In defense of Astros GM Jeff Luhnow.


Let me say right up front that Astros general manager Jeff Luhnow and his staff don’t need me defending what they’re doing or how they’re doing it. Lord knows, they can do their own heavy lifting.

That’s also the beauty of this thing. Ultimately, they’ll be judged on how many games they win. Evaluations couldn’t be simpler. Jeff knows and accepts this.

He was hired by Astros owner Jim Crane to rebuild the Astros. This he is doing. He’s also doing it exactly the way he said he would do it. If things work out as planned, there’ll be a steady supply of talent flowing onto the big league roster for the foreseeable future.

At the moment, things are changing and quickly. Luhnow has shuffled the roster freely these last few years in search of players good enough to stick around after the Astros have turned a corner.

The Astros may not be far from turning that corner. They’re 13-13 in May with George Springer, Jose Altuve, Dexter Fowler, Dallas Keuchel, Chad Qualls, Matt Dominguez and others leading the way.

At the moment, their bullpen is as good as any in baseball, and Springer, Altuve, etc., have ignited the offense. Likewise, the rotation has been solid.

Will there be more bumps in the road? Of course there will. That’s part of the deal.

Baseball’s seasons last for six months, and along the way, every weakness—and every strength—is exposed.

There was a time when it was impossible to see a light at the end of the tunnel. Now, though, Springer symbolizes what may be ahead.

By Opening Day 2015, the Astros could have Carlos Correa at shortstop, Jon Singleton at first and Mark Appel in the rotation.

There’s other talent coming as well, including the No. 1 overall pick in next week’s draft. Enjoy that one, fellas.

The Astros are the first franchise to pick first three straight years, but they’re not likely to have it again for a long, long time. At least that’s the plan.

Anyway, the Houston Chronicle published a story that contained comments critical of Luhnow and his staff regarding their use of advanced analytics.

Based on an assortment of quotes, some of them anonymous, Luhnow is guilty of seeing players as numbers rather than people. In other words, he seems more concerned with constructing a winning team than fretting about his players’ feelings. I’m simplifying the argument, but you get the picture.

Here’s my problem with the criticism. In the end, advanced analytics is about gathering as much information about players as possible and then getting as many good players as you can afford or acquire based on that information. This is what baseball teams have done since the beginning. Numbers have always been important. Numbers were less sophisticated 50 years ago, but they were nevertheless important.

Back then, numbers could not evaluate base running, defense, arm strength and a dozen other little things. Now, there are numbers that attempt to do that. Are they infallible? They are not. Are they insightful? They absolutely are.

Some people in baseball think numbers have devalued the importance of a manager. Wrong. If a manager is smart, he’ll devour the information his front office supplies in terms of defensive alignments, pitching match ups, lineups, etc. What can’t be replaced is the human touch.

Joe Maddon isn’t the best manager in baseball because his front office supplies him with the most cutting edge data. That data helps Maddon do his job, but he’s the best there is because of the human touch he has with players. He has the ability to get players to buy into the whole program.

Sometimes that means batting first, fifth or ninth. Sometimes it means not playing at all. But Maddon’s simple philosophy is that all we’re trying to do is what’s best for the Rays. Because he’s so honest and so decent and so instantly likable, his players believe in him.

He’s a huge reason the Rays are now one of the places players from 29 other teams want to play. Oakland is like that, too, for many of the same reasons. It’s all about the environment.

Okay, back to the numbers. Branch Rickey used ’em. Pat Gillick used ’em. Numbers were different back then and less complicated than the ones Billy Beane, Brian Sabean and Andrew Friedman use now, but they were part of the decision-making process.

Roster building is as much an art as a science, so there are considerations to clubhouse atmosphere and getting along and all that. But numbers were a big factor in decisions.

Rickey was cold, calculating and brilliant. He did what was best for the club he was running at the time.

Did he hurt some feelings along the way? He did.

If any of these people think Luhnow is cold, they should go talk to the players who were forced to go in and negotiate a new contract with Rickey.

At times, they’d go in expecting a raise and leave thankful he was going to let them back on the team another year.

In other words, he did what he thought was right for winning as many games as possible. That was his one and only consideration.

I don’t know that I’d want a general manager to think another way. Would you want a GM who kept a player because he was a nice guy? Don’t players collect all the available data when they negotiate a new deal?

It’s just that with analytics there are more and better ways to evaluate players, managers, etc., than ever before. Virtually every team has an analytics department because they at least want to hear those opinions. If they don’t avail themselves of every scrap of information, they’re unlikely to have their jobs for very long.

Nor should they.

As Houston Rockets GM Daryl Morey said a couple of years ago, “We don’t know yet if this deal will work in basketball. But it’s been proven in baseball. If a GM doesn’t use it, he’s not going to have his job for very long.”

A couple of weeks later, Morey had a guest on draft night: Rays GM Andrew Friedman.

He’s among the best in his sport, and he stopped by to see if Morey’s NBA evaluations might offer him something he could use to make the Rays better. That’s what the good ones do. They look and listen. They’re curious. They also at times have to make decisions based on numbers rather than personal feelings.

This same thing happens in every industry. Robert McNamara used all the data he could find when he ran Ford and the Pentagon.

There’s a reason Beane doesn’t travel with the A’s or allow himself to get too close to his players. He wants to be able to make the best assessment of what’s right for the A’s.

If he hung around the clubhouse and made friends, there surely would come a time when his personal feelings for a player would intersect with what’s best for the team.

Is this cold?

Of course, it is. That’s why they keep score. That’s why they evaluate people like him by how many games they win.

When do teams get into trouble? Answer: When they allow personal feelings to distort the decision-making process.

Baseball’s best organizations assign a value to each player. And if somewhere down the road that means walking away from that player, so be it.

That’s what the Cardinals did with Albert Pujols, the Yankees with Robinson Cano and the Rangers with Josh Hamilton.

Each of us can decide whether they made the right decision. Clubs get into trouble when they allow emotion—or talk radio—to dictate decisions.

No club ever loved a player more than the Cardinals loved Albert Pujols. But in the broad view of winning, they believed they would have a competitive team—and more flexibility—by not making a $254-million commitment.

Advanced analytics—Moneyball—has changed baseball in ways we’re all trying to grasp. For one obvious thing, standings are no longer dictated by payroll size.

Smarts count, too, more than ever before. In that way, Beane has changed the game forever.

If there’s a place in Cooperstown for people who’ve changed baseball in dramatic, positive and earth-shaking ways, Beane will someday get his plaque.

There’s data on everything from the impact of base running to outfield throws to defensive positioning to how to line up hitters in the batting order. You can argue about whether you agree with the assessment. You can choose to believe that the past does not predict the future. In fact, there are people who do exactly that.

One analyst said a team should always bat his best hitter second or fourth, not third, as has been previously thought. In fact, he said that the No. 3 spot in the order was for the fourth- or fifth-best hitter.

His manager isn’t quite onboard with that advice, but he’s working to get there. Incidentally, this team is in first place and has championship hardware. How’s that for a hint?

There’s another word for analytics: facts.

In the end, that’s what we’re talking about. If Luhnow’s staff notices opposing hitters are batting .088 on Collin McHugh’s curveball, isn’t that information that should be passed to the coaching staff?

THAT’S what analytics is all about. It’s about positioning, about exploiting strengths and attacking weaknesses.

Just because it’s a former NASA employee running the math models is irrelevant.

In fact, Moneyball has changed dramatically since the book was published in 2004. Every team is in an arms race to develop better ways of doing things.

One of the challenges Luhnow has wrestled with is how much information to pass on to the players. He wants the players and coaches to have the best available information, but he doesn’t want to overload them, either.

For instance, the Houston Rockets do a 50-page (or so) scouting report on each game. But the cover page is a summary, and for most of the players, that’s what they’ll consume.

(Shane Battier read all 50 pages. He sometimes would tell an opposing player where he’s supposed to go on a certain play. He said that was an old Coach K. trick to get in an opponent’s head. But I digress.)

As for the rest, that’s up to Kevin McHale and his staff to decide how much they want. If he chooses to know where Chandler Parsons should be getting the ball on the perimeter based on where he’s had the most success, it’s available. If he doesn’t, if he wants to follow his gut, go for it, big fella.

There was a baseball general manager who asked his manager about a certain decision he’d made regarding that night’s lineup.

The manager said he liked the matchup of right-handed power hitting versus right-handed power pitching. He knew it gave his team an advantage.

“Smart,” the general manager said, then added, “Did you look it up?”

No, he hadn’t.

The general manager went through his team’s data bank and found that everything the manager had said was factually wrong.

The GM was steamed. He told the manager that when NASA is bringing the shuttle back, it doesn’t push, say, the green button on a hunch.

Rather, it collects as much data as it can collect and makes a decision based on facts.

In the end, that’s what advanced analytics is all about. In the end, it IS about the numbers.

But it always has been.

For good teams, that never changes.

It’s that way for players, too. They don’t make salary requests in a vacuum. They collect information to support their case. They do comparables. In other words, they’re doing exactly what teams do.

In this way, the baseball world has changed. The Astros are all in, and in the end, it’s the standings that are likely to tell us whether they were right or wrong. Luhnow has had the freedom to bring players in and out, to keep trying combinations and to look at all his various theories.

This may be the end of the beginning, but it’s still just a beginning. If Luhnow is correct about the people he has hired, the Astros are going to keep finding newer and smarter ways to make decisions. I’m guessing these last two-plus years have been an amazingly fun ride for him.

He has had the kind of opportunity that every baseball man dreams of having. He has long had certain ways he thought things should be done, and Crane appears to have allowed him to enact them.

Yes, numbers drive many of the decisions. On the other hand, numbers have always driven most baseball decisions. It’s just that the numbers are different now.

Luhnow got the job in Houston because he performed brilliantly in St. Louis. At the moment, he appears to be doing the same in Houston.

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