The Investment Portfolio Approach That Made the Astros Champions

(Bloomberg Businessweek) -- As even casual fans are by now aware, Moneyball, the 2003 best-seller by Michael Lewis, changed the way baseball teams work. By explaining how the Oakland Athletics were using statistical analysis to win games at a fraction of the payroll costs of their rivals, the book forced other teams to grudgingly begin hiring pointy-headed Ivy Leaguers to work alongside the pot-bellied baseball lifers who’d long ruled front offices.

Moneyball also set the template for a new type of sports book in which the focus shifts from the players on the field to the men who draft, trade, sign, and cut them. The latest entry in the genre, Astroball: The New Way to Win It All (Crown Archetype) by Ben Reiter, tells the story of how Jeff Luhnow, general manager of the Houston Astros, and his staff transformed the franchise from doormat to World Series champion.

The holy grail of reporting for a book of this sort is to be in the draft room when the scouts and number crunchers hash out their picks. Reiter delivers the goods, taking the reader into the room where the Astros made decisions in 2014, when the team was still terrible. He was there for a Sports Illustrated story about their plan to become great. The story ran on the cover in June of that year with a headline calling the Astros “Your 2017 World Series Champs.” The unlikely prediction came true last November, giving Reiter the opportunity to spin the story into a book that outlines the key decisions, missteps, and strokes of luck along the path to a championship.

Astros fans and baseball nerds will delight in those details, such as the time a rival executive hacked the team’s internal communications or how the trade for ace pitcher Justin Verlander beat the league deadline by two seconds. Even if you know the saga of how top draft pick Brady Aiken’s apparently too-small ulnar collateral ligament ruined his chances with the team or how Carlos Beltrán figured out that Los Angeles Dodgers starter Yu Darvish was telegraphing his pitches during the World Series, Reiter makes these stories feel new and vivid.

A lay reader, though, may wonder what the fuss is about. Astroball includes a small black-and-white photo of that 2014 draft room. It shows 15 middle-aged men in varying stages of baldness, each with a laptop and a disposable cup, sitting in what looks like a Marriott conference room. This is what ­happens when you elevate the “dorks in khakis and polos,” as Reiter calls them, to lead protagonists in the drama.

“Every draft class is a portfolio,” Luhnow, a former management consultant at McKinsey & Co., tells Reiter. “You’ve got to mix up some big bets with some fliers. You’re going to have some hits and failures.” In the world that Moneyball made, athletes are assets in someone else’s portfolio; their triumphs the validation of an investment strategy.

The essence of the Astros’ strategy is to use statistics and scouts to evaluate players. The team’s proprietary software pulls in every available bit of data on a player, including scouting reports, and, using regression analysis, then churns out a numerical rating called Stout, for half stats, half scouts.

The idea, Reiter writes, is that “success is not a matter of man or machine but of man plus machine.” Beyond this truism, which has been regurgitated plenty since the publication of Moneyball, the reader doesn’t learn much about the algorithm. The inside of the black box necessarily remains dark; if you knew how it worked, it wouldn’t.

In the preface, Reiter writes that the Astros could be a proving ground for a “new way of thinking not just about how to build a baseball team but how humans and computers can bring the most out of each other.” This, in my humble experience, is the kind of salesmanship that editors demand. Every story has to speak to something larger.

But not every championship team has reinvented its sport in a way that is chock-full of lessons for people in all walks of life. Sometimes a winning baseball team is just that. The fun in Astroball comes from its old-­fashioned sports writing, the locker room scenes, and thumbnail sketches of players. Reiter has an eye for the details that reveal character and back stories that inform what happens on the field. Astroball is a good book about baseball. That should be enough.

©2018 Bloomberg L.P.

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