Your 2018 World Series Champion isÖ
November 11, 2017
In 2014, Sports Illustrated published a cover that stated that the Houston Astros would be the 2017 World Series Champion. Obviously, whoever made the decision to go with that cover is crowing a little louder these days. But even before it was published there were a number of people, led, of course, by Brian Kenny, that said the Astros would be the dominant force in baseball for a long time because they were the most devoted to analytics. Of course, they had also said that about the Seattle Mariners five years before that and we are still waiting for that team to make the playoffs even once. And nearly half a decade before the Mariners they were saying the same thing about the Moneyball Oakland As. They have finished last in a relatively weak division as often as they have made the playoffs and have yet to reach the promised land of the World Series. So the data, at least so far, does not strongly support their position, which is ironic since it supposedly is based in science. Their conclusion was that since analytics was the future of baseball, anyone still paying attention to old scouting tropes would be left in the dust. The Astros, they posited, were abandoning the old ways and leading the charge toward the future. We donít know with 100% certainty if that is true or not because we donít know the internal budgets of each team for such things, but they were certainly more active than many in firing scouts, so that seemed like a somewhat reasonable conclusion.
But letís look at their claim about abandoning the old in favor of the new: At the time, there were a number of strongly held beliefs based in analytics that were supposed to be the foundation of building the team of the future.
The first was that strikeouts by batters didnít matter. They were good for pitchers, but if a batter swung and struck out it meant next to nothing. But a funny thing happened on the way to a championship. The Astros fell short a couple years ago in large part because their batters didnít make contact in crucial situations, and from 2010-2015, four of the six teams that eventually won the World Series were either among the best or actually the best at making contact and not striking out. So the Astros made a concerted effort in 2017 toward making more contact and striking out less. It paid off: the Astros were the leaders in both categories in 2017.
The second belief was that relievers are fungible and that velocity doesnít matter. Their end of their 2015 campaign revealed the need for a reliable back-end of the bullpen, which they acquired over the next two seasons. In terms of velocity in the pen they went from dead last in the majors in 2015 to 11th in 2017.
The third belief is that aces, while a great thing to have, arenít necessary or even that important to have in order to win a World Series. A starting pitcher is just the guy who starts the game and as long as he gets a few innings of quality work in, you can piece the rest of the puzzle with the bullpen (the fungible pitcher bullpen, remember?) because their ERAs are better anyway. Thatís fodder for another day.
Whatís provocative is that these new things they keep learningÖ are really things so-called ďbaseball peopleĒ (namely scouts) have known for decades. So the team that eschewed batting average and insisted strikeouts were meaningless led the majors in both batting average and fewest strikeouts. They paid a high price in prospects for their hard-throwing closer, are paying pretty hefty salaries for his set-up men, and this summer traded away three of their best prospects to have a hard-throwing ace starter to open their playoffs and anchor their championship run. Without him, they would have no doubt lost in the ALCS: he won the MVP of that series, allowing only one run in two starts spanning sixteen innings, striking out 21 batters.
Are you seeing a pattern?
The first thing one should notice is that sabermetrics is still in its infancy and will not be even reasonably mature for another decade at least because the data input up until the last two or three years has always been flawed. All of the events that were recorded were from human approximations. All hits were judged Ďhitsí by a score-keeper. All balls and strikes were judged by an umpire. All plays in the field were judged on difficulty by a biased observer. Before Statcast, Yakkertech and other unbiased measuring systems were employed, all of the data was flawed. But with three years of reliable measurements, we can finally begin to see how good these players really are. It will probably take a few years to translate these measurements into reliable metrics. So only when we reach that point can we say with reasonable confidence that sabermetrics are the way to go.
Until then, we have to rely on what the Houston Astros relied on: smart people. It wasnít because they used wOBA or WAR or any other construct. Itís because smart people recognize when something isnít working or is flawed and then seek new solutions, even if the new solutions are old solutions. This is what smart people do. Ironically enough, thatís exactly how the Cubs won the year before. And if you continue to go back through the years you will find that most teams that end up winning the World Series have more than their fair share of smart people making the decisions.
You know what else they relied all of those teams have relied on? Scouts. Because without good scouts all of those early round picks and compensation picks that brought them players like Carlos Correa and Alex Bregman, and the prospects they traded away for the players they truly needed would have been used to pick other players, players who might not have panned out as well.
However, as good as they are, the Astros reign at the top will be short-lived. Itís not that they were lucky; itís that success rarely brings changes. Itís very likely that the Astros front office and player personnel will look very much like they do now coming into next year. Itís very hard to win with the same hand because every other team will be trying to upgrade. The Astros wonít have the same urgency to do so. They have found the formula that works for them and rarely do people do anything other than tinker a little with success. Itís highly unlikely they will make wholesale changes to their bullpen or back end of their rotation or their bench or their outfield, all of whom could use work. So just like the Cleveland Indians in 2016, even though theyíll be the favorite going in, itís probable the Astros wonít even represent their league in the World Series next year. Some other team Ė maybe the Indians, maybe Yankees, maybe the Red Sox, maybe some dark horse we havenít even thought about Ė will do something this winter and during the course of next season to make themselves good enough to beat the Astros.
So who will win it all? Well, one team addressed its biggest team weakness this summer with a trade that fixed the back end of the bullpen. Immediately after the season concluded, they corrected their most significant weakness in the decision making chain with a new manager. With those, theyíve already made the two smartest moves they could make. There are also rumors that ownership, which previously had been penurious with big contracts, will make a splash this offseason for another top starting pitcher. The team already has a number of very promising youngsters that, given a chance last year, proved productive. They could come in handy as depth or in trade this winter. They have one of the best offenses in baseball (5th most runs and wOBA) and their rotation is led by two of the three finalists for this yearís Cy Young award. With better health from their stars, it will be the Washington Nationals who hold the trophy in 2018.
But back to the AstrosÖ they do have a very bright future. But itís not because they use more or better stats than anyone else. Every team uses advanced statistics, just like every team employs scouts all over the world looking for the next great untapped talent. No, their future is bright because they hired smart people, and smart people, regardless of industry, know when to admit when they were wrong about something and they fix it. They donít continue to drone on about the sample size or bad luck or outliers or any other excuses. They examine the evidence and even if it points toward an old solution, they go where the evidence takes them. Because the thing that distinguishes smart people from everyone else is that their biggest concern is knowing what works. Theyíre not so concerned with some esoteric label of being smartÖ because being Ďsmartí isnít nearly as satisfying as being champion.