The Houston Astros Have Turned Data into Winning Baseball

After three painful seasons, the Astros turned things around in 2015. Can they build on their modern approach this season?

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Mar 21 2016, 7:45pm

Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports

Like the rest of baseball, Dallas Keuchel was initially dubious of the Astros' ways. This was before he won the American League Cy Young award and the downtrodden franchise was suddenly rejuvenated. This was late 2013, when Keuchel was a former seventh round pick with an ERA floating above five and Houston was a laughingstock.

Jeff Luhnow had been hired as the team's general manager prior to the 2012 season and his plan to turn it around was by bottoming out and by investing in an iconoclastic process that leaned heavily on advanced analytics and data.

There was a leeriness throughout the sport about Luhnow's methods. It lingered inside the Astros clubhouse too, where jokes about their data-heavy approach flew among players. Those jokes still persist, Keuchel says. But now there is also a belief in the Astros' machinations, borne out of results.

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The Astros have turned into one of baseball's success stories. After years as a punching bag, they won 86 games in 2015 and reached the postseason as a wildcard. Then at Yankee Stadium, Keuchel oppressed the Yankees in the Bronx and Houston almost capsized the Royals' World Series title run in the ALDS before falling in five games. After the season had ended, Keuchel won the Cy Young award.

To get there, Keuchel decided to buy into the Astros' ways. Midway through the 2013 season, he was a struggling second-year pitcher who needed help. He found it in Houston's data-based approach.

The extreme shifts the Astros employed often led to ground balls when he was on the mound. His strikeout rate rose. He had run up a 5.20 ERA through his first two years but in 2014 it dropped to 2.93 and he became a reliable starter in Houston. Last year, he became a star.

"I think when they introduced some of the new-school baseball ways with the over-shifting and the advanced data, guys were a little skeptical because it was a new concept," Keuchel said. "Not a just new concept to us but a new concept to baseball. Having that being said, guys gave it a try with myself included."

"Some of the old school guys are still kind of on the outside, kind of skeptical. Once you get inside the new school baseball, it's kind of just the way it is. It's either you get on the board or you get left behind. I was willing to hop on board. It wasn't like I had any room to say anything. I was coming off two pretty sub-par seasons so I did everything I possibly could and just hopped on board."

When all of your predictive algorithms are correct. Photo: Thomas B. Shea-USA TODAY Sports.

Keuchel's success mimics the growth curve for the organization. After early stumbles, both have grown up fast, and both and look prepared to remain as forces in the American League. Keuchel is an ace in his prime. Carlos Correa is poised to be the next great shortstop and is just 21. Their roster and their farm system are loaded with youth and talent.

And after three trying years of disparagement and losing, the new-school Astros can finally revel in some success. So it's not really a surprise that when Luhnow is asked about all the, ahem, crap the Astros received over the first three years of his tenure and the success the franchise had in 2015, he suddenly starts to smile. One very good season is not validation on its own, but for a team that had lost nearly two out of every three games it played over a three year period, it does go a long way. If nothing else, the Sports Illustrated cover proclaiming them 2017 World Series champions no longer seems like unintended satire, but a possible outcome.

And this spring, it's probably alright for the Astros to gloat a little bit.

"From a fan's perspective, it had been going on for a while and I understand the fans' frustration and I also understand the second-guessing by the media and the fans when you are pursuing a strategy that may be a little non-traditional," Luhnow told VICE Sports. "But we always had our eye on getting this organization competitive as soon as possible and keeping it there. And I had a good feeling that it would work. I didn't know when it would all come together. Last year it started to come together and it silenced some of the critics, but they're always right around the corner waiting for your next bad luck run so we'll see. We are optimistic and we think we're doing the right thing but still the players have to play the game."

This is the low-key version of it. Luhnow is playing the long game. One playoff appearance can be a lonely notch on a resume. But in a clubhouse that heard and felt the criticism, and a front office that took the heavy load of it, there is some sense of satisfaction. The struggles were actually building towards something.

New school beat old school in the 2015 AL Wildcard game. Photo: Adam Hunger-USA TODAY Sports.

"It was kind of like when we get there and everybody hops on the bandwagon, the wagon's already passed through," Keuchel said. "That's kind of the mindset we took."

But even with success, there are still some misconceptions that seem to linger and bother Luhnow. The outside perception of the front office hasn't been wiped clean from his memory.

"The one thing that I think was a little unfair was talking about us as not being human, as just looking at the numbers and not having any feelings," Luhnow said. "Of course, who would know? Because they're not around in the clubhouse and all that. But that was a little unfair. But I understand where that came from. It's not true. I think people realize that now."

It seems like an interesting critique to harp on. And it wasn't unique to just media or fans. The Astros became thought of as an analytics first-and-only organization. The reputation had legs.

One major league player wondered years ago if the Astros promoted a prospect when a green light flicked on next to a player's name in Houston's internal computer program when their stats had reached a certain point—as if their minor league system was like an easy bake oven. Their actual internal computers system, called Ground Control, was the subject of several stories as they became baseball's face for the Big Data era.

Ground Control became an even bigger issue after a St. Louis Cardinals employee was found to have hacked into the Astros' database and stolen hundreds of files, including scouting reports, between 2013-14. But Houston has been able to move past this controversy too. The former Cardinals scouting director, Christopher Correa, pleaded guilty to five counts of unauthorized access of a protected computer earlier this year.

In general, apprehension inside baseball about the Astros has slowly faded, and even the sport's Luddites have evidence that their fears were misplaced. There are finally tangible signs that what Houston is doing is working.

"I can see where some of the outside perspective was saying 'Hey, they're not human," Keuchel said. "'They're just a robot or a machine spitting out numbers'. Maybe that is true. Maybe there is a machine. But at the same time they're doing their best to make a winning organization while we're doing our best to get better individually and collectively."