The Astros are the most dominant team in Houston sports history and we're still riding high from their captivating World Series win last year, our euphoria buoyed even further with strong hopes for another great season.
But it wasn't that long ago that the Astros had become the worst team in half a century. Three back-to-back years of heavy losses in 2011, 2012 and 2013 meant that fan support was at an all time low. Even the Nielsen ratings couldn't confirm that anybody was watching the games locally on TV.
So how and why did one Sports Illustrated writer have the cojones to sit in his editor's office and pitch a cover story that predicted the Astros would go on to win the World Series in 2017?
"First of all I didn’t think we were doing anything controversial," says Ben Reiter, whose now famous SI article from 2014 drew plenty of laughs, derision and anger, including some side eyeing from a coworker who was bumped from that issue's cover. "I believed in this. I thought that at the worst by 2017 the Astros would have been a winning team."
By this time most of baseball had adopted Billy Beane's data-driven model made famous in Michael Lewis' bestselling book Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game, which only served to level the playing field. But what Reiter saw with the Astros was a purity in decision-making by Astros general manager Jeff Luhnow and his top analyst, former rocket scientist Sig Mejdal — a "half stats, half scouts" formula that merged algorithmic data with scouting reports while also factoring in personal biases.
Reiter digs deeper into nine key decisions that brought the Astros "from doormats to champions" in Astroball: The New Way to Win It All. "I interviewed 46 members of the Astros organization over the past five years as individuals. Some of them every year, several times a year, hundreds of interviews, following this story along," says Reiter.
The book will of course be of interest to sports fans and Houstonians, but the message (man + machine = success) should also resonate in business settings and the fields of medicine and education. "That’s the goal," says Reiter. "When I sat down to structure this book I knew it was really a book about decision-making and how to make decisions in the modern world.
"Process over outcome really might be the slogan of the book. It can be applied to education where it’s just scores and less attention to everything that goes into producing test stores in the end. What factors do you value?," says Reiter, who says paying attention to process over outcome guided him throughout the writing of this book.
Astroball gains momentum as Reiter takes us through section building: signing Carlos Correa, Lance McCullers Jr. and George Springer; keeping Dallas Keuchel and promoting Jose Altuvé. There is the twist-of-fate strategy that jettisoned Brady Aiken but paved the way for Alex Bregman, the anxious moment when they signed Justin Verlander with seconds to spare and how Carlos Beltrán's greatest value might just have been off the diamond.
The story isn't just that the Astros won the World Series, it's the road they took getting there that has value. "Winning was just the moment. What really makes their work better was the communal effort. It sounds cliché. It’s really the journey and how you take it. It’s how you define success," says Reiter.
So we wanted to know. If Astroball goes the way Moneyball did and makes its way to Hollywood, who portrays the key figures? "Big screen? I just want someone to read the book," laughs Reiter, though he plays along.
Reiter, who says Luhnow is sharp, friendly, cerebral, not extroverted and has a full head of hair, pegs actor John Slattery for the role. "[Mejdal] is tall and more extroverted; he's got a full head of dark hair. Hugh Laurie would be good, from House. Or how about John Cusack?," suggests Reiter.
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As for which actor would portray Reiter, he suggests Chris Pratt. "Let’s say Chris Pratt maybe about halfway through his transation, between chubbier comedic guy to jacked guy. He would have to restore a few percentage points of body fat."
Astroball: The New Way to Win It All goes on sale July 10, 2018. Reiter will be in Texas for a couple of book signings and says he's looking forward to some local barbecue.
Tuesday, July 10, 7 p.m., Brazos Bookstore, 2421 Bissonnet, 713-523-0701, brazosbookstore.com.
Monday, July 30, 7 p.m., BookPeople, 603 North Lamar, Austin, 512-472-5050, bookpeople.com.