When an analyst position with the Houston Astros opened up in 2013, Brandon Taubman thought he might be a fit.
Taubman grew up playing baseball and admiring the tactics of the game. As an Ernst & Young employee, and later as one at Barclay's, Taubman also had a background in valuating derivatives. Surely he could use his knowledge of finding value in commodities and running through complex formulas and equations to find answers.
But it was actually a side gig that sparked Taubman's interest in the position.
Taubman and his friend had created a projection model for daily fantasy baseball and were seeing regular success. Taubman described the business as a "hacked-together, Excel-spreadsheet, SQL-server-sourced" optimizer. They were pioneers in a business that had not yet become mainstream.
To improve their model for predicting the best lineups, Taubman began reading analytical baseball sites like Baseball Prospectus and FanGraphs when he stumbled upon the position and it caught his eye. Jim Crane had bought the team only two years before, and general manager Jeff Luhnow was in the second year of an intense rebuild — "unwinding" to the Astros, but "tanking" to most others.
"I started reading about Jeff and found out that his background was similar to mine," Taubman told Business Insider. "He came from the business world as a management consultant, and he was one of the people primarily responsible for all of the success that the Cardinals had in the draft. And the more I started reading about him, the more the idea of being a part of this sensational rebuild became very attractive to me."
Taubman applied and went through a lengthy interview process with scouts and player-development personnel. It also included a "robust" set of essay questions about things like baseball philosophy and his thoughts on signing premium free agents to big deals, as well as case studies where Taubman had to evaluate what kind of contracts to give players based on their age and performance.
Taubman got the job.
"I got really lucky that Jeff was looking for someone with a banking background and valuation background that could help us," Taubman said. "And we really started to put together the roster that would get us to this point."
Impervious to the outside noise
While some in the baseball world doubted the Astros' plan to rebuild their entire operation, Taubman said he was too thrilled to be concerned. The Astros won just 51 games in Taubman's first year, but he was unfazed.
"I was just so happy to be doing something I was passionate about," Taubman said. "I was always on the finance fast track, with the impression that being successful in finance was about having the best job at the best institution making the most amount of money. And here I was working for a Major League Baseball team and seeing star athletes and sitting next to Craig Biggio in the box — just elements of the new job that made me so excited to be there that there was no need for a real coping mechanism."
Taubman began as an economist for the Astros, working as an assistant to the assistant general manager, David Stearns, who is now the general manager of the Milwaukee Brewers.
Taubman's day-to-day duties included things like contract valuation and generation, helping to answer questions like whether the Astros should extend Jose Altuve, which they did — one of the team's all-time wisest moves.
Analytics are a huge part of the Astros' operation, which is where Taubman's skill set comes in handy. But Taubman says that in an age where teams are increasingly investing in analytics, the Astros seek to use them only to help inform their decisions.
"In the early going, when we were a bad team, we were constantly criticized for being, like, these soulless, computer-driven people," Taubman said. Instead, analytics are just part of the equation.
"There's this question, like, 'Well, what do you do with what you find?' And that's where we think our competitive advantage is," he said. "We think that we can be the most aggressive and effective in taking the things that come out of [research and development] and applying them in a practical and digestible way so that our players and coaches can continuously get better."
Taubman's background in finance has worked in lockstep with the Astros' operation. Everything is about finding and understanding the value of an entity: What makes a good pitch? What makes a good hit? Can those things be found in specific players, and if so, how do they value those players? Furthermore, if a player lacks certain skills, are they adaptable, and how do the Astros help get those players to the next level?
Taubman credits the work environment of the Astros and the people around him with his climbing the ranks quickly.
In 2014, he became the manager of baseball operations, a position that allowed him to travel the country with the team's scouts and talk to players, studying the traits found in the best ones. He called the role the most fun of all.
He then moved up to the director of baseball operations and was promoted to senior director in August, shortly before the team's World Series run.
Some things can't be quantified
For all of the Astros' belief in numbers and the meaning of value, their World Series run defied analytics.
Taubman wasn't surprised when the Astros made a 17-win leap from 2016 to 2017, becoming contenders just one year after missing the playoffs.
But when they found themselves down 3-2 to the New York Yankees in the American League Championship Series in October, the team never lost confidence, Taubman said.
"I saw a cool, calm, and collected demeanor from our players that was well beyond [how] I personally was able to control my own emotions," Taubman said. "We just had guys that had a lot of confidence in who they were and what they were doing."
Taubman credited players like Alex Bregman and George Springer with staying upbeat and keeping the clubhouse loose. The Astros persevered and won two straight games in Houston to advance to the World Series.
And it wasn't just the Astros' explosive offense or "juiced" balls that led to their bats going crazy in a thrilling World Series against the Los Angeles Dodgers, Taubman said, but a teamwide initiative to rally following Hurricane Harvey, which caused deadly flooding in the Houston area in August.
"There's never going to be any data to support that," he said, adding, "But I can tell you that I feel a connection and a desire for our front office and for our players and staff to make our city proud after what they went through."
He pointed to the New Orleans Saints' Super Bowl win a few years after Hurricane Katrina in 2005, and the Boston Red Sox's World Series win after the marathon bombing in 2013.
Still, there were moves the Astros had made that boosted their chances. Taubman, for instance, advocated signing Charlie Morton, the starting pitcher, the year before, buying low on a pitcher he thought had the potential to improve.
Morton pitched the last four innings in the Astros' Game 7 win, throwing three scoreless frames.
Likewise, Taubman and the front office advocated trading for Justin Verlander during the season, citing the need to bolster their starting rotation.
"There was a lot of talk about how this was our year, and if we were ever in position to win a World Series, this was it," Taubman said.
"Having said that, I think there's also an appreciation, at least for the guys upstairs, about the randomness or variability or luck — or whatever you wanna call it — that's involved in the game," he added. "So what I would say is we felt that we were in as good of a position of any team in baseball to win a World Series but also appreciated that things had to go right in player development and health and all that sort of stuff for our guys to be as great as they were."
The work gets harder, but Taubman has never been happier
Taubman is deferential. He praises those around him breathlessly — Luhnow's vision for the team, the scouts, what he calls MLB's best research and development department. He also credits his wife with allowing him to pursue such a job years ago.
He says a lot of people outside baseball "who have valuable skill sets" don't get into it "when they find out entry-level positions pay them out close to the poverty line, and the hours succeed 100 hours a week, and it means moving away from home."
"There are a lot of good people out there who could do what I do, but they don't because they don't have the support around them," he said.
With one championship under their belt — accomplishing, incredibly, Luhnow's six-year vision for rebuilding the team — the Astros are seeking to improve. But the job is harder now, Taubman said.
How do you improve a team with this much talent, or upgrade a roster that already boasts top-tier players around the diamond?
The changes have to be incremental, and Taubman is excited to dig in deeper and continue learning what creates success on the field.
"I find myself smiling at random as I walk into the stadium in the morning and get to walk past a baseball field," he said. "The ascension to my current role has been an amazing ride."
Full Story: https://www.businessinsider.com/brandon-taubman-astros-executive-journey-2017-12