Bo Porter: Future Managerial Pope?

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Astros General Manager Jeff Luhnow said that not only might his rookie manager Bo Porter be running the club on the field for an extended period, but he might be the manager for “decades.”

Considering the shelf-life of most managers, it’s a silly and strange thing to say and as Luhnow moves along in the public eye as a GM, he’ll realize that these hyperbolic pronouncements designed to show support can: A) wind up biting him in the future; and B) create headlines when none are necessary.

Porter’s managerial survival is contingent on his mandate and the managerial mandate for every manager shifts depending on the circumstances. Given their roster, the Astros can’t possibly put forth the pretense of trying to win in 2013 or even 2014 and probably 2015. With that in mind, Porter is there to develop; to teach fundamentals on and off the field (i.e. how to behave like a Major League player); and to learn on the job himself.

While Porter sounds impressive in this interview from Fangraphs, it also takes the tone of someone knowing what will be required to get a managerial job and tailoring his outlook to sound palatable to the people—like Luhnow—who are doing the hiring. He has very little managerial experience (72 games seven years ago in the low minor leagues for the Marlins) and while the details of his contract with the Astros have not been disclosed other than the negligible phrase “multi-year contract,” judging by what other managers who were in their first jobs have received and that the Astros are operating on a cheap-as-humanly-possible dynamic, it would be a shock if his salary is much higher than $500,000.

It’s a positive that as a minor league player Porter practiced what he’s preaching with a high on-base percentage, power and speed. Unfortunately for him, he was born about 5-7 years too early to take advantage of the new reliance placed on what it was he did well and only had brief trials in the big leagues from 1999-2001 with 142 nondescript plate appearances. He was at the tail end of his career and 30-years-old, playing out the string when the wave of teams looking for players exactly like Porter—cheap, available and who got on base—when those stats came to prominence.

Luhnow suggesting Porter as a possible Astros manager until 2030 (2040? 2050? Perhaps he can visit Biogenesis and last in to the next century!) is going to arouse eyebrow raises and eyerolls, questions and ridicule. Much of the criticism will come opportunistically from those who don’t like or don’t understand what Luhnow is trying to do. It’s the nature of the job. In fairness to Luhnow, his own experience as a private businessman and in his nascent years as a baseball executive clearly contributed to his desire to have a manager he knew would work cheaply for the opportunity; would be agreeable to the stat-based theories and middle-manager implementation; and would know his place without rattling his cage too much.

When Luhnow joined the Cardinals, he was hired by the owner of the team Bill DeWitt on the heels of the Moneyball frenzy and walked into a situation where there were old-school baseball men Walt Jocketty as the Cardinals GM and Tony LaRussa as the manager who felt simultaneously threatened and offended by the entrance of “some guy the owner knew” who had reams of stats, theories and numbers with zero baseball experience as a player, scout or anything else. Compounding the dysfunction was the stripping of some of Jocketty’s powers to accommodate this new separate department that was ostensibly working for the owner and operating independently from what the baseball people who’d been running the place for nearly a decade were doing. Jocketty’s eventual departure only made matters worse. LaRussa, contentious, powerful and unafraid to use his status as an unfireable institution did everything he could to take charge of the direction of the organization and won the battle of attrition.

Given that experience, when he was hired as a GM, Luhnow was not going to put himself into a subordinate position to his manager and other underlings who might interfere with his blueprint. That’s why it was a farce when the Astros interviewed Larry Bowa. Bowa, with his resume and old-school crustiness was going to be as impossible to deal with as LaRussa without the Hall of Fame bona fides.

None of the individuals in these various circumstances are wrong. I’m not interested in factions, I’m interested in facts. LaRussa and Jocketty were right; Luhnow was right; Bowa is right; and Porter is right. These determinations are not mutually exclusive.

It’s highly unlikely that Porter will be difficult if one of the stat guys in the front office tells him to bench Brett Wallace in favor of Matt Dominguez or vice versa. That’s what Luhnow and his ilk want: someone who can manage the team on the field with player street cred while also doing what he’s told by the front office. Whether Porter’s tenure is counted in decades or days depends on how he performs in the job and his job description in this new era exemplified by Luhnow requires him doing what he’s told. He’s the right man in the moment. That’s the key: finding someone who is the proper fit for what the organization as a whole is trying to build. By that criteria, Porter is what the Astros wanted and needed. For now. That may not be so in 2020. Then whoever is in charge will find someone else. That’s baseball as a game and as a business. Luhnow, Porter and the Astros will learn that soon enough.

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