HOUSTON — Underneath all of the numbers, behind all the algorithms, beside all of the metrics, there are beating hearts and flesh-and-blood emotions with the Astros. They are more than a sum of their analytical parts.
“We’re a baseball team first,” manager A.J. Hinch said before Game 7 of the American League Championship Series. “We’re pretty book-smart, but that’s not a bad thing.” He added that general manager Jeff Luhnow and his data-driven staff are “as progressive as anybody in the game.”
But he insisted that they are more than that. “We’re people. We care about people,” Hinch said. “We still have instincts. We still rely on the chemistry that is built in the clubhouse. We went and got veterans when everybody said the age profiles [didn’t fit]. We’ll usually do the opposite of what the rest of the industry is doing to continue to move and try to find a competitive advantage.
“But the desire to win, that old-school, traditional desire to win, is as big in this building,” Hinch said at Minute Maid Park, “as it is in any building in the big leagues.”
The Astros way, if it can be called that, first came to light nationally in a 2014 cover story in Sports Illustrated. The cover boldly introduced the team as the 2017 World Champions. At the time, Houston was as barren a baseball wasteland as any city in the big leagues. The Astros had gone 55-107 in 2012 and had progressed only marginally since. At the time the issue was published, they were last in the American League West and only 1½ games ahead of the Rays for the worst record in the big leagues.
Such suffering was considered part of the plan driven by Luhnow and self-described nerds whose expertise was collecting, analyzing and applying massive information. In that 2014 article, Luhnow said, “When you’re in 2017, you don’t really care that much about whether you lost 98 or 107 in 2012. You care about how close we are to winning a championship in 2017.”
By Saturday evening, they were within one win of the World Series, which has been enough to make other clubs follow their statistics-oriented lead. During this series, Joe Girardi spoke proudly about the breadth of the Yankees’ analytics commitment.
Not everything has gone according to plan for the Astros, though. Back then, George Springer was the one chosen to represent the Astros’ future with a cover photo. Jose Altuve, the heart and soul of the team and likely the frontrunner for the 2017 American League Most Valuable Player award, received only a passing mention. In 2014, the Astros placed great emphasis on No. 1 overall draft pick Brady Aiken, a pitcher who never did sign with them and is a middling Class A pitcher in the Indians’ chain. Still, the Astros’ progress has been striking.
Through it all, they have insisted they cherish and use old-fashioned scouting. And they approach huge events such as a Game 7 with honest-to-goodness, non-quantifiable heart.
“The fun factor is through the roof, for a lot of reasons,” Hinch said before the climactic game against the Yankees. “The No. 1 reason is the players. These guys put in so much time and energy. Watching them have fun, obviously the exhale [Friday] night when we started to look like ourselves again, is a great moment for a manager. I’m having a blast in this.”