Astroball: The New Way to Win It All

Astroball: The New Way to Win It All

by Ben Reiter

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Overview

NEW YORK TIMES BESTSELLER

When Sports Illustrated declared on the cover of a June 2014 issue that the Houston Astros would win the World Series in 2017, people thought Ben Reiter, the article’s author, was crazy. The Astros were the worst baseball team in half a century, but they were more than just bad. They were an embarrassment, a club that didn’t even appear to be trying to win. The cover story, combined with the specificity of Reiter’s claim, met instant and nearly universal derision. But three years later, the critics were proved improbably, astonishingly wrong. How had Reiter predicted it so accurately? And, more important, how had the Astros pulled off the impossible?

Astroball is the inside story of how a gang of outsiders went beyond the stats to find a new way to win—and not just in baseball. When new Astros general manager Jeff Luhnow and his top analyst, the former rocket scientist Sig Mejdal, arrived in Houston in 2011, they had already spent more than half a decade trying to understand how human instinct and expertise could be blended with hard numbers such as on-base percentage and strikeout rate to guide their decision-making. In Houston, they had free rein to remake the club. No longer would scouts, with all their subjective, hard-to-quantify opinions, be forced into opposition with the stats guys. Instead, Luhnow and Sig wanted to correct for the biases inherent in human observation, and then roll their scouts’ critical thoughts into their process. The numbers had value—but so did the gut.

The strategy paid off brilliantly, and surprisingly quickly. It pointed the Astros toward key draft picks like Carlos Correa and Alex Bregman; offered a path for developing George Springer, José Altuve, and Dallas Keuchel; and showed them how veterans like Carlos Beltrán and Justin Verlander represented the last piece in the puzzle of fielding a championship team.

Sitting at the nexus of sports, business, and innovation—and written with years of access to the team’s stars and executives—Astroball is the 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.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780525576655
Publisher: Crown/Archetype
Publication date: 03/26/2019
Pages: 288
Sales rank: 37,838
Product dimensions: 5.10(w) x 7.90(h) x 0.70(d)

About the Author

Ben Reiter is a senior writer for Sports Illustrated, which he joined in 2004. He has written 25 cover stories for the magazine. He lives in New York City with his family.

Read an Excerpt

1

Gut Feels

In the late 1980s, when people got too drunk and were kicked out of the other casinos in Lake Tahoe, they ended up at Del Webb’s High Sierra, a place where there was no such thing as too drunk. Sometimes they staggered by indifferent security guards who were costumed as Wild West deputies, past stages adorned with fake tumbleweeds, and over to a blackjack table manned by a tall, thin young dealer with thick black hair.

“Sig?” they would say, squinting at the tag pinned to his chest. “What kind of name is that?”

Sig Mejdal was an undergraduate at the University of California, Davis, studying mechanical engineering and aeronautical engineering. During the summers he’d head 120 miles east, clip an oversize bow tie to his collar, and sling cards at Tahoe’s seediest betting house. He thought the tie made him look more like someone with a dead cat draped around his neck than a Dodge City barman—­or like a Dodge City barman who hunted house pets, best case—­but he loved the job anyway. It was more fun than the internships his classmates at Davis pursued, and more lucrative, too. He would spend the day at the beach, deal all night, fling the hundred bucks he’d made in tips onto the steadily accumulating pile on his dresser in the morning, and head back to the beach.

At the High Sierra, he learned things he knew he couldn’t have in a lab. The best way to get someone to stop smoking at his table, for example. When a gambler rested his cigarette on the edge of his ashtray, Sig would subtly put a little extra on the next card he dealt to him, so that it hit the cigarette and knocked it onto the felt or the ground in a shower of sparks. The player, embarrassed and believing it to have been an accident, usually didn’t light up again.

Sig also learned something that he would use more frequently during his future professional career. He learned that human beings do not always make decisions that serve their own long-­term self-­interest, even when they are equipped with a wealth of experience and knowledge of the mathematical probabilities that ought to guide their choices.

Blackjack is a probabilistic game. For any combination of cards, the player’s and the dealer’s, there is an optimal action for the player to take in order to increase his chances of winning—­or, generally, of losing less. Sometimes, the action is both easy and obvious. You hit a 10, against anything. Often, though, players know what they ought to do from a probabilistic perspective, but they do something else, because their intuition tells them to.

Even the sober patrons of the High Sierra usually declined to hit on a 16 against a dealer’s 7, because it sucked to bust, especially with a big bet on the table. The mathematically sound move was to take another card, though. It was a bad hand no matter what, but standing led to a loss rate of 74 percent—­the chances were that the dealer would pull a 17, at minimum—­while hitting decreased that to 67.5 percent, even factoring in the busts, a big difference in the long run. Sometimes, even other dealers, who saw more than 100,000 hands a year, with immediate feedback, advised players to stand.

This, to Sig, illustrated the limitations of human judgment. “Just because it feels right,” he told himself, “doesn’t mean it is right.” Human beings tended to trust the combination of experience, intuition, and emotion that comprised their gut. Their gut certainly had value. Sometimes their gut was wrong.

When he wasn’t spending his free time at the beach, Sig spread his wrinkled tip money onto the blackjack table himself. He rarely won. The house’s advantage was the house’s advantage. Playing the right way, though, he lost slowly, and when he factored in the complimentary drinks he consumed in the process, he considered it a financial wash.

Sig and the other dealers marveled at the way gamblers they had wiped out would unquestioningly follow the custom of tossing their last few chips to them for the trouble, sparing the casino the burden of paying them more than minimum wage. A hundred bucks a day was good money, and many dealers decided to make a career out of their summer gig. Sig did not.

He graduated from Davis and went on to earn two master’s degrees, in operations research and cognitive psychology, from San Jose State. He took a job at Lockheed Martin, where he helped launch satellites into orbit. Then he performed research for NASA’s Fatigue Countermeasures Group, where, among other things, he revealed the relative uselessness of napping. Even though tired subjects believed that naps fully restored their ability to perform, that turned out to be empirically untrue unless they had gone through a full night’s sleep cycle.

Sig was initially inspired to undertake that study not by astronauts, but by a different type of American hero: baseball players. He had wondered how the performance of major leaguers from the East Coast was affected when they traveled to play in different time zones, interrupting their circadian rhythms. In fact, the entirety of Sig’s mathematically driven career had stemmed from his passion for our most mathematically driven sport.

Unlike many American boys, Sig did not inherit his love of ­baseball from his parents. His father, Svend, came from Denmark, and his mother, Norma, grew up in Colombia. They each arrived in the United States in their 20s, and met in the US Army, an officer and a nurse. Sig’s older brother, Svend Jr., was born in France, while his parents were stationed there. Norma gave birth to Sig—­Sigurd, ­actually—­in California in 1965, when Svend Sr. was in Vietnam.

Nobody could ever pronounce the family’s last name, Mejdal, until a friend of Sig’s came up with a mnemonic chant. “Whose dell?” the friend asked. “My dell!” Sig shouted. If some of his peers still stumbled on his surname, Sig had little trouble connecting with them via a pastime neither of his parents much understood.

He spent great swaths of his childhood flicking the spinners of All-­Star Baseball, a board game that allowed players to simulate major league contests. Each year the game’s maker, Cadaco-­Ellis, released a new set of circular, insertable cards representing players both current and past. Each card was divided into fourteen zones, sized to correspond with the player’s statistics, on which the spinner might land. A slugger’s card might have had large zones for No. 1 (Home Run) and No. 10 (Strikeout), while slap hitters’ cards featured more room for the spinner to end up on No. 7 (Single) or No. 11 (Double). Sig favored the latter. He loved the 1894 Baltimore Orioles of Dan Brouthers and Wee Willie Keeler.

He began subscribing to newsletters produced by the Society of American Baseball Research, or SABR. When he was in sixth grade, he read a paper that included a formula that could predict how many runs and runs batted in a given player should amass based on the number and type of hits he had. The analyst had worked backward from real run totals to determine how much each constituent part contributed to them. This was called regression analysis.

Sig wrote a rudimentary program on his Atari 800 computer that allowed him to project those results for his All-­Star Baseball players, like Brouthers and Keeler, and he recorded his players’ stats in reams of notebooks. “It seemed magical,” he said. “It was why I liked math.”

He played simulated season after simulated season, competing against not only his buddy from across the street but, after responding to an ad in a newsletter, retirees across the country by mail on the honor system. In his imagination, his living room became the site of nerve-­rattling championships won by legendary players under his control. “These heroic actions would be taking place whenever you wanted, in your living room,” he said. “You’d keep track of the statistics and get excited by the drama, as if this was important.”

To the even deeper mystification of his parents, Sig also played six years of Little League, from the fourth grade through the ninth. He was so skinny that he could rarely lift the ball out of the infield. His mother inadvertently sat in the wrong bleachers and cheered whenever the umpire called him out, which was almost always.

Sig loved it anyway, especially after he began reading the annual Baseball Abstract self-­published by Bill James, the godfather of sabermetrics—­the statistical analysis of baseball data. When he wasn’t in right field—­where the coaches always played him, hoping that a ball wouldn’t be squibbed his way—­he calculated James’s pioneering statistics, designed to capture a player’s value better than batting average or home run totals could, for each one of his teammates. Every member of the 1981 Papagallos of San Jose’s Union Little League had a Runs Created, whether he knew it or not.

Even so, as a teenager there was only one career path Sig could imagine following. “I have immigrant parents,” he said. “They wanted their son to make it in this country. I was brainwashed since grade school to be an engineer, and I don’t think I ever rethought it.” His one minor rebellion, the summers he’d spent at the High Sierra rather than buttressing his résumé with internships, turned out to be his best piece of luck: The hiring manager at Lockheed loved blackjack.

“I wanted a job,” Sig said. “This was fine.” In fact, it was undeniably cool to become an expert in subsystems that controlled a rocket, and to be responsible for averting mistakes that could cost hundreds of millions of dollars. Still, to Sig it felt remote, bloodless. The rockets and satellites were thousands of miles away, and success meant they stayed on course. They always did.

For most engineers, a well-­paid job like that would have been enough. It wasn’t for Sig. The trouble was that, unlike many of those with his quantitative background, Sig was a people person, too—­a humanist. “The stereotype of the introverted analyst? I guess I don’t fit it so well,” he said.

In the early 1990s, he realized that he was spending much of every weekend standing in line at Macy’s, waiting to get another gift wrapped to tote to the weddings to which he kept being invited. He began to keep track of them. A quarter century later he had attended 96. That he knew the precise number was itself remarkable—­only someone who quantifies everything would keep count—­but so is the number itself. How many of us are so invested in people and relationships that 96 couples couldn’t imagine observing their happiest of days without us there? His greatest regret, as he got older, was that the frequency of invitations slowed down.

His tasks at NASA, like the sleep cycle research, were more satisfying. He had studied cognitive psychology in graduate school because he was fascinated not by dry engineering problems like how to keep a rocket on course, but by how math and science intersected with people, how they could help humans understand and overcome their natural limitations. Still, NASA was just a job, too. He had always maxed out his vacation days at Lockheed, and at NASA he insisted on working on short-­term contracts so that for a month or two each year he could pursue another passion: travel. He called it “high-­concentrate living,” in his value-­focused way.

Seeking out adventure, he met people throughout Europe and South America. In 2001, he published an article in the Los Angeles Times, headlined “Climbing the Stairway to Heaven,” in which he chronicled his experiences as the novice member of an expedition that ascended Mount Chimborazo. Sig mischievously asserted that, factoring in Earth’s ellipsoid shape, the Ecuadorean peak was actually its highest, 7,000 feet farther from the planet’s center than Everest’s. “To the south I could see the mountains of Peru; to the west, the blues of the Pacific Ocean; and to the north, snowcapped Cotopaxi,” he wrote of the vista from the hypoxemic summit. “I was overwhelmed by the magnitude of what my eyes could take in. Exhaustion and emotion are a volatile combination for an oxygen-­starved brain. Some climbers collapsed in the snow. Some cried. Others hugged. I did a little of each before turning my attention to the view before me, the view from the top of the world.”

After that, it was back down to the lab, where he continued to dream of a job that would unite his mathematical expertise with his passion for figuring out what made humans their best selves, a job in which he wouldn’t feel as if each year amounted to working for 11 months in order to live for one.

Two years after Chimborazo, he thought he’d found it.

Sig was 37 when, in 2003, he read Michael Lewis’s Moneyball, a book that described how people with his skill set in the Oakland Athletics’ front office were reimagining the underpinnings of baseball by harnessing the power of data to take advantage of inefficiencies in the evaluation of players. They were, in other words, making a living by using math to get better at the thing he’d always loved most. While he had remained an engaged fan and a member of SABR, he now realized there might be a place inside the game for someone like him. “I thought, hey, that job would be better than NASA,” he said.

Table of Contents

Preface: Thank You for the Laugh xiii

Prologue: The Judge 1

1 Gut Feels 11

2 The Nerd Cave 41

3 Graceful Beast 59

4 Growth Mindset 81

3 Peyton Manning on a Surfboard 107

6 Summer of Setbacks 129

7 In Search of Carlos Beltrán 145

8 Two Seconds to Spare 173

9 The Series 197

Conclusion: Astroworld 225

Afterword: In Orbit 237

Acknowledgments 241

Photo Credits 251

Index 253

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Astroball: The New Way to Win It All 5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 2 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Insightful analysis of the Astro's ascension to World Series champs.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I loved the behind the scenes information on how one of the worst teams in the history of baseball, became its most exciting team to watch. This from an Astros fan from the early 70's thru today. I had tickets the nights that Altuve, Springer, and Correa, played their first games at Minute Maid. Almost cried when they traded Pence. Sat in left field at the dome, when Mike Scott threw is no hitter. Yes 2017 was a great great for me. Thanks for such a great read.