Ben Reiter ’02 B.A. can trace the beginning of his sports-writing career to a class in advanced nonfiction writing he took with Yale professor Fred Strebeigh. For one assignment, he wrote a story focused on the demise of the Milford Jai-Alai fronton — a once-thriving sports and betting facility that went under in 2001.
“I wrote about what it looked like when a sport was dying,” Reiter says, “and how the people who had built their lives around jai alai were impacted.”
After graduation, Reiter completed a master’s in philosophy at the University of Cambridge and soon found himself a position at Sports Illustrated — likely, he says, on the strength of that clip. He’s now a senior writer at the publication and just published his first book, “Astroball: The New Way to Win It All.” Reiter will give a talk 6-7 p.m. on Thursday, Sept. 20, at the Yale Bookstore, 77 Broadway.
He was drawn to write about the Houston Astros in 2014 the same way he was drawn to cover Milford’s crumbling jai alai empire, he says: There was desperation there, a hard luck story. The team was improbably bad — worse than any team in half a century, he notes. The year 2013 marked the Astros’ third consecutive season with at least 106 losses, and fan attendance was at an all-time low. “Was it just a disaster?” he says. “Or was there a plan?” And if there was a plan, he wondered, what was it?
Reiter negotiated unprecedented access to the team and discovered in the process their innovative strategy for evaluating players and predicting success beyond the much-touted data analytics made famous by the book and movie “Moneyball.” By the time he returned to New York, Reiter says, he had become a believer, and even convinced Sports Illustrated editor Chris Stone that the Astros’ strategy could lead them to win the World Series. When Stone, looking for a cover story, asked when that win might happen, Reiter predicted 2017. On June 30, 2014, Sports Illustrated ran a cover featuring Astros’ rookie outfielder George Springer with the headline “Your 2017 World Series Champs.” Three years later, the prediction came true, and Springer was named the series Most Valuable Player.
When asked if he had any reservations about whether the Astros could pull off the unlikely victory he’d predicted, Reiter doesn’t hesitate. “I never believed it was a hot take,” he says. “I believed that it was going to work.”
Key to the Astros’ process — known as STOUT, for half stats, half scouts — were two individuals: Sig Mejdal, a former NASA rocket scientist, and Jeff Luhnow, a former management consultant for McKinsey & Company. The two tested their theories on the St. Louis Cardinals before being brought over to the Astros. “They relied on analytics, but they got ahead by harnessing the power of scouts to get the best of man and machine,” Reiter says. A crucial element of this approach was analyzing the scouts’ success rates over time, to, in effect, scout for the best scouts. The one they chose at the Astros happened to be a Yalie — Mike Elias ’06 B.A., who was named the team’s scouting director in 2012 at age 29 (he’s now the team’s assistant general manager).
“Astroball” devotes much of one chapter to Elias and his time at Yale, where he was a left-handed pitcher for the baseball team with a curious interest in the scouts in the stands. Any hopes for a big league pitching career were thwarted by a shoulder injury. But as Elias rehabbed under former major league reliever Tom House, he learned how to evaluate pitchers, and to recognize soft skills like a “growth mindset,” which gave him a distinct advantage as a young scout. “He’s not a data analytics guy,” Reiter says of Elias.
In Puerto Rican player Carlos Correa, Elias saw the potential for greatness. Correa’s father worked multiple shifts to support the family and pushed his talented son to practice. From the age of 5, the boy spent all of his spare time running baseball drills, with and without his father. “When Mike was scouting Carlos, he was learning about the person on the field,” Reiter says. “How driven he was.” In part, thanks to Elias’ eye, Correa was the first draft pick for the Astros in 2012, a historical first for a Puerto Rican player. After his major league debut in 2015, Correa broke a string of records and was named the American League Rookie of the Year.
The Astros’ 2017 World Series win came on the heels of Hurricane Harvey, which, says Reiter, “galvanized the team in some intangible way.” But it was also the moment when the team’s process of evaluating players reached its fruition, including a last-minute trade for pitcher Jeff Verlander who helped lead them to victory.
But the fulfillment of his bold prediction was not Reiter’s most memorable sports moment, he says. That honor belongs to a Yale basketball game he attended in 2016 in Providence with his roommate Charlie Finch ’02 B.A., when Yale won the first NCAA tournament game in the school’s history.
“We didn’t think they’d actually win — not against Baylor, with their future NBA star Taurean Prince,” says Reiter. “But then they did. And it was a reminder that even someone who has been to events around the world — and, I’ll admit, can be jaded about sports at times — can still feel an absolute sense of euphoria because of them. I’ll never forget that game, nor that feeling.”