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Astroball

The New Way to Win it All

By Ben Reiter
15-minute read
Audio available
Astroball: The New Way to Win it All by Ben Reiter

Astroball (2018) charts the managerial revolution that propelled the Houston Astros baseball team from mid-league mediocrity to winning the 2017 World Series. The secret? Ditching old-fashioned scouting and recruiting policies that relied on “gut instinct” and embracing the power of big data. Full of fascinating insights into the world of American baseball, with all its traditions and mores, this is a must-read book for both those who love the sport, as well as anyone fascinated by the way tech is reshaping our world.

  • Baseball fanatics
  • Tech-heads
  • Lateral thinkers

Ben Reiter is a New York-based journalist and regular contributor to Sports Illustrated, Time and the Village Voice. Astroball is his first book.

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Astroball

The New Way to Win it All

By Ben Reiter
  • Read in 15 minutes
  • Audio & text available
  • Contains 9 key ideas
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Astroball: The New Way to Win it All by Ben Reiter
Synopsis

Astroball (2018) charts the managerial revolution that propelled the Houston Astros baseball team from mid-league mediocrity to winning the 2017 World Series. The secret? Ditching old-fashioned scouting and recruiting policies that relied on “gut instinct” and embracing the power of big data. Full of fascinating insights into the world of American baseball, with all its traditions and mores, this is a must-read book for both those who love the sport, as well as anyone fascinated by the way tech is reshaping our world.

Key idea 1 of 9

When it comes to games, it’s better to trust the data than your gut.

In the late 1980s, Sig Mejdal, a Californian student and future NASA engineer, was paying his way through college by working night shifts at a casino. It was at the blackjack tables that he noticed something important: gamers usually trust their gut over reason.

Blackjack is a game of probability. The player’s aim is to beat the dealer’s hand without his own hand exceeding 21. Despite the superstitions of players, there’s always a statistically preferable option when it comes to choosing to draw another card.

Say a player has a hand amounting to 16. In most cases, he’ll be wary about drawing another card. After all, the chance of going bust – getting more than 21 – is pretty high, right? Well, yes, but there’s more to it. In fact, reason tells us the best move is to take another card. There’s a 74-percent chance the dealer has a winning hand of at least 17. Draw another card, however, and the player’s chance of defeat drops to 67.5 percent!

That got Mejdal thinking. What, he wondered, would happen if you applied the same logic to other games. He started looking more closely at baseball. His hypothesis? Since it’s a game just like any other, math might be more reliable than gut instinct.

It was an insight that paid dividends in one area in particular: player recruitment. Mejdal proved this in 2005 during his stint as an advisor to Jeff Luhnow, the scouting director at the Missouri-based St. Louis Cardinals. Mejdal’s data on player performance metrics told him that the best college player in the United States was Jed Lowrie of the Stanford Cardinals. Scouts had – literally – overlooked Lowrie because of his slight stature. Their gut instincts told them he was simply too small and slender to make it as a major league player.

Luhnow, however, decided to follow Mejdal’s advice and take a gamble on Lowrie, recruiting him to the Cardinals team. The result? Lowrie went on to become an all-star player with a relatively dependable batting average of .262 in 2018 in addition to his high skills as a defensive player in the shortstop position!

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