One well-placed source has opined that it was my merciless razzing over the years which caused the Houston Astros to turn things around, all leading to their World Series win last fall. After all this was the team that lost more games over a three-year period, 2011-106 loses, 2012-107 loses and 2013-111 losses, than any other franchise in baseball history. It all culminated in what Mashable called “the worst play in baseball” [ever]; the infamous butt-slide play. In this play, then Astros shortstop, Jonathan Villar, slid face first into the butt-cheek of Reds second baseman Brandon Phillips, who tagged Villar out between his legs without ever looking back. (For a video clip of the play, click here.)

The butt-slide play summed up the Astros 2011-2013 seasons of futility. It included the Astros initially stocking their roster with AAA players and then moving to mostly of A-AA players, all in a prolonged campaign to save money on player’s salaries and in doing so improbably making the Astros the most profitable team in baseball. There were such PR disasters as the Astros ending a 23-year relationship with the Astros Wives’ charity, via a terse one-line email (i.e. you’re fired). There was the interview of owner Jim Crane who informed us all that he had made $100MM in the trucking business so he must be the smartest guy in the room. The Astros  play over those three seasons was so bad that not only did attendance dip to the lowest in the 55+ years of franchise history but literally no one could be found watching them on TV as, more than once, their Nielsen rating racked up a score of 0.00. But still, the ‘butt-slide play’ said it all.

Yet all was forgotten and forgiven with the World Series win. It also turns out my razzing had very little impact on the Astros as now the story of how the Astros went from literally the worst team ever in baseball to World Series Champions has been chronicled by Sports Illustrated writer Ben Reiter in his book “Astroball: The New Way to Win It All”. The book tells the story of how two persons had a vision of using data analytics to literally change the game of baseball. The two men were Jeff Luhnow, the former Director of Scouting for the St. Louis Cardinals, and former NASA rocket scientist Sig Mejdal, who became Luhnow’s assistant at the Astros. Team owner Jim Crane had the foresight to buy into Luhnow’s vision and the wherewithal to put up with people like me who were unpitying in their criticism of the Astros and their plan. It turns out they did have a plan and, more importantly, they executed it.

The plan was to use data analytics to evaluate talent for the team; then use another set of data to help develop that talent once the Astros had acquired it. Finally, the next step (which the Astros are still working on) is to use data analytics to “consistently change the future.” I have been reading this book during my three-part exploration of Artificial Intelligence (AI) and compliance. I found Reiter’s book to be a great cherry to top off the ice cream sundae of data analytics I have been discussing the week. Hence today’s post.

The first part of the equation was to use data analytics to more closely determine talent. It also required several levels of AI as the algorithms had to ‘learn’ based on the information collected. For instance in evaluating a high school prospect from rural Mississippi, the strength of opponents had to be factored into the equation while a high schooler from New Jersey would need to have reframing of data because of the lower number of games played due to inclement weather than those players from Southern states with warmer climates.

Yet Luhnow made clear throughout the process there was an important place for ground scouting which could assess multiple data points which have not yet been quantified, such as leadership, maturity, drive and desire. This final point is critical for Chief Compliance Officers (CCOs) and compliance practitioners and re-emphasizes why compliance programs that use data analytics and AI as a tool, albeit a powerful one, must be supplemented with the human professionalism and experience of the compliance practitioner to make compliance a more efficient business process.

This process allowed Luhnow and his team to draft Carlos Correa and Alex Bregman, two key components of their World Series team. But in baseball, even with data analytics, there is no such thing as a sure thing. Since the MLB draft began in 1965, there have been four players who never made it to the majors. Unfortunately the Astros drafted two of them; Mark Appel in 2013 and Brady Aiken in 2014. Compliance practitioners would do well to keep this in mind.

But it was not simply in talent acquisition where the Astros led the way. It was also in player development. Jose Altuve is a 5-foot, 6-inch (on a good day) player who came up as a .280 slap hitter. Now he is the reigning American League (AL) Most Valuable Player (MVP) who routinely hits at .350, has gotten over 200 hits the last three seasons and hits with power with over 20 home runs in each of the last three seasons. He is a three-time AL batting champion.

As great as Altuve has been, the development of pitcher Charlie Morton is not short of phenomenal. He came to Houston as a 33-year old journeyman with a 46-71 record and an ERA over 4. The Astros believed that he did not throw his curveball enough, instead relying too much on lesser pitches,  a mid-90s fastball and sinker. The Astros convinced him to lessen the frequency of these pitches and throw more curve balls, which led to a 14-7 record in 2017 with an ERA of 3.62. This year Morton has a record of 11-2, with an ERA of 2.96. Name one other pitcher who improved so much without the aid of steroids. It is easy, you cannot. The Astros worked with every player in their entire big league roster and farm system, using a wide variety of tools to assess their strengths and then get the player to play to those strengths.

But the Astros have not stopped there as they are using technology to help change the future for the players and the club. They use a wide variety of tools to check swing angles and pitch deliveries to pinpoint when something changes or even if an injury could be in the offing. These tools also provide not only feedback but also measurable goals. It has also given the Astros a track record or baseline from which they can measure going forward. Reiter quoted one rival General Manager who said, “I think they’ve unlocked a lot of things on the hitting side, and are more advanced in that area than anyone else.”

In retrospect, it may not have been my earlier critiques which led the Astros winning their first World Series. It may have had more to do with the use of data analytics and the human element.

Whatever it is, the Astros have certainly come a long way from the butt-slide play.

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© Thomas R. Fox, 2018