We’re Ben and Travis, and we wrote a book. It’s called The MVP Machine: How Baseball’s New Nonconformists Are Using Data to Build Better Players, and it comes out Tuesday, June 4. The book tells the behind-the-scenes story of the players, coaches, and teams that are driving baseball’s current revolution in player development, which is transforming the sport from the Moneyball model of finding preexisting talent to one in which teams are competing to create talent. What follows is a condensed excerpt from a chapter about the Houston Astros, who have used new techniques and technology to maximize players’ potential. We hope you’ll want to read the rest.
Twins reliever Ryan Pressly was at best the fifth-most-famous of the six major leaguers traded on July 27, 2018, the day he joined the Astros and his trajectory changed. From 2013-17, the first five seasons of Pressly’s career, MLB relievers recorded a collective 3.80 ERA. Over the same span, Pressly’s ERA was 3.81. His 2017 season had started so disastrously (19 runs in 18 innings) that he’d actually been demoted to Triple-A. Pressly’s first half of 2018 was much stronger, and through July 26, he trailed the major-league leader in appearances by a single game. But no one was expecting second-half heroics from a twenty-nine-year-old, generic right-hander.
Although the trade was disorienting for Pressly, there were benefits to being uprooted. The Dallas native was returning to Texas. He was also upgrading from a 1.2 percent chance to qualify for the postseason to a 99.9 percent chance, according to FanGraphs’ playoff odds. He flew to Houston and arrived at Minute Maid Park in time for the following day’s Lone Star Series game against the Rangers.
No more than fifteen minutes after he finished unpacking in the clubhouse, Pressly was summoned into a meeting. In attendance were Astros pitching coach Brent Strom, bullpen coach Doug White, and multiple analysts from the front office. The Astros, Pressly learned, had a plan for him to be better, and the analysts launched into the details. “They sat me down and they put up all these x, y charts and all this other stuff,” Pressly says. “It almost sounded like they were speaking in a different language. I just raised my hand and said, ‘Guys, just tell me what to throw and not to throw.’” They told him his two-seam fastball to lefties was ineffective but that they loved his curve and hoped he’d throw it more. They also suggested he elevate his four-seam fastball and throw his slider slightly more to make his fastball more effective.
The newest Astro was open to input. With the Twins, he had wondered, “Why is it not clicking for me?” Now someone was offering answers. And it wasn’t just anyone; it was the Astros, who had won the World Series the year before and had a history of acquiring and improving much more accomplished pitchers, including former Tigers ace Justin Verlander, the best AL pitcher of his era. “I was just curious to see if this works. … It’s like, maybe I should pay attention over here,” Pressly says.
That night, Pressly got into the game in the seventh inning, and the first batter he faced was Rangers second baseman Rougned Odor. Pressly threw six pitches, following the Astros’ recipe: four four-seamers (three of them high), one curve, and one slider. Odor pulled pitch number six, the slider, over the right-field fence for a home run. “I’m like, OK, this is bullshit. You guys are lying to me,” Pressly remembers thinking. “But at the same time, just give it some time.”
Pressly stuck to the blueprint. With the Twins from 2017 to 2018, Pressly had thrown his sinker 13 percent of the time against lefties. Only once in that span had a southpaw swung at it and missed. With the Astros, he threw the sinker to lefties less than 1 percent of the time. With the Twins in 2018, Pressly had thrown the curve 24 percent of the time. As an Astro, he threw it 39 percent of the time. With Houston, he also elevated his four-seamer and threw his slider slightly more often. “In baseball in general, there’s a sort of macho [feeling] of, I’ve gotta throw my fastball, I’ve gotta throw it inside if I’m gonna be a man,” says Mike Fast, the Astros’ research and development director when they traded for Pressly. “And that turns into, I’m gonna throw my fastball even if it’s not my best pitch. The Astros have not, for a while now, had any hesitation about just, ‘Throw your best pitches.’” The 2017 and 2018 Astros threw curveballs and sliders more than 34 percent of the time, the highest rates on record.
Pressly remembers one moment that drove home how well the new formula was working. On August 31 in Houston, he entered in the eighth inning and faced two-time MVP Mike Trout. Pressly started Trout off with a fastball inside. Then he threw back-to-back sliders, one for a foul and one for a ball. On the 2–1 count, he threw a curve that appeared to defy physics, starting inside and breaking over the outside corner, where it was framed for a strike. And on 2–2, he went back to the slider, throwing it slightly higher than the curve and freezing Trout for strike three. Trout didn’t argue: As he stood at the plate and removed his elbow protector, he nodded slowly several times, acknowledging how thoroughly he’d been beaten.
“[Astros pitcher] Collin McHugh came up to me after the game and goes, ‘I have never seen Mike Trout do that before,’” Pressly says. “He didn’t know what was coming. That’s an unreal hitter up there, and to get a guy to do that, it’s kind of, OK, this might be working.”
It wasn’t working only against Trout. Among the 130 major-league relievers with at least 20 innings pitched from July 28 on, Pressly ranked fourth in ERA (0.77), third in FIP (1.49), fifth in strikeout rate minus walk rate (34.5 percent), and fifth in wOBA allowed (.171). He also ranked first in soft-contact rate (31.3 percent). “He lit the league on fire,” Astros catcher Max Stassi says. With one trade and one meeting, Pressly had become one of baseball’s best relievers.
“If you had told me all of that last off-season, I probably would have laughed you out of the room,” he says.
When the trade was made, Astros manager A.J. Hinch said, “He fits how we like to pitch.” One way in which Pressly fits the Astros’ profile: he possesses almost unparalleled spin. Of the 134 pitchers who threw at least 150 curveballs in 2018, no one had a higher spin rate than Pressly’s 3,225 rpm. Pressly’s slider and four-seamer are also among the fastest-spinning pitches of their type.
After the Astros helped him optimize it, Pressly’s high-spin, three-pitch approach made him almost unhittable. Pressly’s curve had the second-biggest side-to-side break of any AL pitcher who threw the pitch at least 200 times, trailing only his Houston teammate Morton, who threw the second-spinniest curve behind Pressly. Pressly’s slider, meanwhile, was by one definition the majors’ most unhittable pitch: by locating it lower and throwing it more often on two-strike counts, he transformed it into a weapon that induced a whiff roughly a third of the time he threw it—the highest rate of any pitch thrown 200 times in 2018.
Pressly had always possessed high spin, and if all the Astros had done was move more quickly than other teams to collect pitchers who’d exhibited that ability elsewhere, their strategy wouldn’t be fundamentally different from the Moneyball Athletics’ embrace of OBP. But spin alone didn’t make Pressly so hard to hit; what helped him reach what he describes as “a whole ’nother level” were the adjustments he made at Houston’s behest. For Pressly, being traded to Houston was akin to Harry Potter arriving at Hogwarts. For the first time, he was fully aware of and encouraged to use his powers, and he finally felt like himself.
Pressly learned from watching his new teammates more than from anything they said. “If guys are pitching up in the zone and throwing curveballs off fastballs up in the zone, you can clearly see it,” Pressly says, adding, “It starts to click—I have that same exact stuff. So if they’re having success ...” The montage of fruitless swings Pressly admired from the pen was a better sales pitch than any analyst’s graph. “It’s just the Astros’ philosophy,” he says. “They just have a different kind of mindset over there.”
Mindset is a psychological concept that’s already earned its own TED Talk. Stanford psychology professor Carol Dweck turned “mindset” into a business buzzword when she codified an attitudinal difference that could help explain the separation between high and low achievers. “Individuals who believe their talents can be developed (through hard work, good strategies, and input from others) have a growth mindset,” she wrote. “They tend to achieve more than those with a more fixed mindset (those who believe their talents are innate gifts).”
The Astros value a growth mindset in their players, and more than anyone else, they also embody it as a franchise. They’re baseball’s best proof that even elite performers possess untapped talents. Houston’s uncompromising rebuild under GM Jeff Luhnow from 2012-14 was a manifestation of a relentless, stay-the-course conviction that sometimes makes them hard to root for as well as tough to beat. That same mentality would give them the will to take on the last bastion of hidebound baseball thinking and construct an unprecedented player-development machine, although it wouldn’t come without human costs.
Precisely as planned, the Astros emerged from their years in the 50-something-win wilderness with one of the game’s richest arrays of talent. In 2015, the Astros won a wild card, returning to the playoffs for the first time in a decade. In 2017, they won the first World Series in franchise history. In roughly six years, the Astros had transformed from the worst team in baseball with one of the worst farm systems to the best team in baseball with one of the best farm systems.
Focusing on their resurgent roster’s core—including draftees Carlos Correa and Alex Bregman and a trio of players whose presence predated the Luhnow regime, José Altuve, George Springer, and Dallas Keuchel—makes what the Astros accomplished seem simple: inherit a few future stars, lose a lot, and reap the rewards. But neither holdover prospects nor lofty draft picks were a renewable resource. Rather than rely on them, the Astros implemented a model for finding and developing players that would be self-sustaining, outlasting both the leavings of Luhnow’s predecessors and the immediate payoff of top picks that was bound to disappear as soon as the team got good again.
As a result, the Astros are dominating the minors even more than the majors. In 2018, four years removed from the franchise’s last no. 1 pick, Astros pitchers led their league in strikeout rate at six successive levels, from MLB down to short-season A-ball. (At the seventh level, Rookie ball, their rank sank all the way to second.) Weighted by playing time, the average age of those minor-league pitchers above Rookie ball, 22.9, was the lowest of any AL organization. Astros hitters above Rookie ball, meanwhile, were second in walk-to-strikeout ratio and—despite not playing in any notably offense-friendly parks—fourth in home-run rate. And as for wins—well, Astros minor-league teams led all organizations in combined winning percentage above Rookie ball (.585), short-season A-ball (.587), full-season A-ball (.589), and High-A (.592).
The way they did that is telling, too. According to TrackMan data, Astros hitters led the minors in pull percentage and the percentage of balls hit in the air. Despite that power-centric approach, they chased balls at the third-lowest rate and maintained an above-average contact rate. On the pitching side, Astros minor leaguers led all teams in fastball velocity, breaking-ball spin rate, off-speed-pitch percentage, percentage of four-seam fastballs thrown in the upper third of the zone, and whiffs per swing. Name a data-driven developmental trend in today’s game, and the Astros aren’t just at or near the forefront of it at the big-league level, but they’re also grooming the current roster’s replacements from Triple-A down to the Dominican Summer League.
In August 2012, Luhnow wrote a letter to frustrated Astros season-ticket holders. “Through the scouting and player development function, we will be able to produce and keep winning players,” the letter said. “Teams that excel in these areas tend to win championships in baseball.” Five years later, the Astros won the World Series, proving him right. By then, the Astros’ scouting and player-development process looked like no other team’s had before.
Like most teams that have embraced novel methods of player development, the Astros aren’t led by lifelong baseball men. Luhnow was a McKinsey consultant before Cardinals owner Bill Dewitt Jr. hired him as a scouting executive to help the Cards catch up to the sabermetric movement. Sig Mejdal, a Moneyball disciple Luhnow hired to head up the team’s newly formed analytics department in 2005, was a former part-time blackjack dealer who went on to collect a long list of degrees and work as an engineer for Lockheed Martin and NASA. Mejdal’s amateur-player projections, which were based on painstakingly assembled college stats, helped the Cardinals draft more major leaguers over the next several seasons than any other club, many of them late-round finds.
Although Luhnow oversaw St. Louis’s player-development process, he and Mejdal intervened less in that area than they did on the draft side. “There was much less effort and energy put into player development than we later did in Houston,” Mejdal says. “We were much more observers than participants.”
When Luhnow left for Houston, he brought Mejdal with him as the Astros’ director of decision sciences. (Another thing the Astros do differently: job titles.) Mejdal recreated and deployed his draft model, expecting to unearth underappreciated players at the same rate he had in St. Louis. But it soon became clear that other clubs had caught on. Suddenly, the players Mejdal’s model liked were being snapped up earlier than they had been before. Potential draftees the Astros thought would fall to the fifth round were hearing their names called in the second or third. “In hindsight, I was naïve,” Mejdal says. “I thought that our advantage in the draft was going to remain there for quite a few more years. … The processes that probably only a few teams were doing in 2005 to 2010 are more table stakes now.”
With the Astros’ edge in the draft shrinking, the front office refocused its efforts on an area where the frontier wasn’t so settled. “Working for Jeff, there is always a culture of innovation and searching for the next thing that could perhaps improve us,” Mejdal says. “There’s no problem with bad ideas and false alarms. And so that culture probably led us to focus on player development.”
The Astros’ string of spectacular successes in data-driven player development started in earnest in 2013, propelled in part by the 2012 hiring of Mike Fast as a front-office analyst. Fast, a tech engineer with a physics degree, started producing baseball analysis on his personal blog in 2007, then climbed the hierarchy of sabermetric sites. His pioneering PITCHf/x analyses soon drew the attention of teams, and the Astros spirited him out of the public sphere not long after Baseball Prospectus published his most influential article, a September 2011 piece that conclusively demonstrated the impact of pitch-framing.
Once on the inside, Fast began to collaborate with coaches and players, funneling his insights to the field. “When I came there and saw our player-development goals, I was like, oh my word. This is stuff you can’t work on,” Fast says. “It was stuff like, ‘Improve your command.’ How’s a pitcher supposed to go into the off-season and improve his command? He needs a drill. He needs to know how to measure if he’s getting better.”
The first breakthrough came with a catcher: Jason Castro, the Astros’ first-round pick from 2008. Castro made the majors to stay in 2012 and hit well enough to earn a plurality of the playing time at the position. But he was severely limited on defense, costing the Astros runs in every way a catcher could, particularly with his subpar pitch-framing.
Fast’s previous research made that flaw a logical place to start, and in the spring of 2013, he, Castro, and Astros coach Dan Radison met every morning to review video and refine Castro’s technique in ways that would help him improve his performance on pitches the stats suggested he wasn’t presenting properly. That feedback loop paid dividends: According to Baseball Prospectus, Castro’s framing performance improved from well below-average in 2012 to average and then well above-average in 2013 and 2014, respectively. After costing the Astros 24 runs on defense in his first two partial major-league seasons—which had made him a sub-replacement-level player—Castro saved them 41 runs over the next four years.
The next early victory came the following year. Altuve had been an All-Star in 2012, his first full season, but even then he’d barely been a league-average hitter. At 22, he’d been named to the team mostly because someone had to represent the woeful Astros. The next season, his bat went backward. The tiny Altuve, who’d signed out of Venezuela for only $15,000 and had never appeared on top-prospect lists, had defied the odds and flummoxed scouts just by getting to the big leagues, but his five-foot-five-ish head seemed to be bumping up against a low power ceiling: Through more than 1,500 MLB plate appearances, he’d slugged just .377.
Over the 2013–2014 offseason, he worked with the team to implement a more forceful approach. “That was [hitting coach] John Mallee,” Fast says. “And it was based on data that I shared with him (from his questions) about the value of getting the ball in the air. He told Altuve to meet the ball out front and helped him retool his swing to do that.” Altuve slumped as he perfected the timing of a new leg kick, and at the end of April his slugging percentage still stood in the .370s. After that, though, the new swing clicked: he batted .355 and slugged .471 the rest of the way, winning a batting title, leading the majors in hits, and finishing third in doubles. He was on his way to double-digit home-run totals and a 2017 MVP award.
As Altuve was working on his swing over the winter, the Astros were evaluating the then 26-year-old Rockies swingman Collin McHugh, who to that point had allowed 50 runs in 47 1/3 MLB innings for the Mets and Rockies from 2012-13. “After another disastrous season … it’s time to ask what McHugh really offers a major-league team,” Baseball Prospectus wrote in its annual guide. The Astros asked themselves that question and thought the answer was “a lot.” Unbeknownst to the public, McHugh had a high-spin curveball and a sinker he threw too much. The Astros claimed McHugh off waivers, advised him to ditch the sinker and trust the curve, and installed him in the starting rotation. The righty recorded a 2.73 ERA, struck out more than a batter per inning, and finished fourth in Rookie of the Year voting.
Within one year, the developmental trinity of Castro, Altuve, and McHugh provided powerful proofs of concept. All three went from sub-replacement level—less valuable than a theoretical fringe player promoted from Triple-A—to cornerstone-type players. Even more encouraging, the tweaks affected every aspect of performance: fielding, hitting, and pitching. Based on those early returns, there was no facet of the game the Astros couldn’t optimize.
The Astros’ developmental trend line didn’t climb continuously. Amid those early successes, the franchise suffered two spectacular failures to cultivate talent.
J.D. Martinez made the majors alongside Altuve in 2011, and from 2011 to 2013 he outslugged the second baseman by only 10 points. When he reported to spring training in 2014 claiming to have remade himself, the Astros didn’t give him an opportunity to prove it. Under manager Bo Porter, who’d be fired later that year, Martinez got only 18 at-bats in 14 spring games before the Astros released him.
Granted, no other team realized what Martinez was about to become; the best he could do was land a minor-league deal with the Tigers, who sent him to Triple-A and didn’t promote him until after he’d hit 10 homers in seventeen games. But the Astros had wildly underestimated a player they should have known better than anyone. “When you have arguably the best hitter in baseball and you let him go, and no other team puts him on the 40-man, it’s a wonderful anecdote of how finite our knowledge is,” Mejdal says. “The lesson is as giant as the numbers he puts up.”
The Astros experienced perhaps an even more infamous failure in the same season. Their prize for enduring the indignities of 2012 was the no. 1 pick in the 2013 draft, which they used on right-handed starter Mark Appel. Appel, a six-foot-five native Houstonian, had posted a 2.12 ERA with 11 strikeouts per nine innings as a senior at Stanford, but he got off to a catastrophic start the following season at High-A Lancaster. After Appel amassed middling numbers the next year, the Astros traded him in a package for Phillies closer Ken Giles in December 2015. By then, Appel’s stock had fallen so far that he was more of a throw-in than the trade’s main attraction. He ultimately retired in 2018, joining the injury-impaired Steve Chilcott (1966) and Brien Taylor (1991) as the only no. 1 draft picks not to make the majors.
From the front office’s perspective, Appel’s arrested development was a symptom of inefficient information transfer. “Part of the problem was that every coach and every coordinator and every special assistant in the org had their idea of what was wrong with Appel, whether it was mechanical or mental or something else,” one Astros source says. “And so in the midst of struggling at Lancaster, he was getting all sorts of conflicting advice about what was wrong with him.” Appel acknowledges, “There would be different things said,” adding, “It’s something that I’ve thought about because I can always sit back and look and say, ‘Man, if certain coaches didn’t say certain things …’”
The Astros learned from both errors. Their reluctance to change their prior opinion of Martinez highlighted the need for technology that could quickly determine—and, when proactively applied, alter—a player’s true talent. As for Appel, Fast says, “That failure was a huge impetus for what happened the next spring training, which was getting a pitching-development plan, including TrackMan data, in front of every pitcher in the minors and having a front-office person present to explain it to them.”
According to counts culled from team media guides, the pre-Luhnow Astros employed an exactly average-sized 51-member player-development staff in the spring of 2011. By the spring of 2015, that headcount climbed to 78, mirroring the rapid growth in PD departments around the game. Between the springs of 2011 and 2018, the average size of the staffs assigned to player development by MLB teams increased by 51 percent, to an average of 77 in 2018. (The deep-pocketed Yankees led all teams in 2018 with 102 PD personnel.)
The Astros helped spur that expansion in the spring of 2015 by pioneering the position of development coach, a role that other clubs subsequently copied. The development coach wouldn’t replace any of the existing coaching positions. It would be an additional job designed to cope with the growing data demands facing minor-league coaches. The new kind of coach, Mejdal says, would be, “more technologically [and] quantitatively savvy than a conventional coach . . . someone who can throw [batting practice] and also write a SQL query.”
The Astros couldn’t add the latter task to their regular coaches’ duties because many of them already had their hands full. “Usually a pitching coach gets to the ballpark 3 to 4 p.m., dillydally, have a throwing session,” a former Astros scout says. “Astros pitching coaches get to the ballpark at 9 to 10 a.m., they prepare video, they prepare classroom work. These guys friggin’ work. That’s the future of coaching. It took five years and 90 percent turnover to get everyone on the same page.” As Mariners director of player development Andy McKay says, “Your number one tool as a coach in 2018 is not playing experience, it is a growth mindset that allows you to be curious and take advantage of all of the information that is readily available. . . . So while for years and years the first question asked in an interview was, ‘Where did you play?’, the question is becoming, ‘How well do you learn?’”
This shift isn’t confined to the farm. In the past, big-league coaches tended to be buddies with the manager, who traditionally has selected his staff. Today’s development-focused front offices are less willing to let managers make decisions that could compromise the consistency of the message the players hear from one level to the next. “Young, prospect-laden teams want to continue to develop players [in the majors], so they want the hitting and pitching coaches to actually coach the players,” an Astros source says. “It’s a radical idea, by the standards of Major League Baseball.”
Like the rest of PD departments, MLB staffs are expanding: At the start of 2019, the 30 teams listed a combined 80 major-league coaches other than the previously standard six (bench coach, hitting and pitching coaches, first- and third-base coaches, and bullpen coach), including 25 assistant hitting coaches and six assistant pitching coaches. With the average player’s salary now upward of $4.5 million, it’s only logical for teams to make much smaller investments in the right support staff to ensure that those players fulfill their potential. “You have coaches who want to be the filter—‘Oh, don’t show that to them, that might mess with their head,’” Fast says. “And then you have the coaches who are not afraid of the data and say, ‘Oh wow, this is really helpful. I’ve got a drill that’ll help the players with this.’ That latter kind of coach is really valuable.”
Strom, a former major-league pitcher and, at seventy, the oldest active pitching coach in the big leagues, is exactly the kind of coach the Astros covet. “Stromy is probably one of the most underappreciated persons in the analytics movement,” Mejdal says. “He has as much experience as anybody, but he also has an insatiable curiosity and competitive desire to find something to give him, and the Astros, an advantage.”
In September 2014, the Astros hired a manager who wouldn’t stand in Strom’s way. The then 40-year-old A.J. Hinch, a former big-league catcher, had been a farm director and manager for the Diamondbacks and then a pro scouting vice president and assistant general manager for the Padres before Luhnow invited him to return to the dugout. Having done every job, he understood that the manager is just the steward of the final leg of a long-term process of player development. “I am pretty open-minded,” says Hinch, whom the Astros extended through 2022 in the summer of 2018. “I was hired by an organization that demands it.”
The Astros’ player-development organization “made leaps and bounds over the last three years or so,” Fast says. “Every year things got much, much better.”
The development coaches helped. So did the Astros’ unflinching commitment to putting the people they wanted in place, no matter how high the turnover. Driveline Baseball founder Kyle Boddy consulted for Houston on pitching mechanics in 2013 and 2014 and visited the Astros’ spring training complex in Kissimmee, and the experience gave him an appreciation for Luhnow’s implacability. “His commitment level to whatever he does is at the maximum,” Boddy says. “He just goes all in when he makes decisions.”
Boddy recalls hearing about how the pitching coaches for the Astros’ minor-league affiliates had defied Luhnow’s orders to implement long-toss training in 2012. In hopes of softening their resistance, Luhnow sent one of the skeptics, his 60-something first-year minor-league pitching coordinator and former major leaguer Jon Matlack, to the Texas Baseball Ranch to learn more about the controversial technique. “Matlack comes back and he’s like, ‘It’s stupid. They’re gonna hurt their arms,’” Boddy says. “And Jeff’s like, ‘All right … I can believe that. What’s your report? What’s your backing behind that? What’s your reason?’ Matlack’s like, ‘It’s just dumb.’ And Jeff’s like, ‘You’re fired, just leave,’ and canned him. And canned all the pitching coaches. And one of the other people in the organization was like, ‘Did you set out to fire all the pitching coaches?’ And Jeff said, ‘No, but I’m not gonna tolerate insubordination.’”
The Astros replaced the coaching casualties with more malleable instructors, many of them recruited from colleges. Of the fifty-three people in player development in the spring of 2012, Luhnow’s first full year with the team, only two remained in explicitly PD-related roles for the Astros six years later. Even player-development director (later director of player personnel) Quinton McCracken, who left the team in 2017, was dropped because he wasn’t cutthroat enough for the front office’s taste, too reluctant to let go of players and coaches who didn’t deliver. “The story of a lot of people who got pushed out in that time frame is people who wouldn’t push their people to do what the front office wanted,” one Astros source says, adding, “I don’t know if anyone has ever so thoroughly turned over a front office down to the coaches and scouts.”
As the quality of coaching and communication improved, so did the data. Investments in wearable sensors and high-speed video allowed the Astros to assemble more pieces of the performance puzzle. In minor-league games, Astros pitchers began to wear harnesses made by Catapult, an Australian sports-performance-tracking company. The data the Catapult devices generated allowed the front office to make inferences about the pitchers’ movements and mechanics. The team also uses Catapult GPS trackers that attach to players’ backs beneath their jerseys to monitor how much ground they cover and how much energy they expend. In practice, Astros minor leaguers also started wearing sensors from K-Vest and 4D Motion, two wireless motion-tracking companies. And using “deep learning” techniques, the Astros could ingest high-speed video footage and convert it into data that could help coaches and analysts classify, quantify, and correct mechanical shortcomings.
Houston’s capabilities increased again in 2016 when the organization invested in high-speed Edgertronic cameras. Once Fast and the front office could easily obtain images of the grips of any pitcher they pointed a camera toward, subtle tweaks could alter an inefficient high-spin pitch into one that channels that spin to create more movement. “It’s not ‘high-spin breaking ball equals good,’ but ‘high-spin breaking ball is the raw material, along with the delivery, to turn that into an effective weapon,’” Fast says.
Upon entering pro ball, even the lowliest Astros prospects receive biomechanical evaluations using the team’s suite of tools. Reggie Johnson was an undrafted free agent signed in 2016 out of tiny Hampden-Sydney College, a Division III school that hasn’t sent a player to the big leagues since 1962. As a right-handed reliever with an 88 to 90 mph fastball, Johnson was at the bottom of the pro-ball barrel when spring training started in 2017. Yet even he worked with TrackMan and an Edgertronic. “My first year, I was just wondering why that stuff really mattered because I felt like if you get outs, you get outs,” he says. “But after going through the system for a year and then going to spring training and seeing how the team really benefited from it [and] how players benefited from that stuff, it made more sense.”
Between 2017 and 2018, the Astros downsized from nine farm teams to seven, eliminating their second DSL team and their Greeneville team in the Appalachian League. The resulting roster crunch forced out fringe players like Johnson. It might seem strange that a team that holds a huge developmental advantage would want to reduce the size of its farm system, but it was precisely because of that advantage that the Astros slimmed down. “That was driven by feeling we were better at evaluating our players,” a former Astros staffer says. “We had less need to let them play a full season or two or three in order to know if they had major-league potential.” With smaller samples required to come to conclusions and less talent easily obtainable through the increasingly competitive amateur markets, the organization opted to concentrate its coaching time on more promising players. The Astros were replacing Branch Rickey’s developmental maxim, “Out of quantity comes quality,” with one of their own: “Out of quantification comes quality.”
The Astros’ new toys gave them PD powers they previously hadn’t possessed. By 2017, the Astros were establishing clear, individually tailored goals for their pitchers in spring training and giving them feedback based on TrackMan data after every outing, with portable and mounted Edgertronics—seven of which the Astros have installed at Minute Maid Park, with seven more at each minor-league park in their system—available for more detailed looks. The new approach even had health benefits, because data can overcome machismo by pinpointing a problem a pitcher can’t pretend not to notice. “Saying his arm isn’t 100 percent sounds like an excuse for bad performance,” one former front-office member explains. “Saying, ‘Your arm is late getting up after stride-foot contact,’ and working on drills for that specific thing and not having them help, can give him an avenue to say, ‘I can’t do that because X hurts.’”
Advancing technology also altered the Astros’ conception of what was possible on the offensive side. Only seven hitters who made as many major league plate appearances as George Springer from 2014-16 recorded higher strikeout rates than his 26 percent. During that period, the Astros featured Springer-esque strikeout rates up and down the order: The team led the AL in strikeout rate in 2014 and 2015, and its K rate climbed again in 2016. But even though the stigma surrounding strikeouts had decreased as teams realized that Ks weren’t worse than other outs and often correlated with walks and homers, the Astros thought they could do better. What they’d learned would allow them to have their walks and homers and keep their contact, too.
Armed with Blast swing sensors and high-speed video, the Astros had set out to determine analytically what works at the plate. “It wasn’t very long ago that even in the Astros organization it was sort of accepted that ‘Hitters hit,’” Fast says. Since then, he notes, “We’ve learned a ton about what separates good hitters and bad hitters and how we can train that.” They applied their new knowledge by acquiring hitters whose power swings didn’t preclude contact and helping them keep their bats in the zone longer. They devised an app-based scoring system to promote smart swing decisions and encourage laying off pitches away until they got to two strikes. They also reconstructed Springer. In 2017, the former frequent strikeout victim made more contact than the typical batter and also added power, culminating in a career year, and the championship Astros finished with the major leagues’ lowest strikeout rate and highest isolated power, yielding baseball’s best offense on a per-plate-appearance basis since Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig were batting back-to-back. “Everybody looks at Correa and Springer and Altuve and Bregman now and says, ‘Well sure, you can do that with elite hitters,’” Fast says. “But none of them were doing that to that extreme before we worked with them.”
When an organization embraces modern development, the internal appetite for information tends to snowball as players pass it along. But when a team is trading for someone it thinks could be better, it’s difficult to forecast his willingness to tinker. “You try to do whatever reconnaissance you can when you’re making a trade,” Oakland’s David Forst says. “You just don’t know. We’ve certainly had guys who’ve come, and we’ve said, ‘Hey, if you do A, B, and C, it may make a difference,’ and he’s said, ‘Nah, I’m good with what I’m doing.’”
Houston hears a “nah” from time to time, but every success makes the next sell simpler. In a 2018 article about Charlie Morton’s improvement in Houston, the Boston Globe observed that the Astros “have a way of sprinkling pixie dust on pitchers,” but there’s nothing supernatural about their track record. In November 2016, the Astros signed the free-agent spin king to a two-year, $14 million deal, despite his spotty history of health and performance and a career WAR of -0.5.
“I had a reputation as a two-seam guy that threw a lot of sinkers and tried to get the ball on the ground,” Morton says. “And then when I got [to Houston], they told me that they wanted me to try and get swings-and-misses, which was something I’d never heard before.”
As with Pressly and McHugh, the Astros asked Morton to trade sinkers for four-seamers and double down on his curve, which helped him handle lefties. He soon started throwing it more often than ever, which helped make him an All-Star. “In retrospect, I wish I had thrown it a lot more throughout my career,” he says.
In terms of career accomplishments, Justin Verlander couldn’t have been further removed from Morton when Houston traded for him seconds before the waiver deadline in August 2017. Yet the former MVP was also eager to learn. “What they’re good at is telling you what you’re good at,” Verlander says. His new employers reassured him that he had an elite four-seamer with incredible ride and informed him that he was only hurting himself when he used a different fastball. “I didn’t realize that my two-seamer was an ineffective four-seamer, basically,” he says. Verlander also used an Edgertronic to tweak his slider, and in Houston he’s thrown the pitch at career-high rates, locating it lower and getting more whiffs with it than he had in years.
In the spring of 2018, Verlander spent hours throwing with another trade acquisition, Gerrit Cole, who would be his biggest competitor for the title of Astros ace. Cole was drinking tempranillo with his wife at a California winery a month before spring training when he learned he’d been traded to the Astros from the Pirates, the team that had drafted him first overall in 2011. “I [drank] a whole lot more of it right after I got off the phone,” he says. At first, Cole had lived up to his promise in Pittsburgh, finishing fourth in NL Cy Young voting in 2015, but at 27, his career seemed to have stagnated. Like Morton, he was a fastball-curveball beast miscast as a pitch-to-contact sinkerballer. The Astros wanted to free him from Pittsburgh’s pitching template, which had helped suppress his powers, turning him into a league-average pitcher in 2017. “Individualized development and individualized attention is one of the most powerful things you can have as an organization,” Hinch says. “It’s not one-size-fits-all in this game.”
When he reported to spring training, the Astros pulled him into a conference room for an hour-long, personalized pitching pitch. Seated at the head of the table, Cole listened as the brain trust told him they’d been watching and trying to trade for him for almost two years. They laid out what they liked and what they thought could be better. “You don’t scare the player by telling them there’s this massive overhaul,” Hinch says. “Certainly not Gerrit Cole.” Every recommendation was backed up by video, heat maps, and clear explanations. Cole describes his reaction as “mind blown” and says, “I’d never experienced any meeting like that, at all.”
By now, the next part is predictable: Cole threw more four-seamers and fewer sinkers and recorded a career-high rate of curveballs en route to his second All-Star season and top-five Cy Young finish. The Astros, Cole says, “highlighted the fact that my curveball’s my best pitch for me, which took six years for someone to finally tell me.” He’d always had a top-of-the-rotation toolbox, but until the trade, he says, “I was just sometimes pulling out the wrong tools.”
In pre-Astros front offices, “you ha[d] these silos,” says former Padres analyst Chris Long. “Player development, those guys are working on players in completely different cities and states. … They’re part of the organization, but they’re going to be a thousand miles away from you. So the interaction was minimal.” That geographical divide produced an informational and philosophical fracture. “We had no idea what the training regimens were for the players,” Long says. “It was completely offline. … All that stuff was just completely inaccessible unless you visited or called the guys and hassled them.”
Technology has reduced that divide. Thanks to TrackMan and rapid video transmission, the front office can monitor its minor leaguers’ performance virtually in real time. For the all-in Astros, development is everything, and everything is development. But the technology that’s powering that revolution has one clear casualty: scouts. “Traditional scouting could be dead in about five years at some clubs,” one Astros source says. In Houston, it’s already on life support.
In Moneyball’s immediate aftermath, traditionalists feared that stats would force scouts into extinction. Over the next decade, the opposite happened: Teams hired more scouts, as front offices’ appetites for information intensified and international markets bore richer fruit. Now, though, it’s looking like those gains were akin to a dying star expanding before its core collapses. If old-school scouting is extinguished, the cause of its death will be the same thing that birthed the development revolution: data that does most of a scout’s job better than a human can.
Like most teams, the Astros have eliminated in-person advance scouting, using Statcast and video instead. More recently and radically, though, the Astros have virtually eliminated any form of in-person scouting of professional players, even in the minors. One scout the Astros recently let go mentions a directory of pro scouts that’s circulated around the industry. On the Astros’ page for 2018, he says, “It just says Astros, and it has a picture of [Special Assistant] Kevin [Goldstein] at the top. One photo.” In his new job with another team, the scout says, “I wore my [World Series] ring a lot to the big-league park. Each night, people would say, ‘Can I see that? I haven’t seen an Astros scout all year.’”
In August 2017, when the Astros informed eight scouts that they would not be brought back, Luhnow called the cut a “reconfiguring,” telling MLB.com, “the overall number of people in the scouting departments [is] going to be roughly the same, if not increased” and characterizing the news as “normal” and something “that happens every year.” In 2009, the Astros employed 55 scouts, above the MLB average of 41.5. By early 2019, multiple waves of layoffs had trimmed that total to fewer than 20, less than half the size of MLB’s next-smallest scouting staff.
Even before the mass layoffs, one scout says, “Any kind of gut feel or any type of subjective portion took a huge back seat to the numbers.” Often, the stats determined where a scout would be sent. “You wouldn’t scout a guy who didn’t have a good stat score,” one former amateur scout says. “They weren’t going to take him.”When the Astros acquired Morton, Cole, and Pressly, it wasn’t because they’d sent scouts to see them; instead, they’d sought the opinion of their scouting analysis group, a compact crew in Houston that studies athletes from afar. “I think their vision for scouting is gonna be maybe having only a couple scouts and a lot of video guys running around,” another ex-Astros scout says. “And a bunch of tech people in their scouting analysis group and their front office that can just crunch numbers, crunch data, crunch the video.”
There are still analog-only locations where scouts are essential, but those schools and international markets are dwindling by the year. For a time, the Astros tried to disguise their gear and preserve their video advantage by placing strips of tape over the Edgertronic logos when they dispatched personnel to film players. They dropped that counterintelligence tactic when the company protested, but even so, many teams’ scouts still film on their phones, giving the Astros an edge. “You see the Astros using the Edgertronic cameras in the international market a lot,” Red Sox executive and coach Brian Bannister says. “You’ll have 20 scouts standing behind a backstop, and you’ll have one guy with a pole with a high-speed camera on it, and you know which team he’s with without even looking at his bag tag.”
In the days leading up to the 2019 draft, the Astros will hold a series of amateur workouts across the country. At each one, 6-8 Edgertronics will capture every movement, and TrackMan will be trained on the field. Why send scouts to the kids if the kids will come to the cameras? Even most of the scouts who’ve lost their jobs with the club see some wisdom in the Astros’ restructuring—and that’s what concerns them. “It’s hard to argue because they’ve been so good,” one scout admits, continuing, “If it goes well, then scouts in general should be worried because you aren’t going to need them anymore.”
The death spiral of old-school scouting is closing a chasm that until now was endemic to teams. Historically, the scouting department signed players, and the PD department did its best with what it was given. That changed at the pre-draft meetings in Houston in 2017, when the Astros introduced a different, development-centric model of draft prep, unbeknownst to the scouts.
“It was such a surreal thing,” one Astros source says. “A huge group would sit in the draft room . . . during the day. The scouts would talk. The front-office people would mostly stay quiet.” The team was at home, so at the end of the day, the scouts were excused to watch the game. After they left, though, the meetings went on. Player development director Pete Putila and assistant GM Mike Elias had analyzed the Edgertronic video that the team had harvested from amateur games, and a few other front-office members had scrutinized the available college TrackMan data. As the smaller group reviewed each pitcher, a member of the R&D department would explain how the stats said his offerings graded out, and Putila would weigh in on what could and couldn’t be fixed on the farm. “The scouts would come back the next day, and the whole draft board would look different, and nobody would know why,” the source says.
“Player development and scouting are two different entities across baseball, but the Astros don’t view it like that,” a former Astros staffer says. If the Astros can’t improve a player, they won’t take him in the first place.
Like any team’s, Houston’s record is marred by mistakes, and even in the Astros’ case, many more minor leaguers miss than hit. Only 13.6 percent of all players who entered the minors in any organization from 2006 to 2008 ended up making the majors. The Astros are just currently the leaders at a predominantly losing game.
“One of our advantages has been not being afraid to be the first to try (and probably fail) to implement new methods,” Putila says. At a time when so much can be measured, it’s fair to wonder how many more new methods are out there and whether the Astros—or any team—can keep planting flags so fast. But those who’ve been at baseball’s bleeding edge don’t foresee a slower pace. “I realized after a few years in Houston that I kept thinking, well, now that we have got TrackMan digested and understood, things will slow down,” Fast says. “And then, OK, now that we have Blast Motion digested and understood, things will slow down. Now that we have Statcast—etc., etc. The pace keeps increasing. The tilt keeps getting bigger.” And the old methods of development are falling further and further behind.