To preserve our author’s favorite past writings, and to give a lookback at the long and rough road leading to the Astros’ 2017 championship, History Earned presents the Greatest Hits series of articles.
Jeff leaned back in his carbon fiber and alacantara microfiber desk chair, staring at the nighttime Houston traffic outside the window of his office on the seventy-seventh floor of Union Station at Minute Maid Park. The soft glow of the wall-sized screen, currently in hibernation, played across his features. The light was just enough to illuminate the wide placard set above the screen, which read in large friendly letters, “Deep Thunk.”
A soft buzzing alerted him to an incoming transmission. The screen flickered and came to life, revealing the perspective-widened end of a scarred mahogany conference room table, shot from the angle of a vintage library-rented camcorder sitting on dusty textbooks. At the far end of the table sat a man he instantly recognized — the GM of the Atlanta Braves, whom Jeff’s efficiency experts had code named GMAB, or “GeeMab”. Silly, perhaps, but the usage of such names had saved their operation precious picoseconds over the course of the past three seasons.
GeeMab was surrounded by his usual group of cronies – big balding men wearing double-breasted suits, uniformly chewing fat cigars, their heads wreathed with smoke that dimmed the bulb of the aging brass light fixture above. They all wore a look of knowing self-satisfaction, reminiscent to Jeff of a group that could have worked for Doyle Lonnegan in The Sting.
“Jeffy, baby!” greeted GeeMab in unnecessarily shouty tones. “Have I got a deal for you!”
“Hello…Johnny…baby,” Jeff replied. “I am all ears, as usual.”
“Well, me and the boys have been talking to our scouts, and we want to do you a favor. We have interest in that little Pwur-toe Ree-can shortstop of yours, you remember the guy? Correa? Anyway, we know he’s young and so probably won’t amount to very much, but we’re willing to take on the risk. In fact, we’ll even give you our starting major league center fielder in return for him! Whaddaya say?”
Jeff blinked a few times. Then he pushed a button on his desk, and the screen overlaid with static. White noise filled the recessed speakers around his office. “I’m sorry, John, but your connection is breaking up. I can’t hear a word you’re saying! I’ll have to talk to you later.” He pressed another button and terminated the transmission. Then he sighed and let his gaze wander back to the window. Unnoticed, the end of his stylus made its way into his mouth for an absent chew.
In moments, a restless curiosity overtook him, and he leaned back and brushed the glass touchscreen that was the entirety of his desk’s surface, his finger lightly tapping the icon labeled, “NERD CAVE.” Instantly, the wall resolved into the avatar of his Director of Domination Sciences, a white-labcoated young man with exaggerated spectacles. Jeff asked, “Who do the Braves have that would provide maximum impact to our roster?”
“Major or Minor?” asked the cartoonish mad scientist.
“Working.” A pause, and then, “Evan Gattis.”
“Interesting. He doesn’t walk much, and he’s an older guy, but he’s still under team control and he has a lot of power.”
The Director nodded. “He also plays the position of two of our weakest performers from last season.” The avatar displayed a preprogrammed animation of the scientist throwing papers haphazardly out of a file cabinet, as if looking for something. Jeff knew that meant his director was about to present an interesting piece of information. The man spoke again. “As you know, power hitting is on the decline in the majors.”
“That’s why we acquired Chris Carter,” Jeff commented absently.
“Just so. But take a look at this. We’ve run Gattis through our system, and this is what his addition would do to the isolated power of our lineup based on 2015 projections.” Jeff’s screen flickered and presented a graph.
“Impressive,” Jeff commented. “Chicks dig the long ball, or so I’m constantly reminded by the Chronicle’s relentless cliché department, but the long ball has become a market inefficiency that we could exploit by adding Gattis to the lineup.”
“Thanks. I’ll call you back.” Jeff touched the screen again and the wall returned to its pleasant navy/orange hibernation state. He then called up his dialer on his desktop and punched in the code for GeeMab’s war room, grimacing over the subsequent antiquated dial tone that followed. He turned his speakers down slightly.
GeeMab’s conference room materialized on the wall.
“Jeffy baby! Change of heart?”
“I’ve been thinking about your offer, John. It’s very generous, but I felt you should know that you probably don’t want Correa. I know he looks good on paper, but he has…uh…acute gastralgiaand cephalalgia. He wouldn’t pass your physicals.”
“Oh my! I am sorry to hear such news. We hope he recovers fully.”
Jeff bowed his head in feigned concern and sadness. Then he cleared his throat. “Your call put me to mind of something though. I am sure you are aware of our…deficiencies at left field and first base last season?”
“Certainly, but we will not deal Freddie Freeman. We have too many of his bobble heads stored up to give away next year.”
“You have a player who is much older and barely has a career batting average of .250. I’ll offer to take him off your hands. Evan Gattis.”
“Well. Well, well.” GeeMab hemmed and hawed for a bit, pretending to be reluctant but doing a poor job to hide his eagerness. It was no secret to Jeff that the Braves overlords had instructed the man to tear the team down and make it as weak-hitting as possible in order to draw on the sympathy factor to bring more fans to their park. “I am not so sure,” GeeMab finally said. “Let me consult with my scouting department on what we might ask for in return, and I will call you back.” He hung up and the wall went blank.
Jeff quickly began opening files on his desk. Behind his office wall, a comforting subterranean rumble started, the mechanisms of Deep Thunk coming to life.
* * *
John pounded the table and looked at his directors. “We’ve got him. Let’s fleece him for Gattis!” Huzzahs sounded from around the table. “Who can we ask for?”
His Director of Norse Scouting suggested, “How about that Foltywevich fellow? He’s tall and blond.”
“And,” said the Director of Fastball Scouting, “He throws a 101 fastball. I even have it on authority that he was once witnessed throwing…” he quieted to a whisper, “102.” Gasps around the table.
“That settles it then!” Cried John. “102 mile per hour fastballs don’t grow on trees!” He quickly looked around and added, “Right?” Cries of assent abounded, and he nodded sharply at his own wisdom.
“E…excuse me, s-sir,” came a small voice from a dark corner of the room.
Irritably, John turned to the source of his interruption, a weaselly fourteen-year-old who was the sixth Director of Stats that he had gone through that year. “What is it?”
“Well, s-sir,” the boy stammered. Then he took a large breath and rushed his words out. “Foltynewicz has a below-average breaking pitch, an underdeveloped changeup, the 3rd-worst walk rate in the Pacific Coast League and, for a guy with a triple-digit fastball, he has a low strikeout rate.”
Silence. And then raucous laughter for a solid five minutes. When it quieted down, the directors were wiping tears from their eyes and the boy cowered in the corner. John leaned into the table and, with a kind smile, he attempted to educate the poor lad. “Son…he has a one hundred and two mile-per-hour fastball.” Nods around the table. The Director of Stats shuddered.
Satisfied at having set the record straight, John slapped the table again. “Foltywhatever by himself would be a fantastic return for Gattis.” He colored the word with derision. Gattis just didn’t look like a baseball player. “Was Gattis ever on a Top 100 prospects list?” Negative responses around the table. “Was Folty..Folta……you know, I’m just going to call him ‘soup’ for the rest of this conversation, okay? Was soup ever on a Top 100 prospect list?”
“Twice!” proclaimed John’s Director of Prospect List Scouting. John nodded sharply.
“Well then. But let’s put one over on Mr. Smarty Pants the Computer Boy over in Houston. Who else could we ask for?”
“I have an idea!” suggested his Director of Scouting-Rule-4-Draft-Rounds-Lower-Than-One-But-Higher-Than-Four. “What about Andrew Thurman? He was so bad last year that the Astros probably forgot that he was a second-round draft pick!” Everybody laughed. Stupid Astros!
“Actually,” came a meek youthful voice from the corner, “Thurman’s a pretty good pitcher. He doesn’t walk batters—”
“What is with your fixation with walks?” interrupted the Director-of-Strikeout-Scouting.
John waved the man to quiet, and ingratiatingly smiled at the youth. Having a statistician on staff was en vogue these days, and he didn’t want to crush the boy’s spirit. “It seems we all agree on Thurman. Let’s call the Astros back.”
* * *
791 miles away, Jeff’s own conference was in full swing. The staff had agreed that Gattis, while an imperfect player, would add a lot of surplus value to their lineup. But then, a perfect player wouldn’t be paid the major league minimum with four years left of team control despite posting a 125 wRC+ while playing catcher in his 2nd major league season.
His Director of Quantum Mechanics asked, “Who’s the DTI that we are asking for?”
“Ah, I had almost forgotten,” Jeff admitted. They always asked for a DTI in trades – a Designtated Throw-In. They were typically guys that the Astros saw good value in but were under-the-radar for various reasons. It was how he had acquired Kyle Weiland (poor guy, never seen from again), Rob Rasmussen, Joe Musgrove, Max Stassi, Derek Fisher, and Francis Martes. Typically, the staff identified somebody they felt was overlooked or under-used or very young that fit the Astros’ paradigm. “Please run the search.”
“Will do,” said his Director of Scouting Everything from the upper left window of the nine-by-nine grid on his wallscreen. The man turned away and fiddled with the controls of his computer, which controlled the massive array of satellites that had high resolution visible spectrum, infrared, radar, sonar, gamma ray, and proprietary Astrovision cameras pointed at every baseball park in existence down to the sandlot park behind Piggly Wiggly in the bad neighborhood of Walla Walla Washington. Two Svedbergs later, the Scouting Director turned back to the camera.
“James Hoyt,” he announced.
“Bio,” said Jeff.
Immediately Deep Thunk’s resonant basso sounded in the speakers of all of the attendees’ offices. “Hoyt. James. Twenty Eight. RHP. Stamina: 1.356. Currently at AAA Gwinnett. Career SIERA 2.91, FIP 2.83. Batted ball profile: slightly fly.” It rattled off other information, a summary of the 1,502 scouting reports on file from the satellites as well as a litany of proprietary statistics. Deep Thunk finished by saying, “On hypothetical Astros 2015 Roster, would rank #6 in terms of quality relievers.”
Somebody on the call whistled low. “Why is this guy in the minors? What don’t they like about him?” Everybody seemed baffled.
Jeff thanked everybody then terminated the call. A bit later, GeeMab called back.
“Hi Jeffy baby!” exclaimed the Braves GM. “We have an offer for you.”
“Before you state it, I have a very small addition to throw in.” GeeMab looked suspicious, so Jeff said as mildly as he could, “Gattis was hurt some last year, and that worries me. To make me feel better about a deal for him, can you throw somebody else in any potential deal? Say, hmmm, James Hoyt?”
GeeMab’s face went blank. One of the big men at the table asked, “Who?”
A timid-sounding voice from off-camera started to speak, but GeeMab cut him off. “Of course, of course,” he answered magnanimously. “I’m willing to deal, but I will demand soup in the deal.”
“Sorry, I meant that I will demand Michael F-word in the deal.”
“Oh, I see, well–”
“AND Andrew Thurman,” GeeMab interrupted. “He was your second-round draft pick last year, you know,” he added, as if he suspected that Jeff didn’t know who he was.
Jeff masterfully prevented an eye roll before it started and asked, “Who else?”
GeeMab seemed flummoxed, and Jeff realized he’d made a mistake. GeeMab hadn’t intended to ask for anybody else. But Jeff knew that the Braves’ GM couldn’t hang up now to confer with his scouts, because then he would have to admit it. GeeMab looked frantically around the table at his directors, who seemed as thrown-off as he was. After ten full seconds of silence, the off-camera timid voice squeaked, “Rio Ruiz?”
“RIO RUIZ!” bellowed GeeMab. Jeff hid a wince. Somebody on John’s staff actually knew what he was talking about.
Jeff begged for a moment to consider, and then sipped his Formosa Bai Hao and thought. He didn’t mind losing Foltynewicz or Thurman. Both fellows had major-league upside, of course, but Thurman was buried at a deep position, and internally, most of Jeff’s evaluators, matrices, and algorithms painted Foltynewicz as most likely to become an erratic late-inning reliever.
Jeff called up Deep Thunk’s comparitor program on his desktop and entered the five players into its input array. Yes, as he suspected, the organization could sustain the loss of the two pitchers with minimal impact, whereas the addition of Gattis and his power bat would give them an offensive power edge compared to most other teams. As predicted by his experts, Hoyt projected to outperform Foltynewicz in the majors for the next couple of years at least. But Ruiz was a perplexing situation for the database. Young. High ceiling, but not too high. Decent floor though, and not too risky. Walked a lot. Young for his league, but with solid performance so far. Shallow position. Losing Ruiz would sting a bit. But omelettes and eggs, and all that, he thought.
“I accept,” he announced.
“You…you do?” asked GeeMab. “No counter-offers?” He suddenly seemed doubtful, and he shot a worried glance in the direction from which the timid voice had come earlier.
“Nah,” said Jeff. “You win this round. Nice working with you, I’ve already sent our agreement to MLB. Have a pleasant evening!”
He signed off, grinned out at the finally-clearing Houston traffic, and sent the telepathic command to put Deep Thunk back into hibernation mode.