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3 Takeaways After Reading Astroball

Alex Woodward
July 15, 2019 - 7:57 pm
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By Alex Woodward

 

Thanks to our friend and colleague Jake McDonnell, many of us at 105.7 The Fan have had a chance to read Astroball as Jake has so generously lent it out to multiple people. Terry Ford and Ken Weinman were ahead of me on the waitlist for Astroball but once I got it I spent my week of vacation reading it. Like Terry & Ken have previously stated - this book is a must read for Oriole fans. BEWARE THERE ARE SOME SPOILERS IF YOU PLAN ON READING ASTROBALL. 

With that said, here are 3 of my takeaways after completing Ben Reiter's Astroball:

1. The Orioles are following the same blueprint as the Astros

When Jeff Luhnow, Sig Mejdal and Mike Elias arrived in Houston in 2011 they had a plan in place...clear the team of veterans, stockpile top draft picks, invest in the talent pipeline and identify who will be on the contending team of the future. They made numerous trades to get highly paid veterans off the books while simultaneously stockpiling minor league talent. We have already seen that with this weekends Andrew Cashner trade to Boston in exchange for two 17 year old Venezuelans. These are players that the previous regime would have never known about but I'm sure Elias and company have had an eye on these guys for quite some time. After reading Astroball, it is clear that Elias and his scouts are heavily involved in international scouting and that scouting starts before the player is eligible to sign at 16...they start scouting them at like 13 or 14 years old. Without their diligence in the international market they wouldn't have selected Carlos Correa with the top overall pick in 2012. Correa technically isn't an international player since he's from Puerto Rico but Astroball gives specific details about how Elias and his scouts followed Correa throughout his days of fielding ground balls on some raggity baseball field in Puerto Rico with his dad every night. It's apparent they are carrying that interest in the international market over as they signed a franchise record 27 international players this year and that was just a jump start for the organizations international depth. As the years go on the Orioles will have more information on these international prospects than ever and they will be major players in signing them away from other clubs. 

I'm not convinced they are done with the trade market this year with Mychal Givens, Trey Mancini and Jonathan Villar still on the roster as possible trade chips. Fans need to keep in mind that this rebiuld process will take multiple years and the team is determining the risk/reward of trading those players. For a team in rebuild mode, the reward of getting multiple prospects in return for one player that likely won't be here when they are ready to compete is an enticing offer. 

The Astros didn't just blow things up across the organization. They also had to find diamonds in the rough and they identified those pretty quickly in George Springer and Dallas Keuchel. It seems the Orioles may have already identified some pieces for the future after you hear Mike Elias speak glowingly of guys like Grayson Rodriguez, DL Hall, Ryan Mountcastle, John Means and Keegan Akin.

2. Successful rebuilds are about buying in

Like Astros owner Jim Crane did with Jeff Luhnow when Luhnow took over as Houston's GM in 2011; the Angelos brothers - John and Lou - are taking a similar approach to their rebuild. Buy in to the plan and let the baseball people do what they were hired for. With the Astros trading away so many veterans and lowering their major league payroll, a lot of people called them "cheap" or "crude" with their roster decisions. That may have been true from the outside looking in but it was a planned course of action. Saying you're in a rebuild is fine but actually living through it is an entire different animal. In Astroball, Reiter mentions that the fanbase and Houston media became impatient and critical of the teams unique way of rebuilding their organization but not their owner Jim Crane. Crane understood the backlash that would come with Luhnow's vision for the rebuild of the Astros. That meant years of losing A LOT of games and it also meant criticism from fans to the media and even across baseball circles. Crane stuck to his guns with Luhnow and kept encouraging him to stay the course. So far, it seems the Angelos brothers have done just that. They are letting the baseball people make decisions for the team while they are worrying about things like the business side of the organization such as the "Kids Cheer Free" program, summer concert series and other things to try and attract fans during expected years of losing.

The players, coaching staff and scouts also have to buy in. The scouts need to understand to trust their instincts and use their eyes and gut to form opinions on prospects. They then need to buy into what the analytics say about those prospects and not get outraged by what the data says but instead think about how that should impact their previous reports on a prospect. The coaching staff needs to buy in as well. Having analytics is one thing but if you have a coaching staff that is unwilling to implement that information or doesn't know an easy way to relay information to his players...its useless. The players obviously need to buy in because if they don't, they won't maximize their opportunity with the club. Astroball references a "growth mentality" throughout the book and that mentality is for everyone. Everyone needs to have a perpetual urge to improve and that starts with buying into the changes the organization is making.

3. Attention to detail and how analytics can be simplified

Technology in baseball has come a long way since the turn of the century. Like the Astros, the Orioles didn't have much of an analytics department when Elias & Mejdal arrived. In fact they had just one analyst. Successful teams nowadays have an army of analysts at their disposal to collect data and then analyze it to make sense out of the information. The quicker you can find a problem and a solution to that problem, the quicker you can see the results of that hard work. It all sounds so complicated but here are a few examples of how Astroball helped me realize that simple realizations from analytics can lead to big time gains. 

When the Astros started looking at their minor league system they noticed a guy by the name of Collin McHugh who was struggling but had an above average pitch that he wasn't using as much as he should have been. They identified that above average pitch as his curveball. Their slow motion video cameras and tracking systems helped them realize that his spin rate on his breaking ball was above league average. The problem was he wasn't throwing the breaking ball enough. A simple recommendation from one of his coaches (after the analysts relayed this info to them) led to a career changing path for McHugh. They simply told him to throw his curveball more often. It has elite swing and miss potential. Who knows, maybe that's the type of advice the Orioles coaching staff gave John Means this year to help him make a surprising appearance on the AL All Star team. Maybe it was just as simple as saying, "Hey John, throw your changeup more."

Another example comes from Carlos Beltran. In Astroball you realize how heavy of an impact Beltran had on that 2017 World Series team. Beltran wasn't signed as an analyst, he was signed as a player in 2017 but the Astros knew he had other intangibles that would prove incredibly valuable to the team. Beltran was a video nut. He was always looking for an edge at the plate and he was proficient at finding "tells" by a pitcher. He hit over .400 against Bartolo Colon in his career by using something he noticed on tape years ago. If Bartolo rushes his delivery, it's a fastball. If he takes his time getting ready for the next pitch it will be a changeup. When he came to Houston he helped other players find those kind of details. In the 2017 World Series, he noticed that Dodgers pitcher Yu Darvish would tip his pitches as well. When he was throwing a fastball he would spin the ball around in his glove as he found the right seams to throw the fastball. When it was a slider or cutter he would already have his fingers correctly placed on the seams. He ran to the clubhouse as soon as he noticed this and simply told his teammates, "look at his fingers and wrist when he comes into his set position. If they wiggle, it's a fastball. If they don't, it's a slider or a cutter. Trust me". They did trust him on their way to rocking Yu Darvish for 9 runs in 3.1 IP across 2 starts in the World Series...game 3 and the decisive game 7. Attention to detail and a growth mindset took Beltran and the 2017 Astros a long way. By the way it would not surprise me at all if Beltran gets hired as a manager or coach sometime soon. 

One last example of many in Astroball is their attention to detail on Justin Verlander. Sure, by 2017 everyone was aware of Verlander's track record but the Astros saw something others didn't. Verlander was pitching to an unusual 4.50 ERA through 14 starts in 2017 and he noticed he was getting tagged for homeruns more often than before. His release point and arm felt good but he couldn't get his slider to break as much as it used to. So what was different? Verlander apparently determined that the balls were different. They were smoother and the seams were a little tighter to the ball. If the leagues not going to change the ball back then he needed to change how he pitched. Verlander than proceeded to work on a different grip for the slider and a different way to throw it. After striking out 75 in 82 innings through his first 14 starts, he made his adjustment on June 21st against the Mariners and then struck out 51 batters in his next 48 innings pitched. Verlander clearly has a growth mindset by figuring all of that out by himself but the impressive thing about this was something I read in Astroball. When the Astros completed the blockbuster trade to get Verlander literally minutes before the August trade deadline (which no longer exists) the first thing they asked him was "did you change your grip or something?". Verlander was stunned. No one knew about that change to his game but after the analysts poured over each and every outing from Verlander that year, they noticed the different look to that pitch. THAT'S the attention to detail that helped them land one of the most influential pieces to their World Series roster. That's the type of attention to detail the Orioles are trying to bring to Baltimore.

 

After reading Astroball I am more confident than ever that the Orioles have the right people in place to not only bring this team back to relevance but hopefully make them a perrennial contender. Moving forward I encourage fans to keep an eye on standout players in the minor leagues. Listen to what Mike Elias has to say because he can be more forthcoming and honest than most GM's around the league. Listen to what Brandon Hyde has to say. These guys are honest, they're intelligient and they've been through this type of process before. Reading Astroball reconfirmed my faith in this new regime. It is most definitely a must read if you consider yourself an Orioles fan. 

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