When Sports Illustrated crowns a baseball franchise to be the World Champions of 2017, it’s going to be considered a bold prediction.
This is especially true when that team is the perennially cellar dweller like the Houston Astros, who currently sit at the very bottom of the American League West.
It’s no secret that the Astros are currently in the middle of a major rebuilding effort that is not limited to the players alone; the front office has undergone a major overhaul in the last three years, both in personnel and philosophy.
Expensive veterans have been traded, young, long-term prospects have been stockpiled and a lot of losing has taken place.
But an eye toward the future has kept the Astros moving in the right direction; general manager Jeff Luhnow deserves much of the credit for the team’s recent resurgence, through stressing player development and placing an unusually large emphasis on a complicated statistics system. The system, run by resident analytics expert and ex-blackjack dealer and NASA employee Sig Mejdal and his team, turns all known information about players and prospects into a single language, including but not limited to personality traits, player statistics, family background, medical history and body mechanics. The system then compares the current player to all past players in the system since 1997, in the hope there will be a correlation to help predict a player’s future. This results in a projection of the number of runs the franchise can expect from the player and how much the player will likely be paid.
In the 2014 MLB Draft, the Astros had the first pick for the third consecutive year in a row. Mejdalʼs system led the team to an unusual draft choice in Brady Aiken, a left- handed high school pitcher out of California. High school pitchers are easily the riskiest and most volatile prospects as their youth lends itself especially well to a short career either because of injury of lack of player development over time. But of the Astros four preferred choices, two of them, Aiken and Tyler Kolek, were high school pitchers. The team’s system indicated that Aiken, who likely wonʼt come into his prime until 25 or 26, was the best player of the entire 2014 draft crop. The adherence of the front office to the systemʼs choice is a testament to the teamʼs new philosophy: an enormous amount of weight is placed on what makes statistical sense in the teamʼs decision making process nowadays, rather than emotion or vanity.
Since the sale of the team to Jim Crane in 2011, and the installment of Luhnow, results are slowly trickling in. The teamʼs farm system, not long ago ranked at the bottom of the league, is now considered one of the best. This past May, the team went 15-14, their first winning month since September of 2010.
The numbers and the system are in place, but the Astros front office is hoping the results will continue to improve. If Luhnow and his team of analysts receive the desired outcome, this has the potential to be the most interesting instance of Revenge of the Nerds in the last thirty years.