became a major plank in Houston’s rapid climb from the cellar.

Astroball is a great baseball story, but Reiter is convincing in the claim his book has larger lessons. It’s a tale that powers many a contemporary business book: a flailing organization takes on new leadership, which applies new ways of thinking and new information-based tools to power its promised turnaround, an objective which relies on enthusiastic employee buy-in and crafting a functioning workplace out of new talent and the survivors of the old regime.

The effort can produce spectacular results for employees. Take the example of Dallas Keuchel, whose pinpoint control was hobbled by his too-slow fastball: in his first two years with Houston, he was an on-the-bubble pitcher with a losing record. But by 2014 Keuchel decided to embrace the reams of information Sig’s quants had amassed. He spent hours watching their video and poring over scouting reports, learning how batters swung against junkballers like him, and exactly where to position his infielders. He figured out how to make control work for him, making his fastball speed irrelevant. Keuchel had every opportunity to demonstrate his improvement, which (unlike his fastball) came hard and fast: in 2015, with a record of 15-0 at home and 20-8 overall, he won the American League Cy Young Award.

Good strategic vision, a focus on process over results, and quality information were crucial in the Astros’ triumph. But in the story Reiter tells, what really mattered was employees with what Luhnow and Sig came to call a “growth mindset,” a willingness to accept the changes, personal and otherwise, that success required. And on what is arguably Luhnow’s greatest achievement, a workplace culture committed to giving its participants, old or new, a chance to prove themselves.

See From Moneyball to Soccernomics: 4 classic sports books that you must read for more.