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"the latest advanced metrics let us gauge the physical and even mental struggles of a waning ballplayer"
Albert Pujols' shocking decline
By Peter Keating
ESPN The Magazine
THE MOMENT YOU think you've seen it all in baseball, the game delivers something you've never encountered. Consider the decline of Albert Pujols (age: 34; OPS: .810). Everyone's stats fall off sooner or later, but Pujols' skills have decayed in a way that is unique in baseball history -- and that shows how the latest advanced metrics let us gauge the physical and even mental struggles of a waning ballplayer.
On average, as baseball players age, they lose speed, then power, but maintain or even improve their strike-zone judgment well into their 30s, even 40s. Willie Mays, for example, led the NL with a .425 on-base percentage at the age of 40 in 1971, the only time in his 22-year career that he drew more than 100 walks in a season.
Not so with Pujols, whose annual walk totals since his superhuman peak in St. Louis in 2008 read like this: 115, 103, 61, 52, 40 and 42 (through Aug. 22).. Has there been any other player, ever, whose free passes cratered after he established himself as the most fearsome hitter on the planet?
We can answer that by using the tools available to today's sabermetricians. Let's begin with a list of players who started out similarly to Pujols, then see how their careers proceeded. Baseball-Reference.com is great for this; the site provides comparables for every MLB player at any age, and you can use its Play Index to construct lists based on your own criteria.
Baseball Reference's top-10 list for players similar to Pujols through 2010 (the last time he was an All-Star) is a fantastic club that includes seven top-shelf Hall of Famers, like Frank Robinson and Lou Gehrig, plus Miguel Cabrera and Ken Griffey Jr. Through the age of 30, these great hitters averaged 380 homers with an OPS of .978 and walked in 12.5 percent of their plate appearances. Pujols was actually better than that, with 408 homers, a whopping 1.050 OPS and a 13.5 percent walk rate.
After they turned 30, the supergroup's walk rate edged up to 13.3 percent, almost enough to make up for the declining batting averages over the rest of their careers. But Pujols has taken a sharply different path -- since 2011, his walk rate has plunged to 8.4 percent, and his OBP has declined by 82 points. Where did all the walks go? We can look for changes in Pujols' batting approach at Fangraphs.com, whose plate-discipline statistics record how often hitters swing at and make contact with various kinds of pitches. Early in his career, Pujols swung at less than 20 percent of pitches outside the strike zone; that proportion, which Fangraphs calls his O-swing percentage, has leaped to more than 30 percent during his years with the Angels. That's a much bigger change than his swings inside the strike zone or his contact rates.
Digging deeper, we can turn to BrooksBaseball.net, where a team led by Dan Brooks, a Brown University neuroscientist, slices, dices and serves up PITCHf/x data in every imaginable way -- like heat maps showing how a batter performs against pitches in different locations. It turns out that in 2012 and 2013, Pujols' power stats declined dramatically in particular regions: in the middle of the strike zone and along the outside of the plate.
His numbers, then, paired with his medical history, sketch the narrative of his decline: Knee and foot injuries made it hard for Pujols to extend and slam the ball the other way. He's no longer crushing outside pitches as he once did; against offerings low and away, Pujols has just seven extra bases in 107 at-bats this season. And given that his O-swing percentage shows that Pujols no longer passes on those iffy pitches, something else peers out from the slugger's advanced metrics: The man seems anxiety-ridden at the plate these days. His power is down, so he's chasing pitches he shouldn't, and now his stat lines are closer to those of George Bell or Lee May than Mel Ott or Jimmie Foxx.
The first wave of sabermetrics was built on numbers that had been public for years; the statheads developed tools useful for evaluating seasons by players and teams. Now that pitch-by-pitch data is available, we can discern why Pujols' decline has taken its particular shape. Statheads and fans alike have long enjoyed acting as GMs. Next up, we get to play batting coach, if not therapist. Let's play ball!
Alex Bernstein: The Lineman in the Valley
JULY 24, 2014, 7:34 AM EDT
Following Alex Bernstein’s second season as an NFL offensive lineman in 1998, he signed up for an internship with Morgan Stanley. It was arranged by his team, the New York Jets, as part of the organization’s effort to get players job experience and better prepare them for life post-football.
“On the first day I got up at 5:30 a.m. to lift and do all my off-season training and then got to [New York City] by about noon,” Bernstein says. “I worked until about 7 p.m. and then drove back to my home in Long Island. The next day I woke up again at 5:30 a.m. for my workouts and said, ‘This is unsustainable.’ I never went back.”
That single day of an internship was the extent of Bernstein’s work experience when, two years later, a neck injury ended his football career. Like most players, he had given little thought to what he would do next. Bill Parcells, his coach with the Jets, once told him, “You are a smart guy. You can make more money in business than in football,” but Bernstein, now 39, didn’t have such optimism when the reality of life without football crashed down on him at age 24.
“I was newly married, and I was a virtual unknown. I couldn’t trade on my name,” he says. “I needed a job.”
In desperation, he called a college friend who worked at C-bridge Technologies, a software implementation company then based in Cambridge, Mass. It was not long after the apex of the first dotcom boom, and C-bridge was hiring “anyone who could string a sentence together and went to college,” Bernstein says. In July 2000 he became the company’s new, 6-foot-3, 340-pound inside sales rep, so low on the company ladder he was not allowed to meet with customers in person.
The $55,000-a-year job (counting a $20,000 bonus) was the first in a string of positions he has held in the tech industry, culminating in his co-founding of North Social, a creator of social media marketing software. In 2011, Vocus acquired North Social in a $25 million transaction, providing Bernstein with far more money than he ever would have earned as an undrafted offensive lineman—out of Division III Amherst to boot—in pro football.
“It was an incredibly hard transition. Everything in your life is wrapped up in being a football player, everything you eat and do, and to have that change so quickly is unbelievably devastating. Very few careers end that instantly,” Bernstein says on a recent weekday. He’s sitting on a sofa in the cavernous living room of his 8,020-square-foot Tudor home in the Gold Coast neighborhood of Alameda, Calif., which sits just across the bay from San Francisco. “A very important piece of the transition for me was I didn’t stop. If you are operating an engine at maximum RPMs—which is what you are doing to your body and mind if you are playing in the NFL—you can’t just turn the engine off. I took all my energy and effort and dove into work.”
During his three-year career with the Baltimore Ravens, Jets, Cleveland Browns, and one training camp with the Atlanta Falcons, Bernstein worked like an “all-effort, no-talent white boy,” which is what Ravens Hall of Fame offensive tackle Jonathan Ogden used to call Bernstein. At C-bridge, which was based on MIT’s campus, he viewed himself as a similarly challenged cog: a know-nothing jock far behind his peers in understanding the tech industry.
“I stayed on the same schedule as with football, but instead of getting taped at 5:30 a.m. for practice, I showed up at work at 5:30 a.m. I had to get a special key card to get access that early, since the doors didn’t unlock until 7 a.m. And instead of preparing for a game, I devoured every book I could find on business, books about systems integration, how coding worked, the business behind it,” he says.
His first few months at C-bridge were humbling, and had Bernstein’s NFL career lasted more than three seasons—or had he starred at a Big 10 Conference school, his dream growing up in Edina, Minn.—his ego might not have allowed him to stick with it. But by his fourth month at the Cambridge company, Bernstein’s knowledge about the software industry exceeded that of even some of his managers.
In the fall of 2000 he was named C-bridge’s director of strategic alliances, dealing directly with software companies like Oracle. He moved with his wife, P.J., to San Francisco, one of the 17 moves they made (counting his NFL days) in their first five years together. “We were like [Robert De Niro’s] character in the movie Heat. Everything we owned could fit in my car, and we could be gone in 30 minutes,” Bernstein says.
In 2002 a digital media company called Echo Networks, for which Bernstein had written a business plan, got funded, and Bernstein moved to Los Angeles to play the startup game. Echo teetered for months between great success and total failure (“I loved it,” he says). But in the end, the competition was Apple’s iTunes—and that was that.
Even in failure, though, Bernstein found opportunity. One of Echo’s customers was Virgin, which eventually hired him to be senior vice president for corporate development in its digital music division. In early 2006 came yet another move for the former NFL center and guard—this time back to the Bay Area, where Bernstein helped found North Venture Partners, a sort of outsourced innovator for big companies, where he served as managing partner for five years. The firm had some success with ScanDisk, which once ranked just behind Apple in sales of MP3 players.
“I have very rarely worked with anyone so driven, and unquestionably his football background plays a big role in the way he works his career,” Zack Zalon, Bernstein’s boss at Virgin Digital, wrote in an email. “When you look at successful entrepreneurs, it is always determined execution that makes the difference, and Alex personifies that.”
Today Bernstein is working on a number of projects, the most prominent of which is called Inoak (short for Innovate Oakland). He has bought three buildings in distressed areas of Oakland and turned them into technology incubator spaces. He may invest in the companies that come to reside there; he may just mentor their founders. “I also believe in the social reward of helping convert neighborhoods, building companies, and bringing jobs that will help improve Oakland,” he says.
“In football my goal was always to have a 10-year career, the benchmark of manliness. I didn’t get that, but I got out with reasonable health, and I got out early enough that I could start over,” he says. “Some players look back and say, ‘I wish I could have played longer.’ I look back and think that I got out with enough fuel left in my body to accomplish a lot more.”
Programs offer alternative path for athletes to finish degrees
A student athlete who fails to complete his or her degree prior to exhausting eligibility is out of luck, right? Fail to graduate in five years or suffer an injury that prevents future competition and you’re on your own, right?
Despite congressmen questioning the ability of student athletes to complete their degrees and recent letters penned by the presidents of the Big Ten and Pac-12 that mention degree-completion goals for student athletes, the issue here isn’t about the lack of programs. At best, the issue is a lack of awareness of all of the existing degree-completion programs.
Alvin “Stone” Logan, founder and CEO of the American College Football Players Association, says former student athletes either don’t know about the programs or the application process is too lengthy.
Among the existing programs is the NCAA’s Degree-Completion Award Program. Since being established in 1989, more than $19 million has been awarded to 2,600 former student athletes, with 40 to 45 percent of new applicants accepted each year. The award includes tuition, fees and a book allowance, with room and board awarded on a case-by-case basis. Ninety-two percent of those students receiving awards have completed their degrees through the program.
The National Consortium for Academics and Sports, nearly 30 years old, has assisted more than 33,900 former student athletes in returning to school to complete their degrees at its 280 institutional members. Under the NCAS degree-completion program, tuition and fees are covered in exchange for community service hours from the students, and institutions are encouraged to cooperate if a student athlete wants to attend a different institution than where they attended as a student athlete. To date, more than $300 million in tuition assistance has been awarded by NCAS member institutions.
Individual schools have developed programs as well, including the University of Kentucky in 1989. Bob Bradley, the associate athletic director for student services, has been at Kentucky since the program began and estimates that more than 150 former student athletes have completed their degrees, with more than half of those being former football players. The program is funded by the athletic department, and Bradley says all former student athletes interested in completing their degree are admitted into the program.
I first learned about the existence of degree-completion programs during a football game I attended at the University of Louisville in 2011. During the game, the program was advertised on the video board alerting former student athletes of its existence. Louisville’s program was established in 2000 and receives funds through the athletic department. As of the fall of 2011, 82 students had enrolled in the program, with 50 ultimately completing their degree.
Georgia Tech graduated four of its former football student athletes this past spring, with three others currently working toward their degrees. Gary Guyton, a former Yellow Jacket who signed with the New England Patriots as an undrafted free agent in 2008, is completing his degree under the NFL’s Player Tuition Assistance Plan, wherein eligible current and former players are reimbursed for tuition by their current or most recently former team.
Josh Nesbitt, a former starting quarterback for the Yellow Jackets who signed with the Buffalo Bills in 2011 as an undrafted free agent and was waived in 2012, returned to complete his degree under the NCAA’s degree-completion program and will graduate in 2015.
T.J. Barnes, a former defensive tackle with Georgia Tech who initially signed with the Jacksonville Jaguars as an undrafted free agent in 2013, completed his degree this spring through the athletic department’s degree-completion program.
Georgia Tech’s in-house program, which is funded through the athletic department, does not have a cap on the number of participants. Doug Allvine, the assistant athletic director at Georgia Tech who administers the program, says there is a budget for the program each year, but the athletic director has a discretionary fund that can be used if the program runs over budget. Allvine says he’s never been denied a request for funds by current Athletic Director Mike Bobinski or former Athletic Director Dan Radakovich.
In addition to student athletes who failed to complete their degrees while NCAA-eligible, Georgia Tech also funds degree completion for former student athletes who are no longer able to compete due to injury or medical condition. Last school year, the athletic department funded scholarships for student athletes from its swimming, softball and football teams who could no longer compete due to medical conditions. One of those student athletes was injured 2 1/2 years ago and has continued on scholarship while working as a tutor in the athletic department.
Georgia Tech isn’t the only school keeping former student athletes who can no longer compete on scholarship. Oklahoma’s NCAA financial statement last year reported 8.2 grants-in-aid for men’s gymnastics. The NCAA limit for men’s gymnastics is the equivalent of 6.3 grants-in-aid. How could the Sooners award the equivalent of 8.2 scholarships for the sport? The excess represented scholarships for former men’s gymnastics student athletes who had exhausted their eligibility or were medically unable to compete; those scholarships are exempt from the NCAA cap.
While these programs fall short of guaranteeing former student athletes the ability to complete their degrees, they do provide multiple opportunities for degree completion rarely reported on by the media and largely unknown by those outside of intercollegiate athletics.
Everyone involved in intercollegiate athletics plays a role in the success of these programs going forward. Athletic departments and the NCAA need to educate student athletes, university admissions and financial aid offices so former student athletes re-enrolling can be directed to the programs. In addition, organizations representing former student athletes need to educate themselves about the programs and how they can assist their members. While an absolute guarantee from the NCAA or member institutions might be ideal, there’s no reason former student athletes can’t complete their degree under the existing programs if they are still academically eligible and weren’t released for disciplinary reasons.
Extreme Moneyball: The Houston Astros Go All In on Data Analysis
By Joshua Green August 28, 2014
Professional baseball is an insular business, so when Jeff Luhnow showed up for his first day of work as the St. Louis Cardinals’ vice president for baseball development, he already had two strikes against him: He was a former management consultant at McKinsey, brought in to shake up the organization. And the sum total of his baseball experience was the McKinsey fantasy league and a business school paper he’d written on how the Chicago Cubs could win the World Series.
It was the fall of 2003. Michael Lewis’s book Moneyball, about the statistics-driven approach of Billy Beane’s Oakland A’s, sat atop the bestseller list. It caused a number of owners to rethink their own approach, which provided Luhnow entry into a game that otherwise wouldn’t have had a place for him. “I wanted to make sure we were cutting-edge on all fronts and thought having someone from the outside would give us a fresh look,” says Bill DeWitt Jr., the Cardinals’ owner.
Depending on whom you asked, this was either an odd or an inspired idea, since the Cardinals had made the playoffs three years running and didn’t appear to need help. But DeWitt worried the team wasn’t built to last. The farm system was weak, and because his club was a midmarket franchise, he couldn’t afford to replenish it with pricey free agents. So DeWitt asked his son-in-law, a McKinsey vet, if he knew any consultants with a passion for baseball. He replied, “I’ve got the perfect guy for you”—Luhnow.
DeWitt wanted Luhnow to design a better system for evaluating players. Luhnow hired a NASA engineer to help him make sense of all the new data that were becoming available for assessing ballplayers. “We talked a lot about how we could gain a competitive edge,” DeWitt says. But the people running the Cardinals’ old system resented the bespectacled interloper with his MBA and ideas about how they could do their jobs better. Behind his back, they referred to Luhnow as “Harry Potter” and “the accountant.”
To a management consultant, this is familiar territory. “When you arrive, you’re always met with a lot of skepticism from people inside the organization,” says Michael Farello, a friend from Luhnow’s consulting days. Once, during a client engagement (as McKinsey calls them), Luhnow’s boss had his tires slashed. “McKinsey trains you how to build bridges to garner support,” says Farello. On draft day, Luhnow tried to lighten the mood by showing up with the magic wand from his son’s Harry Potter Halloween costume.
Although he never quite won over his critics, Luhnow impressed DeWitt. The owner eventually made him head of the Cardinals’ scouting department—a real baseball job—which caused a rift in the organization that prompted the departure of the general manager, Walt Jocketty. “Putting Jeff in that role was more than a little atypical and therefore controversial,” says DeWitt, “but I thought the work he’d done and his insights would lead to success in that role.”
Sure enough, Luhnow proved a wizard at the draft. During the seven years he ran amateur scouting, no team had more draft picks make it to the big leagues than the Cardinals. Last October, when St. Louis faced off against the Boston Red Sox in the World Series, 16 of the 25 players on the Cardinals’ roster had been drafted during his tenure. By then, Luhnow was long gone.
When Jim Crane bought the Houston Astros in 2011, he tapped Luhnow to become general manager and revitalize a woeful franchise—the Astros had just finished the season with 56 wins and 106 losses, their worst record ever. A good ol’ boy with an industrial safety degree from Central Missouri State University, Crane had twice been an All-American pitcher. He went on to make a fortune in the logistics business, which had taught him the value of superior data. “If you have better information, faster than your competitors, you can run ’em ragged,” he says.
Crane had one overriding goal for the Astros, and that was to turn them into the St. Louis Cardinals. And he wanted to do it as quickly as possible. Luhnow’s pitch was what you might get if you put McKinsey in charge of a major league team: He wanted to go even further than the Cardinals or A’s in using data to guide the team’s decisions. So long as it yielded a winner, Crane was willing to go along. “If it takes more money, more computers, more horsepower, I’m ready to do it,” he says. Together, he and Luhnow have embarked on a project unlike anything baseball has seen before. Luhnow has done to the Houston Astros what Mitt Romney used to do to steel companies while at Bain Capital: stripped them down with ruthless efficiency to build them back up again, stronger and better than before.
Crane agreed that the Astros would go where the numbers told them to go. The numbers told them to lose. The Astros were so bad that, financially speaking, it didn’t make sense to spend millions of dollars fielding a team whose best hope was mediocrity. If Crane could withstand the criticism that comes with losing for a couple of seasons, Luhnow told him, then that money could be allotted to the farm system, the analytics staff, and the new baseball academies in the Dominican Republic that Luhnow’s staff had determined were an especially cost-efficient source of talent. Crane bought into this vision knowing it wouldn’t be pretty. “You get beat up on ESPN,” he says. “Everyone’s an expert who will give you their opinion. But I can take the heat.”
In 2013 the Astros began the season with the lowest payroll in the league, $27 million. But Luhnow didn’t stop there. He traded away much of the Astros’ major league roster for prospects, making a bad team even worse (the Astros ended the 2013 season with an active payroll of just $13 million). Someday, if their talents ripen, these youngsters may form the nucleus of a winning franchise. In the meantime, Luhnow’s plan all but assured a terrible team—which the Astros have been. While other clubs were trying to reach the World Series, Houston seemed to be galloping in the other direction, toward the worst record in the league and the top draft pick that distinction confers. “The perception in the industry is that they tanked,” says Buster Olney, ESPN’s national baseball columnist and a critic of the Astros’ approach. “When you run out a team with a $27 million payroll, you’re essentially designing your team to fail. There’s no chance you avoid colossal, record-setting losses, which is exactly what they got.” From 2011 to 2013, Houston was worse than any team since the 1962-64 New York Mets.
Most teams couldn’t even contemplate the Astros’ experiment. “In places like Boston or New York, you could never do what the Astros are doing because the fans wouldn’t accept it,” says Ben Cherington, general manager of the Boston Red Sox. Other owners might consider it unsportsmanlike or worry about becoming pariahs. In May, the Houston Chronicle’s beat reporter, Evan Drellich, wrote a much-discussed article about exactly this phenomenon (“Radical Methods Paint Astros as ‘Outcast’ ”) in which Bud Norris, a veteran pitcher Luhnow had flipped for prospects, was quoted as saying, “They are definitely the outcast of Major League Baseball right now, and it’s kind of frustrating for everyone else to have to watch it.” The Astros’ front office takes exception to this, likening the criticism of Luhnow to that directed at any disruptive force. “He’s an agent of change in an industry that, to be quite frank, didn’t want him,” says Sig Mejdal, the ex-NASA engineer brought over from St. Louis who is the Astros’ director for decision sciences.
Photograph by David Durochik/AP Photo
The hostility Luhnow’s faced isn’t surprising. Being baseball’s Mitt Romney has exposed the raw economic calculus of winning, shattering the romance and mystery that’s supposed to lie at the heart of the game. If Luhnow succeeds, other teams are sure to follow him—as Beane and the Oakland A’s can attest. “I joke with Billy,” says Olney, “that this is the spawn of Moneyball. It’s the most pure, numbers-driven experiment baseball has ever seen.”
One of the first things you notice when visiting the Astros’ front office is how much it resembles a consulting firm—full of bright, eager, impressively credentialed Ivy Leaguers, confidently at ease. The tension between old ways and new that divided the Cardinals is not evident. Luhnow has surrounded himself with a flock of adherents, including engineers, consultants, data scientists, and a physicist—people who, like Luhnow, wouldn’t have had a place in baseball until recently. “These sorts of skills were not valued 10 or 15 years ago—or really valuable—because the data that you can use today to help you make decisions wasn’t available,” he says. Many of them occupy a room, dubbed the Nerd Cave, that’s lined with whiteboards covered with algebraic formulas. Last summer, when Luhnow hired a Barclays(BCS) economist whose last job was valuing credit-default obligations, the team had to christen Nerd Cave Two. In Houston’s front office, the motto is “In God we trust—all others must bring data.” Calling someone Harry Potter would register as a compliment.
All this expertise is geared toward trying to master new data sources that have suddenly become available. Major league stadiums are wired with systems such as Pitch f/x and TrackMan that use Doppler radar to track the ball in three dimensions. “For every single pitch thrown in every game,” says Mejdal, “we now know the location, acceleration, movement, velocity, and the axis of rotation of the ball. If you believe, as we do, that this data has predictive ability, then you’re in an arms race to learn it and take advantage of it.”
One person who clearly believes this is Mr. Moneyball himself, Beane. In the Wall Street Journal recently, he wrote an essay heralding the approach of “technology-based roster-building and algorithm-driven decision-making” as Big Data courses through baseball. MLB teams, he suggested, like certain hedge funds, will soon differentiate themselves according to how well they are able to exploit this information. (Adding credence to that analogy, the Economist reported in June that an unnamed major league team had purchased a Cray supercomputer of the sort hedge funds use to run market simulations.)
Luhnow’s appreciation of the predictive power of data grew out of his experience selling designer jeans. In the early 2000s, with a former president of Levi Strauss, he co-founded an online custom apparel company that made jeans for Lands’ End(LE) shoppers. “You’re taking self-reported inputs from a human being,” he says, “and then trying to figure out exactly what pair of pants to make them. Are they being honest with themselves? Is there vanity sizing involved? How do they perceive themselves relative to how they actually are?”
These were critical questions because if wishful thinking led customers to order jeans that didn’t fit, they would send them back. Over time the company amassed enough data to anticipate and correct for these tendencies. “We used neural nets and other artificial-intelligence technology to develop algorithms to predict these patterns,” says Luhnow, who still holds two U.S. patents for custom-fitted apparel. “When I got to the Cardinals, I thought, this is probably something that can be applied over here.”
He found a kindred spirit in Mejdal, whose NASA research had uncovered similar examples of the limits of human intuition in predicting performance. For example, Mejdal showed that a drunken astronaut was a better pilot than a sober one flying four hours after his normal bedtime. After reading Moneyball, he sent unsolicited reports to each major league team outlining how they could improve their draft. Years later, when the Cardinals’ drafts were the envy of the league, other teams tried to emulate their strategy. “If they’d just hung on to their junk mail,” Mejdal says, “it would have been right there.”
Over the last three years, the Astros have examined conventional baseball wisdom to see what holds up to statistical rigor and what doesn’t. “We’ll have brainstorming lunches and just ask, why do teams throw good money after bad?” Mejdal says. “Why aren’t the minor leagues a meritocracy? Why does the first-round pick get treated differently than the 40th-round pick if, at some point, the 40th-round pick looks like a better prospect?”
This exercise, backed by the Nerd Cave’s regression analysis, has persuaded the team to do things on the diamond that look strange to the casual fan. The Astros lead the league in defensive shifts, the practice of moving the shortstop to the right side of second base against left-handed pull hitters, which looks odd but lowers the batting average on ground balls by about 30 points by forcing the hitter to face three defenders (shortstop, second baseman, first baseman) instead of the usual two on the right side of the infield.
To uncover starting pitching talent, baseball’s costliest commodity, the Astros’ minor league teams instituted a tandem rotation. In a traditional five-man rotation, a starter goes as deep into the game as he can. In a tandem system, every game features two “starters” who throw four or five innings in succession. This increases the number of pitchers given an opportunity to prove they can start and reduces the chance that human subjectivity will cause the team to miss hidden talent. (It’s also thought to prevent injury.) Luhnow cites a soft-tossing lefty named Tommy Shirley as a diamond this system unearthed. “He would have been pegged as a lefty specialist [relief pitcher],” he says. Instead, Shirley emerged as an All-Star starter in Double-A and was promoted to the club’s Triple-A team in July.
Beyond any specific strategy, Luhnow boasts that the data-driven process the Astros have devised is their true achievement. He offers the hypothetical example of a college draft prospect. “Let’s say he’s played two summers in a wood-bat league,” he says. “He’s got hundreds of Division I at-bats with a composite bat but against a wide variety of competition. You’ve got scouts’ input on his potential. Your video analyst says his swing is in the top quartile of swings he’s seen that lead to success in the major leagues. Your area scout says his character is in the top 10 percent of players. But he’s a C-minus student. Not academic, doesn’t learn well. Your doctor says he’s got a slightly above-average risk of sustaining an injury. I’ve just given you nine pieces of information. How do you weight them? I can’t do that in my mind. It’s overload for any human being. But we have a thousand players on the draft board we’re trying to rank in order.”
Luhnow wanders over to his computer to show off what the Astros’ process has yielded: a program called Ground Control that takes all these variables and weights them according to the values determined by the team’s statisticians, physicist, doctors, scouts, and coaches. It’s the repository of the organization’s collective baseball knowledge—the Astros’ brain. “Let me show you,” he says. He scrolls through screen after screen listing every player in the organization. Along with statistics and notes, Ground Control displays the team’s projected performance for each player alongside the real thing.
Some players have green tabs next to their names. This is a signal, generated by an algorithm, that the player is ready to be promoted. It’s also evidence that the algorithm-driven decision-making Beane predicted has already arrived. (A gray tab indicates that a player should be demoted, black that he should be cut.) “I look at this all the time,” says Luhnow. He clicks on José Veras, a reliever in Triple-A. Veras has a green tab. “The tool says his skill percentile is 97. He’s produced so far at 75 percent, so he’s producing in the top quarter of the league. His pressure to promote is extreme.” The next day, Veras is called up to the majors.
In late June, Luhnow and his brain trust gathered in the general manager’s box at Minute Maid Park in Houston to watch a 27-year-old pitcher whom they consider an indicator of what their process can yield. Collin McHugh was plucked from the scrap heap last December after bouncing between the Colorado Rockies and their Triple-A affiliate. The Rockies had been intrigued by McHugh’s sinker, which the team thought would play well in hitter-friendly Coors Field. It didn’t. When they waived him, McHugh’s career earned run average was 8.94.
The Astros’ analysts noticed that McHugh had a world-class curveball. Most curves spin at about 1,500 times per minute; McHugh’s spins 2,000 times. The more spin, the more the ball moves during the pitch—and the more likely batters are to miss it. Houston snapped him up. “We identified him as someone whose surface statistics might not indicate his true value,” says David Stearns, the team’s 29-year-old assistant general manager.
After consulting with the analytics staff, pitching coach Brent Strom altered McHugh’s repertoire. Gone was the sinker. In its place, McHugh began throwing more four-seam fastballs. And he started throwing them high in the strike zone. This defied the standard wisdom that pitching up is dangerous, since good hitters can crush fastballs. “Everybody says, ‘Keep the ball down, keep the ball down,’ ” says Strom. Major league teams have long favored ground-ball pitchers, since grounders tend not to result in doubles, triples, or home runs.
But here again, advanced data yielded a useful insight: Major league hitters had become so adept at hitting low pitches that they were vulnerable to high ones. Beane had discovered a particularly clever countermove. “Beane stayed ahead of the curve,” says Strom, “by finding hitters with a steep upward swing path to counter the sinking action of pitchers trying to induce ground balls.” It worked: The A’s hit the fewest ground balls and into the fewest double plays in the league. So the Astros began teaching their pitchers how to adapt. “To counteract the upward swing,” says Strom, “you elevate the ball—the hitter can’t get on top of it.”
In his first start of the season, McHugh struck out 12 batters and walked none, beating the Seattle Mariners. “He was open to [instruction],” says Stearns, “and it’s led to a significant amount of success.” McHugh won a spot in the Astros’ starting rotation and has gone on to lead the team in strikeouts and deliver a sterling 3.03 ERA.
For beleaguered Astros fans, this was supposed to be the year things started to turn around. And, like McHugh’s first start, there were good omens. ESPN ranked Houston’s farm system the best in baseball, promising a steady stream of talent. Payroll crept up to $44 million, still the American League’s lowest but much higher than before. The Astros made a surprise run at Japanese mega-free agent Masahiro Tanaka. He signed with the New York Yankees for $155 million, but Houston’s bid showed that it might finally be ready to open its wallet. Once the season was under way, the team called up two of its heralded young sluggers, George Springer and Jonathan Singleton, to inject power and excitement into a moribund lineup. And for the third year in a row the Astros held claim to the top pick in July’s amateur draft—a first in major league history. Given Luhnow’s reputation for draft wizardry, this seemed a bit like giving Mike Trout a fourth strike.
After a rough April, something clicked. The Astros put together a seven-game winning streak and played .500 ball in May and June, encouraging for a team that had gone 162-324 (.333) the previous three seasons. Attendance rose. Springer emerged as a Rookie of the Year candidate. In June, Sports Illustrated put him on the cover, cheekily anointing the Astros the “2017 World Series Champs.”
And then, suddenly, things went south. On June 30, Deadspin published 10 months’ worth of internal Astros trade discussions leaked (or hacked) from Ground Control. Luhnow had to call around the league to apologize. The draft began to seem less like a salvation than a problem. Houston’s top choice in 2012, shortstop Carlos Correa, broke his ankle. Last year’s top pick, Stanford University pitcher Mark Appel, fell apart, compiling a 2-5 record and 9.74 ERA in Single-A ball.
Also in late June, this year’s top pick, a high school flamethrower named Brady Aiken, arrived in Houston with his family expecting to sign a $6.5 million contract and step into the spotlight as the Astros’ latest prized acquisition. Nothing happened. A few days later, Aiken quietly left town. As the July 18 signing deadline approached, the Chronicle’s Drellich reported that a post-draft physical had shown Aiken to have an unusually small ulnar collateral ligament in his elbow. Technically, he was healthy. But the Astros, citing a heightened risk of injury, cut their bid to $3.1 million, the least they could offer and still retain their right to a compensatory pick in next year’s draft if Aiken didn’t sign. Aiken’s agent, Casey Close, took the rare step of publicly excoriating the team, telling Fox Sports: “We are extremely disappointed that Major League Baseball is allowing the Astros to conduct business in this manner with a complete disregard for the rules governing the drafts.” On deadline day, Luhnow made a series of escalating bids that Aiken rejected, becoming the first top pick in 30 years not to sign.
Although this was a huge black eye, Luhnow defiantly insists that losing Aiken won’t hurt the team. “Not every move is going to be popular, but we did what we thought was in the best interests of the Astros,” he says. “The reality is, we’ll get the second pick next year and more money to spend [under baseball’s slotting system], so there’s a very strong possibility that whoever we take gets to the big leagues faster than Brady would have. So it’s hard to say it’s any sort of setback at all.”
The suspicion around baseball, fanned by Close, is that Luhnow cut his offer not because he worried about Aiken’s elbow but because he saw an opportunity to increase his draft haul. The Astros’ final bid of $5 million left them just enough money under the league’s collective bargaining agreement to sign two additional pitchers, Jacob Nix and Mac Marshall—but only if Aiken accepted. In the end, Luhnow missed out on all three, coming away with nothing but a storm of bad publicity and a grievance filed by the players’ association for failing to honor the Astros’ offer to Nix. While he insists the team operated in good faith, using coldly rational cutthroat tactics has become the Astros’ hallmark.
The attacks on Luhnow and the Astros highlight a big difference between his old job and his new one: Turnarounds at McKinsey didn’t play out on as public a stage as baseball’s. “One of the reasons people get into this job is that we’re intensely competitive,” says Stearns, the assistant general manager. “We enjoy the notion that our report card is in the paper every single morning, that success and failure is so easily defined by wins and losses. Where we are right now in our organizational cycle, that report card isn’t as flattering as we would like.” Nevertheless, Luhnow insists the Astros’ project remains on track. “I learned at McKinsey how to have a thick skin,” he says, “and that’s carried over into baseball.” The Astros, he notes, have already surpassed last season’s win total.
But there are signs the clock is ticking. Earlier this year, Crane brought in Nolan Ryan, the epitome of old-school baseball toughness, as a special assistant. At the trade deadline, the Astros halted their annual fire sale and kept their best players. And in July, Appel and his 9.74 ERA were promoted to Double-A, leapfrogging more accomplished prospects and squelching the Astros’ conceit that the minor leagues should be a meritocracy. Several Astros expressed their displeasure to theChronicle and let it be known that they felt like lab mice in Luhnow’s grand experiment.
They’re right, of course.
Back when he was a consultant, Luhnow worked on several long-term projects. “People were always skeptical around change—especially when that change wasn’t producing results right away,” says David Becker, a friend from those days who has kept up the fantasy league. In the end, the McKinsey folks would pack up and return home to Chicago, leaving someone else to carry out their designs. In Houston, fans will have to wait a little longer to find out if baseball’s most controversial general manager can also become its most successful. The plan is in place. And this time, Luhnow and his team aren’t going to get on a plane and fly home.
Saturday, August 30, 2014
Seattle skillfully utilizing player options
By Jim Caple
Seattle rookie James Paxton, whom scouts are raving about, pitched 6 2/3 scoreless innings Tuesday night to beat Texas and improve his record to 4-1 with a 1.83 ERA. The Mariners optioned him to Triple-A Tacoma the next day.
Why did they do this? Not because of his excellent performance but because the Mariners felt the starting rotation needed some rest, particularly after Felix Hernandez,Hisashi Iwakuma and Chris Young all had perhaps their worst outings of the season over the weekend. By optioning Paxton and calling up Erasmo Ramirez to pitch Wednesday, they were able to give King Felix and the others not only one extra day of rest, but two, because Thursday was an off-day. It allowed each starter to pitch on six days' rest as the club heads into an unexpected but refreshingly welcome stretch drive.
Seattle rookie left-hander James Paxton is scheduled to make his next start Tuesday at Oakland.
Plus, the Mariners were able to do so without Paxton missing a single start. The Mariners will bring him back after Tacoma’s season ends Sunday and rosters expand, then slip him right back into the rotation.
The Mariners have been skillfully utilizing player options much of the season. They have been especially adept at optioning starting pitchers in and out to fill openings in the rotation and allow them to carry an eight-man bullpen that might be the game’s best. Other teams do this as well, but Seattle has an extra edge because their Triple-A affiliate is closer than any other club in baseball -- just 35 miles from stadium to stadium, so flights often aren’t an issue (though trust me, you don’t want to make the Seattle-Tacoma drive during rush hour).
“Instead of a 25-man roster, it’s like a 27- or 28-man roster," Seattle general manager Jack Zduriencik said. “It helps when you have guys who answer the bell."
That bell has rung often for Ramirez, who has shuttled between Seattle and Tacoma six times this season -- in April, May, June, July and twice in August. On three of those occasions, he was in Seattle just one day.
How are teams able to do this? Under the rules, players have three option years in which they can be optioned to the minors an unlimited number of times. As long as you are in an option year, the club can call you up and send you down as often as they like.
Normally, a player must stay 10 days in the minors after being optioned, but an exception can be made if his minor league team’s season ends before the 10 days are up. This is the case for Paxton. It also is the case for starter Kevin Gausman, whom the Orioles optioned to their Gulf Coast League team after his solid start Wednesday.
The players association generally doesn’t have any issue with options, but the union is mildly concerned with the Paxton case because it feels the team might have been manipulating the roster a bit. The option also will cut into Paxton’s earnings.
Depending on the contract, a player optioned to the minors can go from earning the pro-rated major league minimum -- roughly $2,700 a day -- to earning a minor league salary, which is considerably less, anywhere from $72 to perhaps $500 a day depending on the player and the minor league level.
In Paxton’s case, the option likely is costing him more than $2,000 a day. On the other hand, Ramirez got his salary bumped up. And Paxton probably won’t mind in the long run if the Mariners reach the playoffs and he reaps a postseason share.
Zduriencik also says there is no “manipulation," and the Mariners are simply following the rules in place. He says the key is communicating with the players.
Oh, by the way, the Mariners optioned Ramirez to Tacoma before their next game. Which was mostly because of his performance -- he gave up 10 runs in just three innings of a 12-4 loss to last place Texas. But as manager Lloyd McClendon stressed, the important thing is not how Ramirez pitched but how the extra rest helps Hernandez and the other pitchers this final month as Seattle battles for its first postseason appearance in 13 years.
"It’s all come together in a good way," Zduriencik said of the frequent options. “Some of it is health related, some of it is opportunity related, some of it is depth related. We have done a good job with the roster and a lot of the credit goes to Lloyd and his staff."