clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

The scorched earth plan of team building

Astros GM Jeff Luhnow fancies himself as a revolutionary, but he would do well to heed the lessons Billy Beane learned the hard way.

Astros GM Jeff Luhnow is developing a nasty reputation around baseball
Astros GM Jeff Luhnow is developing a nasty reputation around baseball
Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports

Evan Drellich of the Houston Chronicle (Astros beat writer) came up with a relative bombshell of an article about Astros' General Manager Jeff Luhnow. Luhnow seems to be implementing various on-field and player development strategies never deployed to such a large scale as in the current Astros organization.

The article, titled "Radical methods paint Astros as 'outcast' " doesn't paint the rosiest picture of the man that took a 56-win team and actually made them worse in consecutive seasons. What struck me was the willingness of players to go on record.  For example, ex-Astro Bud Norris:

"They are definitely the outcast of major league baseball right now, and it's kind of frustrating everyone else to have to watch it. When you talk to agents, when you talk to other players and you talk amongst the league, yeah, there's going to be some opinions about it, and they're not always pretty"

Criticism on the field

The first part of the criticism is on the field. Players seem to have an issue with respect to defensive shifts. The Astros shift more than any other team in MLB, and they implement shifts top down throughout the organization.

The second on-field issue is with respect to pitcher development. The Astros employ what is referred to as a modified-tandem strategy. Their minor league pitchers don't pitch on regular five-day intervals. They mix and match and have two starting pitchers split each game.

The third issue is off the field. As Drellich puts it, the "Astros are said to handle contract negotiations and the timing of player promotions with a dehumanizing, analytics-based approach" that is designed to lower a player's financial value.

Regarding the on-field strategy, I think it's still up for debate as to whether Luhnow is a mad genius or just mad.

The modified tandem is something out of a Charlie Finley type strategy. Very outside of the box. The Astros believe it contributes to the players' health and helps them adapt to different roles. I think it's unfair to rely on a few minor leaguers' anecdotes as to whether this is a good thing or bad thing. Time will tell.

Baseball Info Solutions estimates their runs saved via the shift at 7, tops in MLB. However, is saving seven runs on a team with a -gajillion run differential more important than your players being happy and comfortable in their roles?

Jed Lowrie: "There's not one way to do this...if Jim Crane and Jeff Luhnow decide this is how they want to run their business, you can cry and say whatever you want about it, but that's their way they want to do it."

Jarred Cosart, Astros SP: "[The front office is] not going to not shift, so if I did have a problem with it, there's nothing I can do about it, as a lot the older guys have told us."

The bottom line is that until the Astros win, these strategies will be questioned, but that isn't the crux of the issue.

Playing games with service time, alienating players and agents

The off-field problem is what rubs me the wrong way. The Astros don't have the constraints that Billy Beane has. They have a nice stadium. They have the fourth-largest market in the country. Yet they are trying some penny-pinching service time manipulation. George Springer, who, judging by his May performance, was clearly held in AAA just to extend his service time (read: make him cheaper down the line). Top prospect Jon Singleton is sitting in the minors when the team is desperate for a first baseman. How many more games would they have won with Springer up to start? With Singleton in the lineup instead of the dreck they are throwing in at 1B?

Springer, Matt Dominguez, and Robbie Grossman were all offered offers to buy out arb years and more at fairly low values. That may be good business, however, as one agent pointed out, "They wield service time like a sword." In other words, Luhnow uses the fact that he controls a player's service time as a negotiating chip in trying to get a young player to sign a long-term extension on the cheap.

I'm all for trying to get a good deal, but telling players you will manipulate their opportunities to get the best deal is a horrible way to treat a player. If the player is talented, bring them up and let them play.

One Astros player, speaking anonymously, seemed to echo the sentiments of many: "I don't think anybody's happy. I'm not. They just take out the human element of baseball. It's hard to play for a GM who just sees you as a number instead of a person. Jeff's experimenting with all of us."

Luhnow knows best

Luhnow, rather than make overtures to his players, has drawn a line in the sand:

"We're not running for election here; it's not a popularity contest. We're trying to win big league games, and we're trying to produce major league players in the minor leagues, so if those two results are occurring, that's predominantly what we care about."

That's great, but those two results aren't occurring. On a day in, day out basis, the Astros field a lineup where the majority of the players would not start for other teams. Their pitchers have for the most part been pathetic. They are depending on a number of lottery tickets in the minors to hopefully pan out, or perhaps an eventual overpay for free agents (which would negate the cost savings on young players anyway).

Luhnow has never gone into a season trying to be competitive. He, the fans, and the players, knew going into 2012, 2013, and 2014, that the Astros were not going to compete for a playoff spot. That to me is unforgivable.

Anyone who tries a "revolutionary" strategy is going to face some pushback and grumbling. People don't like change, and change is slower to occur in baseball than almost anywhere else. I get that. I don't blame Luhnow for trying the shifts and the wacky pitcher development.

However, having a top-down dictatorial strategy, manipulating players' opportunities, and responding to complaints with "tough sh*t" is not a good way to go.

Billy Beane's all-encompassing approach

Like Luhnow, Billy Beane thought that his strategy could drive the success of an organization. Of course, Beane was proven right. He was actually extremely successful (where Luhnow is gunning for his third straight 100-loss season).

Beane's ego reached a supernova level when he hired his best friend Bob Geren to be the manager of the team after previous managers bristled at his interference with roles traditionally given to the manager. The idea of course was to have a patsy who would implement the strategies of the great Beane. After eight consecutive winning seasons on a bootstrapping budget, Beane was staring five straight mediocre years in the face, hitting .500 just once. He had to swallow some humble pie, realizing that no, managers are not just peons implementing the GM's will, but that there is a human element to baseball. Managers need to be great communicators, and players need to feel respected.

That's not to say that Beane doesn't implement top-down strategies, but he does that with Bob Melvin being a key cog - the man who understands the math of the platoon advantage but also how to get the buy-in from the players to accept it. Melvin is the opposite of a patsy; a multiple-time manager of the year winner and a man who commands universal respect throughout the league. Last week Blue Jays Manager John Gibbons remarked that communication was by far the biggest change in the game since he was a player. The Larry Bowas are a dying species in MLB. Burning the bridges of interpersonal relationships with players, managers, coaches, and agents is a poor strategy.

Losing is not a good strategy for winning

The other side (hemisphere?) of Luhnow's scorched earth strategy is not trying to win. One thing Beane never did, even during the Geren years, was punt a season before it started. Every offseason he went in looking to be competitive. Beane has never lost 90 games, let alone 100. Meanwhile Luhnow has used the MLB club mainly for experimentation with non-prospects while veterans remained available to give the team a semblance of competitiveness. Losing, losing, and losing again while hoping for high draft picks to pan out is an ugly strategy. He's driven down attendance about 20%, the Astros' TV network is bankrupt (because the Astros have the lowest TV ratings of any team) and the fans are watching a product they know that cannot be competitive. What is the point of saving a few bucks when your taxpayers paid for your stadium and you play in a massive market?

To use Luhnow's words, "we're trying to win big league games." No you are not. You are trying to lose big league games while assuming that you are the smartest guy in the room. You are trying to alienate players while assuming that does not affect the team. You are trying to force your knowledge rather than get a buy-in. And you are keeping talent down that could help you win more games.

Billy Beane earned a great deal of rope by winning, winning, and winning some more under constraints that almost no other GM faces. He was entitled to a "Geren mulligan" because he was so damn awesome for so long. And he learned and grew from that episode. He made up with scouting guru Grady Fuson when he realized the A's were not finding and promoting solid major league talent. He employs guys like Farhan Zaidi and guys like Billy Owens. After his stumble, he's an even smarter general manager, with knowledge of the personal to complement the analytical.

I don't know of times that Billy has used service time to keep a player down that could genuinely help the major league ballclub. Hell, he promoted Brett Anderson and Trevor Cahill when arguably both were very raw and could have used more seasoning. He brought up Gray last year after a relatively short stint in AAA. Every year when he doesn't have the young talent he's gone out and brought in veterans to bolster shortcomings in the club. Even in the lean years. Guys like Frank Thomas, Milton Bradley, David DeJesus, Josh Willingham, Bartolo Colon, Mike Piazza, Jason Giambi (round 2), Brian Fuentes, Grant Balfour, etc., both via trades and free agency. The list goes on. Aside from Scott Feldman, Luhnow hasn't really targeted veterans who could help his team get out of the AL West cellar. They are all but assured of a last place finish yet again.

Will Luhnow heed the lessons learned by Beane?

I've read a lot of commentary saying that the Astros are not far, that they are looking like a good team, that they are ready to make the leap. I posit that until Luhnow actually tries to field a winning team by 1) promoting his best players, 2) supplementing them with other talent, 3) respecting his employees, and 4) repairing his relationships with agents and players around the league, the Astros gonna Astro.

As Torii Hunter said,

"That's why you ask questions. And you're going to get all of it from players. I don't think a lot of people know that we communicate with each other and all the free agents out there, they communicate with other players. ... 'Hey, if that kettle's black, it's black.' "

The shame is that Luhnow has a great, living example of an analytically driven GM that alienated the old guard of MLB with radical ideas, deployed them to success, and self-corrected. I don't doubt Luhnow's desire to win, but developing this poor reputation around the game of baseball is not going to further his cause. Not to mention that his results are poor and his process has an air of ego and manipulation. If he wants to bring the Astros to their former glory, he should correct his course and follow the Beane blueprint. Until then, A's fans will enjoy having a doormat in the division.

The GM is not supposed to be your best friend. This is a business and the GM has to cut and trade players. The GM has to implement strategies, some of which may be controversial. However, an "I know all" approach is never the right approach, because baseball and human beings are both pretty damn complicated.

All quotes are from Evan Drellich's article linked at the top of this article and here.  It's definitely worth a read.