Roth: The smartest guys in the clubhouse

From David Roth at New Republic on December 3, 2019:

In 2017, the Houston Astros stopped striking out. That wasn’t the only reason why the team went from 84 wins to 101 and catapulted from finishing third in the American League West in 2016 to winning the 2017 World Series. They upgraded the lineup at a few crucial spots: Franchise cornerstone Alex Bregman took over at third base and certified competent baseball guy Yuli Gurriel at first, and they ground their way from subcromulent to perfectly cromulent at catcher. Justin Verlander, acquired in the last seconds before the trade deadline, pitched like a vengeful demigod from the moment he arrived; other starting pitchers ably filled gaps in the bullpen during the playoffs; and all the hitters in the lineup who mattered hit a bit better than they had before. The Astros looked like not just the best team in baseball but one that might fill that role for another half-decade or so.

That success seemed all the more remarkable in light of how bad the Astros had been just a few years earlier. The abjectly terrible Astros teams of the early 2010s were bad by design, but any team that loses two out of every three games for three straight seasons tends to stick in the mind. General manager Jeff Luhnow, a former McKinsey consultant whom the Astros poached from the Cardinals back in 2012, had efficiently torched the middling and mid-priced roster he inherited while painstakingly putting together a years-long effort to remake the team’s farm system. What emerged after those years of meticulous and intentional awfulness was something like the perfect contemporary baseball roster—deep and talented and anchored by veteran stars who stubbornly refused to decline, but primarily built around and upon young players the team drafted during its years at the bottom. Those players would for years continue to be wildly underpaid relative to their production, thanks to the way MLB’s salary structure works. That last cost-saving data point is the sort of thing that baseball fans have been conditioned during the arbitrage-obsessed Moneyball era to regard as an objective good; executives and owners tend to use words like “flexibility” or “sustainability” to describe this approach, and many fans have come to adopt the same market-savvy argot. Prioritizing that sort of thing and using that sort of language were things that Luhnow did very well.

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Originally published: December 3, 2019. Last Updated: December 3, 2019.