Sure, the Astros Are Run by Geniuses (But How Do We Really Know?)
Time and time again Houston Astros fans are told not to worry about the state of the franchise. The team's run by geniuses, by literal rocket scientists. The smartest men in the room who can outthink every other team in MLB, and in doing so, are turning the Astros into a state-of-the art franchise that is the envy of the majors.
General manager Jeff Luhnow wins every trade, signs only players who fit in with the team's analytic plans -- why, Luhnow's so smart that MLB is considering outlawing infield shifts because of the Astros' outstanding success in employing the defensive tactic. Luhnow and his staff are so smart that they resurrected the career of starting pitcher Collin McHugh by showing him how to pitch. And without a doubt, the downfall of Lucas Harrell's career has to be traced by his ignorant denial of everything Luhnow.
But here's the thing: How does anybody really know if the genius of Luhnow is working? The Astros have been one of the worst teams in baseball during his entire tenure at the helm. For the most part, he and his regime had zero to do with acquiring the players on the Major League roster who are succeeding. Jose Altuve, George Springer and Dallas Keuchel were all brought to the Astros while Ed Wade was the general manager. And while the Astros didn't lose 100-plus games last season and didn't finish in last place in the AL West, a lot of that can only be traced to the epic implosion of the Texas Rangers.
Astros fans must take it all on faith. If Sports Illustrated says the team's going to win the World Series in 2017, well then, that must be the case. The team has yet to be truly competitive on the field, so there's only the future. Sure, owner Jim Crane wants the team competing for the playoffs this year and has stated he'll be disappointed if the team doesn't finish with a winning record this season; most projections, including Baseball Prospectus's PECOTA (one of the more accurate of the preseason analytical projection systems), see the Astros finishing with a losing record and sinking back into last place.
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So how do Astros fans know the team's getting better, that this analytical approach really is working? Well, there's the Sports Illustrated cover story from last year telling the world that the Astros will win it all in 2017 because the rocket-scientist assistant working for Luhnow also used to be a blackjack dealer who understands better than any other person when to hit and when to stand. And just last week, the analytics issue of ESPN The Magazine declared that the Astros were the second best organization in the four U.S. major leagues in terms of analytics, behind only the Philadelphia 76ers of the NBA -- it put the Astros at number one in MLB. That should make a fan feel better. Magazines say the Astros are smart and that everything is working. Sure, the team's not going to win this year, but just hang on because the people in charge are geniuses who are great at blaming others (Drayton McLane, Ed Wade, Lucas Harrell, Bo Porter, anybody who disagrees) while taking credit for anything that goes right. The lack of wins isn't evidence of failure; it's only evidence that everything's going to work at some point in the future.
But while ESPN and Sports Illustrated proclaim the genius of the Astros, Deadspin is a bit more skeptical. The stat guys at Deadspin point out that the Astros are ranked ahead of many other MLB teams that are not only noted for usage of analytics, but who have actually experienced success, primarily the Tampa Bay Rays, St. Louis Cardinals and Oakland A's. These teams have proven to be run by very smart people who win lots and lots of games by employing statistical analysis just like the Astros claim to be doing, yet it's the Astros who are somehow the best in MLB.
The answer, according to Deadpsin, is PR. The Astros won't shut up about just how damn smart their geniuses are. Moneyball came out after the Oakland A's had made multiple trips to the playoffs. The book about the Tampa Bay Rays, The Extra 2%, came out after the Rays had made the World Series. Billy Beane and the guys running the Rays were very smart people who talked about the thought processes of building their teams, and anyone doubting those smarts had only to look at the results. The Astros have yet to do anything, but magazines say the team's run by geniuses who say forget about the lack of results because the results don't matter when you're so damn smart. In essence, the Astros can't win on the field, so it has made winning the PR war the one result that matters.
The Astros are improving. The farm system's stocked with good players. There are actually, for once, very talented players on the Major League roster at multiple positions. But at some point the team has to actually start producing and winning games on the field, not in magazines. And until the team's actually won something, let's stop with the genius talk.