The Data-Driven Astros’ Transformation From Doormats to World Series Champions Was Built on a Key Insight: A Winner Can’t Be Built by Algorithms Alone. In This exclusive excerpt from ASTROBALL, SI senior writer Ben Reiter Reveals How Carlos Beltrán Was the Perfect Answer To Their Quest for the Unquantifiable. Adapted from ASTROBALL: THE NEW WAY TO WIN IT ALL Copyright © 2018 by Ben Reiter. To be published by Crown Archetype, an imprint of Penguin Random House LLC on July 10. You can pre-order a copy now on Amazon or here.
For four monthsin 2004, Houston’s Killer B’s of Jeff Bagwell, Lance Berkman and Craig Biggio had another member: Carlos Beltrán. Beltrán had spent the first six years of his career in the baseball purgatory then located in Kansas City, where he established himself as one of the league’s best all-around players. Almost every year he threatened to slug 30 homers, to hit .300, to steal 30 bases, to play a spectacular centerfield. By ’04 the Royals knew there was one thing that the 27-year-old Beltrán, who was to become a free agent that winter, couldn’t do: reverse their fortunes all by himself. Kansas City had just one winning season with Beltrán in the lineup, and in ’04 they were careering toward 100 losses. So they traded Beltrán to the Astros in June. During the 90 games that remained in the regular season, he hit more home runs than Bagwell, Berkman or Biggio—23 of them. He drove in more runs, 53. He stole more than three times as many bases, 28. Then, in his first playoffs, he outdid himself.
Over 12 games that October, Beltrán batted .435 with eight home runs, 14 RBIs and six steals. He homered twice in the Astros’ decisive Game 5 victory over the Braves in the NLDS, then in each of their first four games in their NLCS against the Cardinals. No one had ever before hit home runs in five straight playoff games.
Biggio succinctly described Beltrán’s performance: “He was Superman.”
Astroball: The New Way to Win It All
by Ben Reiter
The inside story of the next wave of thinking in baseball and beyond, at once a remarkable underdog story and a fascinating look at the cutting edge of evaluating and optimizing human potential.
The Astros lost the seventh game of the NLCS in St. Louis. A few months later Beltrán became the 10th player in baseball history to receive a nine-figure contract. The $119 million deal given to him by the Mets promised to keep him off the market for seven years, until the kryptonite that was age would likely have begun sapping his skills. Even so, a young Cardinals executive never forgot Beltrán’s preternatural fortnight in October 2004.
Jeff Luhnow, a former McKinsey consultant and tech executive, was in his first season as St. Louis’s vice president of baseball development, and he watched Beltrán’s heroics from the stands. Twelve winters later, as the 2017 season approached, Luhnow, now the Astros general manager, was armed with many more data points to guide his decision-making than those contained in his own memory. In fact, he and Sig Mejdal—the former NASA rocket scientist turned baseball data whiz who had helped Luhnow figure out how to combine cutting-edge analytics with old-school scouting techniques—could exploit the type of hard information that they had only dreamed of acquiring when they started in St. Louis. In ’15, Major League Baseball installed a system called Statcast in its ballparks. Statcast, powered by a technology called TrackMan, used a combination of high definition cameras and Doppler radar to accurately measure a range of player movements. Luhnow and Sig now knew the exit velocity and launch angle of each ball a hitter contacted, the precise speed and acceleration with which he ran on the bases and in the field, even the efficiency of the angle by which a fielder chased a batted ball.
By the end of the 2016 season Carlos Beltrán still performed well by most of Statcast’s metrics, remarkably so considering that he was about to turn 40. He still ran well, with a top sprint speed of 26.6 feet per second. More than a third of the league’s regulars were slower. And while he played his final game in centerfield in ’12, he remained no worse than exactly average in right. Statcast determined that the standard outfielder would have caught 81% of the balls hit in his direction. Beltrán came up with 81% of them.
Every source of data confirmed that he could still hit: Balls rocketed from his barrel at an average speed of 90.1 miles an hour, a velocity that ranked him in the top 20% of every-day players. Beltrán intrigued Luhnow not only because of what he had done a dozen years earlier, but also what he could continue to do, which was to potentially hit home runs in a lineup that lacked a dependable designated hitter. But Luhnow also felt that Beltrán could imbue a club with something else, a variable that neither Statcast nor any of Sig’s other metrics could begin to track.
In 2015 the Astros became a contender sooner than expected, finishing the regular season 86–76, a 35-win improvement in the span of just two years. But in the ALDS the Astros fell to an opponent that was not only finally good, but cohesive and relentless in a way that was hard to explain. The opponent was the Royals, Beltrán’s old team, who were on their way to winning their first World Series in three decades.
The next season the Astros regressed. They won two fewer games than in 2015, and missed a wild-card spot. Maybe, after the outlier that was ’15, they simply returned to the normalized improvement curve Luhnow and Sig had once imagined when they began rebuilding the club in ’12. But perhaps, they speculated, their clubhouse was missing something crucial in both seasons. They had turned the Astros around by ridding the roster of expensive veterans and focusing on acquiring the right young players. But that meant they had almost no veterans. “We had some veterans in there, but they weren’t necessarily the types of guys that create followership,” Luhnow said. He reflected on the ’15 ALDS and the intangible dynamic the experienced Royals had, one that his precocious Astros lacked.
Perhaps the club was missing a player who could not only hit home runs but who had experienced virtually everything a player could in professional baseball, one who knew what it was like to be very young and very old, to make the league’s minimum salary and more than almost anyone, to make All-Star games, to win playoff series and to lose them, to play like Superman and to be too injured to play at all for great swaths of a few seasons. A player who had faced 1,498 pitchers in his career and shared a dugout with nearly 700 teammates.
Perhaps it was missing Carlos Beltrán.
The analytics community’s view of the impact of a team’s chemistry on its bottom line performance had evolved from the days in which the conventional wisdom held that it was so squishy that it probably didn’t matter much. “Whether you sell insurance or you’re a schoolteacher, obviously the people you work with can make you more productive or less productive,” the sabermetrics pioneer Bill James toldThe Seattle Timesin 2010, eight years after he’d been hired as a Red Sox adviser. “Baseball would be quite a remarkable activity if it was the one place in the world where your coworkers didn’t have any impact on how productive you were.”
James had less patience than ever for the argument that while chemistry might exist, it was so difficult for anyone to measure that it was best to ignore it. “If you divide the world into s--- that you know and s--- that you don’t know, and you study the stuff that you know, then you’re not going to learn very much,” he said.
Luhnow and Sig had spent their careers in baseball trying to devise ways to turn the s--- they didn’t know into s--- they did. By the winter before the 2017 season the value of team chemistry remained in the first bucket. Still, as Luhnow said, “Just because you can’t quantify it doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist.”
For Sig the idea of paying a lot of money for something he agreed was real but couldn’t value, funds that could otherwise be spent on qualities that he definitely could, made him a bit squeamish, if he was being honest. What was chemistry, anyway? Was it how players got along, how they shared information to attain a common goal? Was having experienced players always beneficial, or was there such a thing as too much experience held by players who pushed outmoded ideas on their younger teammates? Might it be better if players didn’t get along perfectly, to drive healthy internecine competition? And while it certainly seemed as if good chemistry mattered, and provided a team like the 2015 Royals with an edge, was that an availability heuristic—essentially, a memorable outlier? Not only did Sig have zero predictive information related to chemistry, but he didn’t even know what he might try to predict it. How could you try to reach a goal if you couldn’t define its parameters?
But Luhnow made the decisions.
If Luhnow sought simply a short-term deal for a player who could reliably hit 25 homers from the Astros’ open DH slot, the free-agent market presented several options. Luhnow had already winnowed his list of candidates to two free agents. One was Matt Holliday, who had hit 295 career homers and whose leadership Luhnow had witnessed firsthand, during the three seasons when they overlapped in St. Louis. Holliday was about to turn 38. The second candidate was even older.
On Dec. 5, 2016, the Astros signed Carlos Beltrán. Luhnow gave him a one-year deal worth $16 million, committing to compensate him more in ’17 than anyone else on an Opening Day payroll that had nearly quintupled in just four years, to $124 million. Beltrán, in turn, would receive more than just $16 million. He would, he believed, get a real chance—perhaps his last one—to experience one of the only things he hadn’t during his 19 years in the majors: a World Series victory.
One night in 2009 an academic named Kate Bezrukova was watching a Yomiuri Giants baseball game in Tokyo with a colleague named Chester Spell. Bezrukova was an assistant professor in the psychology department of Santa Clara University, and she and Spell were in Japan attending a conference. The Siberia-born Bezrukova had always loved sports and was excited to see how the Japanese played baseball. To her surprise, not all the players were Japanese. Most were, but others were Korean, American, Venezuelan and even Australian. And yet they still combined to form a successful team. That year the Giants would go on to win their record 21st Japan Series. How did they manage to play so well together?
In the Tokyo Dome, Bezrukova and Spell realized that they had happened upon the ideal type of organization to study how demographic differences, called fault lines, could affect performance. In a lab it was difficult to measure performance, but baseball teams provided not only demographically diverse groups to analyze but externally valid results, most of all wins. Bezrukova and Spell directed their research assistants to perform fault line analysis on the demographics of all 30 major league teams, between the 2004 and ’08 seasons.
Those rosters revealed several different potential fault lines that could divide a team into ossified factions, called in-groups and out-groups, and hinder its performance. They could run between position groups: not just pitchers and hitters, but starters and relievers, and every-day players and reserves. They might be based on status, pitting older and better-compensated subgroups against younger, underpaid factions. And they could result from nationality, which could divide a clubhouse along fault lines of culture and particularly language. Such divisions could shift a team’s focus from winning to what the researchers called task-irrelevant cues, like competition and distrust between isolated subgroups, as well as restricted communication of actionable information and advice.
Bezrukova and Spell estimated that a major league team’s fault lines could account for up to three extra wins, or three extra losses, in a given season. A six-win swing could mean the difference between a club that won a World Series and one that didn’t even make the playoffs. Intriguingly, the teams that performed the best in Bezrukova and Spell’s fault-line analysis were not those who were the most demographically similar—mostly young, low-wage Hispanics, say, or older, highly compensated whites. They were instead those who had players who could cross-cut between a mix of subgroups, who could facilitate a complementarity, as opposed to a rivalry, based on their differences. Perhaps they had a player who was older and American, but made relatively little money. Or perhaps they had someone who was older and highly paid, but also Hispanic, and was particularly motivated to, in the academic parlance, deactivate his club’s fault lines.
Although Carlos Beltrán’s formal education lasted only through high school in Puerto Rico, he soon became an unwitting expert in the effects of fault lines. When the Royals drafted him in 1995, he spoke not a word of English. Beltrán became known for standing at the back of the line during outfield drills. The problem wasn’t that he couldn’t do what his coaches asked. He could make throws to the infield better than anyone. The problem was that he couldn’t understand the specifics of his coaches’ instructions. He copied teammates’ motions, devoting energy he ought to have directed toward improving to simply trying to figure out what he was supposed to be doing. Though he bonded with the organization’s other Spanish-speaking minor leaguers, he spent most of his time feeling stressed and isolated. In 52 games in rookie ball in ’95, Beltrán didn’t hit a single home run.
Beltrán knew that most of his teammates thought he was odd, a loner and probably unintelligent, by the way they steered clear of him. One day, he was approached by a fellow outfielder named Ricky Pitts.“Hola, mi hermano,”Pitts said to him.“Cómo estás?”Besides their position and height—6' 1"—Pitts had little in common with Beltrán. Pitts was not a top prospect, and he came from Seattle. But he had a natural inclination to connect with his teammates, whoever they were. While Pitts figured his baseball career was likely to be short, he wanted to emerge from it with skills that would help him in the future, such as a mastery of Spanish.
The teenagers made a promise to each other. Wherever the years to come were to take them, they would help one another learn each other’s language, a few words a day. “Say it however it comes out,” Pitts told Beltrán. “If you say something crazy, I won’t laugh at you.”
By 1998, Beltrán had reached Kansas City, while Pitts was forever stuck in Class A. If Beltrán could by then follow only half of what his first big league manager, Tony Muser, said in his pregame addresses, he could at least haltingly communicate with teammates like Johnny Damon and Mike Sweeney. During games, he often found himself distracted by his fear of what would happen in the clubhouse afterward, how he would stumblingly try to answer the questions reporters asked him. But he was on his way to full fluency, to the point at which he no longer felt isolated at all. Ricky Pitts had given him the key.
When Beltrán arrived for his first spring training with the Astros in February 2017, he knew that he appeared as intimidating to his young teammates as any nine-time All-Star once had to him. Beltrán had long ago made a promise to himself. When he was a veteran, no young teammate would have to seek him out to mine him for his knowledge about how to prepare. Further, no young teammate of his would ever feel lost and alone, simply because of the language he spoke. Beltrán would always make himself available, if someone wanted his help. He also thought that he’d be doing something for himself: fostering a team that had a better chance of winning.
During his first days with the Astros, he approached each one of his new teammates—everyone, pitchers included. “My friend, I am here to help you,” he said. “Even if it looks like I’m busy, you won’t bother me. If you sit down next to me and ask me a question, I would be more than happy to give you the time that you need.”
By 2017 the Astros’ young players had a world of tools at their disposal that Beltrán hadn’t had as a young player. The club’s video room hummed with computers loaded with clips that could reveal pitchers’ tendencies to the percentile. A given night’s starter might throw a first-pitch fastball 75% of the time, and 85% of those first-pitch fastballs came in on the inner half of the plate.
It was useful information, particularly as pitchers, on average, threw much harder than they had when Beltrán was young. Hitters without a plan of attack, who intended to simply react to what the pitchers threw them, no longer had a chance. But the analytical information didn’t capture the other side of hitting.
“Analytics people, they understand the statistics,” Beltrán said. “But they don’t understand what the player is thinking.” What beyond the data could give a player the confidence to believe that every time he stepped to the plate, it was the pitcher who was in trouble, not him? And what could someone like Beltrán detect in a pitcher’s habits that could equip a teammate to understand not just what the probabilities suggested he would likely throw, but to know for certain?
Beltrán’s impact was impossible for the Nerd Cave—which Sig’s analytics group had nicknamed itself—to quantify, but the young shortstop Carlos Correa attempted to attach a number to it: seven. Of the 24 home runs he hit in 2017, by the end of the regular season Correa attributed precisely seven to Beltrán’s influence, to his showing him how to use video to break down opposing pitchers to a depth he had never before imagined, to his identifying their tells. Beltrán aided the Astros’ pitchers, as well. In ’16, the season after Dallas Keuchel broke out to win the Cy Young Award, his performance had disintegrated along with his team’s. His ERA went from 2.48 to 4.55. The first time Beltrán met Keuchel, in spring training, he gently suggested one reason why that had happened.
“Sometimes you held your hand above your glove last year before a pitch,” Beltrán told Keuchel. “If the ball showed, it was a fastball. If it didn’t, it was an off-speed pitch.”
“I appreciate you telling me that,” Keuchel said. Keuchel threw seven shutout innings against the Mariners on Opening Day. By the end of July his ERA remained below 2.00. Had Beltrán, in reality, accounted for just a fraction of the 40% boost in production that Correa attributed to him—not just for Correa, but for all the Astros he mentored, even the pitchers—then he would have been worth far more than that $16 million the club paid him. After 19 years in the big leagues, Beltrán knew that he might help Houston win in other ways too.
Even though Beltrán had helped to persuade Major League Baseball to require its clubs to hire full-time Spanish translators starting in 2016, when you walked into any big league locker room during any given club’s downtime, you almost always found two groups hanging out separate from one another: the English speakers and the Spanish speakers. There might have been a jagged fracture running down the middle of the clubhouse’s low-pile carpet. Beltrán thought there had to be a better way.
In Houston, Beltrán wanted to create not only an environment in which useful information could freely flow between players, but also the type of inclusive culture he longed for when he was young. He focused much of his effort on mending the natural division between its players who grew up speaking Spanish and those who did not. The Astros’ Opening Day roster included 17 Americans and seven Latinos. While many of the club’s native Spanish speakers, including Correa, José Altuvé and Marwin González, had become bilingual at younger ages than Beltrán once had, in previous seasons they tended to stick together and to speak in their natural tongue, while the Americans did the same. When an American player asked him a question, though, Beltrán intentionally often answered in Spanish before repeating his reply in English. He wanted to normalize both languages. “When Beltrán came over, that merged the clubhouse,” said third baseman Alex Bregman. “We’re all just way closer.”
Beltrán instituted other bonding strategies. He never understood why even the very good teams he had been on tended to treat regular-season wins as a matter of course. During spring training, he had enlisted the president of the World Boxing Organization, a friend, to commission two championship belts for him. After Keuchel pitched the Astros to a 3–0 win over the Mariners on Opening Day, Beltrán explained to his new teammates what they were going to do with them. After each victory, before anyone hit the showers, every member of the team would sit in his locker for the awarding of the belts, one to the hitter of the game and one to the pitcher of the game. Beltrán would distribute them that night, but thereafter the belt-holders from the previous victory would decide who got them. Each new awardee had to give credit to the other players who had performed well that game before beginning his own acceptance speech. Failure to participate would result in a $500 fine from the club’s kangaroo court, over which, of course, Beltrán presided.
The first night, a few players had watched the proceedings from the entrance to the shower room, towels around their waists. That was 500 bucks. “Baseball players, when you mess with their money, they listen,” Beltrán said. Nobody was fined after that. Soon the players acquired a new clubhouse sound system, to blast music during the ceremonies and whirling party lights. When reporters entered the room, as they were permitted to do after the ceremonies had concluded, they sometimes had trouble making out the faces of the players they were trying to interview. That was because of the fog machine.
One day in mid-July, Beltrán arrived at Minute Maid Park to find a curious message scrawled on the clubhouse’s whiteboard. funeral for carlos beltrán’s glove—3:30, it read. Though Beltrán still did fine in the outfield, and Statcast indicated that he got to precisely the percentage of balls he should have, it had been two months since he had played anything but designated hitter. He walked onto the field at the appointed time to find the rest of the Astros solemnly kneeling in a semicircle in the outfield around a box that contained the leather implement that had once won him three straight Gold Glove awards. Catcher Brian McCann stood in a priest’s robes next to faux tombstones, ready to deliver the eulogy.
Beltrán couldn’t stop laughing. It was funny, but also something more. It was one thing for him to try to create a winning culture by sharing the knowledge he had accumulated and demolishing demographic walls. But for his teammates to collectively concoct a way to tease him like this, someone who was far older and richer and more accomplished than any of them were? That was chemistry. Everything he had tried to do was working.
By the end of July the Astros had a dozen more wins than any other club in the AL. They were a juggernaut. Nobody knew precisely how much credit Beltrán deserved for that, but everyone was certain that it was a lot. Beltrán, though, secretly began experiencing something he never had before. Jessica—his wife of 17 years—and their children, two daughters and a toddler son, had moved into his place in Houston after the girls finished their year at a private school in Manhattan. The previously quiet rented house vibrated with laughter. Then one day 2:15 approached, time for Beltrán to head to the ballpark. For the first time in his life, he didn’t want to go. He admitted it to Jessica. “I think this year is it for me,” he said.
His body felt good. In the cage, the club’s hitting coach, Dave Hudgens, could diagnose no mechanical issue. “Man, your swing, your bat speed, it’s there,” Hudgens told him. And he usually knew exactly how an opposing pitcher would attack him. The Astros had few regrets about giving him that $16 million, but the individual results he produced on the field did not match his salary. His exit velocity dropped by nearly 2.5 miles an hour from the season before, to 87.5, below average. By July’s end, his OPS had declined by 145 points from 2016, to .705. It appeared as if Carlos Beltrán had finally gotten old.
Beltrán knew the issue was deeper than that. Analysts could measure launch angles, but they couldn’t know what inside a player contributed to those numbers. Beltrán did.
In August, as Jessica and the kids prepared to go back to New York for school, Beltrán’s slump deepened. That month, he batted .210 in 26 games. The injury-wracked Astros, who had looked like the World Series favorite, declined with him, going 11–17 in August.
As the month neared its end, a once promising season was falling apart. Even Beltrán’s steadying influence might not be able to save it. Luhnow believed that a clubhouse with good chemistry could persevere though periods of failure better than one without, and Kate Bezrukova and Chester Spell’s research independently confirmed that concept: deactivated fault lines could prevent poor results from snowballing. Nobody, aside from Jessica, knew that Carlos Beltrán was just three months from retiring. But he wasn’t done yet. In the World Series against the Dodgers, with the Astros’ first championship hanging in the balance, Beltrán would unleash his unquantifiable powers one final time.