Houston, “Astroball” declared, might be “a proof of concept for a new way of thinking not just about how to build a baseball team but how humans and machines can bring the most out of each other.”
Now, whatever else the Astros were, they were cheaters.
“I immediately remember feeling a deep sense of personal responsibility … to figure out how I missed this and to get to the bottom of how this happened,” Reiter said in a recent interview. He spent much of this year working on a serial podcast, “The Edge,” that is an attempt to reexamine both the Astros and his own reporting.
Reiter’s reconsideration of the Astros comes as other writers — together with fans, executives and players — are also thinking about what the Astros’ scandal meant to baseball. Luhnow was fired, but the game has been reshaped by former Wall Street number crunchers and McKinsey consultants invading front offices, including those of the teams facing off in this year’s World Series.
The Tampa Bay Rays would make for a classic underdog story, going up against the mighty Los Angeles Dodgers with their shoestring payroll. But they are owned by a former Goldman Sachs partner and epitomize baseball’s strategic revolution: successful but perhaps not in ways appealing to the casual fan. The Rays strike out more than any other team, hit a ton of homers and claim as their biggest strength a bullpen filled with pitchers who aren’t exactly household names. The Rays’ use of Wall Street techniques was the subject of its own laudatory book in 2011.
“It’s not just the Astros; it’s the league writ large,” said Craig Goldstein, editor in chief of Baseball Prospectus. “The influx of these hedge fund types, they are all looking for the next efficiency. There’s a fetishization of efficiency in the league.”
Unlike Reiter, Evan Drellich, the Athletic reporter who broke the cheating story with Ken Rosenthal, was skeptical of the Astros’ approach all along. Drellich and Rosenthal detailed how Houston stole signs and signaled pitches to Astros hitters by banging on a trash can in the dugout.
In 2014, Drellich, who was covering the Astros for the Houston Chronicle, wrote a piece that questioned the human cost of the Astros’ impersonal and at times severe approach to baseball. “It’s hard to play for a GM who just sees you as a number instead of a person,” an anonymous player told Drellich. Two years later, in an essay for Baseball Prospectus, he wondered about the moral costs to the team’s ruthless pursuit of efficiency.
Drellich’s suspicion was validated in 2018, when Luhnow traded for closer Roberto Osuna, even as Osuna was serving a suspension after being accused of domestic violence.
The next year, during a clubhouse celebration, a deputy of Luhnow’s, Brandon Taubman, screamed at a group of female reporters, one of whom was wearing a bracelet supporting domestic violence victims: “Thank God we got Osuna!”
For Reiter, it was the Osuna trade that made him question the narrative about the team that he had promoted. “The trade was indefensible,” he said. “That’s when I thought maybe there was a darker side.”
He acknowledged he could have asked harder questions about the Astros’ culture. But, he said: “I could not have known about the trash can. I wasn’t in the clubhouse during games. I wasn’t out on the field."
“Astroball” belongs to a canon of baseball writing that began with Michael Lewis’s “Moneyball” in 2003. The Rays’ front office was chronicled by Jonah Keri in “The Extra 2%: How Wall Street Strategies Took a Major League Baseball Team from Worst to First.” The Chicago Cubs and Theo Epstein won the World Series thanks to the “The Cubs Way,” which was the title of Tom Verducci’s book.
“The lens for a long time in the sport for both writers and fans has been front-office innovation,” Drellich said.
The through line for this type of book was the genius of the front office, Goldstein said, and whatever market inefficiency it found. In “Moneyball” it was on-base percentage, but 15 years later the edge came with a starker moral question. The Astros got Osuna, a “distressed asset” in Wall Street-speak, on the cheap because of a domestic violence allegation.
Goldstein pointed to all sorts of ways the drive for efficiency has affected baseball, on and off the field — from the diminished role of starting pitchers to top prospects being held in the minor leagues to suppress their earnings to veteran players having a hard time finding contracts. Baseball Prospectus, he said, was a cheerleader for front offices that were on the cutting edge of analytics, but he has since rethought some of its coverage and whose performance it emphasizes. Goldstein said he no longer allows writers to refer to players as “assets,” and he recently hired a writer to focus on labor issues.
“We need to remind the public players aren’t just numbers,” he said. “We can still talk about their quality of play without reducing them to an item in a warehouse.”
Reiter said the final episodes of his podcast will wrestle with some of Goldstein’s questions. The episode that aired last week takes a hard look at the Taubman incident; the Astros initially accused Sports Illustrated writer Stephanie Apstein of fabricating the story. The episode connects the Astros’ troubling response to the team’s attitude toward the World Series: Nothing else mattered.
“Baseball, like everything else across all industries, is in a period of rapid change, a lot of it spurred by technology,” Reiter told The Washington Post. “But these things, especially when they happen so rapidly, come with a lot of unintended consequences.”
He was also adamant, though, that the Astros’ push for efficiency could not be painted as all bad. “Baseball has always been a brutal business,” he said, noting the team also has resurrected the careers of several players. (Gerrit Cole, a former Astro, signed a $324 million contract with the New York Yankees in the offseason.)
Still, Goldstein said there was frustration in some corners of baseball media over Reiter’s podcast: “There’s some view in the community of, ‘Why does he get to profit when he missed all the signs the first time around?’ ” he said.
Drellich is working on his own book about the Astros due out next year. It has a tongue-in-cheek working title: “Winning Fixes Everything.”