Ice House

Numbers Game at Minute Maid

The art (and science) of rebuilding a ball club

By Peter Holley March 14, 2013 Published in the April 2013 issue of Houstonia Magazine

It may be the most glamorous job in baseball outside of suiting up and donning a pair of cleats, but from this vantage point it looks an awful lot like telemarketing: five youngish-looking guys sitting inside a stale conference room, hunched over computer screens, surrounded by whiteboards scrawled with names, numbers and brain-bending equations. 

Officially known as “The Decisions Sciences Department,” and more popularly as “The Room That Moneyball Built,” it’s a place of soft bodies and pocket protectors, of advanced degrees in statistics and computer science, and it sits on the fifth floor of Minute Maid Park, about 450 feet from home plate and yet somehow millions of miles away. The next generation of baseball greats, like Albert Pujols and Josh Hamilton, will be discovered here, or so we’ve been told. And when they do, they’ll have these Zuckerbergian number-crunching, sabermetrics-wielding types to thank, not the scouts, not those crusty, leathery-faced sages of yore, their lips bursting with chew. Supposedly.

When you’re on the verge of writing an 18-year-old a $5 million check, any hint of predictive information is, well, fair play.

Moneyball creates a nice narrative and you get this whole stats-versus-scouts thing, and it’s all a bunch of crap,” says the Astros’ coordinator of pro scouting, Kevin Goldstein, speaking of the 2011 Brad Pitt film as well as the Michael Lewis book on which it was based. Both told the story of the Oakland A’s Billy Beane, whose hyper-analytical approach to baseball brought great success to a team with one of the lowest payrolls in the majors. 

Truth is, every major league team relies heavily on a combination of both scouts and analysts to find the next power slugger or pitching phenom. Still, it’s easy to see which way the wind is blowing. Behind the hot dogs and home runs, insiders say, a data-driven arms race is underway, one that will not only locate players who are great now, but the ones most likely to have career longevity. 

The latter is especially important for clubs like the Astros, who themselves will likely have the smallest payroll of any club this year (just $30 million, or roughly equal to the amount New York Yankees’ third baseman Alex Rodriguez will pocket this season). It is imperative, therefore, that they make every dollar count. As you might expect, Astros general manager Jeff Luhnow is a big fan of his analysts’ cutting-edge digital weaponry, which he employed to great success during eight seasons with the St. Louis Cardinals, his last club. (By the time he left in 2011, they’d visited the World Series three times and won twice.) But for Luhnow, when it comes to the battle for bytes of data, it’s the scouts and not the wonks who are on the front lines.

“For us, pro scouting is not just having a scout sitting in the stands evaluating the tools, but also doing what a journalist would typically do, which is trying to make sure that you know the player beyond the stuff that you see on the field,” he says, likening his scouts to private investigators delving into players’ off-the-field lives, if not their trash cans. “We’ve really expanded beyond just the traditional guy with the radar gun in the stands writing down some numbers.”

The numbers that loom largest these days are 55 and 107. That’s how many games the Astros won and lost last season, the worst in the franchise’s history. Tasked with turning the club around even as it enters the fearsome American League West, Luhnow is pushing his scouts ever harder to dig deeply into players’ statistics, biomechanics, and even psychological profiles in hopes of gaining a predictive edge. 

“There are a lot of guys who can get pretty high in the minor leagues—and even carve out a brief major league career just off of grit, awareness, playing the game right and being fundamentally sound,” says Goldstein. “But the star players come with tools, and so you need to understand what a player’s tools are to understand how he’ll do in the big leagues.”

The Astros are entering the season with the lowest payroll in MLB. At $3,000,000, starting pitcher Bud Norris commands the highest salary on the 'Stros roster. 

As Paul Ricciarini knows, spotting those tools is an art form, one that takes years to master. His own career as a scout began almost four decades ago, when the now-63-year-old worked for the Cincinnati Reds in Monroe, Louisiana. In those days, Ricciarini arrived at a backwoods ballpark or a dusty sandlot full of teenagers with a notebook and a stopwatch. Today, he shows up with an iPad. Then as now, however, his most important tool is his eyes. 

“I get to the ballpark as early as I can,” he says. “I look for the attitude of the kid coming off the bus. How he prepares for the game. How focused he is. How he interacts with his teammates. During infield practice, is he taking it seriously?”

A player’s makeup—that’s what this assessment of work ethic and character is known as. And as fuzzy and subjective as a makeup is, it’s as important to the Astros front office as a slugger’s on-base percentage or a fastball’s velocity. When you’re on the verge of writing an 18-year-old a $5 million check, any hint of predictive information is, well, fair play. 

“If you look at the history of busts—and I mean big time busts, like top 10 picks in the draft who didn’t work out—time and time again the scouts were not wrong about the player’s tools,” says Goldstein. It was the work ethic issues, the off-the-field issues.

“Less obvious things like that.”

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