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2019 AL West Preview: Houston Astros Overview

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Do the Mariners have any hope of emulating the Astros’ climb to the top?

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The Houston Astros are everything the Mariners want to be. I mean, the Astros are everything most teams want to be, but the Astros’ path to lasting success is one that the Mariners must emulate if they hope to compete within a couple of years.

The Astros joined the AL West just six years ago. At the time, most Mariner fans were happy with their newfound division rival. If you were paying attention at the time, you probably heard some variation of the same “Hyuck, now someone else will finish in last place for a change!” joke. The thing is, the sentiment wasn’t wrong. The Astros were coming off of two straight 100-loss seasons that saw them finish in the cellar of the six-team NL Central. In 2013, their first season in the AL West, they lost 111 games, and they again finished in last place. Finishing in fourth, of course, was the Mariners.

It’s hard to overstate just how awful the Astros were. The names you might recognize from the 2013 roster are José Altuve and J.D. Martinez. However, a 23-year-old Altuve put up 0.5 fWAR while leading the team in batting with a .283/.316/.363 slash line. Martinez, meanwhile, put up a whopping -0.9 fWAR on the back of a .273 OBP, and looked like anything but a Major Leaguer.

The pitching wasn’t much better. Fan favorite Érik Bédard anchored the rotation. Bédard pitched in 32 games, the second-most of his career, and put up 1.4 fWAR. Dallas Keuchel was there too, but this was a 25-year-old Keuchel that put up a 5.15 ERA over 153.2 innings, and you’d have been forgiven for not seeing 5-win potential in him.

Things got so bad that the Astros, sitting at a 51-96 record, lost each of their remaining games to finish the season on a 15-game losing streak. That losing streak featured the famous “Butt Slide”, a play that was emblematic of much of their season.

The next year didn’t go much better, as the Astros finished 2014 at 70-92, just three games out of last place. So what was it, then, that prompted Sports Illustrated to infamously proclaim the Astros to be “2017 World Series Champions”?

The answer, in my opinion, has two parts. The first is that the Astros’ front office, led by General Manager Jeff Luhnow since the end of 2011, is extremely brilliant. The second is how they applied that brilliance: to the next data revolution.

Luhnow’s Wikipedia biography reads like a bad movie script: before joining the St. Louis Cardinals in 2003, he’d worked as an engineer and a management consultant, with no work experience in baseball. Once hired, Cardinals staffers called him names, like “Harry Potter” and “the Accountant”. Devastating stuff, to be sure.

Somehow, Luhnow persevered through the name-calling and helped integrate an analytical approach to scouting and player development within the Cardinals’ organization. After the 2011 season, which saw the Cardinals win their second title since Luhnow’s hiring, the Astros pounced on him and hired him as their General Manager.

Luhnow, just 44 years of age at the time, immediately set to work integrating this analytics-based approach within the Astros organization. Though he inherited a few players, such as George Springer and Altuve, Luhnow was mostly starting from scratch. He didn’t just have to build a farm; he had to build a culture. Luhnow gave an interview with McKinsey, the management firm with which he’d been before the Cardinals, and described how hard it was to get players open to making changes grounded in analytics.

The harder part was changing the behavior of the coaches and the players that were either on our big-league team or in the minor-league system on their way up—getting them to change their behavior and use the information to help make decisions, whether it’s game-day decisions or lineups or defensive configuration or recommendations on promoting players. That was harder, and took three or four years to get to a point that we felt good about it.

Luhnow describes spending 2013 and 2014 just trying to get players to consistently shift. It’s a change that seems so obvious now, but at the time, there was major push-back.

It wasn’t just the shift. It was launch angle, and spin rate, and who-knows-what-other proprietary information. The Oakland A’s had started the “Moneyball” revolution by looking at things that seem so trivial now — on base percentage, slugging percentage, walk rate. The Astros were among the first teams to implement the next big wave of data-driven decision making in baseball, and they committed systematically. It worked.

The Astros, seemingly overnight, went from a perennial 100-loss laughingstock to the class of not just the AL West, but of all of Major League Baseball. They’ve made the playoffs for four straight years, won 100 or more games for the last two, won a World Series, and look to be set up to compete for years to come.

Unfortunately, the cat’s out of the bag. The Mariners, and every other team in baseball, can play copy-cat all they want. At this point, you don’t shift the infield to get a competitive advantage. At this point, you do it just to keep up. If a team wants an advantage, it’s going to have to be the one championing the next big thing.

Maybe the Mariners have found it, and it’s just not obvious yet. Andy McKay, hired by Jerry Dipoto in 2015 as Director of Player Development, has a background as a sports psychologist. It was an interesting hire at the time, and one that signaled the team’s heel-turn toward a more holistic approach to player development. Will focusing on mental development, mental health, and holistic changes at the same time as data-driven mechanical shifts prove to be the “next big thing”?

There’s no way to know right now, and it’s likely that we won’t have a verdict for at least a couple more years. If the Mariners have gotten it right, and Jerry Dipoto thinks they have, the team could find themselves in the Astros’ position sooner rather than later.

Of course, we’ve heard all that before. And if the Mariners have gotten it wrong, they’ll find themselves mediocre-at-best for at least another five years or so.

Hey, what’s another five years to the first eighteen?