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The Smartest Guys in the Clubhouse

How the McKinsey-fied Astros cheated their way to a championship—and became a parable of American success

Astros manager A.J. Hinch (left) and general manager Jeff Luhnow watch batting practice in 2017. (Bob Levey/Getty Images)

In 2017, the Houston Astros stopped striking out. That wasn’t the only reason why the team went from 84 wins to 101 and catapulted from finishing third in the American League West in 2016 to winning the 2017 World Series. They upgraded the lineup at a few crucial spots: Franchise cornerstone Alex Bregman took over at third base and certified competent baseball guy Yuli Gurriel at first, and they ground their way from subcromulent to perfectly cromulent at catcher. Justin Verlander, acquired in the last seconds before the trade deadline, pitched like a vengeful demigod from the moment he arrived; other starting pitchers ably filled gaps in the bullpen during the playoffs; and all the hitters in the lineup who mattered hit a bit better than they had before. The Astros looked like not just the best team in baseball but one that might fill that role for another half-decade or so.

That success seemed all the more remarkable in light of how bad the Astros had been just a few years earlier. The abjectly terrible Astros teams of the early 2010s were bad by design, but any team that loses two out of every three games for three straight seasons tends to stick in the mind. General manager Jeff Luhnow, a former McKinsey consultant whom the Astros poached from the Cardinals back in 2012, had efficiently torched the middling and mid-priced roster he inherited while painstakingly putting together a years-long effort to remake the team’s farm system. What emerged after those years of meticulous and intentional awfulness was something like the perfect contemporary baseball roster—deep and talented and anchored by veteran stars who stubbornly refused to decline, but primarily built around and upon young players the team drafted during its years at the bottom. Those players would for years continue to be wildly underpaid relative to their production, thanks to the way MLB’s salary structure works. That last cost-saving data point is the sort of thing that baseball fans have been conditioned during the arbitrage-obsessed Moneyball era to regard as an objective good; executives and owners tend to use words like “flexibility” or “sustainability” to describe this approach, and many fans have come to adopt the same market-savvy argot. Prioritizing that sort of thing and using that sort of language were things that Luhnow did very well.

Luhnow was a true McKinsey consultant’s consultant, which is to say that he was secretive and a little smug. He reliably kept outsiders—a group that included, for years of his tenure, even the players in his employ—on a need-to-know basis when it came to the work that he and a “decision sciences” team were doing as they collected and parsed every available bead of data that the game could provide. He was so devoted to efficiency that he engaged consultants from McKinsey to audit the organization (and, inevitably, to disrupt the org chart) every year. The collective mission was to ensure that the Astros brand of Moneyball would stay artfully (yet efficiently!) poised on the bleeding edge of managerially minded innovation.

All perfectly bloodless in the management consulting way, then, but not without some carnage. There were stories that the front office culture Luhnow had created in Houston was not just cutthroat and paranoid, but increasingly high-handed and stridently amoral. Luhnow overruled junior staffers and acquired a talented young closer at a discount while that pitcher served a 75-game suspension for domestic violence; he pushed unsuccessfully to sign Luke Heimlich, a college pitcher whose prospect status evaporated when it was revealed that he was a convicted sex offender who preyed on minors. But the results spoke for themselves.

Take that strikeout thing, for instance. In 2016, an improving but not yet great Astros team struck out 1,452 times. That was a whole lot—roughly one out of every three outs the team made that year came by strikeout, and only three big league teams struck out more often. Seven of the nine players who most frequently filled out the team’s lineup card struck out at least 100 times. Jake Marisnick, the team’s reliably damp-looking top reserve, struck out 83 times in just 311 plate appearances. Trends in the game had normalized this to an extent, if not necessarily at this scale; strikeouts were fine, so long as there were a sufficient number of home runs built into the deal. In 2016, the team hit 198.

During the team’s championship season a year later, Marisnick was even more whiff-prone—he struck out an astonishing 90 times in just 259 plate appearances—but everything else changed. Only five other players on the roster struck out more than that, and only two of those reached triple digits in whiffs. As a whole, the team struck out just 1,087 times, while walking slightly less often—509 walks, as compared to 543—than they had the year before. The Astros had hit .247 and reached base at a .319 clip in 2016; in 2017, those numbers leaped to .282 and .346, respectively. The World Champion Astros hit 40 more homers than the Third Place but Spunky Astros had the year before.

It is not evidence of anything in particular, let alone anything sinister, that a World Series champion would hit better than a team that finished in third place. Players improve, and lineups change, and both of those things happened here. But it’s no more surprising to learn, given the dramatic shift in the numbers, that it later turned out that the Astros were cheating: videotaping the opposing catchers’ pitch signals and then using a trash can near the team dugout to pound out, semaphore-style, a message to the hitter about the pitch about to arrive. Given the combination of reverence and fear with which the rest of the sport regarded Luhnow and his McKinsey-fied team of weaponized quants—which was unforgivably dickish but undeniably ahead of the curve, already deftly working angles and analyzing data that other teams couldn’t even see yet—the overt oafishness of the Astros’ 2017 cheating scheme came as no small shock.

To see how shabby it all was, you can watch the team’s 2017 championship video, which shows star shortstop Carlos Correa skipping back up the clubhouse tunnel in triumph. He dances right past a folding table with a laptop on it, and past a gray plastic garbage can. Reporting by The Athletic last week revealed that whenever the Astros were at bat during home games in 2017, a team employee sat at that table, staring at that screen—and would signal the news that an off-speed pitch was coming by having at that garbage can with a bat, loud enough that the hitter could hear it and change his approach accordingly. Baseball is still very difficult, and this bit of foreknowledge makes it only a little bit easier. But a pitch that would once have been a third strike might instead be fouled off. It’s a small advantage, but a real one—another chance not to strike out, at the very least.

“We now have so much technology around the ballpark and information about the trajectory of the ball, the physics of the bat swing, the physics and the biomechanics of the pitcher’s delivery,” Luhnow told McKinsey Quarterly in a two-part interview back in 2018. “So many components now that advanced sciences have worked into our game. It’s, quite frankly, overwhelming in terms of the amount of information that we have access to and intimidating to figure out how to analyze all that information, work through it, and come up with the takeaways.”

If you approach the 2017 scandal with this data-driven model of team success in mind—without any of the folklore or culture or other subjectivities of the game in the mix—Luhnow’s job in Houston becomes just another McKinsey engagement. It’s one more in a long global roster of company makeovers, with management bringing in the smartest and best-credentialed people available to find an organizational solution to a dynamic and difficult set of problems for a client. The other stuff, the culture and tradition or whatever, is other stuff, and so, by definition, well outside the scope of the engagement. McKinsey is a powerful and profitable global force, largely because the organization is very good at solving problems in a very particular way. Management consultants work for management, after all, and solve problems in ways that benefit the people paying them.

But the McKinsey way has become so influential in global management circles as much for what it overlooks as for what it includes: It refuses to sweat anything it chooses to regard as the other stuff. The long list of howlingly malign global players that have benefited from McKinsey’s work, from the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia to Enron to the Immigration and Customs Enforcement Agency, is a testament to how adept it is at both targeted troubleshooting and selective omission. The idea is to solve the problem, and that is the job even when the problem is Dissidents Keep Tweeting Rude Things About Our Royal Family, or Laws Make It Difficult to Obtain Money at Our Desired Volume.

“McKinsey is capitalism distilled,” an anonymous former consultant for the firm wrote in a scathing essay for Current Affairs:

And as capital’s most effective messenger, McKinsey has done direct harm to the world in ways that, thanks to its lack of final decision-making power, are hard to measure and, thanks to its intense secrecy, are hard to know. The firm’s willingness to work with despotic governments and corrupt business empires is the logical conclusion of seeking profit at all costs. Its advocacy of the primacy of the market has made governments more like businesses and businesses more like vampires.

It’s easy to see how this focus, and the larger worldview informing it, appeals to well-heeled establishment types of every political stripe. The allure runs deeper than the conditioned boardroom response to a team of Ivy types bearing proprietary intellectual property. McKinsey presents itself as the most luxurious and state-of-the-art solution to the ancient business problem of squeezing the maximum return out of people at the minimum cost: Like other such companies that advertise in airport terminals, the brand’s broader vibe is both coolly sensible and steeply expensive. That is to say, the elegant McKinsey finessing maneuver is to carry out remorselessly brutal work that bears a real human cost, but in such a way that it doesn’t look brutal. In this sense, McKinsey sells not just solutions but a certain sleek aesthetic. This, too, arrives as a suite of solutions duly outfitted with its own patois: Luhnow and the former McKinsey consultant Pete Buttigieg use the same totemic catchphrases—big data, machine learning, artificial intelligence, counterinsurgency—to describe the respective futures of running a competitive baseball team and a moderately sized American city.

It is striking, but not really surprising, that all this well-credentialed cleverness and machine-tooled efficiency tends to deliver the same solution, which amounts to more for the client and less for everyone else; that is the goal, after all. So it will likely not surprise you that Luhnow’s Astros have been credited with originating MLB’s recently announced plans to eliminate 42 of 160 minor league baseball teams, most of them in smaller cities. MLB currently faces several lawsuits concerning the appalling pay and conditions in the minor leagues. That’s a problem that could be solved with comparatively small expenditures—or by simply eliminating a whole lot of jobs. Which would you expect to be a consultant’s preferred recommendation?

It is still true that no organization in baseball works harder to gather more data, or parse it more effectively, than the Astros. They are likely to receive a fairly severe punishment, by MLB standards, for the cheating they’ve done. Still, the organization itself and the values it has evinced—in the absence of what are conventionally understood to be values—seem unlikely to change. The people in charge will continue to work on solving the problems they care about and continue not caring about the rest. There’s no reckoning coming, but there is something perversely satisfying and darkly apropos about seeing where all those McKinsey-scented insights and learnings (to use another corporate consultancy term of art) wound up. All those merciless cullings and endless organizational refinements, all that data and all the brilliant minds and machines working it over, all resolving to some underpaid grunt in a folding chair whaling away on a garbage can because the members of the team’s brain trust of thoroughbred data nerds simply took it for granted that they could get away with it. All that data, all those numbers, all those shifting variables continually delivered the same answer: What are you going to do, stop us?