Early in Moneyball, Billy Beane (a.k.a. Brad Pitt) says the following to his team of scouts: “The problem we’re trying to solve is that there are rich teams and there are poor teams. Then there’s fifty feet of crap, and then there’s us…We’ve got to think differently. We are the last dog at the bowl.”
Beane/Pitt obviously was referring to his Oakland A’s, who he’d transform into a contender using–yeah, well you know the whole story. The reason I bring up this moment from Moneyball, though, is because if Beane thought his 2002 A’s were below fifty feet of crap, I wonder what he would have said about the Houston Astros a decade later? To be clear, I’m not talking about today’s Astros, who, at 42-16, have the best record in baseball and are in the midst of an eleven game-winning streak, as of June 6th.
I’m talking about the team that, four years ago, finished 51-111, putting them in not-so-esteemed company alongside the likes of the 1916 Athletics (36-117) and the ’62 Mets (40-120) as one of the worst teams in MLB history. But even that understates Houston’s misery. For a three-year stretch (2011-13), they didn’t once crack 60 wins; and with just 162 victories over that period, they registered the third-worst three-year mark in baseball since 1950. Things were so bleak that, on multiple occasions, their televised games drew 0.0 Nielsen ratings. Literally nobody was interested in the dreadful Astros.
However, their horrific performance from ’11 to ’13 needs context. Times were good for Houston in the mid-2000’s, which included back-to-back NLCS appearances and a World Series trip in 2005. But their window of opportunity was small. Their best players–Roger Clemens, Jeff Bagwell, Lance Berkman, Roy Oswalt, Craig Biggio–were all at least approaching their 30’s. And in the case of Clemens, Bagwell, and Biggio, they were all past the age of 37. With this decaying yet still capable core, Houston managed to remain quasi-relevant over the next few years, posting 80+ win seasons in 2006 and 2008. But after consecutive sub-.500 seasons in 2009 and 2010, it was clear Houston needed a change of direction if they were going to become a World Series contender once again.
In 2011, the Astros hired former St. Louis vice president of scouting and player development Jeff Luhnow to be their general manager. This move came as a relative surprise, seeing as Luhnow had no previous GM experience. But it was clear that the former technology entrepreneur had earned his new title.
In the wake of Oakland’s success in the early 2000’s using their “Moneyball” tactics, the Cardinals wanted to adopt a similar organizational approach. So through a connection with St. Louis owner William DeWitt Jr, they hired Luhnow to add an analytical component to their scouting department. And in eight years with St. Louis, Luhnow was credited primarily for one thing: developing home-grown talent. After taking over as scouting director in 2005, Luhnow drafted many of the Cardinals’ key pieces to their two title runs (e.g. Lance Lynn, Jaime Garcia, Allen Craig). It’s clear that Luhnow’s team-building strategy has sustained itself in St. Louis, too. Fifteen of the 25 players on their 2013 NL Pennant-winning squad were drafted by the Cardinals, many of whom by Lunhow.
After joining Houston, Lunhow sought to model the Astros after St. Louis. Reflecting on his first year in Houston, Luhnow recently said this in an interview with MLB.com:
“In order to have long-term success as an organization like the Cardinals have had, you have to consistently produce a pipeline of players. The easiest way to do that is to be successful in the draft and to have a successful international program, then to do as good job of developing the players you have in your system.”
There was only one problem when Luhnow took over, though. The Astros didn’t have any talent. Their best players–Carlos Lee, Hunter Pence, Wandy Rodriguez–were all aging and injury-prone. And in the three seasons before Luhnow took over, their farm system was ranked 26th, 30th, and 30th by Baseball America.
Without any building blocks outside of Jose Altuve, and with no help on the horizon, Luhnow gutted the team. He got rid of Lee, Pence, Rodriguez, Michael Bourn, J.A. Happ, and the rest of Houston’s decent, but ultimately limited players in exchange for draft picks, prospects, and other future compensation.
As we know, the short-term results of this strategy were historically bad. Now, though, it’s clear that Luhnow is a genius. Houston’s purposeful misery afforded them high first-round selections in five consecutive drafts. Here’s how that has worked out:
- 2011: George Springer (11th overall); currently ranks 24th in WAR among position players and is tied for third in MLB in home runs (16)
- 2012: Carlos Correa (1st overall): widely-regarded as one of the best young players in baseball; currently ranks in the top 15 in WAR
- 2012: Lance McCullers (41st overall): his 6-1 record, along with a 2.72 ERA, has him on pace for an All-Star appearance
- 2015: Alex Bregman (2nd overall): has secured the starting third base spot in only his second season
Moreover, similar to how the Cardinals not only drafted well, but successfully cultivated their home-grown talent into pro-level players, it appears that the same thing has happened in Houston under Luhnow. Take Dallas Keuchel, a seventh round pick back in 2009. He never appeared on any of those Top 100 prospect rankings. Nonetheless, Keuchel, with one Cy Young already under his belt, leads the majors in wins, ERA, and WHIP through the first two months of 2017. The Astros organization definitely gets some credit for turning a previously unheralded player into one of the better pitchers in baseball.
And here’s what else is remarkable. Despite many of their highly-touted prospects already producing in the majors, Houston still currently has the third best minor league system, according to Baseball America. Once again, credit Luhnow. As mentioned earlier, the Astros farm system was in a rut back in 2010. But since he took over, Houston’s progressed from 26th in 2011 to 5th in ’14 and then to 2nd in ’16.
As the Astros enter play on June 6th with a staggering 99.6% chance to win the AL West, as well as an AL-leading 30.4% chance to make the World Series according to Fangraphs, the bottom line is this: tanking works. A few years ago, the Astros weren’t breaking any rules, but they were certainly positioning themselves for the future rather than the present. And the initial results were dreadful. But that’s all in the past now. Houston is set up to be successful for the next five, maybe even ten years. A championship banner will be raised at some point.
Nonetheless, I’m sure some people still might think that tanking is ineffective. Here’s why they’re wrong. The Astros have followed a similar path as the defending champion Cubs. After a few years of mediocrity, the Cubs purposefully bottomed-out, going 127-197 from ’12-’13 while they retooled their farm system. The results over the past couple of years…have been quite good.
Over in the NBA, the San Antonio Spurs launched a dynasty because they also valued long-term success over short-term results. After all, with their ’96-’97 campaign toast after an injury to David Robinson, they lost 34 of their final 43 games. Granted, with only the third best odds for the number one pick, San Antonio lucked into Tim Duncan to an extent. But as great organizations like the Astros and Cubs have done, the Spurs put themselves in the best position they possibly could to secure a franchise player.
Yeah, but have you seen what’s been going on with the Philadelphia 76ers? Yes, well, here’s what’s been going on with the 76ers: they may be entering year five of an excruciating rebuild, but with Ben Simmons, Joel Embiid, and another top three pick in this year’s draft, there’s a chance that one of them is capable of becoming a franchise-changing player. That’s something only a few other NBA teams can claim.
Fans may not like it when their team trades all of their good players and stinks for a few years. They may even be morally opposed to it. Yet all is forgotten when a Carlos Correa, or a Kris Bryant, or perhaps even a Ben Simmons, shows up and their team starts winning–and winning for many years.
As the Astros continue to dominate, don’t lose sight of the big story. Tanking works, and organizations that aren’t afraid to fail greatly in the short-term in favor of building sustainable long-term success will be rewarded.
Carlos Correa photo courtesy of Bob Levey, Getty Images; Jose Altuve photo courtesy of Sports Illustrated