Sports Illustrated and the Astros look back on 2014 cover predicting their 2017 championship – For The Win
LOS ANGELES — In June of 2014, the Astros sat dead last in the AL West. It was a familiar position for the Houston club: The same team had averaged an astonishing 108 losses a season from 2011-2013. But on the cover of its June 30 issue that year, Sports Illustrated made an audacious claim, declaring the woebegone Astros “Your 2017 World Series champions.”
The cover highlighted a story by Ben Reiter that focused on the Astros’ analytics department, especially a former blackjack dealer turned NASA researcher named Sig Mejdal, who then served as the team’s director of decision sciences under GM Jeff Luhnow and remains with the team now as a special assistant to Luhnow. SI editor-in-chief Chris Stone felt the quality of the article merited a cover, but putting a perennially bad club like the Astros on the front of the magazine required a strong hook.
“We knew he was working on an access piece with the Astros, and that he was getting an unusual amount of access to it,” Stone told For The Win by phone this week. “But access doesn’t necessarily mean that the story’s going to be good, and the story wasn’t just good, it was great. and when there’s nothing else that jumps out on the sports schedule, you say, ‘Let’s do something different and put it on the cover.’ The next trick is, how do you put such a lousy ballclub on the cover of the magazine?
“I spoke to Ben and said, ‘What does the future hold for this program? Do you believe in their plan?’ And from what I could understand, he did. To sell it, we needed to say something, so we came up with ‘Your 2017 World Series champions,’ which seemed plausible in light of some other transformations we had seen in the previous decade. Remember how quickly the Rays pivoted in 2008? It didn’t seem implausible that a team with smart people running it, with a plan, could turn things around in three years.”
“It’s hard to see the positive, when you’re constantly down, you’re constantly getting beat,” said outfielder George Springer, who was only two months into his Major League career when he graced the cover. “At the time, it was like, ‘Yeah, that’d be great if that happened.’ You never can predict anything like that. But whoever did that did a pretty good job of it. At that point, in the organization, the team had so far to go, and for it to come this far in three years is incredible.”
“Honestly, I think we were all a little jealous of Springer getting the cover,” said World Series Game 1 starter Dallas Keuchel, now in his sixth season with the Astros. “It was kind of farfetched…. Our front office was the first to kind of start this whole analytic thing and putting it together with talent and everything of that sort. But for that to be an article on the front of Sports Illustrated is really unbelievable.”
Stone is proud to take credit for the bold declaration, but noted that the magazine is not exactly known for correctly predicting World Series champions.
“Who wouldn’t be thrilled?” he said. “I’d love to say, ‘Oh, we have all these probabilistic models that we based this cover line on,’ but it was just that we had a really good story. To see it come to fruition three years later, people want to say we kind of hit the lottery. Yeah, I guess we kind of hit the lottery a little bit with this pick. People will consistently remind us, and justifiably, that we haven’t picked a World Series champion in 17 years. I don’t know if this supersedes that. I like to think that if we get this right, it does.”
By the spring of 2017, SI’s prediction no longer seemed ridiculous: Built around a great nucleus of young players mostly gathered during those years, the Astros enjoyed winning seasons in 2015 and 2016, then added veterans like Brian McCann, Josh Reddick and Carlos Beltran to fortify their roster. But despite the 2014 claim, Sports Illustrated‘s editors did not pick the Astros to win a championship in its MLB season preview this year.
They picked the Dodgers.
“We can’t lose here, can we?” said Stone.
(An earlier version of this post said that Mejdal is still the Astros’ director of decision titles. His proper title, per the team’s website, is now, “Special assistant to the GM, Process Improvement.”