So an Ivy Leaguer, a rocket scientist and a writer walk into a room…
Stop me if you’ve heard this one before. On second thought, don’t. The setup is usually better than the punchline anyway.
The Houston Astros, fresh off a 106-loss season in 2011, stood boldly at the front of the line on the first day of the 2012 MLB amateur draft, Monday. Months of evaluation, discussion, interviews and analysis came to a head in front of a global audience right around the time you were sitting down for dinner.
A chicken in every pot.
Oh, but you wouldn’t find any chickens in the Astros draft room. It was a packed house; full of scouts, executives, media and a bunch of computers. That’s what most people saw, I’m guessing. Computers.
Therein lies the irony of the Astros first pick. The triumvirate of General Manager Jeff Luhnow (the Ivy Leaguer) along with Sig Mejdal (the rocket scientist) and Mike Fast (the writer) form the foundation of a decidedly new baseball front office. A very simplified perception among folks paying attention is that these new guys are computer nerds. The type of guys who’d spreadsheet the breakfast menu to make an “efficient choice.”
Not so fast, my friend.
Onlookers might be deceived by all those laptops and graduate degrees decorating the room. We’ve all seen (or even read!) “Moneyball.” It’s obvious: young baseball executives make calculated, data-driven decisions and swap out scouts for algorithms. College stats are more accurate in projecting talent than high-school stats. Pitchers matriculate to the big leagues faster than position players.
Any fool knew that the Astros were going to pick Stanford RHP Mark Appel with the first pick of the draft. He put up good numbers in college. He’s a pitcher. He fit perfectly into a spreadsheet.
In a world were so much rides on public perception, the Astros gave it no consideration. Instead they trusted in things perhaps only they perceived.
It was the Astros ability to see more than numbers and talent that drove their decision on draft day. They looked at college superstars, high school phenoms and pedigreed athletes of all kinds. They collected first-hand accounts, read reports and interviewed coaches. They ran the numbers. Then — at the very last second — they delivered the punchline.
The Astros chose Carlos Correa, a 17-year old kid from Puerto Rico, with the very first pick of the draft.
Funny thing about it is that no one really saw it coming. (Well, almost no one. It’s worth pointing out that Kevin Goldstein of Baseball Prospectus saw Correa as the top talent, but even he was a little surprised.)
It was a bold pick. In a group of five players considered to be in the running, Correa might have been the longest shot to be crowned number one. No one from Puerto Rico had ever gone first in the draft. He was the youngest player in the group. His numbers would be difficult to interpret in any meaningful or predictive way. What Luhnow did on Monday night didn’t look like anything we saw Brad Pitt doing in the blockbuster movie.
Maybe this was Funnyball.
When Luhnow made his first public remarks about Correa I kept hearing things about “work ethic” and “attitude.” The Astros GM referenced personal interaction with Correa’s family. When asked about comparable players, Luhnow demurred. He downplayed comparisons to the point of suggesting Correa might one day have to move to third base.
Then I heard Correa talk.
He spoke about his dad working so hard to help him develop. He talked about waking up at 5:00am every morning to walk to the McDonald’s parking lot where a bus picked him up and drove him to school at the baseball academy. He was a 4.0 student who, when asked who he models his game after didn’t hesitate to answer Derek Jeter. Why?
“Because he’s so good away from the field,” Correa said. “That’s important to me.”
Interesting. What about the notion of moving to third base one day?
“I can play either, but I want to play shortstop,” Correa said. “I want to reach the big leagues as a shortstop. So I have to work hard to keep my agility and my feet quick and keep my body in shape to be a shortstop.”
So the Astros drafted a talented young player. (Any of their potential choices would have been considered talented.) They chose a talented young player who wants to be great in an Astros uniform AND be great when he’s not in uniform. That strikes me as a quality of considerable merit.
What’s more, one can see that being drafted was not the finish line for Correa. He’s driven to work harder to make it as a shortstop at the next level. He’s a young man who knows first-hand the meaning of sacrifice and hard work. I’m guessing his upbringing and experience will provide him plenty of motivation to realize his great potential.
Tough to put those things in a formula. The computers didn’t dictate this selection. If you go back and look at the draft-room picture again you’ll see a lot of faces you don’t know. There were more scouts in the Astros draft room on Monday than had ever assembled there for this annual event. Luhnow and his staff wanted it that way.
It’s funny how this game forces you to think about your perceptions sometimes.
SPEAKING OF TALENT
See if you can connect these dots.
While the Astros were in Denver last week, I found this street performer after enjoying breakfast with my mom. Not exactly your typical ploy to scam a few bucks of tourists and passersby:
It got me to thinking about Jamie Moyer.
The Rockies announced that Moyer had been designated for assignment on Memorial Day. It made me wonder if his career might finally be over. Had anyone else been paying attention, they would have wondered the same thing.
A week later, as MLB celebrated the infusion of exciting young talent on draft day, it was quietly announced that Moyer had cleared waivers and had been released. The juxtaposition could not have been more obvious.
Out with the old, in with the new.
Thing is, Moyer wasn’t ready to quit. The Baltimore Orioles signed him to a minor-league deal yesterday and he’s going to give it another go. You have to love this guy.
Moyer never threw hard. In his heyday, the left-hander brought the heat somewhere in the mid to upper-80s in terms of MPH. He relied on deception and guile. As he’s gotten older, the velocity has dropped even more. This year his fastball has averaged just over 77 MPH. That’s his fastball, for crying out loud! As his velocity has decreased over the years, Moyer has had to become more and more creative.
To the surprise — even delight — of many, he has.
Just like Arthur Rubinstein.
Rubinstein was possibly the greatest classical pianist of the 20th century. To wit, if one wandered the streets in Poland you wouldn’t hear Rubinstein, but you might see him immortalized there.
I thought of the sculpture when I heard that guy in Denver. Then I made the connection between Rubinstein and Moyer.
As the pianist grew older, he could tell his fingers didn’t work as fast as they did earlier in his career. So he compensated. In the passages preceding the fast ones, Rubinstein would slow down just enough to make the following passages seem faster by contrast. Sure, he played slower than in the old days, but his delivery and touch was so deft, so subtle, that no one noticed.
Rubinstein performed to great acclaim longer than most in his profession. That is, if you consider playing to sold-out music halls until the age 89 to be notable.
So here’s to Moyer continuing to fool hitters with his baffling slow stuff for another…what, 40years!
I’m working on compiling an array of personal memories of the Astros vs. Dodgers 22-inning game from June 3, 1989.
If you were there or remember watching it at home or listening to it on the radio…or just remember the hubbub, drop me a line. I want to know what you did that night. Did you last through the whole thing? Did you pass out on the couch?
Maybe you were traveling or out with friends or at a relative’s house. Whatever your memories — the more personable the better — I’d love to hear them. So leave a comment or send me something on twitter.
I look forward to reading all of them! Thanks!