Luhnow Is Providing A Blueprint To Rebuild A Dead Franchise

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When he was hired as the Astros GM, there was a chance that Jeff Luhnow was going to repeat the mistakes made by former assistants whose resume was based more on statistical analysis, pure numbers and being among number of people who found their way into baseball as a byproduct of Moneyball fallout. Could he run a club? Or would he fall into the same traps that befell Paul DePodesta and have put Jack Zduriencik on shaky ground?

It didn’t take long for for Luhnow to disappoint the hard core stat people who thought one of their “own” had gotten a GM job when he made Brett Myers a closer even though Myers is capable of starting. The lament was something to the tune of, “I don’t understand it,” as if Luhnow was betraying them. But in reality, it’s easily understood. He’s a man running a baseball team and is unwilling to make a decision based on perception and adhering to a formula at the expense of what’s right in practice. If that means making Myers into a closer, then that’s what he’s going to do.

His draft decisions were in a similar vein. Had he stuck to the original Moneyball script, he’d have taken Mark Appel or some other college player; instead he selected Carlos Correa, a shortstop out of high school. Whatever Correa becomes, the concept behind taking a high school players—abhorrent to the Moneyball school of thought from 10 years ago—is that the Astros went for the high-end talent rather than the safe and explainable pick of a developed college player.

In the trade made today between the Astros and Blue Jays, the Astros sent LHP J.A. Happ, RHP Brandon Lyon, and RHP David Carpenter to the Blue Jays for RHP Francisco Cordero, OF Ben Francisco, and minor leaguers RHP Joseph Musgrove, RHP Asher Wojciechowski, LHP David Rollins and OF Carlos Perez.

Cordero is going to get spun off to a reliever-hungry team. Francisco did nothing for the Blue Jays, but is cheap and might have some use for the Astros as an extra outfielder in the future.

There’s a perception that Happ is still a young kid because he hasn’t been around that long, but he’s going to be 30 in October. His stuff is impressive, but hasn’t pitched particularly well for the Astros and by the time they’re ready to take the next step into contention, Happ will either be heading toward his mid-30s or will have left as a free agent. Lyon is a veteran reliever who is good at times and gives up a lot of home runs. Carpenter is 27-years-old and has a live arm. But the bottom line with all of these players is that they were essentially useless to the Astros as anything other than trade chips and Luhnow cashed them. The young players that the Astros received will help stock a mostly barren farm system and are “might bes” as opposed to the mediocrity they had and knew they had.

Luhnow’s doing a terrific job for the Astros so far.

The Blue Jays are a different matter than the Astros. GM Alex Anthopoulos, referred to as a “genius” not too long ago, is making desperation deals to salvage the unsalvageable. They’re two games under .500 and no one—least of all them—seems to know what they are. Are they contenders? Are they building for the future? Are they trying to win now while building for the future?

They have a lot of good individual players on the roster but, as usual, there’s something wrong. It’s elusive and difficult to pinpoint, but it’s there.

Manager John Farrell still makes bizarre strategic decisions and as much as the respect he’s accumulated throughout baseball, a manager still has to manage the game correctly and his lack of experience in the dugout, as well as the fact that he’s a former pitcher, are causing issues that have to be addressed. They’ve had devastating injuries to a young pitching staff, but the acquisitions of Sergio Santos and Cordero to take over the back-end of the bullpen plainly and simply didn’t work. Happ fills a hole in the rotation, but he’s had arm problems in his history. Lyon and Carpenter are capable out of the bullpen with Lyon a free agent at the end of the season. The Blue Jays are building for a now that doesn’t actually exist anywhere but in their misplaced hopes of being contenders. Being a contender implies winning and that’s something they do not do on a consistent enough basis to justify getting players for the immediate future trying to realize a dream that’s clearly not going to come to fruition in 2012.

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Jeff Luhnow’s Petri Dish and The Sporting News Misogynist

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Apart from getting webhits for saying something stupidly controversial and drawing the ire of, well, everyone, I’m not sure as to the purpose of this Stan McNeal Sporting News piece about new Astros GM Jeff Luhnow filling out his front office with like-minded people who adhere to stats above all else.

Whether Luhnow’s way is going to work or not is a matter of conjecture. It’s a petri dish of statistical thought and implementation that hasn’t truly been tried before.

J.P. Ricciardi took Moneyball to its logical conclusion by mostly following the book’s tenets to the letter and his results were up-and-down; Paul DePodesta used stats and a total disregard for humanity to destroy the Dodgers and was fired after 20 months; the Rays altered the plot and used a load of high draft picks, fearlessness, intelligence in both old and new school techniques to build a team that made the playoffs in three of the past four years without any money and a rotten ballpark, but no one has done what Luhnow is clearly going to do and has had the time to see if it can succeed.

The posting linked is intentionally offensive and I don’t understand why someone who believes differently would attack his opponent like that. But it’s his column and the Sporting News that has to answer for one of their writers posting it; it’ll resolve itself.

As for the Astros hirings, are you now starting to see why Walt Jocketty and Tony LaRussa viewed Luhnow with jaundiced eyes and were threatened by his presence when he joined the Cardinals? He had the ear of the owner and was coming at baseball decisions from a foreign train of thought diametrically opposed to what they were accustomed to; add in that Jocketty and LaRussa were men with credentials being forced to adhere to a new blueprint and it wasn’t because what they were doing wasn’t working—they’d won doing it their way. Both men could’ve left the Cardinals and would’ve had their choices of jobs immediately.

It’s no wonder the situation got so messy that Jocketty was fired and LaRussa had to resort to sharp-elbowed infighting to get his way.

Is this Luhnow’s fault?

No.

The situation was difficult and the Cardinals fought through the dysfunctional factions and still won.

Now Luhnow’s off on his own and is receiving free rein from the Astros new owner Jim Crane.

“Director of Decision Sciences” is a pompous and ridiculous title for a job anywhere—not just in baseball—but Sig Mejdal fits into what Luhnow wants to create. McNeal calling Stephanie Wilka a “cheerleader” as the lead to her impressive resume and education is idiotic, plain and simple.

If the Astros become a success, the overwhelming probability is that it won’t specifically be because of Luhnow’s stat based theories nor the people he’s hired, but because they’re going to have the number 1 pick in the draft in 2012; they’ll probably have the number 1, 2 or 3 pick in 2013; and are a good bet to be picking that high in 2014 as well.

High draft picks are an equalizer to lots of mistakes as long as Luhnow and his people don’t get too clever.

And they might.

We don’t know.

This is actually a circumstance where I’d dearly love to see draft picks available for trade. What would Luhnow do? Would he pull a Jimmy Johnson NFL move and package the top pick for a series of lower round choices and try to re-stock the organization? Is there a consensus number one pick a la Stephen Strasburg and Bryce Harper in 2012? MLB is missing a golden opportunity to make the draft irresistibly attractive for something other than hype and manufactured stories about players we’ve never heard of and will likely never see in the big leagues.

Luhnow’s ridiculed predecessor as Astros’ GM, Ed Wade, also gave the club a few pieces upon which to build with Brett Wallace, Jonathan Singleton and J.A. Happ. It’s not much for what’s essentially an expansion team, but it’s something.

The problem the Astros and Luhnow have is that everyone is looking for undervalued talent and using the same numbers to find it. How can you find undervalued talent if there’s nothing left to undervalue?

You can’t.

In the coming years, we’re going to see the end result of the stat-based building of a team from scratch by a front office comprised of baseball outsiders crunching numbers. Doing what McNeal did and issuing misogynistic and ignorant proclamations in the guise of “news” and “analysis” is not forwarding the argument for those who, like me, don’t believe that Luhnow’s way is going to work.

McNeal’s not making a case based on anything. He wanted attention and he got it. It’s not a good way to go about getting it and presumably, he’ll pay the price for being a fool. And he’ll deserve it.

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A Grand Overkill for Andrew Friedman

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It’s readily forgotten that when dollar figures for sports/entertainment people are discussed, it’s not the difference between 80 cents and a dollar; it’s the difference between $80 million and $100 million.

The “oh, just give it to him” attitude is ludicrous when broken down and explained in the way that it should be explained.

It’s a lot of money.

So when you see media people and bloggers saying that Astros new owner Jim Crane should just give Andrew Friedman whatever he wants to take over as their GM, it’s necessary to step back and realize exactly what that might entail.

Ken Rosenthal suggests the following package in this piece:

Offer Friedman autonomy, the title of his choosing, a five-year, $20 million contract, maybe even equity in the club.

Autonomy? No GM/club president has full autonomy. None. They work for someone and have to have their decisions approved; many times there’s a rubber stamp, but it’s not guaranteed. Nor should it be. Everyone needs a check and balance.

Title of his choosing? How about Emperor?

$4 million a year?

EQUITY IN THE CLUB?!?

Just stop it.

Friedman’s a good executive and a very bright man, but to think that he or anyone else is worth that type of compensation is ignoring the history of recent years in which “geniuses” were hired to fix floundering organizations and didn’t; couldn’t.

The idea that Friedman is going to walk into Houston and wave his hand to suddenly turn the Astros into a carbon copy of the Rays is idiotic.

Considering the number of “star” GMs who were hired with much fanfare or had lusty tales written about them and have been proven to be mediocre, unlucky or both, it makes zero sense to overpay Friedman regardless of the perception that he’s a miracle worker.

The Rays had some pieces in place when Friedman arrived; they took advantage of their status as a perennial last place team to accumulate high draft picks; they made some brilliant trades and free agent signings; and they were lucky.

Everyone is working from the same manual now; it’s not as if Friedman scaled the mountains of Tibet and discovered a cave and where lay hidden the “great secret in book form” to building a baseball team without any money. The numbers are there for all to see—everyone’s using stats and similar techniques as the Rays have—and it’s not going to be a journey from Tampa to Houston with that magical book in tow to access and implement at will.

I would never, ever give a piece of the team to any executive.

Ever.

That’s simply too valuable to give away for an unknown.

And even Friedman is an unknown.

Rosenthal’s right when he says that the Astros have so many issues that it’s going to take at least 3 years before they’re respectable again. They accumulated a few pieces in trades fired GM Ed Wade made in getting rid of Roy Oswalt, Hunter Pence and Michael Bourn; they have other veterans to trade in Wandy Rodriguez and Brett Myers. But they have to wait out the contract of Carlos Lee; the farm system is barren and suffering from years of neglect; they must try to look respectable on the field hoping that Brett Wallace and J.A. Happ grow into their abilities.

There are many qualified GM candidates who have statistical know-how, scouting skills or both.

Giving the keys to the store to Friedman is a way to placate the media and it would be a grand overkill that Crane should ignore in favor of hiring someone who’ll work under a reasonable salary without deranged benefits.

There are many of them out there who can do the job.

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The Johnny Sain Travel Guide

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Here’s a quote from Ball Four by Jim Bouton:

Every once in a while there’s a guy that doesn’t fit into the coaching mold, a man with an original idea or two who’s not afraid to express them, a guy who would like to have some influence on the club. I mean a guy like Johnny Sain. And what happens to him? He moves around a lot. He has to, because as soon as he asserts himself the manager wants to get rid of him, no matter how good a job he’s doing. (Ball Four by Jim Bouton, page 287.)

I thought of this as soon as I read that Brad Arnsberg had been fired by the Houston Astros.

It’s hard to get a gauge on Arsnberg because there are publicly differing opinions about him.

After he was fired by the Marlins in their 2003 purge, he was savaged by the club for his reaction to the firing. It wasn’t temperamental owner Jeffrey Loria who made negative statements about Arnsberg, but respected GM Larry Beinfest who accused the former pitching coach of being unprofessional and bordering on violent to the point where he wasn’t allowed into the stadium to pick up his belongings—Sun Journal Story, 5.12.2003.

It certainly didn’t help Arnsberg’s cause that the Marlins went on to win the World Series that year with new manager Jack McKeon replacing Jeff Torborg and pitching coach Wayne Rosenthal replacing Arnsberg.

Moving on with the Blue Jays, Arsnberg was widely credited with the work of veterans Ted Lilly and A.J. Burnett, along with youngsters Shaun Marcum, Dustin McGowan and Jesse Litsch; it’s not hard to look smart when working with Roy Halladay.

Arnsberg was basically pilfered by the Astros after the 2009 season. Star pitching coaches are generally in demand due to reputation and a prior record of success. Sometimes it works—as has been the case with Larry Rothschild and Rick Peterson; other times it hasn’t as was the case with Leo Mazzone.

It’s fleeting and based on results.

Or other factors.

The Astros pitched well last season. Brett Myers rejuvenated his career; J.A. Happ was solid after being acquired from the Phillies; Bud Norris has been good; Mark Melancon has blossomed.

Who knows what was going on inside the Astros organization and clubhouse? Did manager Brad Mills feel threatened by Arnsberg? Was there a falling out? Did they feel like doing something to try and wake up a struggling (and pretty poor) club.

“Philosophical differences” is a convenient excuse for a change and it’s of a similar vein to the “lack of communication” absurdity that’s often used when there’s no explicable reason.

I have no problem with a GM saying, “I wanted to make a change”. He doesn’t have to give a reason. He’s the boss.

But clubs don’t see it that way. They think they have to give something tangible to the media and “feeling like it” doesn’t cut it.

Years ago, when the Marlins had several pitchers on the disabled list with injuries to different parts of their bodies, I suggested that perhaps Arnsberg was the common denominator.

I’ve evolved from this view.

Very rare is it that a pitching coach will have training techniques that deviate from the norm so egregiously that pitchers will take part in them to begin with; and if they’re so unusual, it’s hard to see any manager allowing them to be utilized or the pitching coach to make it up to the big leagues.

It goes back to the Johnny Sain travel guide and the main tenet: don’t usurp the manager’s authority by disagreeing with him.

There are pitching coaches like this still floating around. Dick Pole has bounced from team-to-team, usually working for Dusty Baker. None other than Greg Maddux has said that it was Pole who taught him a great deal about the mechanics and mental aspects of pitching that Maddux used to forge a Hall of Fame career.

But Pole is as much-traveled as Sain was.

And Arnsberg is on the way to catching up to these men with their honorable, but short-lived reputations for accumulating frequent flyer miles and different mailing addresses.

Go along to get along or get fired for “philosophical differences” and “lack of communication”.

Some men are willing. Others aren’t. Those that aren’t tend to move around a lot and have extreme reputations. From the outside, this appears to be the case with Brad Arnsberg.

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