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Tanking … the Astro Way?

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Everything is going according to plan, right? 

Los Angeles Dodgers v Baltimore Orioles Photo by Will Newton/Getty Images

Back in June, I got to meet Keith Hernandez. He was doing a signing for I’m Keith Hernandez at my local bookstore, and while I’m not Ms. Mets (or I’d hardly be writing for this blog) I figured, what the hell. I picked up a copy of the book (not bad, by the way, especially the reminiscences about partying in cheap hotels in the Double-A Texas League), and was directed downstairs to the children’s section. Sitting there amid the toys and coloring books, mustache magnificent and bushy as ever, was Keith Hernandez. I said I was an Orioles fan. He winced. He signed my book, we posed for a picture, and I told him we were rebuilding under a new regime, trying to become the Astros. He looked depressed. “Everyone’s trying to become the Astros.”

Well, I wasn’t going to push back on that too much. Because, like the T-shirts Astros fans started wearing in 2014 said, “PROCESS” is about all we Orioles fans have going for us right now.

It’s been a disheartening couple of seasons. As Mark Brown wrote yesterday, so far the rebuild has consisted of a lot of behind the scenes improvements with little effort to bring in outside players who could actually improve problem spots. And that was without counting the 6.3 runs worth of team WAR that hit the road this week with Jonathan Villar off to the Marlins and homegrown hurler Dylan Bundy now in Los Angeles.

So far, this offseason has sucked, and GM Mike Elias isn’t giving fans much reason to think that will change. The Orioles will plug holes in a “cost-effective way” and otherwise, work with what they have. Thinking ahead to how much more unwatchable this team might get in 2020 is scary.

So, like anyone going through a crisis of faith, I went back to the mantra—process, process, process—and to the official Bible of the rebuild, Ben Reiter’s 2018 Astroball, to remind myself that things will be okay.

You basically know how this story goes. Back in 2012, the Houston Astros were bad.

How bad?

Experts in the business considered them “not just the laughingstock of baseball but all of sports.” Attendance was last in the league. Diehard fans had taken to self-mockery, wearing shirts that said “LASTROS” or “DISASTROS.”

People hated the way the Astros went about business, on the field and off it. They shifted too much. They shuffled and dealt players without a second thought. (GM Jeff Luhnow once got a letter from a worried young fan: “hi my name is Will and I live in texes Please don’t trade gorge springer these are the reasons 1. he is my favirte player 2. I get my hair cut like his 3. he is a team leader.”)

Perverse as it seemed, this was all part of a “grand, unified strategy” where not “a single dollar” would be spent that might delay the creation of a team dynasty. When Luhnow joined the Astros in December 2011, he inherited a team that had never won a World Series, and whose farm system was ranked last in the leagues.

Hence, Phase 1 (2011-13) was taking stock of and purging the rosters.

Luhnow’s team—Luhnow, Mejdal, new director of scouting Mike Elias, assistant GM Kevin Stearns, scouting coordinator Kevin Goldstein—introduced a method of data analysis that combined the reports of the club’s scouts with Mejdal’s performance-based algorithms. They called it STOUT—half stats, half scouts—and they used it to test every player on the roster, up and down the organization, to see who went and who stayed.

Off went veterans like slugger Carlos Lee, starter Wandy Rodriguez, and closer Brett Myers, who were tying up $40 million on the payroll. Between December 2011 and September 2013, Luhnow made 25 trades, getting rid of 28 players, most of them major leaguers, and acquiring 41, almost all of them prospects.

Phase 2 (2013-15) was to acquire talent or improve on what was already there.

A diminutive Venezuelan infielder who’d signed in 2006 for a bonus of $15,000 was raking in the minors. The new hitting coaches suggested he start laying off of pitches. By dividing the strike zone into nine squares, you could see that this youngster’s slugging percentage on pitches middle-in was twice as high as on middle-away. So why not start hunting for them? José Altuve put up a .327 career average in the minors, and in July 2013, Luhnow signed him to a four-year extension worth $12.5 million.

George Springer, a 2011 draft pick out of UConn, was a five-tool athlete with rare power, but he was showing a worrying tendency in the Astros’ farm system: 156 strikeouts in 581 plate appearances in 2012, an “obscene” rate of one per 3.7. The new Astros system helped slow Springer down, choose his pitches, bring down his strikeouts.

Collin McHugh, too, was a diamond in the rough unearthed by Mejdal’s algorithm. The Astros scooped him up off of waivers in 2013 with an ERA enough to scare off most would-be suitors, 8.94 in 15 outings with the Mets and the Rockies. Yet Statcast data showed that McHugh’s curveball spin rate was among the tops in the league, on par with great breaking-ball artists Félix Hernández and Adam Wainwright. So aboard he came.

It wasn’t perfect. Dallas Keuchel was almost dealt for nothing to the Tampa Bay Rays. He only stayed because the Rays preferred Jarred Cosart. But eventually, the slow-tossing lefty was encouraged to develop a third pitch, a slider that he could toss with pinpoint control, and coached to learn to throw it in reverse counts. That worked okay for him when he won the 2015 Cy Young Award.

It also helps to draft stars. With the first pick of the 2012 draft, the Astros took Carlos Correa, someone many had overlooked because Puerto Rico was no longer the first place you went scouting. That worked out OK for them, too.

Only by 2017 did the Astros finally move onto Phase 3—plugging the holes with veteran leadership. Statcast data showed that Carlos Beltrán, at age 40, still hadn’t lost much velocity on his swing and remained an average outfielder. Justin Verlander gave Houston a bona fide ace.

Where does this leave the O’s? Well, since Elias came on in November 2018, he’s been following this playbook to a T. Unfortunately, that still leaves us in the late stages of roster purging and the very early ones of talent acquisition. We can consider the 2019 season an extended, gloomy audition of Duquette’s guys. Some talents have been unearthed or procured: if John Means and Adley Rutschman turn out to be our Dallas Keuchel and Carlos Correa, well, hurray!

But remember: the Astros’ rebuild under Luhnow started in December 2011, and they still sucked until 2015. If Elias has the same success, we’re looking at competitive baseball in 2022. Bundle up, everyone. It’s going to be a long winter.