A curious thing has happened since the Houston Astros won their second World Series in six years and fourth American League pennant in the same span of time.
The team is acting like the whole experience has been miserable.
Days after clinching the Fall Classic, Houston owner Jim Crane dropped general manager James Click, and it sure sounded like manager Dusty Baker would’ve seen the same fate had the team not just won a championship. Instead, the team gave him a one-year contract to return next season, as if he needed a prove-it deal.
Then, on Tuesday, franchise great Jeff Bagwell, who has reportedly been working in the front office since Click’s departure, dropped this whopper of a quote to reporters, via the Houston Chronicle:
After acknowledging his growing role in the franchise’s makeshift front office, Hall of Famer Jeff Bagwell on Tuesday bemoaned the Astros’ reliance on analytics and asserted that “this game is played by humans, man. It’s not played by computers.”
“The game has advanced so much,” Bagwell said. “But at the end of the day, it’s about driving runs in, scoring runs, getting 27 outs before the other team. That never changes. Trying to get a mix of both of those is what I’m trying to get some of up there because that’s what (owner Jim Crane) wants.”
That outlook tracks with what ESPN’s Jeff Passan reported on how Crane feels about the team’s data-heavy approach once Click was shown the door:
Crane, sources said, felt coming into the 2022 season that the team needed more “baseball men” involved in operations decisions and invited Hall of Famers Jeff Bagwell and Reggie Jackson into the team’s weekly senior baseball-operations meetings.
Again, Bagwell was talking about what the team needs to do to succeed after the most consistent run of success baseball has seen this century. Sure, the San Francisco Giants won three titles in five years, but they also missed the playoffs those other two years. The Los Angeles Dodgers have regularly won 100-plus games, but they have only one title to show for it.
The Astros’ past six years should be the envy of baseball (outside of the use of a trash can in the first year-and-a-half), but now the team’s owner and a key front office figure are lamenting the state of things like MLB owners lamented their supposed financial strife during the most recent CBA negotiations.
It all comes down to one immediately divisive word: analytics, baseball’s bogeyman.
That begs the question: What are analytics to Jeff Bagwell and Jim Crane? And have we all been watching the same Astros?
The Astros were already doing what Jeff Bagwell wants — just not how he wants
The Astros are infamous for their love of quantitative analysis, but it’s not like they were sitting down Yordan Álvarez and telling him he needs to seek more walks. The Astros (and Dodgers) have become the model for other clubs because of how they meld analytics, player development and resources into an effective team.
Justin Verlander just won the Cy Young unanimously and nabbed his first World Series game win four years after he extolled the Astros’ front office under Jeff Luhnow for helping him evolve into a new, even better pitcher. Álvarez had the best offensive season by a player not name Aaron Judge six years after the Astros’ scouting stole him from the Dodgers. Jeremy Peña was ALCS MVP and World Series MVP four years after the Astros picked him in the third round of the MLB draft and developed him into a top prospect and defensive ace.
Where do the analytics end and the talent begin? The Astros might be the best team in baseball at player development — something any observer can agree is important — but is that tainted by their use of numbers to give feedback to players?
From top to bottom, the Astros had the best pitching staff in baseball this year, and there was no one-size-fits-all approach. The anti-analytics Bagwell types complain about the death of pitching to contact, but the team’s leader in innings pitched was Framber Valdez, MLB’s king of inducing groundballs. Likewise, most analytical people would probably say Peña and his regular-season .289 OBP were an odd choice to hit high in the lineup, but the Astros hit him second the entire postseason.
Bagwell outlined his priorities as “scoring runs” and “getting 27 outs” after a season in which the Astros ranked third in the AL in runs scored and led the AL in ERA. And won 106 games. And a World Series title. He says Crane wants a mix of fundamentals and analytics, but the team sure seemed to achieve that in 2022.
The only way this outlook really makes sense is if “analytics” has become the scapegoat for whatever its critics dislike as a team goes through ups and downs. Álvarez going yard? Well, that’s just talent. A rally ending on a strikeout when a ball in play would’ve scored a run? Analytics! Valdez throwing a complete game? A throwback performance. A different pitcher striking out eight but lasting only five innings? Damn analytics.
Well, rest easy. The Astros have apparently learned their lesson. Their first order of business: signing a 32-year-old reliever to a three-year, $34.5 million deal after one good season. Even in a world in which analytics has become a buzzword bleached of all meaning, we know it doesn’t get more anti-analytics than that.