Host: Matt Hall
Guest: Ben Reiter
Matt: 00:00 (upbeat music) Welcome back Long view listener. I'm so glad you're here. This is a special episode hot off the press. And you know this podcast is about helping you reframe the way you think about money, emotions, behavior and time, but it's also gonna help refrain the way you think about baseball. I love baseball and I love the book Money Ball by Michael Lewis.
Matt: 00:28 And I really love the book Astro Ball by Ben Reiter and I had the pleasure of talking with Ben and that's what this episode is about. About how he predicted in 2014 that one of the losingest teams in sport would become one of the winningest teams. And that's exactly what the Houston Astros did. So how did they change? How did they evolve? How did they revolutionize themselves? That's the story, and this is the guy who sniffed it out, captured it and, uh, is here to talk about it with me.
Matt: 00:57 I knew I liked Ben Reiter when I read his book, and especially as a person I knew I liked him when I got to the end of his book and he says, and this is a quote from the book, "The central lesson I took from the Astros has been the importance of focusing on process over outcomes. As it turns out, the process of writing a book in a single Winter is harder on an author's wife and children than it is on the author. Alice, Madeline and Cilia Reiter put as much into Astro Ball as I did, and we'll always have that which resides just above my gut, my heart." I love that dedication to his family, and he is a great writer.
Matt: 01:33 Ben went to Yale and Cambridge. He works at Sports Illustrated. He's written over 26 cover stories for the magazine, has contributed to Time and The Village [inaudible 00:01:42]. He frequently appears on radio and television stations across the US and around the world and is a regular commentator on the MLB Network. I just can't tell you how grateful I am that he wrote this book, covered this story, captured it and shared it with us. So enjoy this episode.
Matt: 02:02 (Whistles) Ben, thanks for being with me.
Ben Reiter: 02:06 Thanks for having me.
Matt: 02:07 I'm so excited to talk with you and we did an event together in Houston where we talked with Jeff [inaudible 00:02:12], the General Manager of the Astros. And there's so much to talk about here, but I wanna say just a couple quick things. Number one, you are the guy who covered the Astros before they were successful. We sit here today on the, um, edge of the 2019 World Series where we'll see the Houston Astros play the Washington Nationals. And, it's hard to think back to the days when you went on behalf of Sports Illustrated to write a story about the Astros.
Matt: 02:44 It's hard to imagine how ridiculous this would sound, that you and I are going to be talking about the Astros in the World Series. Let's go back and talk to me about the genesis of the idea for going to Houston to cover the Astros. They were losing more than 100 games a year, were one of the worst teams in sports. And you had the idea to go to Houston and dig into this?
Ben Reiter: 03:11 (laughs) Well, the fact, Matt, they were the worst team over the previous three year stretch of any in half a century in Major League Baseball. They lost 106 games, 107 games and 111 games. Things were going really badly. They were drawing local TV ratings of 0.0 in Houston, which meant that Nielson couldn't verify that a single Houstonian actually tuned into some of these games. That's how bad they were. And that awfulness was really what drew me to them to begin with.
Ben Reiter: 03:48 I wanted to figure out what's going on down here. What's the plan? Is there a plan even? Now, I knew a couple of things. I knew that Jeff Luhnow, the GM of the team, was considered an extremely smart guy. He'd had a lot of success as a Director of the scouting department for the St. Louis Cardinals. I knew that his top analyst, [inaudible 00:04:08], had a similar track record. But all they did was lose year after year after year. That excited me actually. So I reached out to the team, and I went through a pretty drawn out period of negotiation about the type of access they would give me.
Ben Reiter: 04:25 Finally, they agreed to open their doors. All I said in return was like, "Look, I know you guys are getting killed all over the country. All I promise you is that I will come in with an open mind to, if I am able to get a look at what you're doing down here." So that's where it all started. This was back in June of 2014 and the days surrounding that year's draft when they were about to have their third straight number one overall pick because once again, they'd of course had the worse record in the league the year before.
Ben Reiter: 04:56 Certainly, what I found when I went down to Houston was both eye opening and surprising.
Matt: 05:02 So I love this idea that you were sort of a bottom seeker, you know, in-in-inspired, inspired by the colossal failure. I think at the time they, didn't people sort of call them the disastros?
Ben Reiter: 05:15 Yeah, Disastros, or the Lastros, referring to their typical place in the division, one of the two.
Matt: 05:21 So, you go down there and, um, I want to read a section from Astro Ball, which is an awesome book. If listeners of this podcast haven't checked out Astro Ball. I think it's a book much like Money Ball that goes beyond baseball, so even if you're not a huge baseball fan, you just wanna know a turn around story or you love process, or you love the thinking behind how someone could go from sort of this, the basement to the tip top. You don't have to be a baseball lover to love Astro Ball, so I'm going to read a section, Ben and then, um, get your reaction.
Matt: 05:54 This is in the introduction, which th-the introduction is worth the price of the book, let me tell ya. So you say, "By the time I left Houston, I had started to think there was more than win totals riding on the Astros' approach. If it worked, it might function as a proof of concept for a new way of thinking, not just about how to build a baseball team, but how humans and computers can bring the most out of each other. In an age in which we are deluged by data, with the spector of job-killing artificial intelligence on the horizon, positive results for the Astros could demonstrate that success is not a matter of man or machine, but of man plus machine, as long as man remains in charge."
Matt: 06:38 "Or, they could become the most disastrous. Sustained loser in the history of not just sports, but any industry, one of the two." (laughs) I love that section. And, I wanna know when you go to Houston and get behind the curtain, what were the first signs of life? What were the signals to you that there was something there?
Ben Reiter: 07:00 Well you have to remember, Money Ball, as pioneering as it was, as brilliant as it was, as impactful as it was on the sport, was that this time over a decade, [inaudible 00:07:13] so that paradigm of using statistical analysis to identify overlooked factors that might lead to success, inefficiencies in other world, words, had been around for a while. So I was wondering what was next. And as I sat, quietly I should add, in the draft room of the Astros as they were discussing who they were going to pick number one overall, I sensed that something had changed.
Ben Reiter: 07:39 Now, I was sitting next to, not just a bunch of analysts right? But a bunch of real hard core baseball men, [inaudible 00:07:47]. Craig [inaudible 00:07:49] was in there. Nolan Ryan, a whole lot of seasoned scouts. And, I noticed something, which is that yes, the analysts certainly had their voice led by Sig Midel. His team would weigh in on every player as they were discussed. But most of the discussion revolved around the impressions and the intuition and the observation of humans, of scouts.
Ben Reiter: 08:13 Now, one of the ideas of Money Ball is that you didn't need scouts anymore, but humans were flawed, they were biased, the information they could provide wasn't particularly valuable. That wasn't the case in Houston. Another thing is that I didn't sense any conflict between the stats guys and the scouts, right. This has been the story of baseball since Money Ball that it was one versus the other. It was a battle. That was actually kind of how it was for Luno in St. Louis. But this was an incredibly cohesive room, each group working together to combine their skills to make the best decisions. And it quickly became clear this was how each decision in the organization was made.
Ben Reiter: 08:59 So that really is what struck me as I kind of embedded with them for a few more days. I kept seeing this more and more and I started to think, you know, this feels like something new, something that's bringing back the positive aspects of the human factor and smartly integrating it with the power of analytics.
Matt: 09:19 Mmm, you just hit on one of my favorite parts of the book in the story, and I think that's so, uh, beautiful that you keyed in and sniffed out that advantage that it wasn't one versus the other, that they could work together to create better results. As you watch them today, do you feel like what you saw is still playing itself out?
Ben Reiter: 09:38 Certainly do, yes. I mean, look, I think that the landscape has changed around baseball, even since 2014. There are no dummies in the game anymore, right. There's no dumb money. Every team has a large and powerful analytics department. You know, and Sig Midel got his first job in baseball from Jeff Luhnow in St. Louis in the mid-2000's. He was he believes the fourth analyst, the fourth full time analyst in major league baseball, right. As of recently, the Los Angeles Dodgers alone employ more than 20 of them.
Ben Reiter: 10:17 There are now hundreds of these people in the game. That kind of means that the playing field is leveled as far as the advantage you can gain from analytics alone. A lot of times the X factor, what puts you over the top, are your people. And I think we see that in the Astros time and again in how he's built this team, keeping Jeff Luhnow, how he's continued to supplement it with smart trades for people like Zack [inaudible 00:10:42] and of course Garrett Cole. This team is certainly a legacy of that underpinning philosophy, but on top of that, they've continued to innovate in really, really interesting ways to be sure to maintain their dominance and clearly based on the fact that they're about to begin playing their second World Series in three years, they've succeeded.
Matt: 11:03 Yeah. Okay, so let's go back you big, brave, bold predictor, you, Ben Reiter. 2014 you sniff out what's good in Houston and you're like, "I've, I've got a feeling about these guys and I want to tell my magazine, Sports Illustrated that this should be a cover story." Now you don't decide what's on the cover. Again, must read the intro to hear the story about how this became the cover. Um, because there are other great options every month for good cover stories, but Ben, I wanna talk to you about how you figured out.
Matt: 11:37 So in 2014, colossal loser in the Astros. You predicted in 2017 they're going to win the World Series. And you convince the boss at Sports Illustrated to put this on the cover, where somehow, somehow he decided to make it the cover story. That's a bold choice, and then it happened. It happened.
Ben Reiter: 12:00 Yeah.
Matt: 12:00 So what I wanna know is, how did this story rise to the level of cover worthy at Sports Illustrated? And then, how did you decide on the year 2017? And then how did you feel as you watched this transition happen? From sort of a bold prediction to one that was starting to feel like it might actually happen?
Ben Reiter: 12:26 Well, to be perfectly honest with you Matt, I've written tons of stories for Sports Illustrated that I thought were cover worthy, for which I've lobbied for the cover and it didn't make it. Right? This is not a story I ever expected would be a cover.
Matt: 12:39 Pause for one second, Ben. You have had like 26 or 27, I don't know how many it is now, cover storied for Sports Illustrated. I don't know if that's a record, but it's gotta put you in one of the top groups of, of writers at Sports Illustrated. So you have to have been successful more than not I think.
Ben Reiter: 12:54 (laughs) Well you'd be surprised how many, uh, end up inside and not pasted on the front of the magazine. But this one, look, I just thought it was a really fascinating story with fascinating people. But I thought bottom line, Sports Illustrated doesn't put the worst team in a sport on it's cover, right? So I didn't push for this. It was actually the editor in chief of the magazine then, Chris Stone, who after reading my 5,000 word piece said, "You know what? This is fresh. I'd buy this. I'm going to put it on the cover. Got a question for you. Here's what I want to do. I want to say, 'If this thing works, this is when it's going to work.' So what's the year? Is it 2020? 2019?"
Ben Reiter: 13:39 And to be further honest of you, it was, again, kind of a mix of reporting and analysis and my own gut instinct to come up with 2017. Reporting wise, I spent a lot of time, with not just Jeff Luhnow, but Sig Midel and Michael [inaudible 00:13:55], who has been his scouting director, and the year 2017 kept coming up, almost as a hypothetical. You know, like they'd say, "If, by 2017 this is happening, if by 2017 that is happening." So it started sounding to me like a target year internally for the Astros. That [inaudible 00:14:16] some people have confirmed that actually it was, but anyway, that is what I pulled away from that.
Ben Reiter: 14:22 Then if you sat down and started looking at the players they had on board, the young nucleus, it was just starting to develop. You know, George Springer had just debuted in the Big Leagues. Carlos [inaudible 00:14:33] had not gotten there yet. When you started projecting forward looking at the ages of these guys, when will they start reaching their primes? When will they start really being top level contributors, if they're going to become that? It was 2017 as well.
Ben Reiter: 14:48 Plus we also figured, man if they weren't at least a lot better by 2017, then this whole experiment had probably blown up and Jim [inaudible 00:14:56] the owner's patience, would have certainly worn thin by then. So 2017 was really the year. As far as when I started to think that this might have a chance of happening, it was pretty fast. You'll remember Matt, we got crushed for this cover, across the country, in Houston, especially in Houston actually. People by and large were very, very skeptical of this thing.
Ben Reiter: 15:17 Saying that we were just trying to stir things up, throw a hot cake out there. By 2015, the next year, they were all of a sudden much better. In fact, they made the first round of the playoffs. So by then, I was kind of feeling, you know what? No matter what happens in the next couple of years, it's clearly something to what they're doing here.
Matt: 15:38 Yeah, I love, um, I think you highlight this in the book, but I think people said, "Thanks for the laugh," when they saw the ...
Ben Reiter: 15:44 Yeah.
Matt: 15:45 ... the cover story. It was, uh, perceived, even by Astros fans as a joke. So I, I'm so, I mean everyone's so impressed with how you saw this and appreciated the process. You know one of my favorite quotes from one of my mentors is, "Don't confuse strategy and outcome." Sometimes you can have the perfect strategy, but have a short term outcome and it's lousy. And one of the, you know, the title of this podcast and the mantra of my firm is take the long view. How do you think Jim Crane, who is the owner, the principle owner of the Houston Astros, how did he separate himself from the short term outcome? How did he take the long view with respect to the team?
Ben Reiter: 16:29 Well, he deserves a lot of credit for his patience, because we've seen how owners in other sports react to these prolonged rebuilding processes. And it's not well, right? The Browns fired their GM before it was done. The Sixers fired their GM Stan [Henke 00:16:42] before they got good. It's tough for an owner to be out there getting crushed in his hometown. You know, not being able to show his face in restaurants and things like that.
Ben Reiter: 16:53 Maybe it's because Jim Crane has a background in the shipping and logistics business. He understands the value of focusing on process over outcome, something like that. But he stuck with Jeff Luhnow. He believed in this thing. There were certain incremental improvements that certainly helped. But certainly if I had to take away one kind of mantra from this entire story, it is the importance of focusing on process over outcomes. But certainly the outcomes were not good, at least at the beginning. But you can see how the process was continuing to improve and improve and improve. That's really what was important.
Ben Reiter: 17:31 And also important was, as you say, the long view that Jeff Luhnow took to this. They did not go through all this pain to build a team that might have a one or two year shot at contending. They went through all this build a sustainable winner, even a dynasty, at least as much of a dynasty as you can maintain in baseball in the modern era. They did this by making a lot of hard decisions. You know, they would never trade one of their very elite prospects or Minor Leaguers for a short term fix, even in seasons like 2015, 2017 when it seemed like they might have a shot because he knew that those guys would be needed in the future down the road, perhaps passed the time frame of most other GMs.
Ben Reiter: 18:17 That's why they still have Alex Breggman and [inaudible 00:18:20] Alvarez and Kyle Tucker, uh, and minor league pitcher Forest Whitley. He still somehow managed to trade for the best pitching staff or the best rotation in the game anyway with Garrett Cole, Justin Verlander and Zach [Grangky 00:18:34] because his minor league system was so deep. But really it's process over outcome and in fact, you know, that's the lesson that I've really tried to apply to my own life, even while I was writing the book. Just like the Astros never envisioned the rings at the end, but rather focused on the day to day process of what they had to do to get there. Uh, that's kind of how I approached writing this book.
Ben Reiter: 18:56 Not thinking about how it would feel in my hands when it was a hard cover, but the 1300 words I had to write each and every day to make it happen.
Matt: 19:03 Let's talk for a second about the Astros and whether they perceived any risk in opening up to you, Sports Illustrated and the curse of the cover. Did you get any pushback as you were sort of poking around and meeting with all the different players in the organization back in the days when you were writing this story? And then what was the reaction to you putting them on the cover?
Ben Reiter: 19:24 (laughs) Well, Crane and Luno had resolved from the beginning to be as transparent with their fans about what they were doing as they could be. Now I think that that transparency had led to a lot of pushback publicly. Some fans were on board, other kind of continued to meet, by allowing me to do what I ... [inaudible 00:19:49] asking organizations to let me do for a decade, which is come sit in their draft room, sit in on some of their meetings as a fly on the wall.
Ben Reiter: 19:56 Uh, they were the first ones to say yes, and they happened to be in a very unique position. As far as the cover, I had no expectation of being a cover. They certainly didn't have any expectation to be a cover. When I called Jeff Luhnow and told him it was going to be, he was kind of like, "Huh." Clearly he wasn't thrilled about it, uh, especially when the idea was to draw a bull's eye around the target date by which point their efforts should have borne fruit. I, actually no they weren't entirely thrilled about it, not because of the jinx, just because uh, the public knew, uh, that it would create, uh, what they were doing. But I know that after 2017, they were certainly okay with it as a bunch of Astros employees got framed covers as Christmas presents.
Matt: 20:40 Hmm. Kind of funny though to think about the Sports Illustrated jinx for a team who's lost, uh a 100 games every year for three years in a row. It's like, where, where would you go from there?
Ben Reiter: 20:50 Right. I thought about this. It's like, how do you jinx the worst baseball team in 50 years? Like, how much more do they have to fall? Well, it turned out funny enough, in the short term, a lot of bad stuff happened actually. George Springer strained his hamstring, Carlos Carreras broke his leg in the minors. They didn't sign their number one draft pick, Brady Atkins. One of their minor league stadiums flooded and another caught on fire. This all happened in like the couple of months after the story came out.
Ben Reiter: 21:22 But, they've got better from there and a lot of people think that perhaps the unlikely result in 2017 might have put the myth of the SI jinx to rest for good.
Matt: 21:34 So you talk in the book, there's a section about growth mindset Carlos Beltrand has used as an example. And, and I really get the sense that this is an important piece of the, the magical mixture that the Astros have. Can you talk for a second about how you or the team defines growth mindset? And then maybe give an example of how it plays itself out.
Ben Reiter: 21:58 Growth mindset is a human quality they look for, as far as prospects, ability, to grow, to adapt, to be gritty, to take all of this analytical information that the team is now providing them and act on it to make themselves better. Right? Carlos Beltrand is a great example. He's somebody who's had a career long growth mindset and helped a lot of the younger guys in his one year in Houston, 2017, improve themselves. It's been interesting to see that he's now considered a top contender for the next managerial job, certainly no surprise to anybody who's read that chapter of Astro Ball.
Ben Reiter: 22:37 But I guess the guy that we should talk about right now as far as growth mindset, certainly not physical growth, is Jose Altuve, right?
Matt: 22:45 Yeah.
Ben Reiter: 22:45 He was actually there when Jeff Luhnow arrived. He was one of the few holdovers. And they had some hard decisions to make. Like they knew the organization was bad at the time when they got there, but they still had 300 players under contract and they figured at least a few of those players would be worth keeping around. One of the few they kept was a five foot six infielder from Venezuela who had been signed in 2007 for $15,000 and that essentially kept coming back to the tryouts until the Astros signed him.
Ben Reiter: 23:19 That was Jose Altuve. To be honest, in Jeff Luhnow's eyes, he originally thought, "Hey, this guy, he's a flat hitter. You know, plays good defense, runs. [inaudible 00:23:30] useful, kind of middle infielder for us. Worst case." But, as everybody had done with Jose Altuve his whole life, they underestimated him at first. They quickly saw that he's somebody who could learn very quickly, who was tough, who had been told no his whole life and instead of getting down about that, or quitting, had resolved to prove his doubters wrong.
Ben Reiter: 23:55 And every tool they gave him, he was able to act upon, including like you know what? You swing at everything Jose. Like, you can hit everything. You hit it on the ground the opposite way. What if you started focusing on pitches that were really in your hitting zone and trying to pull the ball, trying to hit with some upper cut. So he started to do that and that is how a five foot six player became the AL MVP, a power hitter, and as everybody knows just recently, the guy who hit the bottom of the ninth home run [inaudible 00:24:30] and gave him six at the ALCS to send the team back to the World Series.
Matt: 24:34 Amazing. There's a quote in the book from Breggman where he says something like, "One of the reasons I have this opportunity is because I'm a winner."
Ben Reiter: 24:43 Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Matt: 24:43 And you say it was a sort of thing that many players said winkingly. Breggman wasn't joking.
Ben Reiter: 24:49 Right.
Matt: 24:49 I think part of that came from some theory that Sig had about undersized players developing this sort of grit or I'll show you, I'll prove it to you. Don't underestimate me. That, that resolve is exactly what you're pointing to. And I think as I watched Altuve hit that home run to end the game against the Yankees, it does have this, you know, David versus Goliath incredible element to it that you just find hard to believe, a five foot six player facing a big, 100 mile an hour relief pitcher and just crushing the ball at the moment of greatest pressure and intensity. There has to be some different mindset because so many of us would fold under that sort of pressure.
Ben Reiter: 25:40 Right. I mean, that is a theory that they have, and it's the reason why, you know, Altuve is 5'6". Breggman is like 5'9" and these are arguably their two best offensive players. These are players, especially in Altuve's case, who a lot of other teams would just reject out of [inaudible 00:25:59] right? Under a theory that when you're five foot six, you just can't be a good big-leaguer, right?
Ben Reiter: 26:04 But for the Astros, hype is just one data point. Because that constellation of data points, both statistical and human that they assemble, and there are many, many other things that can overwhelm that one factor. That's why they have Jose Altuve now and that's why they have Alex Breggman.
Matt: 26:25 Hmm. Okay. So, the Astros are clearly, there, it's a, it's a, it's a smart bunch. And we talked about this when we were together, but you wrote a story about the Astros and how they, how they went after Zach Grangke, important pitcher for those of you who aren't following, uh, trades in major league baseball. A really important pitcher who the Astros acquired late in the year.
Ben Reiter: 26:46 It was July 31st, just before the trading deadline.
Matt: 26:49 Yeah. And so, one of the things that the manager for the Astros AJ [inaudible 00:26:53] says that he likes about Zach Grangke is he's intellectually curious. I haven't heard a manager compliment a baseball player by saying he's intellectually curious.
Ben Reiter: 27:03 Yeah, no. Certainly, that's [inaudible 00:27:05] heard Ted and definitely not 20 years ago, but that's a characteristic shared at minimum by their three Aces: Justin Verlander, Garrett Cole, and Zach Grangke. They all came from other teams. They were all stunned by the wealth of analytical information they were provided with by the Astros and they all knew that they could help them. And you know, information sharing among those three Aces is really important, even on top of the individual tools the Astros are providing them. But it's funny generally, like as I said, back in the '80s, the maximum was baseball players shouldn't be too smart.
Ben Reiter: 27:48 Like you didn't want a smart baseball player. It was kind of the repetitive career. [inaudible 00:27:55] same exact thing day after day after day was more of a reactive type person. In fact, at a even with Ron [inaudible 00:28:04], the former Mets pitcher and current announcer in New York, and he was a pitcher for uh, the Mets in the 1980's and if you know anything about that team, it was one of the wildest groups in the history of sports. Like, anything went in that clubhouse: drugs, booze, you know, women, shady characters. You could bring almost anything in except Ron Darling said for one thing: a book. Right? Like, if you were caught reading a book in the clubhouse, you were going to be fined by the team's kangaroo court.
Ben Reiter: 28:34 Uh, Ron Darling was a graduate of Yale, so he would kind of sneak these things in. He loved to read. That's totally changed. Now in fact one of the factors the Astros consider for young players is their grades, because these players will have the opportunity to be provided with so much information and they need to have the intellectual ability to process it and act on it. Certainly it's changed, uh, in the game.
Matt: 28:58 One of the sections in the book that I found interesting was this quote where I don't know if you're talking to an agent or someone else in baseball, but they're talking about Jeff Luhnow and the Astros and they say, "I want them to lose so f'ing bad because they're arrogant." But Jeff Luhnow's not paid to win popularity contests. He's paid to f'ing deliver, and he's doing that.
Ben Reiter: 29:19 Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Matt: 29:20 And then there's another quote where, where the person says, "I wouldn't vacation with him, but I'd work for him." Both those quotes for me highlight that while maybe not loved from a popularity perspective, people certainly are, they respect the process and the work that's happening there. Do you feel that in baseball? Do you think other teams are taking their Money Ball lessons to this sort of 2.0 version instead of man versus machine? Do you think more teams are catching on to this evolved level that you highlight in Astro Ball?
Ben Reiter: 29:59 Most certainly. It's certainly a respect/hate type of dynamic, the latter represented every time another team accused the Astros of cheating by, you know, using technology to steal signs or whatever. But you can see the respect part, first and foremost, by the fact that Luno's employees keep getting hired elsewhere. [inaudible 00:30:18] who we talked about before is now the General Manager of the Baltimore Orioles. Sig Midel is actually [inaudible 00:30:24] assistant General Manager in Baltimore. Another one of Luno's former assistants, David Sterns, is a General Manager of the Milwaukee Brewers. All sorts of coaches have spread out across the league in better positions.
Ben Reiter: 30:38 Um, the current bench coach, Joe Estada, is a top managerial candidate. We talked about Carlos Beltrand. So yeah, a lot of teams want to bring aboard people who have had a role in this process. And that's another reason why the Astros are so focused on innovating because they know that if they just keep doing the same things the same way, they're not going to have an advantage in those things anymore pretty quickly.
Matt: 31:02 So I, I can only imagine that the book Astro Ball has been, you know especially satisfying for you, given their first World Series championship, the first in franchise history. Um, seeing this change come full circle, can you speak to how is this for you, being now at what feels like a whole nother level of success? Getting there in 2017 and the cover and then the book, what's this like for you and what is your feeling about the future? Where do they go from here?
Ben Reiter: 31:34 (laughs) Well, you know, I-I'm somewhat reluctant to say it, but my preseason World Series projection was actually the Astros beating the Nationals.
Matt: 31:44 What? You predicted the Nationals at the beginning of the year?
Ben Reiter: 31:50 Yeah, yeah, it's on Twitter. You can find it.
Matt: 31:53 You do have special talents.
Ben Reiter: 31:55 I don't know about that. I think I might have gotten lucky again. But well, maybe, and I made a good educated guess again. We can say that, look, I think fundamentally one of the more amazing things about what Jeff Luhnow has accomplished is that the 2019 is, by almost every measure, superior to the 2018 team. [inaudible 00:32:16] any measure was superior to the 2017 team, the one that won. This team is getting better and better. In fact, you know how at the beginning we mentioned that between 2011 and 2013, they had the worst three year record for any major league club in 50 years, well now between 2017 and 2019, in the regular season they had the best record for any major league team in 50 years.
Ben Reiter: 32:44 So that's a pretty stark encapsulation of the extent of this turnaround and they've done it the same way they kind of built the team: focusing on process, being patient, not making rashs moves. They got Grangke at the deadline, but Luno would have been perfectly fine if a bit disappointed if he ended up making no trade at all if he didn't think [inaudible 00:33:06] himself. He wasn't going to do anything rash to like damage the future to fix a short term problem. On top of that, they continued to innovate, particularly focusing on improving the players they have.
Ben Reiter: 33:19 Now, at the beginning, a lot of their efforts were focused on choosing the right players, kind of talent identifications. Now a lot of their efforts are focused on performance enhancement. Once we have the players we like, what tools can we give them to become the best versions of themselves? A lot of it involves using technology to help pitchers refine their delivery and the way they throw the ball to do it the best they can again and again and again. And look, it's certainly not a coincidence that so many pitchers who come to Houston, including great ones like Justin Verlander and Garrett Cole, find entirely new levels of success not long after they arrive.
Matt: 33:55 There was a New York Times piece in August I think where they called the Houston Astros major league baseball's happy place. And I think it spoke to exactly what you just said which is, Houston is really a place that is helping extract the best out of the talent they have and I, it's really unbelievable to think about how humongous this transition has been.
Ben Reiter: 34:18 Look, culturally things have changed a lot. When they started their program, there was a ton of pushback. It, within their own organizations by players, now certainly players have seen how analytics combined with the human factor can improve their own individual fortunes. I mean, Garrett Cole was a very good pitcher before he arrived in Houston.
Ben Reiter: 34:39 He's going to be a free agent after this year. His two years in Houston will probably end up netting him like well North of $100 million extra dollars, as a free agent. That's no exaggeration. It might be much more than that.
Matt: 34:53 Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Ben Reiter: 34:53 So certainly all those examples, plus the rings on their fingers, plus the winning, plus the culture, there really aren't any players who are still pushing back against all these new fangled techniques anymore.
Matt: 35:05 Yeah, if we go back to where we started, you know you think about Money Ball, Money Ball is the book that led to Jeff getting his first job in baseball with the St. Louis Cardinals. And ...
Ben Reiter: 35:16 That's right.
Matt: 35:16 ... Of course, Money Ball became a movie, the book by Michael Lewis. Uh, it became a movie and Brad Pitt, uh, starred at Billy Bean. Is Astro Ball going to become a movie Ben?
Ben Reiter: 35:26 I would love it, I would love it. I imagine if they win, uh, for a second time in three years, the odds will go up.
Matt: 35:33 Yeah. So cool. Well, you are an amazing writer Ben Reiter. Did you know you were going to be a writer your whole life?
Ben Reiter: 35:40 I wanted to be. I mean, that was always something that really I loved to do and I thought it would be cool to have a career in. [inaudible 00:35:48] incremental path to working at Sports Illustrated. I was a history major and I got a Master's degree in International Relations. I thought I might end up being more of a political writer, or something like that. But, when I got my job at Sports Illustrated as a young guy 15 years ago, I quickly realized that sports provides a prism to tell really all sorts of stories with implications that spread far beyond the lines or whatever, the diamonds, uh, and certainly Astro Ball is one of those.
Ben Reiter: 36:21 It is a story that's rooted in sports and I think it's an inspiring sports story, but the context and the lessons that what the Astros have done really can be applied to almost any industry and almost any pursuit and I know that, you know, a lot of people in the finance and investing world, the educational world are looking at some stuff that the Astros have done and thinking how can we apply this to what we're doing.
Matt: 36:46 Mm-hmm (affirmative). Well how has the book been a game changer for you in your life?
Ben Reiter: 36:48 It's been wonderful, it really has. I mean, it's given me the opportunity to meet people like you. The reception of it has just been really astonishing and exciting and that it continues to be relevant here more than a year after it came out with certainly in the sense of, from what the Astros are doing, uh, has been fantastic and yeah, just having ownership over something like this that has been a phenomenal experience too.
Matt: 37:13 And so who's going to win the World Series? Are the Astros going to win the World Series? What does the data say?
Ben Reiter: 37:21 Well, no, the data certainly suggests they're the favorite. I mean, I think if you look at prediction websites, like Nate Silver's 538, well they have the Astros at a 60% chance of winning the Series, which honestly is about as big a chance as you could have in a baseball series. Like baseball is not a sport in which the best team almost always wins. That's one of the reasons that makes it so exciting, but man, you know, I had the Astros back in Spring. I'm certainly not changing my mind now.
Matt: 37:51 Well Ben, thanks for, uh, coming on [inaudible 00:37:53] the Long View. You are the guy. Is there any place people can follow you? Or anything you want people to do or, or read beyond checking out the book Astro Ball?
Ben Reiter: 38:01 Sure. I certainly encourage them to check out Astro Ball [inaudible 00:38:04]. You can read my work, uh, in Sports Illustrated at si.com. You can follow me on Twitter as well @BenReiter, B-E-N R-E-I-T-E-R.
Matt: 38:14 Well thanks so much for your work. I am sure at some level, Houston and the Astros are grateful for this. I think it's an amazing thing that you did, that you were able to find the idea and then to figure it out and then to capture it in such an elegant way. I know I'm grateful just as a fan of sport and a fan of people who don't confuse strategy and outcomes. So, thanks for your work. I think it's amazing. Um, and I appreciate you coming on and talking with all your listeners.
Ben Reiter: 38:38 Thanks Matt, appreciate it.
Matt: 38:46 How much would you spend to attend your dream sporting event? Please note, the information shared in this podcast is not intended as advice. The intent is to share meaningful experiences. I am likely not your advisor now wealth manager nor financial planner and my opinions are my own and not necessarily shared by Hill Investment Group. Investing involves risk. Consult a professional before implementing an investment strategy. Thank you.