Winning is a cure-all. That has been a central tenet of the Astros’ philosophy since owner Jim Crane made Jeff Luhnow his general manager in December of 2011. Becoming just the third team ever to fail to sign a first overall draft pick, as the Astros did with Brady Aiken in ’14? Nobody would care, in the long run, if Houston used the compensatory selection they received to select a player who was even better. Torturing their fans, and themselves, with year after year of atrocious performances? It would all seem like a half-remembered dream—not even a bad one, more a funny one—when the Astros became winners.
“At the end of the day, when you’re in 2017, you don’t really care that much about whether we lost 98 or 107 in 2012,” Luhnow says in my new book Astroball, which dives deep into the novel strategies his organization developed to try to turn itself from a laughingstock into a model franchise, and into the people in the front office and clubhouse who executed those strategies. “You care about how close we are to winning a championship in 2017.”
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.
He was right. Brady Aiken became Alex Bregman, and the Astros won. In the gleam of last fall’s rings, those 106-, 107- and 111-loss seasons became footnotes in Houston’s story, necessary evils in their championship run. And, given the decrepit state of the organization Luhnow had inherited, those seasons almost certainly were necessary. Without Luhnow’s unapologetic—some have said ruthless—realpolitik, it’s difficult to imagine that the Astros could have turned things around with similar results, and so quickly.
On Monday, though, Luhnow did something that earned him more opprobrium than anything having to do with losing or Brady Aiken. He unloaded a closer, Ken Giles, whose infractions were only baseball ones—pitching unreliably, cursing out his manager—for another whose alleged crimes were both real and abhorrent: Roberto Osuna, the 23-year-old former Blue Jay who is currently serving out a 75-game suspension for domestic assault (his ban is due to end on Saturday), and who will appear in court on Thursday.
Astroball is about how the Astros innovated upon Moneyball-era strategies by looking beyond even the most advanced performance data to the difficult-to-measure and recently passé human factors that also contribute to a successful organization, and systematically folding those into their decision-making. Character—makeup, in baseball terms—is an important one, one which can allow a player to adapt and improve his play to heights which his statistical track record alone suggests he shouldn’t be able to reach, and to foster a positive clubhouse environment that can lift a team above the mere sum of its parts. Character was what tipped the Astros’ decisions towards drafting Carlos Correa first overall in 2012, towards hanging onto George Springer even when he was striking out at an obscene rate in the lowest levels of the minors, towards signing the stalwart veteran Carlos Beltran to a $16 million deal at 40 years old.
It was also what made last year’s Astros not just so good, but so likeable. But it is just one signal, amidst the noise. Monday showed that even a terrible lack of it is not disqualifying, not when a player is the youngest ever to reach 100 saves, has a 95 mile per hour heater along with a nasty slider and is available at a modest price.
In his teleconference on Monday, Luhnow cited the makeup of his club as one factor in his decision to trade for Osuna. “The due diligence by our front office was unprecedented,” he said. “We are confident that Osuna is remorseful, has willfully complied with all consequences related to his past behavior, has proactively engaged in counseling, and will fully comply with our zero-tolerance policy related to abuse of any kind. Roberto has some great examples of character in our existing clubhouse that we believe will help him as he and his family establish a fresh start and as he continues with the Houston Astros.”
One person I spoke with who is close to the Houston’s players—who include Justin Verlander and Lance McCullers, both of whom strongly condemned former Astros minor leaguer Danry Vasquez after the club released him for his own horrific incident of domestic violence—isn’t so sure about that last part. “They have a lot of high character guys in there,” the person said. “I just don’t know if they’ll welcome this.”
The Astros’ long-term-focused front office, though, views everything it does through a probabilistic lens, and in this case its bet is apparently this: that Osuna’s appalling offense will remain a one-time event; that his mere presence won’t upend a clubhouse that is already being tested by injuries and a stretch of uncharacteristically poor play; and that he’ll use that fastball and slider to help the club close out another World Series, as Aroldis Chapman—similarly suspended for domestic abuse two years ago—did for the Cubs in 2016.
In some ways, it’s Luhnow’s riskiest bet yet, a seemingly unnecessary evil that horrified great swaths of Astros supporters and carries with it the potential to fester into something truly damaging for the organization. During his conference call, Luhnow rather unconvincingly tried to square the Astros’ zero-tolerance policy for domestic abuse with the fact that he’d just acquired a domestic abuser. “Quite frankly,” he said, “I believe that you can have a zero-tolerance policy and also have an opportunity to give people second chances when they have made mistakes in the past in other organizations. That’s kind of how we put those two things together.”
There might be some arguments to be made for second chances, for rehabilitation, for the idea that Osuna has served his baseball penalty for his transgression and might yet serve a harsher one from the criminal justice system. But really, Luhnow’s public relations fumble stemmed from the fact that there was no good moral explanation for the move, at least one that would satisfy right away. The fact of the matter is that he knows that the best p.r., in the long run and not just in baseball, remains the same as it always has been: winning.