The Astros are running away with the AL West, so expect to hear a lot more about that magazine cover story that “predicted” big success for the franchise in 2017.
Now that the prediction (or at least the cover) has a real shot at being “right,” the question is whether this year’s success has flowed directly from the ideas that were laid out in the story.
We can’t fully know because, unlike the Cardinals, we’re not inside the Astros’ database, but from the outside it looks as though Astros general manager Jeff Luhnow and his aides just created a mashup of Earl Weaver and Billy Beane:
— Go heavy on pitching and power. Houston (50-25) was fourth in the majors in ERA and first in home runs and slugging percentage through June 23.
— Draft college hitters. Six are on the current 40-man roster, led by 2015 first-rounder Alex Bregman. And Bregman was a gift, because he was the compensation for Houston not signing high school pitcher Brady Aiken with the first pick in 2014.
— Constantly tweak the roster, hunt for bargains. The Astros used an average of 47.4 players from 2012 to 2016; the number has steadily decreased as the team has improved. Four current players came off the waiver wire. Two were minor league free agents.
The next-level components, obviously, are the tanking and the devotion to Big Data, which were the main points of that magazine story. Clearly the latter has helped Houston stay ahead of the curve. A short list of its fruits: Extreme shifting; a move away from working the count at the plate and striking out (The Wall Street Journal just did a big dive into that development); having pitchers throw more offspeed stuff; and trusting journeyman Collin McHugh, who helped make “spin rate” a thing. The analytics group that was widely mocked is being vindicated.
When it comes to roster construction, however, Luhnow’s group hasn’t gotten too cute. It’s not all castoffs, Rule 5 gambles and 20th-round steals.
Luhnow inherited what is now the team’s core from former GM Ed Wade in December 2011: Jose Altuve, Dallas Keuchel and George Springer. This year, Springer (21 homers, .920 OPS) is an MVP candidate, Keuchel (1.67 ERA) is a Cy Young candidate and Altuve (10 homers, 12 steals, .921 OPS) is, well, Altuve.
The odious tanking worked. Franchise cornerstones Carlos Correa and Lance McCullers Jr. came in the 2012 draft, and pitchers Chris Devenski, Francis Martes, Joe Musgrove and David Paulino have become the primary return for the salary dumps.
But when the Astros became competitive a couple of years back, Luhnow followed a strategy a Luddite GM might: trade prospects and sign veteran free agents.
On the trade side, he turned Rio Ruiz, Brett Phillips, Mark Appel, Thomas Eshelman, Andrew Thurman and Daniel Mengden into Evan Gattis, Ken Giles, Mike Fiers, Carlos Gomez and Scott Kazmir. On the free-agent side, he brought in known quantities Luke Gregerson, Roberto Hernandez, Jed Lowrie, Pat Neshek, Colby Rasmus and Joe Thatcher. He also signed Cuban star Yuli Gurriel, who had a long international resume.
Last offseason, after the Astros failed to return to the playoffs, Luhnow made five more major additions: Brian McCann (trade), Carlos Beltran (free agent), Josh Reddick (free agent), Nori Aoki (waivers) and Charlie Morton (free agent). McCann, Beltran, Reddick and Aoki were brought in to lead the more-contact movement, as the WSJ noted, and the return of Morton’s velocity was intriguing, but as with all the other moves, it shouldn’t have taken profound #analysis to match strategy and player.
If the plan was to build through the farm system to a certain point and then supplement from the outside — rather than, say, outfox rivals by unearthing hidden gem after hidden gem — well, that’s not really revolutionary. That’s traditional roster management, and Luhnow and Co. have been good at it. The high math is the main difference.
Luhnow has acquired 34 of the players on the team’s current 40-man roster (McHugh is on the 60-day disabled list and thus off the 40-man). Ten are draft picks, and none are July international signings. The overall homegrown-to-outside split is 16-24. For perspective, the Cardinals are at 24-16 and the Dodgers are at 12-28. As the veteran imports help carry the load in Houston, Derek Fisher, Tony Kemp, A.J. Reed, Preston Tucker and Tyler White — drafted college hitters, all — wait at Triple-A Fresno for another shot with the big club.
In Year 6 of Project Spreadsheet, the club is poised to be good for an extended period, but the formula used to get it to that point has looked a lot simpler — and more familiar — than observers may have expected it to be.
Players on Astros’ 40-man roster acquired during Jeff Luhnow’s tenure
DRAFT (10): Alex Bregman, Carlos Correa, Derek Fisher, Jordan Jankowski, Tony Kemp, Lance McCullers Jr., A.J. Reed, Brady Rodgers, Preston Tucker, Tyler White.
TRADES (13): Chris Devenski, Mike Fiers, Evan Gattis, Ken Giles, Marwin Gonzalez, James Hoyt, Jake Marisnick, Francis Martes, Brian McCann, Colin Moran, Joe Musgrove, David Paulino, Brad Peacock.
FREE AGENTS (8): Carlos Beltran, Juan Centeno, Dayan Diaz, Luke Gregerson, Yuli Gurriel, Charlie Morton, Josh Reddick, Tony Sipp.
WAIVERS (3): Nori Aoki, Will Harris, Ashur Tolliver. (Collin McHugh is on the 60-day DL.)
(Roster as of June 24.)