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Astroball > Moneyball
Regular readers know that we’ve often covered the limits of decision models, the importance of chemistry, and what makes a team work well together. And that we’re baseball fans (especially of our Rays).
A recent review of “Astroball” in The Wall Street Journal. covers that same ground with the terrific story of the 2017 World Series champs. Astros GM Jeff Luhnow figured out how to get scouting and analytics to work together and combine that with team building to go from last place to World Series champs in 3 short years.
It was no easy task, “(B)ut it was done, and the team made a series of sound, even brilliant, choices as it drafted, traded and signed players.”
This roster-creation, all by itself, did not bring home the championship. Building an exceptional team is one thing, but making it work as a team is another. “Fault lines” exist in all complex organizations—including baseball teams. If these lines can be bridged or eradicated, a team is likely to win more ball games. To use another bit of old-fashioned terminology, a team needs chemistry.
Carlos Beltrán, the veteran outfielder signed by the Astros after the 2016 season, immediately took on the role of chief chemist. Among other things, he created a postgame ceremony that awarded prizes for excellence in the field and instituted a postgame “court” for those who failed to attend: The fine was $500. Mr. Beltrán also had a singular ability to study opposing pitchers and determine their “tells”—gestures and small changes in behavior that signaled whether or not the next pitch would be, for example, a breaking ball or a fast ball. Finally, Mr. Beltrán had a strong desire to close the gap between the English and Spanish speakers.
His biggest ally in this quest was Alex Bregman, who professed to speak perfect Spanish. In fact, it was far from perfect, but Mr. Bregman worked hard to communicate with his Spanish-speaking teammates, including going out of his way to befriend first baseman Yuli Gurriel, who joined the team in 2016 after coming to the United States from Cuba and who spoke no English at all. Mr. Gurriel was exactly the sort of player who can become isolated and resentful in many American clubhouses. But Mr. Bregman refused to let that happen. As Mr. Reiter explains, “The two yammered at each other in Spanglish all day long.”
Add to all this the signing of pitcher Justin Verlander, acquired during the 2017 season, and a dash of good luck, and there’s no reason why any of us should have been surprised that the Astros won their World Series right on schedule. Mr. Reiter’s superb narrative of how the team got there provides powerful insights into how organizations—not just baseball clubs—work best.
We have previously suggested that in baseball there’s just a slight correlation between more analytics and more success. It remains tough to eliminate the usefulness of having more money than other clubs, and with technology and best practices so widely disseminated and articulated (in baseball, at least) the early Moneyball advantages may have been arbitraged away. So excellent teamwork or a hot stretch of cluster luck can make the difference.
The fan inside us is fascinated by new thinking on the topic, and the prospect of advantages to be gained in the short term, but over the long term our conclusion remains the same: big data may help make accurate predictions or guide knotty optimization choices or help avoid common biases, but it doesn’t control events. Models are useful in predicting things we cannot control, but for those in the midst of the game – players or entrepreneurs – the results have to be achieved, not just predicted.