The Nerd Cave keeps expanding. In 2014, the Astros’ formidable analytics department, which gave itself its own nickname, employed four members. Three years later, there are nine. Even so, while all of that computational power helped to build a 101-win ALCS participant almost from scratch, it still can’t begin to measure, or even understand, what is perhaps the most elusive component of a championship hopeful.
“I don’t think you can quantify it,” says the Astros’ data-devouring general manager Jeff Luhnow. “But that certainly doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist. You know it’s there. Everybody feels it.”
It is chemistry, by which, among other things, a club’s culture allows it to play better than the sum of its parts. It does this while simultaneously propelling individual players to new heights and a heightened resilience. That’s the theory, anyway. Metrics-minded skeptics often contend that while it may exist, its impact on a club’s bottom line success is likely negligible. Chemistry, they say, comes only from winning—never the other way around—and not even always. While there have been champions with excellent chemistry (like the `15 Royals), and champions with bad chemistry (like the late `70s Yankees and `86 Mets), there has never seemed to have been a bad team with great chemistry.
Still, Carlos Correa, the Astros’ star shortstop, can attach a number to how much his club’s chemistry improved his season over its potential baseline: seven. “I’d say of my 24 home runs this year, at least seven have been from that,” Correa says. Specifically, those seven dingers were directly the result of one new teammate: Carlos Beltran, the 40-year-old who signed with the Astros in the offseason.
Under Beltran’s tutelage, Correa’s work in the video room became more focused. Whereas in his first two seasons, he’d watch only to get an idea of the contents of an opposing pitcher’s arsenal, Beltran helped him to learn how to analyze how the pitcher liked to deploy it. “This year I look at 2–0 counts, 1–0 counts, 3–0 counts, all the counts,” says Correa. “I see where and how pitchers do damage.”
Beltran is also a master of the dark art of picking up on if an opponent tends to tip his pitches—that is, whether he does anything different at all when he is throwing one type of pitch versus another—and he’s passed that on to Correa, too. “Maybe they do something with their glove that allows you to figure out if it’s a fastball or a curveball,” Correa says. Despite playing in just 109 regular season games because of a torn ligament in his left thumb that caused him to miss half of July and all of August, Correa still hit a career-high 24 homers.
“He hasn’t been afraid to try whatever I tell him about tipping, counts, game situations—but he is the one who had done it,” says Beltran. “I’ve been the provider of information, but at the end of the day it depends on the player to be receptive and say, ‘OK, I like that, let me use it.’ All of a sudden you get results. You gain confidence. Then you start doing it, again and again.”
Last winter, Luhnow searched for a productive bat to slot into his DH spot, but also for something more. Says Luhnow, “We were also looking for some presence, leadership and experience to separate us from the 2015 team.” That team had jumped the organization’s own rebuilding time by reaching the ALDS, only to wilt in a decisive Game 5 to the cohesive Royals. “We had a lot of young players on the 2015 team, a lot of guys having good seasons. We had some veterans in there, but they weren’t necessarily the types of guys that create followership.”
The front office identified two candidates: Beltran and Matt Holliday, himself a 14-year veteran. It signed Beltran to a one-year, $16 million contract in early December; two days later, Holliday went to the Yankees on a one-year, $13 million pact.
This season, Beltran’s age finally seemed to catch up with him on the field. While he did drive in the Astros’ series-clinching run in Game 4 of their ALDS against the Red Sox, during the regular season he hit just 14 home runs, less than half as many as in a 2016 he split between the Yankees and the Rangers, and his OPS dropped by nearly 200 points, from .850 to .666. Still, the ripple effect of his presence seemed to be even greater than Luhnow could have imagined, and it reached well beyond Correa.
“You don’t walk into the clubhouse and see him sitting there checking his phone,” says Luhnow. “He’s watching video, he’s into the game. They’re working the whole time. When a rookie player comes into the big leagues and walks into the clubhouse and sees him doing that, you don’t need to tell him how to behave. It’s like, This guy is potentially a Hall of Famer. He’s towards the end of his career. And he’s still working this hard to get better every day?”
During games, between his at-bats, Beltran spends much of his time in the clubhouse consuming video of not just the opposing pitcher and his own at-bats, but of the plate appearances of his teammates as well. If they’ve developed a bad habit, he sees it and lets them know, with video evidence. “I could be pulling off the ball, I could not be following through,” says George Springer, who also set a career high in homers this year, with 34. Couldn’t an astute coach, earning a sliver of Beltran’s salary, do the same thing? “I think you always just think a coach doesn’t know what he’s talking about, as a player,” says Springer. “He’s a player.”
“I’ve done it for a long time,” says Beltran, the owner of 435 regular season homers and 16 more in the playoffs—eight of them coming in one magical postseason, in 2004 during his first stint in Houston. “They’ve seen what I have done.”
He’s also changed the Astros’ culture in other ways. Most big league clubhouses, including many in which Beltran resided when he was younger, naturally have two factions: one that includes Spanish-speaking players and the other for English-speaking ones. Though most of their Latin stars, like Altuve and Correa, are fluent in English, the Astros’ clubhouse was still divided. “When Beltran came over, that kind of merged it, really,” says third baseman Alex Bregman.
Bregman, the 23-year-old who is in his first full big league season, helped. While he received straight-A’s in Spanish in high school in Albuquerque, he committed himself to becoming truly bilingual after the Astros drafted him second overall in 2015. “I want to be able to connect with guys from all different backgrounds,” explains Bregman. “I think that’s what leaders do.”
Now, says Bregman, “I’m speaking Spanish 50% of the day.” First baseman Yuli Gurriel, who arrived in Houston from Cuba last August speaking not a word of English, is a regular conversation mate; the two tutor each other in their respective native languages. “We just talk with each other every day, say different stuff in Spanglish,” says Bregman. “Then we tell each other how to say it in proper English or Spanish. He’s picking it up really fast. He’s doing a great job.”
“I’ve been on a lot of teams,” says Beltran. “There’s always division. But here, it’s like—I would say, less. People still hang out with the people they’re comfortable with. But when we’re here, you see people talking to everyone, which is great.”
So when Beltran walked into the Astros’ clubhouse in the minutes after Wednesday evening’s ALCS Game 5, Beltran was surprised by what he encountered: silence. His teammates sat in their lockers, their heads bowed. “I saw people acting different than they did during the regular season,” he says.
That’s what a night like Wednesday, and the two that preceded it, will do. The Astros had coughed up a two games to none lead in the series, losing three straight in New York in desultory fashion. A club that led baseball in runs and hits during the regular season had over the course of three games produced just five of the former and 11 of the latter, and was about to head back to Houston a single loss from elimination.
Beltran reached his locker, and then turned to face the room. It’s not a big deal, he told his rapt teammates. We gotta look at where we’re at, be realistic. We’re going home. We gotta win two games. We’ve done that a lot of times this year. Let’s not feel sorry for ourselves. Let’s go home and play baseball.
Beltran’s address won’t appear in a compendium of great speeches, but it seemed to do the job. The Astros’ sights were reset— from the immediate past to the future. They stood up and began chattering, in English and Spanish and Spanglish, and packing for Houston. “There’s never a moment that’s too big for him, and I think that calms everybody else down,” says Luhnow. The numbers suggest that Astros are now a long shot to reach the World Series, but as even the probability-obsessed inhabitants of the Nerd Cave have come to realize, numbers aren’t everything.