Astroball Takeaways For The Orioles
I spend a good portion of everyday reading the thoughts of others; but unless I’m on vacation I don’t make enough time for books. This past week I had my first trip away in years, and was excited to finally read Ben Reiter’s Astroball.
This isn’t exactly a timely review. The book was released a full year ago. The book has been sitting on a shelf staring at me since Christmas. I’ve seen excerpts and discussion (including on our board) on the book for months, but absorbing the work in it’s entirety provided further clarity.
Obviously fans of the Astros would have a vested interest in a book which discusses the story of how that organization rose from the ashes to becoming World Champions. Obviously fans of the Orioles are interested in the book to learn more about Mike Elias and Sig Mejdal.
Conceptually, I think it’s a read which can appeal beyond fans of these franchises or baseball itself.
Baltimore Sports and Life (BSL) operates the networking group Baltimore Metro Business Development (BMBD) and the business development group Pacesetters. We run three BMBD events per year, which bring together 200 +/- C-Suite Executives from numerous industries. Our Pacesetters group is currently comprised of 55 +/- companies and organizations who are looking to grow their respective businesses. A mixture of startups and established companies, who collectively realize they can benefit by gaining additional advocates for their businesses.
With regularity, I’m meeting with the decision makers of these companies. Often, our discussions with these companies are about organization building. What pieces do they have in-place? What do they need? How are they utilizing the resources they have? How can they differentiate themselves from their competitors? What information are they collecting, and how are they using that information to make better informed decisions? Are those decision makers working on, or in the business? Who are they grooming internally to take on additional responsibilities? Does their organization have a growth mindset?
(You can discuss this on the BSL Board here.)
As each of these topics are discussed in Astroball, the book will be an easy recommendation to each of the companies I’m in contact with.
Some Takeaways For The Orioles & Their Fans
Topic 1) Everything Starts At The Top
Certainly this isn’t a concept unique to Astroball, or which hasn’t been discussed a trillion times before in a trillion different ways; but it’s found here as well.
I’m the Owner of BSL. Any success we have is the result of a lot of people. Any failures we have are on my shoulders alone.
When Jim Crane purchased the Astros in May 2011, he took over an organization which had no where to go but up. When you are failing as an organization, it doesn’t take brilliance or creativity to decide change is needed. Where Crane gets credit, is identifying Jeff Luhnow as what he was seeking to lead his Baseball Operations department (with bonus points for taking from a competitor in the St. Louis Cardinals), allowing Luhnow to enact his plan, and for giving Luhnow the resources needed to work his plan.
Stepping back further, the only way Luhnow got on Crane’s radar is that Cardinals Owner Bill DeWitt Jr. hired Luhnow first. What makes that initial hire interesting is that St. Louis was successful, but DeWitt wasn’t satisfied. DeWitt recognized the Cardinals weren’t drafting / developing enough talent internally. It’s easy to respect that he wasn’t comfortable with his organization resting on their laurels (as a winning franchise). He actively sought out a change, and was committed to that change enough to bring an outsider into their organization in a position of authority. Another important part there imo, is that Ludhow basically served his first year with Cardinals in the background. Gaining the lay of the land, learning from others, and determining where he could best help implement change for the Cardinals going forward.
Not everyone internally with St. Louis bought into Ludhow and Mejdal, but DeWitt kept the organization pointing in one direction by making clear to others that Ludhow’s opinions would be listened to.
Should (when) the Orioles become good again, I hope that the leadership remains committed to process improvement and new ideas.
Also, as we’ve noted several times, Orioles Ownership effectively passed from Peter Angelos to his sons John and Lou this past year.
I don’t think John and Lou should be held accountable for the errors of their Father. We should hold them accountable for their decision making now as the true (and current) leaders of the organization.
Hiring Elias is an example of something I don’t believe Peter ever would have done.
The hire of Elias and embracing Elias’ decision making is a first step.
The harder part will be remaining committed to the plan and continuing to give Elias the tools and (most importantly) the support he’ll need to ultimately be successful.
Topic 2) Hitting 16 Against A 7 Every Time
1998 through 2011 was an incredibly dark time for the Baltimore Orioles. Not just because they finished under .500 every year, but because the way they operated was so frustrating. They weren’t in a position to compete, but they made year-to-year cosmetic changes with goals of being ‘competitive’, instead of being willing to make sounder decisions to better position themselves as a true contender later.
Where interviewing for the Astros GM position, Luhnow presented Crane with a 23-page proposal.
‘”Luhnow described a decision tree, with a 56-win team at its roots and a perennial contender at its tip. His only goal was to reach the top as quickly as possible, but in a fiscally responsible way, one in which they wouldn’t spend money until, thanks to their winning team, they had it. That meant that every decision he made, no matter how painful, would be based on the probability that it would prove helpful in the long term. He would hit a 16 against a 7 every time. Even if it sucked.”
This is what every fan should want from the organization they support.
Sound judgement. Logical decisions.
Mejdal was introduced in Astroball starting with his time as a Blackjack dealer.
“Sig also learned something that he would use more frequently during his 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.
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 was move was to take another card, though.
This, to Sig, illustrated the limitations of human judgement. “Just because it feels right, doesn’t mean it is right.” Human beings tended to trust the combination of experience, intuition, and emotions that comprised their gut. Their gut certainly had value. Sometimes their gut was wrong.”
Topic 3) It’s Not Either Or
“In Moneyball, scouts were largely portrayed as the story’s antagonists, the dimwitted Luddites who stood in the way of progress. “I think for all the wonders that the book did, the portrayal was a dichotomous one. It’s either the scouts or the nerd, in the corner of the room. But from the very beginning in St. Louis, Jeff framed it as an and question. It’s the scouting information and the performance information.”
– Sig Mejdal
It’s 2019, so I’m hoping the above is self-explanatory, but of course the above is true.
You need a blend of both Analytics and Scouting. It should be mentioned over and over again that Sig’s work creating STOUT was done to incorporate the reports of the club’s scouts with his own performance-based algorithms.
This is how you get organizational buy-in. It’s also how you get the best information, and arrive at the best decisions.
This only continued in Houston, with scouts quoted numerous times in the book about being allowed to do their jobs, and being asked to do what they always had. What they were given was further information which could identify potential blind spots and biases in their evaluations. That’s ideal. Further to that, Sig and his ‘Nerd Cave’, took every bit of information the scouts provided on players not just stats but, “.. health and family history, his pitching mechanics, shape of his swing, personality, etc and boiled that down to a single (common) language.”
Another scouting note I liked is that Ludhow (and later Elias) made sure the Area Scouts were listened to during each Amateur Draft. The book notes that as of 2009, roughly two-thirds of clubs did not invite the Area Scouts into the draft room. This has probably increased in the last decade, but I like the logic. Nobody knows the prospective draft picks better than the Area Scouts. Certainly need to listen to them. More than that, those Area Scouts need to know their opinions will be heard.
What really separates what Ludhow was doing, was that he encouraged the Area Scouts to not just tell him and the other leadership what they thought Ludhow wanted to hear.
Not everyone in leadership positions are willing to hear non-matching opinions.
I really liked the discussion about the decision making in the Cardinals selection of Joe Kelly over Angelo Songco. “Sig agreed. You couldn’t both accept and reject a player, but those moments in which the different methods of evaluating him clashed represented not a bug in the system – but a feature – a potential opportunity.”
Topic 4) What Additional Brain Power Joins The Orioles?
Luhnow brought to Houston a bunch of well-regarded minds outside of Elias and Mejdal. Guys like Kevin Goldstein, Mike Fast, and David Stearns. Elias took over the Orioles on November 16th, a bit late in the off-season cycle for building out a Front Office.
My expectation is that Elias will make several additional hires to his Executive staff this coming Winter.
Topic 5) Negativity Is Coming
Luhnow took over the Astros prior to the 2012 season. In ’12 Houston lost 107 games. In ’13 Houston lost 111 games. In ’14 some improvement was beginning to be seen, but they still finished 22 games under .500. Several articles came out in ’14 negatively critiquing the Astros.
“Criticisms fell into two categories. One related to the Astros deployment of new competitive tactics (such as extreme defensive shifts)…. the other criticism was that the Astros analytics-centered approach dehumanized players by reducing each to a fungible number.
…. But the backlash was also against the losing. There was so, so much losing.”
Right now any negativity to be found, is limited to the on-field 2019 product. That’s fine, the Orioles are 24-61. If you are going to write about the ’19 Orioles, then obviously there is going to be a deserved negative critique.
The 2018 Orioles lost 115 games. They might lose that much again this year.
It’s only a matter of time until we see articles quoting Agents, and Anonymous players questioning the ‘process.’
It’s only a matter of time until some fans put bags on their head and grouse, “I thought Analytics were supposed to fix this!”
It’s only a matter of time until we see numerous articles about decreased attendance, and ratings for TV and Radio.
It’s part of the deal.
Topic 6) Growth Mindset
There is an entire chapter in Astroball about the necessity for, and advantage of having a growth mindset. An earlier chapter discussed Carlos Correa Jr.
Correa’s father wanted a better life for his son, and worked his son tirelessly. In some quarters you’d question that as living vicariously through your child, or even abuse given the extent Jr. was pushed. Ultimately Sr. was trying to create multiple options for Jr.
Past any thoughts you might have for Correa Sr, a work ethic was instilled with Carlos Jr.
Obviously a primary reason the Astros took Correa 1:1 in the 2012 draft was that they loved his talent. Elias believed he was a younger Machado. Correa being willing to take below slot was also important. The Astros confidence in Correa’s makeup was a huge determining factor. If Correa didn’t succeed, it wasn’t going to be due to a lack of preparation or effort. Correa Jr. had shown the Astros leadership he was committed to process improvement That’s huge.
Upon joining the Astros, Luhnow inherited a poor Minor League system, but in his own words, “Any GM is going to inherit a system with great players in there. It’s a matter of of which ones you’re going to bet on.”
It’s also a matter of what players are going to take to the Development and provided Analytics of a new regime.
It’s admittedly simplistic, and quite possibly inaccurate; but John Means anyone? Did the new regime help with the change-up, or at-least the utilization?
If the new regime has zero to do with Means’ rapid ascension, that’s okay too. If that’s the case, than clearly he made some self-adjustments on his own.
But it’s impossible to read Astroball, and the evolution of Dallas Keuchel (not just his performance, but the Astros belief in what they had in him) and draw some early parallels.
Elias and Co. inherited Hays, Diaz, Mountcastle, Rodriguez, Hall, etc. They didn’t select those guys. They can’t be responsible for, “… how hard they train, what they eat, how willing they are to use those provided tools to determine what pitches to swing at and which to throw.” But the growth mindset those players have (or do not) will ultimately play a significant part in the Orioles rebuilding process. What the Orioles can control is what information, and other development tools they give those players.
Let’s not limit discussion of growth mindset to player development though.
Every Front Office in the game has undergone significant change in the last 15-20 years. Every team has their own ‘Nerd Cave’ and Big Data. Every FO has MBAs. Every team is looking to exploit market inefficiencies. As these FO’s become more similar, it’s going to be harder to separate from the pack.
The teams which stay ahead of the curve, and are receptive to adjusting their preexisting philosophies as more / new information becomes readily available; will be at an advantage.
Topic 7) Confidence Without Arrogance
“I don’t think we have any special insights or special knowledge, or that we’re smarter than anyone else. I think we’re operating with information or techniques that are more or less out there in the baseball community. More than half the teams use the information we have.”
– Mike Elias
If you’ve listened to what Elias has said since the O’s hired him last November, he’s clearly a confident guy. That’s needed. It’s also deserved given his success. What the quote above illustrates is the difference between confidence and unbridled arrogance. That recognition that he doesn’t have some ‘secret sauce.’ What he has is the requisite knowledge, and a sound process for decision making.
Topic 8) Altuve’s Extension
“In July 2013, when Altuve was in the middle of what promised to be a typical Major League season for him – batting average above .280, 30 doubles, 30 steals, single-digit home runs – Luhnow signed him to a long-term extension. “We knew that we had at-least had an everyday second baseman on a second-division club.”
Once the O’s believe they have an everyday piece they can move forward with, will they pursue similar type deals?
Topic 9) There Will Be Set-Backs
As a fan of the Orioles, it’s not pleasant to think about; but the Orioles are probably destined to have their own versions of Brady Aiken, and Mark Appel.
If you believe in your decision making process, and that process leads you to selections or other acquisitions which don’t work out – that’s just the breaks.
It’s a game built around failure.
No hitter is going to bat 1.000, and no Front Office will either. Plus, when discussing Draft Picks (even those at the very top of the draft), it’s extremely hit or miss in-terms of what teams are going to receive production wise.
The Astros release of JD Martinez is scarier to me than the examples of Aiken and Appel.
Martinez was doing everything he could to show the Astros that he had changed his approach, but the organization had already written him off and were done with giving him additional opportunity.
At some level, that’s also going to happen again. There are 1000s of stories of players moving on, making adjustments to their games, and thriving in new situations. Often with those stories it’s the case of players getting an extended opportunity elsewhere. The takeaway I’d have if I was Elias or Mejdal (or as us as fans) is that development is not always linear. If you’ve got players internally who are absorbing the information you provide them, and trying to make adjustments to their games; those players should get some longer rope to see if the adjustments stick.
Topic 10) When Do The Orioles Obtain Their Carlos Beltran?
“Baseball would be quite a remarkable activity if it was the one place in the world where your co-workers didn’t have any impact on how productive you were.”
– Bill James
Carlos Beltran helped put the Astros over the top, and his value wasn’t just limited to his remaining on-field ability when signed.
There is a lot to unpack here, but Beltran doesn’t get signed prior to the 2017 season if Luhnow didn’t think Beltran had something left in the tank. He also doesn’t give Beltran $16M, if the Astros hadn’t had back-to-back quality seasons (including a 2015 playoff birth). They were chasing a ring, and Luhnow thought Beltran could be a part of the equation.
So, maybe the basic answer to my question here is that the O’s will pursue their own ‘veteran-ocity’ when they are on the verge of contention. Adam Jones gave the O’s a lot of similar value in the 2012-16 run, where he provided production that was more than the stats on the back of his baseball card showed.
But the O’s finished last in ’17 with Jones, lost plenty of games with him in ’18, and didn’t need Jones to be around when they lost 100+ here in ’19.
When the O’s start showing signs of turning the corner, and being on the ascent, the discussion of bringing in some veteran leadership might have merit. Or maybe that conversation doesn’t take place until the O’s are contending.
In any event, imo there is value in chemistry, and it’s not just a product of winning – it’s part of the equation of winning. And even if you don’t believe that, what should be universally accepted is that MLB clubhouses are pretty diverse. If you have a guy like Beltran that can unite different internal factions, and provide positive examples of preparation; that has to have considerable value.
Bonus: The Orioles Will Be Good Again… And Probably Sooner Than Many Think
Houston lost 100+ games in 2011, ’12, and ’13. They lost 90 in ’14.
They won the World Series in 2017.
My expectation is that the ’21 Orioles will look like a Major League team, and flirt with .500.
I believe the ’22 Orioles will be in the Wild Card hunt.
I believe the ’23 Orioles (four decades removed from the organizations third and last World Championship) will be legitimate contenders.
But that remains to be seen. In the immediate there are many more losses to watch here in ’19, and next.
Individuals and teams are the culmination of their decision making. Make enough good decisions, things will take care of themselves.
There is nothing in Astroball which is particularly mind-blowing, and for me – that’s the appeal.
If Elias and Mejdal had pitched the O’s on some secret plan comprised of unique proprietary information, that would have sent red-flags up everywhere for me.
Instead what you have is a duo who is confident based on what they’ve achieved, and the decision making process they’ve built. I was excited when they took over the Orioles Baseball Ops. last November, and my enthusiasm has only increased in the subsequent months.
It’s going to be fun, and ultimately very rewarding to watch their incremental build.
Chris Stoner founded Baltimore Sports and Life in 2009. He has appeared as a radio guest with 1090 WBAL, 105.7 The Fan, CBS 1300, Q1370, WOYK 1350, WKAV 1400, and WNST 1570. He has also been interviewed by The Baltimore Sun, Baltimore Business Journal, and PressBox (TV). As Owner, his responsibilities include serving as the Managing Editor, Publicist, & Sales Director.
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