IT'S HARD TO believe that barely a season separates the near removal of the Astros' front office, on orders from MLB, and Houston's dismantling of the Cubs in the 2017 World Series.
It seems preposterous now, of course, with the Astros' having gone 106--56 in the regular season (only six years after going 56--106, the symmetry almost as exciting as the actual turnaround) and sweeping through the playoffs and, yes, the Fall Classic too. But going back to last December's Wired cover—Houston's director of decision sciences Sig Mejdal dressed as The Doctor from Dr. Who—you understand, in retrospect, the league's concern.
Mejdal was not a traditional baseball man—far from it. He'd been hired by the floundering Astros to create an "analytics team" that might reshape the organization, using math instead of cash, sort of a 21st-century Moneyball—but with even less cash and more math. Mejdal, whose résumé was heavier on NASA (yes, an actual rocket scientist) than ERA, had been having a hard time making the numbers work. Even after beefing up that analytics team (which was relocated from the stadium Nerd Cave to an off-site bunker, where enormous air-conditioning units cooled the servers), the Astros continued to lose, their predictive, acronym-rich metrics failing, to that point, to produce a lineup capable of .500 ball. Or, as they called the effect outside of the Nerd Cave, MEDIOCRE.
Almost worse than the eight straight losing seasons—the Astros were 80--82 in 2016—was the franchise's all-around fumbling as an early adopter. At first fans delighted in the driverless golf cart that ferried closers from the bullpen. But Houston's Uber Park was too often the site of absurd malfunctions: that cart spinning in circles, for example, relievers spilling from it too dizzied to pitch. Manager Bo Porter was frequently frustrated by ownership's insistence on a wrist radio, a technology that remains hauntingly out of reach. And the stadium's 3-D scoreboard, with its crawl of formulas that forecast possible scenarios, was more annoying than informative. "It's like the blackboard in Goodwill Hunting," complained a fan. The team's stab at fan comfort, which relied on New York Times trend-spotting rather than the in-house decision scientists, was a complete misfire also: Lil' Williamsburg, with its arcade of vegan food stands, was the loneliest place in Houston.
The fans, who hadn't had a real winner in more than a decade, were not coming for the gadgetry, certainly not for the kale—and definitely not for the baseball. Management, with attendance dropping to Marlins levels, had a new acronym to deal with: ROI, Return on Investment. Oh, and one other: MLB. There seemed to be little danger that the Astros would draw the league's attention for ineptitude. But as the game's good ol' boys began to give way to the technocrats, ownership behavior was under much heavier scrutiny. Commissioner Bush had, just last April, come down hard on the Rockies after their disastrous 10-cent Marijuana Night, ordering the franchise to henceforth shutter its three stadium dispensaries after the seventh inning.
The Wired story was Houston's tipping point. With writer Michael Lewis, recently born again as an apostle for the analog—"Where's your number for grit?"—mocking Mejdal, the backlash seemed complete. The article, called Funneyball, was a devastating takedown of Houston management. "Baseball," Lewis reminded in his story, "is not rocket science."
Bush promised action to restore the integrity of the game in Houston and free its fans from the tyranny of eighth-grade algebra. No man shall be defined by WAR or any similarly aggressive acronym. A committee was formed to determine whether the Astros were being hollowed out by a bunch of eggheads who didn't know grit from granola.
But you know what happened then. All those draft picks from the dark years, the products of decision science, suddenly became flesh at the plate and on the mound. George Springer, three years after his 2014 Rookie of the Year performance, graduated to higher-level hardware as this year's AL MVP. Righthander Mark Appel, the 2013 No. 1 pick who arrived in the big league rotation in '16, was a Cy Young contender. And when '14 top pick Brady Aiken, moonlighting as one of Houston's four closers in his rookie season, ended Game 4 of this World Series by retiring Cubs slugger Kris Bryant on a pop-up to Carlos Correa—the second baseman playing shallow in left in one of Porter's typically extreme defensive shifts—the transformation was complete.
The Astros, in the most satisfying Revenge of the Nerds since 1984, were world champions, proving, at least as far as baseball is concerned, that the geeks shall indeed inherit the earth.
Ownership behavior came under much heavier scrutiny. Commissioner Bush had, just last April, come down hard on the Rockies after their disastrous 10-cent Marijuana Night.
SCOTT HALLERAN/GETTY IMAGES
LIFT OFF Jose Altuve (far left) and Springer are key parts of the Astros' successful core.