Winning At All Costs: The Houston Astros Story (Daryll)

The path to good people doing very bad things is rarely a straight downward line. At one point or another they start slowly eroding their sense of morality by making one step here, another step there, slightly off course.

On television a few years back we saw this journey in Walter White in the show Breaking Bad. He started as a high school science teacher diagnosed with cancer and needing medical care that he didn’t have the money to pay for. His eyes were opened to the pure money available by making and selling meth so he dipped his toes in to make some quick cash and thought he could walk away then. He couldn’t. By season 2, he lets his partner Jesse’s girlfriend Jane die when he had the opportunity to save her. He was in the room, but he also knew that no one would know that he could have saved her. So he doesn’t. This is before he becomes the full fledged villain. At this point you still see some good in what Walt does in his actions. Yet this moment is a flip, a turn that you can’t come back from. That death is followed by this scene in a bar between Walt and the girlfriend’s father, who doesn’t yet know his daughter has died.

Walter White took little steps until winning at all costs became his mantra and he lost track of his integrity.

Introduction

Jeff Luhnow, the Astros General Manager, former Cardinals scouting director and McKinsey consultant before that, is walking himself and the Astros organization dangerously close to the same path that Walter White and countless others have walked before him. Yet the story doesn’t start or end with him either as we will see as this tale unfolds.

Right now, the biggest news in baseball has been about the Astros sign-stealing as first reported by The Athletic. This is big news to be sure. The way they went about stealing signs and giving themselves an unfair advantage seems like it went way beyond what most teams do in trying to decipher signs. Using advanced cameras, relaying to a feed in the clubhouse tunnel, it sounds exhausting. Yet that phrase “went way beyond” can apply to more than stealing signs via cameras in 2017 and relaying during at bats. It goes back to Luhnow and how he treats his staff, to signing Roberto Osuna, and Brandon Taubman’s outburst following the 2019 ALCS victory.

In the article, I will take this story much farther back than where many are picking it up in order to explore actions taken by the Astros that led to this new revelation, what those actions say about a larger problem in the analytics movement, and where we go from here.

We could start tracing back the current story back to 2009. Jeff Luhnow had been hired by the Cardinals in 2003, and he brought a McKinsey Consulting background to him. In no coincidence at all, 2003 was also the year that Michael Lewis Moneyball was published, bringing to light the analytics that Billy Beane and the Oakland Athletics had been using, which in turn they had taken the torch started by Bill James.

Betrayal

In 2009, Luhnow hired on a college student named Chris Correa who had been doing great with special assignments for the clubs to enhance their drafting, particularly at college levels where other clubs left many stones unturned. Correa joined Luhnow and Sig Mejdal in a growing analytics office in St. Louis. In 2011, Luhnow was hired on by the Houston Astros as the GM with the new Jim Crane ownership group and the teams subsequent move to the American League. Sig Mejdal went over with Luhnow, Correa did not.

The 2012-14 Astros were terrible, and the owner couldn’t be happier with the work of Luhnow. They were getting top draft picks, and yes, making a lot of money! This article from Forbes in 2013 describes the financial situation:

The Astros are on pace to rake in an estimated $99 million in operating income (earnings before interest, taxes, depreciation and amortization) this season. That is nearly as much as the estimated operating income of the previous six World Series championship teams — combined.

So the Astros were making money and actually building a better baseball core. In 2014, Sports Illustrated writer Ben Reiter (now) famously predicted the Astros be World Series Champions in 2017 – and he of course ended up being right. His book Astroball details many of what I’ve described above, and he also goes into several details that I believe are important to our understanding of where we are today.

For one, it does point out that one reason Luhnow left the Cardinals was that many staffers there didn’t like Luhnow’s personality, which was polarizing. On the one hand, “His commitment level to whatever he does is at the maximum. He just goes all in when he makes decisions.” is how one colleague described it in The MVP Machine. Of course, this all in level can also rub people wrong he aren’t on his side of commitment. The story is told of a long term Astros coach Jon Matlack inspecting some new training techniques and coming back by saying “It’s stupid.” When questioned by Luhnow, the coach had nothing substantial to base that on. He was fired. When asked he was out to fire all the pitching coaches, Luhnow responded “No, but I’m not gonna tolerate insubordination.”.

So the Astros start seeing some success…and then a story breaks about our old friend Chris Correa over with the Cardinals. In addition to not liking him personally, many thought that when Luhnow left and brought many of the formulas and algorithms that had been developed at least in part by staff left in St. Louis that was stealing in its own way. Correa had plugged in a few old passwords of Sigs onto his new Astros email server…and they worked. Soon, he had access to the Astros information like he was an employee. He tried to explain his reasoning, albeit not so successfully:

“I’m trying to explain where my head was at, as I now understand it. If another team does something wrong, you retaliate. That’s the lens through which I mistakenly viewed it, and I used that to give myself permission. It was wrong.”

Retaliation. In his head – it was justified. This – most would agree – was blatant cheating. It was also illegal, as he was sentenced in 2016 to 48 months in prison. Correa felt cheated by Luhnow, he retaliated by stealing draft information. Case closed?

Is it ever?

At one point in Breaking Bad, as Walt’s wife Skyler worries about her husband as she begins to understand what he is doing, he delivers this line, “I am not in danger, Skyler. I am the danger.”

A Very Positive Event

The Astros went on to win their first ever World Championship in a thrilling 7 game World Series with the Dodgers in 2017, then in 2018 found themselves scuffling halfway through the year. So they made a trade to acquire Roberto Osuna from the Blue Jays, a top relief pitcher. Except that Osuna who was already under investigation for domestic violence but also was a heck of a pitcher who could steady their big weakness in the bullpen. His alleged victim – the mother of his 3 year old child – later went back to Mexico to drop the charges.

While I’m certain there were smaller steps leading up to that trade, this might be that early Walter White moment. Where Walt walks into the room, sees Jane dying on the bed, and knows that to truly “own” Jesse Pinkman, it would be better for Walt if she died. So he lets her die.

The Astros caught flak immediately for Osuna, as they “said hello to Osuna and goodbye to a big chunk of their integrity.”. In the end, he did pitch in 2018 and a key piece again in 2019. Yet with this move the Astros continued to show that the analytics drove more than just teaching their hitters to take more walks., but even drove personnel decisions.

Luhnow had said this in 2014 when he had fired the popular Bo Porter amid some public concern,

“Ultimately, I am responsible for creating that culture, and I will do everything in my power to do so — even when it means making difficult moves like the one we made today.”

So he acknowledged being responsible for the culture – yet when the Astros were pushed on their signing of Osuna amid the ongoing investigation, they responded that it was a “extremely difficult decision” for their team and knew it would generate “significant debate”. In the end, he was traded for and welcomed to the team because he was the best man at the best price for the job.

In a rambling interview later after introducing Osuna to the media, Luhnow said that he thought perhaps signing Osuna would be a positive if it brought awareness to domestic violence commenting: “While there’s been a lot of negativity about it, I do ultimately believe that over the long haul, we can turn this into a very positive event for our team…That’s my goal and I think Roberto shares that goal. We’re going to have to earn that…that’s my honest aspiration for where this ends up.”

The Astros once again won the AL West and made the playoffs in 2018, but lost surprisingly to the Red Sox in the ALCS who ended up winning the World Series. 2019 went about the same, as they cruised throughout most of the season with the best record in baseball and once again in the American League Championship Series. Yet before we get there, let’s take a momentary step back.

Remember Sig Mejdal? He left the Astros after 2018 and went to the Orioles. In The MVP Machine by Ben Lindberg and Travis Sawchik, they talk about some of the front office upheaval with this reflection about the Astros “Luhnow’s no-holds-barred team-building tactics have caused controversy outside of the Astros ever since the organization embarked on its extreme rebuild. Our reporting indicated that at times they’ve proved divisive internally too.”.

They talk about how of the eight or so internal people Luhnow started to build the Astros dream tank, including Sig, Mike Elias, Mike Fast, have all left to bigger and better things. Luhnow sells this as success creating new opportunities, but Sawchick and Lindbergh are quick to point out that if a workplace culture is really good, people don’t leave it. Says an ex-Astros employee, “People look for reasons to stay if it’s a good place to stay.”. About 20% of the off-season openings for senior-level talent across baseball operations were filled with Astros employees in the 2018-19 off-season.

So though circumstantial, we have enough to see that there might be at least a crack in the Astros front office. Winning usually solves all of these things, and for the most point the Astros are still a very winning franchise. Yet another crack started spidering its way through the Astros front office windshield after that ALCS win.

“Thank God we got Osuna. I’m so f—ing glad we got Osuna!”

That’s what Astros executive Mike Taubman shouted through a nearly empty Astros clubhouse, specifically aimed at female reporter Stephanie Apstein and several other female reporters who had consistently criticized for signing Osuna. The Astros immediately struck back at the original reports, calling the reports false and misleading. They then retracted those statements before eventually firing Taubman. Apstein had this to say about the Astros and other teams behavior in this matter:

This is the miscalculation that teams make over and over again. They acquire players with reprehensible pasts for less than market rate and concede that they will have to pay a price in public trust. But when the bill comes due, teams act like they, not the people their actions wounded, are the aggrieved party. How dare you keep reminding us of the past? Don’t you understand we have baseball games to play?

The Astros, with this hanging over their heads, did end up once again in the World Series. They surprisingly lost the first two games to the Nationals at home, then stormed back to win the next three in DC, before losing two more at home and the World Series. Immediately after the game, their now former pitcher Gerritt Cole made it clear he was unhappy how he was not used in Game 7, wearing a hat for his agent’s company and already referring to the Astros in the past tense. If the controversy had stopped there – it would have been a tumultuous and disappointing ending to the season.

This would not be the end though. Stealing Sign Gate was just getting started.

Cheating

Cheating at sports, at business, at politics and at life is the easy way out, and true leadership demands a more difficult, yet more fulfilling, path. Giving in to animalistic fury, flouting conventions and rules and having a myopic view of your goal never makes you win. Rather, it guarantees you will always be a loser.

That is one take on what cheating can get you. Former Commissioner A. Bartlett Giamatti wrote out this expose on cheating while upholding a 10 day suspension for pitcher Kevin Gross being suspended for using a foreign substance, “Cheating has always been considered destructive of the essence of a contest designed to declare a winner. Cheating corrodes the integrity of any game.”

So what exactly defines cheating? After all, it has been well documented that sign stealing is a long time past time within America’s National Past time, from any high school baseball game where you watch the other coach for hints, yell your hitters last name from second base when you see a curveball and first name for fast ball. The famous Bobby Thompson home run was now supposedly called from the bullpen using a telescope and binoculars. Where is the line drawn?

(Sidenote: i’ve never read the word skullduggery as many times as I have while researching this article)

Consider this quote from Sig from Astroball: “Data could help guide best practices, but it was unwise to confuse those with perfect practices. If people who denied the power of data could no longer compete, neither could those who believed that data alone provided an answer, not a tool.” So data has it’s limits. After all, you still do have to play the game, and it is not easy.

The biggest allegation about the Astros is their advanced use of video not available to relay signs to their hitters. To me the irony is that the supposed method of transmitting this video was pounding on a trash can in the hallway. So stealing signs from the basepaths is “okay”, but using technology and whistles/banging on a trashcan is not. Several sites with far more resources and understanding of underlying analytics have taken to finding out what if any advantage it actually gave the Astros.

This chart from Fivethirtyeight.com is interesting in showing teams improvement from 2016-2017 in improving power while reducing strikeout rates, and that indeed the Astros advanced in this metric more than any other team:

 

The problem of course for our narrative is that they improved both home and away. While it is possible that they were able to enact some sort of system for sign stealing on the road as well, it was made for their home park. So we wouldn’t expect to see the same results on the road. They had been accused last year of having a credentialed reporter take cellphone cameras of the Indians dugout, but that plan certainly didn’t seem to work. There was also this open email that has come out recently from Kevin Goldstein who was an assistant to Luhnow before the 2017 playoffs, urging his scouts to work on “picking up signs coming out of the dugout. What we are looking for is how much we can see, how we would log things, if we need cameras/binoculars, etc. So go to game, see what you can [or can’t] do and report back your findings.”

So back to the question of how or if it helped at all? Great article at Fangraphs digging through it as well with some advanced metrics. Jake Mailhot recaps the information from Travis Sawchik at FiveThirtyEight referenced above and points out that while hitting the ball harder in of itself takes talent – knowing what is coming to swing or not swing might be that true difference maker. In fact, the main conclusion reached at this point is that the Astros were about 20 runs better by taking pitches out of the zone and specifically on breaking balls. So it wasn’t so much that they were able to square up even better on a fastball – but that by letting more breaking balls go by they were able to get to better pitches they could hit and not swing at bad ones. Mailhot comes to this conclusion:

“There are so many factors at play, it’s nearly impossible to isolate the effects the Astros’ sign-stealing had on their performance. The fact that they continued to use this scheme throughout the year tells me they found some benefit, even if it’s hard to determine exactly what it was from the data.”

That is significant – but probably not what the average thinks about when they hear about sign stealing.

Conclusion

So where does this all leave us? To me I think that a larger reckoning is coming with the Astros and better understanding the line between analytics and humanity. I touched on this idea in my analysis of the World Series – that where the Astros seemed driven heavily by lining up the numbers at all costs, the Nationals took a chance on a veteran in Ryan Zimmerman and trusted in their aces Strasburg and Scherzer. It was not just coincidental that Gerrit Cole was left in the bullpen out of Game 7 that the Astros ended up losing. Part of it does have to do with how ideas filter throughout baseball. Implicated heavily in the sign stealing scandal are current Red Sox Manager Alex Cora and new Mets Manager Carlos Beltran. So as the game constantly seeks the next new “edge”, that edge becomes a rounded corner and the next edge is sought out.

Bill James wrote in 2015 that “…we have an ocean of ignorance and a small island of knowledge.”. Meaning that for all the growth in analytics, many of it is crowded onto itself and we are missing so much more to learn and understand. As we sit here in early December, the Astros are maligned but not out. They are Walter White just short of becoming Heisenberg full time. Perhaps there is still time for them to pivot, to cut short some of the more cut-throat personnel decisions that have led them to this precipice and lost some humanity in the process, to realize that a “zero tolerance” policy on domestic violence does not mean taking in a player currently suspended while under domestic violence investigation, and certainly to not have employees who would flaunt that move in a way that can only be described as assault.

To separate and isolate the sign stealing episode from the rest of the Astros recent history would be a mistake. I would not be surprised to hear more negative stories in the next 12 months about an organization that has looked to eliminate the human element on the path to building the best organization in baseball that analytics can make.

 

 

 

2 thoughts on “Winning At All Costs: The Houston Astros Story (Daryll)

  1. Thanks for your insight into this issue. Obviously, I hear nothing about this living in Houston. Matt brought it to my attention and I had to go out and look up what was going on. It’s disturbing to think it could have effected the outcome of the 2017 WS. However, I am still happy enough to blame management decisions and reliance on analytics for the game 7 debacle. It will be interesting to see, with this being brought to light, whether this will lead to change.

    Like

  2. Thanks for reading and commenting as always. It is an interesting, because really depending on your definition some form of “cheating” everyone does. Just trying to figure out where that line is – and who to punish when it is crossed.

    Like

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