How the Houston Astros are winning through advanced analytics

Here is a brief excerpt from an interview for the McKinsey Quarterly, published by McKinsey & Company. To read the complete article, check out other resources, learn more about the firm, obtain subscription information, and register to receive email alerts, please click here.

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In the first of a two-part interview, the architect of last year’s World Series champions shares how analytics, organization, and culture combine to create competitive advantage in a zero-sum industry.

When the Houston Astros won the seventh and deciding game of last year’s World Series, it marked the end of a long and challenging road. The team not only became the champion of Major League Baseball for the first time in its 56-year history but also did so after losing a staggering 111 (out of 162) games just four short years before. And the Astros didn’t simply spend their way to victory. Their Opening Day payroll ranked 18th of 30 major-league teams—and almost 50 percent (approximately $118 million) less than the World Series runner-up, and highest-spending team, the Los Angeles Dodgers.

Winning was a process, years in the making, and resting to a large extent on advanced data analytics. Houston Astros general manager Jeff Luhnow, a McKinsey alumnus and former vice president of the St. Louis Cardinals, began undertaking a data-driven transformation of the baseball operations for the Astros from the moment he was hired in 2011. Analytic insight fueled both player selection and on-the-field decision making, such as where to position players in game situations. As with any big change effort, this was far more than a numbers game. Luhnow and his team had to build an organization and culture that embraced data, translate it into ideas that mattered for players and coaches, and break down silos that were hampering the realization of data’s full potential.

In February 2018, Luhnow took a break from spring training to sit down with McKinsey’s Aaron De Smet and Allen Webb and discuss his views on both how the Astros used data to move from last to first and what it will take to continue winning as more and more baseball teams join an analytics arms race that has already gone far beyond statistics and data mining and is starting to integrate artificial intelligence.

The Quarterly: What were the analytics strengths and weaknesses for the Astros when you joined them in 2011?

Jeff Luhnow: There really was not any focus on analytics at all. It was a traditional scouting organization. The Astros had done a nice job of scouting and developing some really good players—players like Dallas Keuchel, George Springer, and José Altuve, who were in the system when I took over. But in terms of the analytic capabilities of the organization, if I were to rank it, Houston would have been in the bottom five for sure.

Quarterly: Were the existing personnel receptive to your changes?

Luhnow: No. There are hundreds of people that work in a baseball organization, including coaches, scouts, and hundreds of players that are signed at any one point in time. They did not accept it right away. For certain elements of the analytics, we had to wait and be patient. Because if you can’t get the coaches and the players to buy into it, it’s not going to happen.

Quarterly: How did you get the organization to buy in?

Luhnow: The first part was getting the decision makers on the scouting side who are making player-acquisition decisions, either through trades or through the draft, to use the information to make the right decisions. The harder part was changing the behavior of the coaches and the players that were either on our big-league team or in the minor-league system on their way up—getting them to change their behavior and use the information to help make decisions, whether it’s game-day decisions or lineups or defensive configuration or recommendations on promoting players. That was harder, and took three or four years to get to a point that we felt good about it. I was fortunate that my boss, the owner of the team, was willing to support us and, quite frankly, help us double down on the strategy. There are other teams in other sports—in football, in basketball, in soccer—that have started a strategy like this and peeled off after two or three years because they couldn’t stand the heat in the kitchen.

Quarterly: What kinds of changes made the organization particularly uncomfortable?

Luhnow: I’ll give you a great example. The pitcher’s on the mound; he throws a pitch. The ball gets hit to where, for the pitcher’s entire career, there’s been a shortstop right behind him. But all of a sudden, the shortstop’s not there, because the analytics would tell us the shortstop should be on the other side of the base. So, to that pitcher, that’s a massive failure—that ball should’ve been an out, and instead, that ball turned into a base hit and maybe a run that’s going to go on his personal record.

People always remember the negatives. It’s harder for a pitcher to remember the ball that got hit up the middle that, in years past, would’ve been a single, but this year, it just so happened the second baseman was right there, stepped on the base, and got a double play. We get a little less credit for those, though, than we get dinged on the negative ones.

It’s hard to convince the pitchers that this was the right thing to do. Because it was so different. It felt wrong. The defense wasn’t standing in the positions that they’ve been standing in since these guys were in Little League. Pitchers would therefore glare into the dugout and glare at the coaches that asked infielders to move, or glare at the infielders themselves. And over time, everybody would go back to their traditional positions. That was the first year.

The second year—this was 2013—we were a little bit more forceful about wanting to shift, and our coaches did a nice job of doing it for the first couple of months. But again, infielders started to complain: they’re not used to turning double plays from that spot. The pitchers started to complain. And so we went from being the highest-shift team in the first couple months of the season to one of the middle of the pack by the end, because our coaches just lost the desire to continue to do it and push back against the players.

The next spring training, 2014, we brought all of our major-league pitchers and infielders into a room and decided to share the data with them, which is a little risky because players leave and they go to other organizations. But we figured, if we’re asking them to truly change their behavior, they need to understand why this is beneficial to them and where it comes from.

There was an incredible moment where one of our younger pitchers who really wasn’t quite getting it kept complaining, “Well, what about this? What about that?” One of the veteran pitchers who had come around turned to the younger pitcher and said, “Look, this is going to help you have a better ERA [earned run average]1and have a better chance to have a better career, so you should really take this seriously.” Once you start getting players to advocate for the use of these tools, it changes the whole equation. Because then you’re no longer pushing; it’s starting to pull. Once that happens, the sky’s the limit in terms of the impact that these technologies and analytics can have on the players.

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Here is a direct link to the complete article.

Jeff Luhnow is the general manager of the Houston Astros. This interview was conducted by Aaron De Smet, a senior partner in McKinsey’s Houston office, and Allen Webb, editor in chief of McKinsey Quarterly, who is based in the Seattle office.



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