In 2014, several writers at Sports Illustrated came together for an article mentioning how they were using analytics that went beyond the Oakland Athletics’ moneyball tactics in order to draft and develop players in the best way imaginable. Within this process, the organization was taking a chance, hiring people that weren’t even baseball people, but scientists. These included NASA aeronautics scientist Sig Mejdal. The Astros’ general manager, Jeff Luhnow, was a chemical engineering and economics major at Penn University, and designed suits that protected soldiers from warfare before joining the St. Louis Cardinals’ front office in 2005. They have analytics experts called “The Nerd Cave” which gathered all kinds of information and then some about their players. And in this current state, a little over 6 months removed from their first World Series title in franchise history, we are watching the Houston Astros pitching staff just flat out dominate. So maybe these scientists and analytics experts have been scouting out the baseballs too? No Trevor Bauer, they aren’t juiced. There is nothing on their hands. The balls are just analytically proven to work, to a science, more than the baseballs of any other starting rotation. Here’s how they did it.
The exact thing that Trevor Bauer is accusing them of rigging: spin rate. While that may be true, your source is one who injured himself with a drone during the postseason in 2016. So I will give a much more creative theory: Before spin rate was even a thing, the analytics group drafted the balls accordingly all throughout spring training. While the managers and coaches dealt with player development, the scientists were dealing with ball development, testing which baseballs would spin more than others and what pitches would be the best for the baseball. Some balls are better for Justin Verlander’s breaking ball. Others are better for the big drop of the Dallas Keuchel curveball. Throughout the game and throughout the season, the Astros just have to find the right one. So the next step is activating them during the game. Unlike other teams, the Astros have the baseball bucket sorted out based on who the starting pitcher is. Does he have a 2-seam fastball? Does he have a slider? How does it break? What are the percentages of it breaking to particular parts of the strike zone? What kind of pitches does one particular team struggle against? All these numbers and questions come in to selecting the right kind of baseballs for the right kind of starting pitcher. And within the game, the management is the same. Being that the umpires can’t rig the game, the Astros figure out which baseball is which. If they want to get a strikeout but have the wrong baseball, they throw a pitch where the guy is guaranteed to foul it off. And then when they get their particular ball, then they deliver the knockout blow. Gerrit Cole, more of a soft thrower, can’t be second in strikeouts for nothing. He knows how to spin the ball and which ball is the perfect chance of giving him the rate he is looking for, as have other overperformers Charlie Morton and Lance McCullers. The Astros popularized spin rate before it was a major thing, and these scientists tested these balls in space and are now showing you why.
When you don’t get strikeouts, you have to get outs in other kinds of ways. And that’s where these percentages come in. Line drive percentage, pop up percentage, ground ball percentages, and more. And like I was saying above with spin rate, the Astros scientists have developed baseballs that have these purposes as well. They have done this in two ways with statistics unknown to the rest of the league: wear rate and skip rate. The Houston Astros have analytically constructed which baseballs would spawn higher pop up percentages. Against teams that have more powerful hitters that tend to do more uppercut swings, a baseball that has been hit more often has a chance to spawn a pop-up as a result. While wear rate numbers are low, as it is next to impossible to fully unravel a baseball down to its weaving, a baseball that has been struck 9 times already without being replaced is something worth looking at when coming to this new wave of analytics. In terms of ground ball percentage, the Houston Astros use skip rate to determine how a ball will hop off the bat, leading to very little errors and very efficient first-pitch outs for their pitchers. Originally tested on the moon by NASA in anti-gravity conditions, the baseballs have been tested at Minute Maid Park as well as in pre-game drills on the road as well to determine the range of just how high and how sharp the balls will bounce. While this statistic doesn’t take away anything from the raw talent of the Astros infield defense, particularly up the middle, it has always been something that has been experimented with these infielders since they were in Class-A ball, most recently with Alex Bregman in 2016. While this stat is harder to evaluate on a game-to-game basis for these scientists, talent alone can’t be the only reason the team is second best in the majors with just 14 errors. And it’s these pitchers that pitch to the perfect spot to give their infielders that ground ball chance that they were looking for, whether it is through the shift or in a regular infield alignment, or whatever the hell they did to Joey Gallo this past weekend.
Where meteorology and baseball come together is through the study of the wind when the Astros play games on the road. These scientists developed how the baseballs reacted to particular wind conditions, and through the player development process, also give them different tests. This included testing Minute Maid Park with the roof open back when Tal’s Hill still existed. Why they ever got rid of that unique feature is still beyond me. The wind can impact how pitches move, how line drives and fly balls are struck, and what kinds of direction and speed those balls can be hit in. This is just another attribute to the Astros’ great pitching and defense, especially doing as well as they have on the road this season, during an April that featured a lot of colder games and ones with heavy amounts of wind. And come time October against some of the best offenses in the American League, they can use these tests to help the range of their defenders and the anticipation of where the ball will be hit. Because after all, meteorologists and NASA engineers would know how mother nature is going to impact the baseball game in any given circumstances, and the Nerd Cave can evaluate accordingly like this as well with the extensive numbers they have based on weather reports.
Baseball has been a tradition that has lasted for over 130 years, and we’ve seen teams and leagues that have constantly broken the trend. But a super-involved analytics department investigating the baseballs that give them a success to win and pitch on a historical pace? Sounds like the works of the number crunchers and third-level statisticians and scientists the Houston Astros have had working there for the last 5 years. And no Trevor Bauer, your theory of how they are cheating to gain better spin rate and more strikeouts is wrong. Advanced analytics will tell you that everything here is much more likely to why the Astros lead in almost every pitching category imaginable with a veteran journeyman and a former All-Star who posted 4+ ERA seasons the last two years.