Reviews: September/October 2018

View full image

Astroball: The New Way to Win It All
Ben Reiter ’02
Crown, $27
Reviewed by Carl Bialik ’01

Carl Bialik ’01, a data scientist for Yelp in New York, hosts the Thirty Love tennis podcast.

Less than a year after the Houston Astros won the franchise’s first World Series, Sports Illustrated baseball writer Ben Reiter ’02 is out with Astroball, a book chronicling Houston’s data-driven rise from baseball’s basement. Reiter, who’d boldly predicted the championship when no one else did—in a 2014 Sports Illustrated cover story—goes way back with Houston. He calls upon his knowledge of the ingredients behind the team’s rejuvenation, while placing it in the context of the league.

The story begins where the Astros began, with Roy Hofheinz, who founded the team and imbued it with every tool for success except baseball talent. Then Reiter wisely skips most of the ensuing decades of futility, picking up the story when Jeff Luhnow arrives from the St. Louis Cardinals in 2011 with a plan—blend quantitative measures with scouts’ insights, spend lightly, stockpile draft picks—and a crew ready to carry it out.

Reiter profiles Luhnow’s crucial front-office men and the analytical philosophy they bring to their backwater team. Then he focuses on the players they acquire—to whom they feed data-mined intelligence on opponents. Memorable figures include Luhnow’s stats guru, Sig Mejdal; Carlos Correa, whose father taught him the game from age five; and Carlos Beltran, a veteran who built teamwork creatively. After charting the Astros’ unlikely ascent, Reiter chronicles Houston’s championship season, with setbacks along the way (notably Hurricane Harvey).

If all that sounds familiar, you might have read Moneyball, Michael Lewis’s 2003 book on the data-driven Oakland A’s. While sometimes following Lewis’s formula, Reiter looks to show that Luhnow and Mejdal represent an evolution from Oakland’s Billy Beane and Paul DePodesta. This isn’t always entirely persuasive—the supposed high value of Beltran’s off-field contributions is established mostly by player quotes—but even when Houston isn’t cutting-edge, Reiter is at the top of his reporting game. Most memorable: the trade-deadline acquisition of Justin Verlander, completed with seconds to spare, thanks to a series of events out of Houston’s control. Stats can only get a team so far; the rest is luck.