Some – not all, but some – of “Astroball” by Ben Reiter came about because of the author’s half-joking prediction in 2014 that the then-worst team in baseball if not one of the worst teams in baseball history, the Houston Astros, would ride their rocket scientists, mathematicians, corporate veterans and Ivy League college graduates who permeate their front office to baseball dominance and a World Series win in 2017.
The story would be interesting but not so easily salable had that freak guess not happened to come true.
But it did.
To his credit, Reiter acknowledges the lightning bolt nature of that prediction/guess/divine intervention– whatever you want to call it – coming to fruition. However, the remainder of the book serves as a love letter to the architect of the Astros’ rise, general manager Jeff Luhnow, to the degree that even his wrongs turned out to be not so wrong; even his mistakes contained a method behind the perceived madness; and any glaring gaffe stemming from arrogance, ignorance or coldblooded inhumanity could be mitigated and explained away.
As the Astros and Reiter bask in the afterglow of the achievement of their ultimate vision, it’s ironic that the relentless criticisms of the organization that had receded into the background rose again with the near simultaneous release of the book and, within 20 days, the club’s acquisition of closer Roberto Osuna who was only available from the Toronto Blue Jays because he was under suspension by Major League Baseball for an alleged domestic violence incident for which he was arrested with the case still pending in Toronto.
In one shot, the Astros regained their reputation for putting performance above people; for indicating that profit takes precedence over right and wrong.
In the immediate aftermath of the trade for Osuna, the handwringing on Twitter and outright criticism by columnists and radio hosts made it seem as if the Astros had never exhibited this type of borderline sociopathic tendencies in the past when it is precisely how they behaved to get so far, so fast. The World Series title and the narrative of how it was achieved gave them an “it worked” safety net.
Suddenly, the intriguing stories of Carlos Correa, Justin Verlander, Carlos Beltran and Sig Mejdal – for the most part, positive portrayals of generally likable people – were jolted back to the ambiguity of some of the Astros’ clever, manipulative and underhanded tactics used to achieve their ends.
What cannot be denied and was shown again with the Osuna trade is the Astros did and do treat human beings as cattle whose survival is based on nothing more than their current usefulness; that any pretense of acceptable and unacceptable behavior hinges on cost and usefulness. The book’s attempt to humanize Luhnow and his staff in contrast with the manner they run the team was immediately sabotaged by acquiring Osuna.
The big questions about “Astroball” should not center around what’s in the book, but what’s not in the book.
Those who are either not invested in the concept of the Astros’ new way of doing things being the wave of the future or did not walk into the movie when it was half over and remember exactly what happened during the reconstruction will wonder about the following:
- How is the name Andrew Friedman mentioned once for his role as president of baseball operations for the Los Angeles Dodgers and not as Astros owner Jim Crane’s first choice to be the Astros GM – with Luhnow the second choice?
- How is it possible that the name Jon Singleton, who received $10 million for nothing, is nowhere in the text?
- Why were the circumstances under which manager Bo Porter was fired completely ignored and treated as part of a planned process?
- Why was the rushed trade for Carlos Gomez a shrugged off mistake with one sentence dedicated to it?
One man’s reasonable explanation is another’s farcical alibi. Depending on one’s perspective and agenda, both can appear true.
The drafting of Brady Aiken and subsequent attempt to lowball him following an agreed-upon contract was adapted to show how brilliantly conniving Luhnow was for offering the precise bonus amount to benefit the club in the subsequent draft should Aiken reject the offer as they knew he would – in fact, there’s an attempt to make Luhnow look benevolent for how Aiken was treated.
The release of J.D. Martinez is an admitted mistake…but then-manager Porter was blamed because he only gave Martinez 18 spring training at-bats the year Martinez arrived touting a new swing as if Porter was not being told what to do and had any choice in the matter as to who played.
“He (Porter) also couldn’t fail to provide someone like J.D. Martinez enough at-bats for the organization to make an informed decision about him.” (Astroball, page 143)
Are they seriously saying that Porter did not have it hammered into his head what the front office wanted and which players were to be given a closer look; that he was not an implementer of front office mandate with little-to-no actual say-so?
The above quote is one of many in the book that provide a between-the-lines elucidation of what the entire goal of the book is: to tie all the loose ends from that 2014 prediction to the prediction coming to pass, objective truth be damned.
Porter’s firing, rather than being due to the clear insubordination and an attempt to go over Luhnow’s head to Crane regarding how the team was being run, was mystically transformed into a preplanned decision.
Porter and numerous veteran players had an issue with former first overall draft pick Mark Appel being brought to Minute Maid Park for a bullpen session with pitching coach Brent Strom to see if they could fix what ailed him. (They couldn’t.) It was then that Porter and Luhnow were at an impasse and Luhnow was right to fire him. But part of the “process”? After Porter’s hiring when Luhnow made the preposterous statement that he might manage the team for two decades? How does that work? How is this explained away other than it being ignored?
It’s these and many other subtle and not-so subtle twisting of reality that call the entire book and its contents into question on a scale of ludicrousness and goal-setting to cast the Astros in the best possible light, all stemming from that silly prediction from 2014 when it was an act comparable to casually throwing a basketball over one’s shoulder with eyes closed and somehow hitting nothing but net.
One cannot discuss “Astroball” (the figurative New Testament for the reliance on statistics in baseball) without mentioning the Old Testament, “Moneyball”.
“Moneyball” gets a passing mention as the text that kicked open the door for baseball outsiders with ideas that were once considered radical and antagonistic to baseball’s ingrained conventional orthodoxy, but the two stories are intertwined like conjoined twins for whom separation would mean unavoidable death.
Reiter takes clear steps to avoid the same mistakes Michael Lewis made in “Moneyball”. Instead of it being an overt baseball civil war where the storyline was old vs. new and Billy Beane sought to eliminate the antiquated, Luhnow is portrayed as integrating the old guard and formulating strategies to quantify their assessments.
Whereas “Moneyball” took the MLB draft and turned Beane into a “card counter”, “Astroball” acknowledges nuance and luck in the draft.
While ““Moneyball”” treats the postseason as an uncontrollable crapshoot, “Astroball” implies the same thing without trying to eliminate any responsibility for continually losing as the Athletics have done repeatedly.
“Astroball” does its best to inclusive, albeit in a borderline condescending way, while “Moneyball” sought to toss anyone not on the train under it and then, for good measure, backed over them to make sure they were dead.
To that end, “Astroball” is somehow more disingenuous than “Moneyball”. “Moneyball” is how the old-schoolers are truly viewed in the new-age, sabermetric circles while their extinction is pursued opaquely in “Astroball”, making it easier for them to carry it out.
Those invested in the story being considered true will not give an honest review, nor will they ask the questions as to why certain facts were omitted even if they know the answers.
With that, the narrative of the Astros and their rise under Luhnow and Crane presented in “Astroball” is complete and a vast portion of readers and observers will believe every single word of it just as they did with “Moneyball”. They get their validation. And it’s irrelevant whether that validation was the entire point, as it clearly was.
Discarding facts from the past aside, the Osuna acquisition drops an inconvenient bomb right in the middle of their glorification. It’s that wart that shows who the Astros really are. If they just admitted it, they would deserve grudging respect. They claim to care about a player’s conduct and give hedging statements as to “zero tolerance” with that “zero” only existing when he’s an Astros employee. In short, they don’t care about Osuna’s alleged domestic assault just as they didn’t care about Aiken; they didn’t care about Porter; they didn’t care about Martinez; they didn’t care about any of the people who were callously discarded because they did not fit into the tightening circle of those who believe what they believe or will agree to subvert their own preferences as a matter of survival in a world they neither know nor understand.
For those who have a general idea of what is truly happening in baseball front offices and do not take these tall tales at face value, the book is entertaining enough in a televised biopic sort of way as long the creative nonfictional aspect is placed into its proper context. That context goes right back to the 2014 “prediction” that would have been largely ignored had it not happened to come true.