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Monday, October 23, 2017

World Series 2017: The inside story of how the Houston Astros won the American League

The plan included its bumps. All paths to a championship do. The Astros whiffed on draft picks. They let go of players who blossomed elsewhere. The baseball establishment clowned them for titles – the brilliant Sig Mejdal, Luhnow’s consigliere, was named “director of decision sciences” – and for their reticence to part with the prospects they had hoarded and for believing they could use the mountain of data available to tell them the things traditionally in the purview of scouts. If nothing else, Game 7 served as validation that the Astros had some something right. A lot of somethings.

This winter, for example, as the emergence of Altuve and Correa and Springer and Bregman coalesced around a deep pitching staff, the Astros dipped into a traditional baseball maneuver: load up on veteran presence. Hinch, a former player whose front-office experience gave him gravitas among executives and in the clubhouse, believed the Astros needed players who could guide the young core while complementing it. In came Carlos Beltran, the future Hall of Famer, and Josh Reddick, the gritty outfielder, and on Aug. 31, with the trade deadline fast approaching, Hinch pushed for the Astros to acquire Verlander, and owner Jim Crane agreed to front the bump in salary, and Luhnow decided to give up the prospects, and in came the eventual ALCS MVP who threw an immaculate 13-strikeout gem in Game 2 and saved the season with seven shutout innings in Game 6.

Then there was Brian McCann. The Yankees, whose own development system had churned out a cache of phenomenal young talent, had seen catcher Gary Sanchez grow into a star. McCann, whom they had signed to a five-year deal, no longer was needed as an everyday catcher. The Yankees tossed in $5.5 million to help cover the remaining $34 million of McCann’s contract. They paid, in part, for their own Game 7 downfall.

“I was appreciated in New York,” he said. “I just wasn’t going to start anymore. Gary is one of the best catchers in baseball. I’m so proud of him. I knew I had more years behind the plate left, and I wasn’t ready to DH against right-handers and catch once a week. I wasn’t ready for that role. When the season was over, I looked around, and it was either come here or go to Atlanta, go home and play for the Braves. I knew this was one of the best teams in baseball, and this would give me the best chance to win a ring.”

Jim Furtado Posted: October 23, 2017 at 08:36 AM | 26 comment(s) Login to Bookmark
  Tags: astros, world series

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   1. Steve Balboni's Personal Trainer Posted: October 23, 2017 at 08:47 AM (#5560258)
Are there other MLB teams who have closely followed the Astros "tanking, and we don't care if everybody knows it" model? The 76ers and Browns are doing it, too, and Phily may be seeing some payoff for it now...
   2. Rally Posted: October 23, 2017 at 09:15 AM (#5560265)
Are there other MLB teams who have closely followed the Astros "tanking, and we don't care if everybody knows it" model? The 76ers and Browns are doing it, too, and Phily may be seeing some payoff for it now...


Cubs did a pretty good job preceding it. The team that seems most closely trying to do what the Astros did is the White Sox, though we're just one year in to them trading everybody with value for prospects. We'll find out this offseason whether this is a multi-year plan, or if they think they have enough young talent right now to bring in some veterans to complement them and try to win.
   3. BDC Posted: October 23, 2017 at 09:24 AM (#5560272)
I think there have been teams in every US pro sport that have followed the tank-and-build model, since the inception of entry drafts. The thing is, you can "tank" either inadvertently or because the stars don't align, and come out of the tank just in pretty much the same way as the team that "tanks" with a calculated view in mind. And then there are teams that spin their wheels for years, sometimes what seems like decades, on end, for any number of reasons (low budget, bad management, stars still don't align).

The only real tank jobs are Marlins-style perpetual fire sales. Otherwise … let's say it's the winter of 2010-11, and the Astros have been mediocre for a while, but they have a chance to sign somebody like Carl Crawford. They pass up that opportunity, boo, they're tanking, they get really bad, this is awful, why didn't they sign guys like Carl Crawford. But they are trying to win in the long run, quite obviously, and made a good decision back then. Unless you're under the illusion that you can win a championship every year by signing every available free agent, à la the 2001-2008 Yankees who didn't win anyway, every team in sports trades immediate for long-term advantages, continuously.
   4. stevegamer Posted: October 23, 2017 at 10:09 AM (#5560299)
Are there other MLB teams who have closely followed the Astros "tanking, and we don't care if everybody knows it" model? The 76ers and Browns are doing it, too, and Phily may be seeing some payoff for it now...


Apparently you've confused the Browns with teams intentionally tanking. The Browns have two winning seasons since rejoining the league in 1999. They went 9-7 to get a wild card in 2002, and missed the playoffs in 2007 at 10-6.

Sadness

They are just generally awful. Coaches almost always get fired before they start a 3rd season, and they have no coherent plan. A below average fantasy football player could probably GM them this well.

   5. BrianBrianson Posted: October 23, 2017 at 10:40 AM (#5560315)
Basically every team "tanks" in the use of "tank" here that's totally inconsistent with normal English usage. When a team's doing well, they're signing free agents, trading away prospects, trying to push themselves over the line. After a while, they've got past-sell-by date free agents clogging up the payroll, and and empty-ish farm system. Unless you have truly unlimited money, you've got to stop going after big ticket free agents, start trying to accumulate prospects, trade away high payroll dudes as part of the accumulation of prospects.

"Tanking" usually means losing on purpose, which isn't worthwhile in MLB. Draft picks just aren't that reliable, and a single MLB player just isn't worth what a single NBA or NHL player is. Lebron James, for instance, would be like a MLB player worth 25-40 WAR. Unless you can draft a guy who pitches like Pedro Martinez, hits like Ted Williams, and fields like Ozzie Smith, you can't get the same value. The average first pick averages ~2 wins/year for the six years they're under team control. The tenth pick is about half that. You can't rely on a first pick pulling you up enough to even win back the goodwill hit/fan interest hit you've taken.
   6. JRVJ Posted: October 23, 2017 at 11:49 AM (#5560344)
Personally, I blame Buster Olney for his relentless DUMB use of the term "Tank".

I realize that his Podcast persona is a little bit different from who he is in real life (or at least that's my perception), but he has done himself no favors by pushing this canard.
   7. Bote Man Posted: October 23, 2017 at 12:08 PM (#5560365)
Tampering with draftees, industrial espionage... yeah, that's the ticket!
   8. bunyon Posted: October 23, 2017 at 12:19 PM (#5560373)
They are just generally awful. Coaches almost always get fired before they start a 3rd season, and they have no coherent plan. A below average fantasy football player could probably GM them this well.

This would be awesome: hold a fantasy league with some admissions standards and require Cleveland residency. Winner gets a three year GM contract.
   9. Steve Balboni's Personal Trainer Posted: October 23, 2017 at 12:45 PM (#5560390)
There is a difference between being bad because you were unsuccessful at trying to be good, vs. being bad because you believe it is the right way to end up very good in the long run.

I think the recent leadership of the Browns is trying to tank (taking on Osweiler and his $ for draft picks, for example). They are also passing on a number of QB prospects because they would rather keep being bad, and then hit the jackpot on a true franchise QB, then go for the best QB available, even if he isn't an elite prospect (for example, Trubinsky).

This is different from the 2000s Browns, who just weren't good at football despite their best efforts.
   10. Petunia inquires about ponies Posted: October 23, 2017 at 05:14 PM (#5560599)
And to [9]'s points on the Browns, which are all totally right-on, it is perhaps worth noting that Paul DePodesta is the person currently calling the shots for that franchise.

As [5] pointed out, there's really no meaningful way to compare the NBA and MLB in terms of year-to-year strategy, just in terms of the distribution of relative value along a roster. Somewhat similarly, the NFL absolutely has its own peccadilloes, and the particular way the Browns SEEM to be approaching solving that problem at the moment strikes me as, in a vacuum, really smart.
   11. Walt Davis Posted: October 23, 2017 at 06:15 PM (#5560666)
First, let's remember that Altuve, Keuchel and Springer were already in the system before Luhnow took over, they were not rewards for tanking. Luhnow's team presumably deserves some (a lot) of the credit for their development. Second, let's remember that the high-priced vets they traded (some before, some after he took over if I recall) returned no talent that paid off although Cosart was later traded in the deal that brought in Marisnick. Even McCullers was a supplemental pick who they could have drafted no matter what draft slot they were in.

So the rewards of tanking are Correa and Bregman. Correa is a huge reward, he looks remarkably similar to ARod through age 22, and Bregman looks like he's going to be a very good player (but probably more a Anthony Rendon type). Those guys combined for 7 WAA this year which is awesome ... but also wasn't needed to win the AL West. The Astros got to where they are primarily through good old-fashioned GMing -- developing prospects, making trades that work out, picking up some solid talent off the waiver wire.

#5 pick Kyle Tucker and 1s pick Derek Fisher look like they may pay off as well, further reward for tanking. The Astros have done particularly well with their supplemental picks.

On McCann ... the Yanks really could have used him, mainly at 1B/DH ... or possibly at C with Sanchez at 1B/DH. I suspect he'd have gotten more than the 399 PAs he had in Houston. On their other vet acquisitions, Beltran was a disaaster, Aoki didn't help, mid-season acquisition Maybin didn't help but Reddick and Charlie Morton paid off quite well.

Looking forward, they have a potential logjam in the OF but, if they need to, probably cleared up easily enough via trade. No major FAs this offseason, no major long-term commitments although Reddick might go bad before his contract is done (3/$39 remaining, no big deal). One more year of control over Keuchel, two over Altuve, three over Springer, four over Correa and 5 over Bregman -- about the best you could hope for. The two options on Altuve are so cheap it's a good time to use that as leverage for a long-term extension if they want one (they should) but unless they are gonna run with the big boys on payroll, they've probably got to pick at most 2 of Altuve, Correa and Springer to keep long-term.

So the offense is pretty well set going forward. If either Fisher or Tucker is ready, then LF/CF is set and then all you need is somebody to share 1B/DH/some LF duties with Gattis and Gurriel. The pitching is the main concern -- average bWAA on the year, rotation a bit above, bullpen well below. Even by b-r's estimates, they should have plenty of money to spend, at least enough to land Darvish if they want ... or Wade Davis and a top set-up type or 3 top set-up types. Also Fiers and McCullers should pitch better, McCullers and Keuchel might be healthier and of course Verlander so the rotation might be fine as is. (They've got some fairly high-ranked pitching prospects too but they're pretty young as I recall.)

And nobody else in the AL West strikes me as likely to put up much of a fight in 2018. A "hangover" like the Cubs wouldn't surprise me but it's hard not to see the 2018 Astros at least "struggling" to low-90s wins and a AL West title.
   12. Sleepy's not going to blame himself Posted: October 23, 2017 at 06:38 PM (#5560676)
The average first pick averages ~2 wins/year for the six years they're under team control. The tenth pick is about half that. You can't rely on a first pick pulling you up enough to even win back the goodwill hit/fan interest hit you've taken.
Some great points. It seems like that's exactly what the Astros did, and two of their three top picks were failures, which definitely backs you up. I would assume their director of decision science took the business impacts into account.

They still haven't won back the fan goodwill; Jeff Gordon at STLToday has an article about the business price of those decisions:
After averaging a shade under 3 million attendance during a four-year span, the Astros drew a little more than half of that for three consecutive seasons. At one point their local television ratings bottomed out in Blutarsky territory: zero point zero.

Even during this 101-victory campaign, long-term fan erosion was evident -- the Astros drew a shade over 2.4 million fans, down 600,000 from their heyday.
Expanding on that a bit, from 2011 to 2017, the attendance "tanked" by about 750K/year (avg 1.99 million) for a total of about 5.3 million fewer tickets sold, compared to the average from 2000-2010 (~2.74 million per year). Using the 2013 Team Marketing Report (TMR) "fan cost index" as a rough estimate, the tank cost the Astros almost $300 million since 2011, ignoring any impacts to broadcast revenue or potential postseason ticket sales.
   13. BDC Posted: October 23, 2017 at 07:28 PM (#5560684)
from 2011 to 2017, the attendance "tanked" by about 750K/year (avg 1.99 million) for a total of about 5.3 million fewer tickets sold, compared to the average from 2000-2010 (~2.74 million per year)

A couple of other things (aside from broadcast/internet revenue and the postseason):

The effect of the 2008 economic crash hits almost between those two eras, and affected teams almost across the board.

Plus there's the assumption that an Astros team that plugged along winning 75-85 games a year would draw as well as the team that was so successful in 2004-05. Now, I suppose they wouldn't draw as poorly as the godawful Astros of 2011-13, but longterm mediocrity can't be better than some lean years followed by some fat.

Unless the warrant is that you don't need to drop to 55 wins to build a winner; you can always just stay around 80 wins and rebuild just as well.

Anyway, I just see a lot of moving parts, and the impossibility of winning all the time.
   14. the Hugh Jorgan returns Posted: October 23, 2017 at 07:55 PM (#5560689)
Gary is one of the best catchers in baseball. I’m so proud of him. I knew I had more years behind the plate left, and I wasn’t ready to DH against right-handers and catch once a week.



That's a nice thing for Brian to say, however Gary is one of the best hitters in baseball who is trying to fake it at catcher. We all know Sanchez has a lot of passed balls etc., but his ability to seemingly not be able to handle throws from the OF on close plays at home does seem to cost NY every time there is a potential play at the plate.

I know not a common occurrence and the Sanchez bat will more then make up for it, but it is noticeable that he seems to really struggle with this aspect of the game.
   15. Random Transaction Generator Posted: October 23, 2017 at 08:13 PM (#5560691)
I know not a common occurrence and the Sanchez bat will more then make up for it, but it is noticeable that he seems to really struggle with this aspect of the game.


You could make an argument that it cost his team a chance to the World Series. If he handles that throw from the OF in game 2, he easily tags out Altuve and the Astros don't win that game right there.
Verlander isn't coming out for the 10th inning, so who knows what the Yankees do to the Astros bullpen if they finish off the 9th.
   16. ERROR---Jolly Old St. Nick Posted: October 23, 2017 at 08:48 PM (#5560702)
You could make an argument that it cost his team a chance to the World Series.

You could make an argument that there were many key plays that cost them the series, and if any one of them had turned out differently, the eventual outcome would've been reversed.
   17. Bote Man Posted: October 24, 2017 at 04:24 AM (#5560759)
We all know Sánchez has a lot of passed balls etc., but his ability to seemingly not be able to handle throws from the OF on close plays at home does seem to cost NY every time there is a potential play at the plate.

Also known as The Wilson Ramos Story, available on VHS and BetaMAX.
   18. Rally Posted: October 24, 2017 at 08:33 AM (#5560771)
Unless the warrant is that you don't need to drop to 55 wins to build a winner; you can always just stay around 80 wins and rebuild just as well.


If the Astros had tried and succeeded at that, they would not be nearly as good as they are now. They would not have Correa or Bregman. I'm not sure if they would have McCullers, he was a second round pick who they signed to an over-slot contract. They had the money to do so because they didn't pay full slot to Correa. I suppose they could have drafted and signed McCullers as the 10th-15th pick of the first round.

Giles and Verlander were acquired using players acquired through high draft position, Mark Appel the 1-1 pick in 2013, and Daz Cameron an over slot second rounder from 2015. I'm sure they could have still made those trades if they wanted to without those particular pieces, they have a deep farm system.
   19. Howie Menckel Posted: October 24, 2017 at 08:46 AM (#5560776)
I think the recent leadership of the Browns is trying to tank (taking on Osweiler and his $ for draft picks, for example).

no, the Browns decided - and many experts agreed - that because the Browns were SO far under the salary cap, that the draft pick value exceeded the cost of the worthless player. the Browns got better after that trade, not worse (unless they screwed up the draft picks.

it's true that they may now have more of a longterm plan, but the Osweiler trade isn't a good example of their "tanking" imo.

https://www.si.com/mmqb/2017/03/09/cleveland-browns-brock-osweiler-trade-houston-texans-moneyball

"With this trade, the Browns didn’t acquire a quarterback. They simply created more opportunity for themselves — this time in 2018. They now have 10 picks in that draft, including three second-rounders and two fourth-rounders."
   20. BrianBrianson Posted: October 24, 2017 at 08:58 AM (#5560781)
Unless the warrant is that you don't need to drop to 55 wins to build a winner; you can always just stay around 80 wins and rebuild just as well.


The thing about hanging around 75-80 wins and trying to rebuild is that you're making a lot of commitments that may hamstring you down the line. Burn it all, play your kids, pick up the missing pieces - there is a logic to that approach. If you don't play the kids, you're unlikely to know where your holes are.
   21. fra paolo Posted: October 24, 2017 at 11:26 AM (#5560865)
If the Astros had tried and succeeded at that, they would not be nearly as good as they are now. They would not have Correa or Bregman.

80 wins is probably too high, but trying not to fall below 70 wins still offers a good shot at talent like Correa's.

An early version of Baseball America's 2012 mock draft shows Correa going at #7, to the Padres, who won 71 games in 2011. (Mock #1? Mark Appel.)

And skimming the WAR leaders by draft in recent years suggest a top-ten draft pick will keep one in the zone where 'impact players' will be found.

I dunno if 92 losses versus 100 losses makes much of a difference to the finances, or the development of the fanbase; but if it does, that aspect of the tanking strategy needs to be taken into account.
   22. Nose army. Beef diaper? (CoB) Posted: October 24, 2017 at 11:37 AM (#5560873)
That's a nice thing for Brian to say, however Gary is one of the best hitters in baseball who is trying to fake it at catcher.


Gary Sanchez 2017:

Framing Runs: 9.7
Blocking Runs: -2.9
Throwing Runs: 2.2
FRAA_ADJ: 9.0

Baseball Prospectus

That's good for the 10th best adjusted catcher FRAA for 2017; imagine how he'd do if he ever stopped faking it ...
   23. Sleepy's not going to blame himself Posted: October 24, 2017 at 04:33 PM (#5561134)
Unless the warrant is that you don't need to drop to 55 wins to build a winner; you can always just stay around 80 wins and rebuild just as well.

Anyway, I just see a lot of moving parts, and the impossibility of winning all the time.
There's probably a bit of a prisoner's dilemma at work here. If all of the teams in the division were trying to win every year, then it would be easier for all of them to stay around 80 wins but harder to leap above that. But as soon as one or two teams start diving to load up on draft picks it creates kurtosis in the win distribution; the rest of the teams' victory totals are affected and the wild card chase is especially influenced by the unbalanced schedule. And then it swings the other way a few years later, and due to the arbitration rules the effect is fairly long-term. obviously high-risk, as the two HOU draft failures evidence, but the effect appears to be real as we have back to back divers in the world series. HOU and CHC were both in the 2015 playoffs as well. And of course the Nationals exist.

So if you are a GM of a team that is in a division with a diver you may have a year or three where you pick up 3 or 4 extra wins, but then you spend the next four or five years trying to either outperform their artificially boosted talent, get lucky, dive yourself, or resign to finishing second or third for what is likely the rest of your career. You can outperform by being better at talent evaluation or acquisition or development, outspending, etc, but the gaps in those areas are diminishing (and the big market tankers like Houston and Chicago can outspend most teams on that anyway). The other options are either out of your control or highly unfavorable.

Just doesn't seem good for baseball.
   24. Zach Posted: October 24, 2017 at 05:30 PM (#5561172)
I don't think tanking works in baseball.

Take Correa. He was drafted in 2012, with a $5 million signing bonus. He appeared in the majors in 2015, which was far better than could be expected, and his team is in the World Series in 2017.

That's six years and (rough estimate from BBref) $487 million in salary the Astros had to put in before they even knew whether they would be going to the World Series or not!

In basketball, tanking means a terrible team losing a couple extra games at no marginal cost to get a player who can make a big difference the next year. In baseball, the payoffs are more like five years away, much smaller, and you still have to pay the salaries for all the uncompetitive teams you put up between the tank and the contender. Better to muddle along in mediocrity and try to draft well, in my opinion.
   25. Zach Posted: October 24, 2017 at 05:31 PM (#5561173)
(I say six years, because the Astros had to be terrible in 2011 in order to get Correa in 2012.)
   26. Commissioner Bud Black Beltre Hillman Posted: October 24, 2017 at 06:29 PM (#5561211)
nm

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