HOUSTON — For years, the association of the Astros with rocket science was in name (and venue) only. Houston’s team gave a nod to the proximity of NASA by renaming the team formerly known as the Colt .45s at the time of its move to the Astrodome in 1965.
Now, more than half a century later, the Astros no longer play in their namesake stadium. Nonetheless, their decision-making — and now their success — places them at the forefront of baseball’s evolution to a world in which rocket scientists are very much at home.
At the start of 2012, newly installed Astros GM Jeff Luhnow hired former NASA engineer Sig Mejdal (who had worked with Luhnow for many years in St. Louis) as his director of decision sciences. Mejdal’s hire was one among many that came with unfamiliar titles and inspired distrust and skepticism in the baseball industry.
Six seasons later, baseball is nearly begging for people with backgrounds like Mejdal’s to join their ranks. At a time when traditional baseball notions and measurements — “spins a breaking ball,” “drives the ball in the air,” “barrels the ball” — have been refined and quantified by spin rates, launch angles, and exit velocity, traditional conversations about the game are occurring in a radically different way.
“There was always information about what pitches a hitter would hit. Obviously it’s grown with exit velocity and spin rate and launch angle,” said Houston manager A.J. Hinch. “It’s gotten fancier, but there’s been a small part of it that’s been around for a long time.”
Still, the way that Luhnow (a University of Pennsylvania grad with dual Bachelor of Science degrees in engineering and economics) and the Astros prioritized investment of organizational resources in their analytics department caught the attention of others in the industry.
“From what we can tell, they were one of a handful of teams that started aggressively, intentionally growing their analytics department. By hiring Jeff alone given his background and his success, it was obvious they were one of those teams,” said Red Sox VP of baseball research and development Zack Scott. “They were one of the teams that moved forward in full-time hires and resources dedicated to this.”
In some ways, Luhnow’s Astros have become trailblazers, with others — including the Red Sox — working to figure out and sometimes imitate the strategies of Houston. It may not be rocket science (“I’m sure actual rocket scientists do a lot more complex things,” chuckled Scott) . . . but the game is a lot closer to such a world than it’s ever been.
“I don’t think baseball is rocket science, but if something was wrong with you physically, I don’t think people would be opposed to getting an MRI or a CT Scan,” said Red Sox VP of pitching development and assistant pitching coach Brian Bannister. “It’s just part of what we do. It’s more accurate. And I think it helps us do what we’re trying to accomplish better. That’s the direction the game is heading because if you want an edge on somebody, it’s important to know more about the game rather than less about the game.
“I study other clubs all the time, and [the Astros are] one of the clubs I study very closely. They’re very talented. They’re very precise. They’re willing to try new things.”
That’s not always easy, and the Astros certainly had some struggles translating ideas from the front office to the field. But over time, they’ve earned a reputation as one of the more intellectually nimble organizations in the game, one that tends to be on the front end of trends (for instance, the use of four-seam fastballs up in the strike zone at a time when players were adjusting their swings to drive low pitches) rather than trailing behind them.
“You’ve always got to be questioning what you’re doing well and working on the things you do poorly,” said Hinch. “If you’re on the back end, following these massive trends, whether the use of technology or the use of analytics, imagine how far out in front the other teams are. I think that intellectual curiosity and fear is what drives you to get better faster.”
With the Astros now in the playoffs for the second time in two years, built around a core that looks like it should be good for quite some time, those same traits are driving teams to analyze the Astros. Houston has gone from something of an outcast organization to one that is a trendsetter.
“It’s a double-edged sword. If they’re following things we did first, it means, a) it works; and b) our advantage is gone, or dissipating,” said Luhnow. “That’s why we’re constantly trying to figure out how we can gain small advantages in multiple areas. We’re all observing each other. I copy what I see works with other teams and vice-versa. Keeping things a secret allows you to benefit longer but it’s hard to do.
“I think the game is evolving rapidly, more so than it was five years ago,” he added. “I’ve been in the industry now for 14 years. If you’re not able to adapt to the changing conditions around you, you’re probably not going to stick around too long.”