LAS VEGAS - MLB Network host Brian Kenny was a fan of the Houston Astros front office at a time when they were losing 106 games in 2011, 107 in 2012 and 111 in 2013.
He saw the data-driven approach they were taking with general manager Jeff Luhnow - and also with Mike Elias and Sig Mejdal. Luhnow was hired after that 2011 season and a teardown that led to a successful rebuild was beginning. The Astros’ success culminated with a World Series title in 2017.
Kenny joined me today for an interview during “MASN All-Access.” He wrote a book titled “Ahead of the Curve” and frankly among the media, he really was that in presenting information and creating discussion on analytics, sabermetrics and a new way of looking at trying to build a winning baseball team.
Kenny saw that Houston team that was losing and saw they were “all in” on this method of team building.
“They had success in drafting, in developing players as well, identifying talent and recognizing what had real value on the field,” he said. “They were enormously successful there. And what they did that was different that appealed to me, they went whole hog. They were like, ‘We’re into this, we’re not paying lip service. Oh, we’re going to rebuild, but we’ll still keep Carlos Lee.’ Nope. They stripped it down, which takes real guts in the real world in real time. But I saw that they had the intellectual capacity to build something sustainable. At the time, it was laughed at.”
The Astros eventually got the last laugh. And now Elias and Mejdal, part of winners in St. Louis and Houston, will try to turn the Orioles back into winners.
Elias was hired as the Orioles’ executive vice president and general manager on Nov. 16. Five days later, he hired Mejdal as assistant general manager, analytics.
It may be harder for that duo this time. First of all, more teams are on board with the analytics approach that they used to build the Astros. Secondly, they are trying to win in the American League East, where the big boys in Boston and New York live. Those teams have deep pockets and their own fully stocked analytics operations.
“It’s going to be challenging,” said Kenny. “Because now every team has just gotten smarter. Every team has built a large baseball operations department that is constantly looking for a competitive advantage. And constantly looking into performance maximizing. You just can’t take advantage of other teams by being smart. You have to be smarter for a long period of time.
“They can be enormously successful. I think they will be successful (in Baltimore). But now that everybody is kind of hip to where you need to be on the win curve - and you’re either all in or get out - I think it’s much more difficult in the current dynamic.”
In Houston, the Astros seemed to be very good at taking the data from the front office and making is useful and helpful to their players.
“What Houston did so much better than everyone else was really have a plan of attack for their pitchers against opposing hitters,” said Kenny. “And vice-versa as well, where you had hitters trying to identify things that were coming from pitchers. And that’s very scouty. That is not just big data. But you can combine your scouts with big data and then you need to get it from your baseball ops department and down to the field in a way that it can be utilized by the players.
“We’re at a point right now where the players are thirsty for this,” Kenny said. “It’s not, ‘Hey don’t tell me, I just grip it and rip it.’ Young players are not like that. They want the information. And now that we’ve seen how successful teams are - and not just the Astros, the Cubs, the Dodgers - in using this daily on the field on a pitch-by-pitch basis, you will see more teams doing it.”
And even more media is getting on board the analytics train.
“I’ve seen the sea change in the baseball-writing community. The brethren as I call them,” Kenny said. “There was a lot of resistance in mainstream media. I wrote about that in my book. Not to put people down, but to ask the question: Why do people, why do human beings, resist new information? And it’s just how we’re hard-wired.
“Baseball just gives a vivid illustration. Why now do we do shifting to the tune of 45 or 50,000 times a year when in 2011, we did it, I don’t know, 300 or 400 times? Why did everyone stand in the same place for 120 years and now everyone is shifting? We’re herd animals and we have to try and overcome that. Baseball is a great example of how we think and how we can think better.”