Jose Altuve, the shortest man in the Majors, starred for the Houston Astros on their way to a World Series titleKeith Allison

It is very rare to see a palpable shift in decades-old attitudes, but that could well have been what happened in Los Angeles last week. Following a record-breaking string of matches, the Houston Astros became world champions by winning Major League Baseball’s World Series for the first time in their 56-year history after defeating the Los Angeles Dodgers 5-1 in game 7. The picturesque Dodger Stadium provided the perfect setting for the culmination of this historic series, a stretch of seven games that captured followers and non-followers of the America’s pastime alike.

The best of seven series was a classic in and of itself. Baseball historians will spend the off-season and beyond discussing where it ranks in history, but it will almost certainly be some time before we see another of its ilk. Five of the seven games were decided by two runs or less, the most in a World Series since 2000. The Astros chalked up 25 home runs, the most by any team in the history of the ‘Fall Classic’. MVP of the Series, Astros centre fielder George Springer, became the first player to hit a home run in four successive World Series games, and only the third person in history to hit five in the series overall. From an emotional point of view, nearby Hollywood could not have written a better script. Akin to how the New Orleans Saints won the Super Bowl a number of years after the city was ravaged by Hurricane Katrina, this was a fitting victory for the city of Houston, after its recent devastation by Hurricane Harvey.

“Between 2011 and 2013, they lost 324 of 468 games, 69.2% of their games, to be precise”

The Astros were baseball’s best team, of that there is little doubt. The ramifications, however, of the first World Series title for a team from the Lone Star State not only for baseball, but also for sport as a whole, are potentially enormous. What makes this triumph truly remarkable is the system employed to bring about success. Baseball’s shift from old-fashioned scouting methods to the meticulous study of analytics has been well documented, most famously by Michael Lewis’ book, and subsequent film adaption, Moneyball.

Minute Maid Park, home of the Houston Astros, has been the site of many a loss over recent yearsDelaywaves

In fact, the very presence of these two teams in the World Series also reflects this. Houston’s front office, the personnel tasked with assembling the roster, is run by an ex-management consultant who is also an engineering graduate, along with a former NASA researcher and a blackjack dealer. The Dodgers have a former Wall Street analyst as well as an MIT graduate with a philosophy PhD.

Yet, what differentiates the Astros from the Dodgers, and to a certain extent the rest of the league, is the extent to which they built on the Moneyballl idea. The A’s used the system to plug holes left by superstar departures in what was already a solid playoff roster, whereas the Astros, whilst also looking to construct a relatively cheap roster, did so from the very beginning. They guttered their squad completely, and went about using statistical data rather than name recognition to sign players and recruit prospects.

Of no concern was how bad they would be as a result of this developmental process. Such a system is becoming increasingly prevalent across baseball: 2016’s champions Chicago Cubs did something similar, building their squad around players such as 2013 first round pick Kris Bryant, as did the 2015 Royals. Even the high-rolling Yankees, a team for so long now filled with ‘galactico’-style superstar acquisitions, seem to be building around 2013 first round outfielder Aaron Judge and others including Luis Severino, Greg Bird, and Gary Sanchez. Yet, no team bought into the point where they tanked as badly as the Astros.

Just how awful they were cannot be stressed enough. Between 2011 and 2013, they lost 324 of 486 games played, 69.2% of their games, to be precise. In the results-based world of professional sport, the manner in which they stuck to this plan regimentally is truly remarkable. Yet, even the Astros, despite their persistence, could not have anticipated that the plan would have taken this long to bear fruit. But they did make mistakes in the process that have contributed to this. In 2013, the number one pick in the amateur player draft was spent on pitcher Mark Appel out of Stanford. Appel has since struggled with injuries, was traded to the Philadelphia Phillies in 2015, and now plies his trade in the Phillies minor league system.

Undoubtedly though, they did hit on a number of prospects and free agents. Springer, the aforementioned MVP, was a first round pick in 2011; second baseman Jose Altuve was an international amateur free agent signed aged just 17 in 2007, and shortstop Carlos Correa, an All-Star this year, was drafted first overall in 2012. By building from within and creating such a strong core of young, and thus cheap, players, the Astros could then afford to finish the jigsaw by trading for big name players in the last 12 months. Catcher Brian McCann, who signed a 5-year $85 million deal in 2014, was acquired from the Yankees, and former Cy Young winner and AL MVP Justin Verlander was likewise sourced from Detroit. Yet, even with these big name acquisitions, their payroll was only the 17th highest in the bigs. The Dodgers were top of the list.

It will be interesting to see if baseball can stay the course and follow in the Astros’ tracks. Next season, some of the biggest names in the sport, Bryce Harper and Josh Donaldson, respectively of Washington and Toronto, will hit the market. Harper has previously been discussed in the context of the first half billion-dollar deal. There will be a team that caves and breaks from the system, perhaps Harper’s rumoured favourites the Yankees. Harper’s signing would mark a return to the days of big-spending owner Hal Steinbrenner for the Bronx Bombers.

How long the Astros can remain a model of analytical and fiscally sound development remains to be seen, but for now, being in it for the long haul is garnering results

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