LOS ANGELES – When the management of the Astros needed someone to stand near home plate and speak to the crowd at Houston’s Minute Maid Stadium on the afternoon of Sept. 2, before the team’s first home game since Hurricane Harvey made landfall and ravaged the region, the choice was obvious. A few minutes before first pitch, A.J. Hinch, the manager with an uncommon gift for connecting with people, took the microphone and after a short pause told his fellow Houstonians, “It’s good to be home.” The speech, short and heartfelt, ended: “Stay strong. Be strong.”
“We needed someone to come out and address the crowd, and I started thinking, ‘Who is the best person to connect the players to the fans?’ It was clearly A.J.,” Astros President Reid Ryan said. “He nailed it.”
On Thursday, when Hinch and the Astros returned again to Houston for the final time in 2017 – two months to the day since their emotional return after Harvey — they were bringing the World Series trophy with them. With a 5-1 victory over the Los Angeles Dodgers on Wednesday at Dodger Stadium, in Game 7 of the World Series, the Astros secured the first championship in the franchise’s history and fulfilled their promise to their wounded city.
They never promised a championship. But they promised to play as hard as they could, for as long as they could, in order to try to make it happen. And on that count, they delivered. Facing elimination for the third time in two weeks, the Astros staved it off for the third time, and this time it made them champions. And as they screamed and danced and sprayed champagne late Wednesday, a celebration for themselves and their teammates, they felt an immeasurable sense of pride in delivering a title to Houston.
“That word on our chest means a lot,” said center fielder George Springer, the World Series MVP, standing on a stage at the center of Dodger Stadium’s infield, with HOUSTON on his chest, “means a lot to us.”
The Astros’ march to the title was remarkable in many ways. In an era of unprecedented home run and strikeout rates, the Astros’ exceptional offense managed the rare feat of leading the majors in slugging percentage while striking out at the lowest rate. In the playoffs, they conquered the teams with the three largest payrolls in the game – the Boston Red Sox, the New York Yankees and the Dodgers. They fulfilled the cover-story prophecy of a 2014 issue of Sports Illustrated, which, near the middle of what would become a 92-loss season, proclaimed the Astros “Your 2017 World Series Champs.”
They also validated one of the most extreme tank-jobs the sport has ever seen – deeper than even that of the 2016 champion Chicago Cubs — a four-year stretch from 2011-14 in which they traded veterans, shed payroll and lost an average of 104 games. They also hoarded the resulting high draft picks from all that losing – draft picks that helped form the youthful core of the 2017 champs: Carlos Correa, Lance McCuller Jr. and Alex Bregman, as well as the trade chips that brought them ace Justin Verlander this August.
Others, such as Springer and all-star second baseman Jose Altuve, the likely American League most valuable player this year, pre-date the tanking era. And still others, such as veterans Brian McCann, Carlos Beltran and Verlander, came at later stages of the rebuild, as the Astros added pieces to push themselves over the top.
“As a baseball fan,” said McCann, a catcher in his 13th big league season, “the view I get and the talent I get to watch every night – we’re going to look back in five, 10, 15 years and it’s gonna be, ‘I can’t believe all those guys were on the same team.’ That’s the kind of talent I got to witness every night.”
Someday in the future, the ascension of the 2017 Astros may be remembered as the moment the analytics movement conquered the game for good. While other teams with a clear analytical bent have won titles in the past, none did so with the same aggressiveness and thoroughness and the same all-encompassing, top-down embrace of the Astros – starting with General Manager Jeff Luhnow, who holds degrees in engineering from Penn and business administration from Northwestern, and filtering down through the organization.
“Our game has evolved to the point to where everyone has to choose to what extent they apply” analytics, Hinch said. “We all have them — really smart people that are working behind the scenes to provide that kind of information. How you use them is going to be the competitive advantage. If we think we have different ways to maximize performance, we’re going to use them.”
There are many examples of how the Astros turned their analytical edge into wins on their march to a title – they were so good at it, a St. Louis Cardinals employee was banned from the game and arrested for hacking into the Astros’ computer systems in a quest to learn their secrets — but perhaps none exemplifies it more than pitcher Charlie Morton.
A year ago, Morton was kicked to the curb by the Philadelphia Phillies at the end of an injury-plagued campaign in which he made just four starts. By that point, he was nearing 33 and had already endured surgeries to both hips, his hamstring and his pitching elbow. He figured he might spend the rest of his career scrounging for stray jobs.
But the denizens of the Astros’ self-described “Nerd Cave” had noticed the uptick in Morton’s velocity in 2016 and had noticed that the spin rate on his curve was among the highest in the sport. There were enough raw materials to work with, and the Astros signed him to a two-year, $14 million contract – a move that raised eyebrows at the time, given Morton’s career 46-71 record and 4.54 ERA at the time — and went to work refining his pitches.
“The more you dug into him,” Hinch said, “the more you realized that the weapons were there.”
The day after Morton signed with the Astros, Hinch took him out for breakfast. And this fall, Morton was the winning pitcher in both Game 7 of the ALCS and Game 7 of the World Series, the first pitcher ever to achieve that double honor. On Wednesday night, four nights after starting Game 4, he closed out the Astros’ championship with four dominant innings of relief.
“It’s part of a journey,” Morton said. “And the highs and lows are what make it great, not just the highs. If anything, the lows make you appreciate it more. They make you a better person. They make you a better pitcher, a better professional in general.”
Read that quote again. It shows something important about the Astros. If you had watched them all month and never knew anything about their deep analytics bent, what would strike you most of all about them – well, besides the breathtaking talent – is the deep sense of humanity they all seem to possess, from Morton’s self-discovery to Beltran’s quiet leadership to Altuve’s infectious joy to Springer’s profound grasp of this team’s role in its city’s recovery.
Without question, that unquantifiable quality had a role in the Astros’ success, and even the nerds understood a championship team needed that quality up and down its roster. It wasn’t necessarily measurable, but it was discoverable and acquirable.
“It would be foolish to think that, because you can’t quantify it, it doesn’t matter,” said Sig Mejdal, standing alone off to the side of the Astros’ on-field celebration on the Dodger Stadium infield late Wednesday night.
Mejdal was Luhnow’s first hire after getting the GM job in Houston. A former engineer for NASA and Lockheed Martin with multiple engineering degrees and another in cognitive psychology, Mejdal took on the job title of Astros “director of decision sciences” – a title that, one supposes, probably didn’t exist in Branch Rickey’s day.
Asked how a front office built around quantitative analysis sought and found players with the impeccable makeup of these 2017 Astros, he said, “You rely on your experts. You rely on the coaching staff. So not only do you have the [player’s] quantifiable stuff, you have their reputation. You have our staff members’ best guesses of how he’s going to fit in, what he’s going to bring beyond the singles and doubles.”
At the center of it all is Hinch, the perfect bridge between the front office and the players. A 43-year-old Stanford grad with a degree in psychology, he is the prototype of the modern manager – the kind sweeping the game now: young, warm, smart, approachable, open to new ideas and free of the sort of ego and experience that might make a more old-school manager bristle at the intrusion of the front office into the on-field decision-making process.
“He’s ideal,” Mejdal said. “He’s wonderful. He’s a critical-thinking, open-minded manager who is incessantly trying to improve. And what more can you hope for?”
In a sense, Hinch is the conduit between the Astros’ brain and its heart. He and his staff receive the vast reams of information the front office provides and parcels it out to the players based on how much they want, how much they need and how much they can handle. And he manages to do so without making any of them feel like the sum of their cold, hard numbers.
“The job has changed,” said Ryan, the team president. “Now you have to be able to manage up, to ownership and the GM, and manage down, to the players. The manager becomes the link between what an advanced analytical front office is doing and making sure the players are able to be themselves, not be overwhelmed by the information, and at the same time relay those messages.”
As Hinch said, “My job is to tie it all together and make it work … We believe in people. We believe in scouting. We also are forward thinking in gathering and using information. But we do understand and appreciate the human element.”
If the managerial moves of the past month or so across the game are any indication, plenty of teams are looking at Houston’s Hinch – and his good friend and World Series counterpart, Dave Roberts of the Dodgers, who has many of the same qualities – as their models for recent hires. In recent weeks, the Boston Red Sox (Alex Cora, Hinch’s bench coach in Houston), Washington Nationals (Dave Martinez), New York Mets (Mickey Callaway) and Philadelphia Phillies (Gabe Kapler) all hired managers with similar traits as Hinch and Roberts, and all of them replaced veteran managers who were considerably older.
“You can win in this sport in a lot of different ways,” Hinch said. “I think too often we chase what the last guy did. We saw what made Chicago and Cleveland successful last year, and so we’re compared to how we run our bullpens based on how they did it … There are some traditional values that are always going to be in our game. There’s progressive growth that can always happen in this game. If you subscribe too much to either, you’re probably going to miss a lot of content that can help you win.”
The Astros won it all this year in their own, inimitable way. Few franchises might have the stomach for the extreme tank job the Astros pulled off earlier this decade. Others might not be ready, despite its encroaching influence, to rely so heavy on brains. But every great team has a thriving heart, and even if the Astros can’t measure that, they are as good as or better than everyone else in recognizing it.
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