The Astros Blueprint Begins To Fade

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For the Astros, all of a sudden the blueprint isn’t as simple as plugging a bunch of numbers into the machine and achieving the desired result. With the resignation of CEO George Postolos there’s speculation that the Astros “united front” of rebuilding by detonating the entire organization isn’t as united as it was portrayed to be. There’s also talk that Nolan Ryan now has an opening with the Astros to be the team president since the Rangers have mitigated his CEO role and he was unhappy about it.

To put an end to the speculation on both ends, Postolos is not a baseball guy. He’s a business guy who assisted Astros owner Jim Crane in getting the franchise. Losing him is irrelevant.

Ryan has ties to the Astros fans from his days pitching for them, but think about it logically: He would be leaving the Rangers because his say-so was supposedly undermined by the promotion of GM Jon Daniels to head of baseball operations and Ryan is now seen as a figurehead, but going to the Astros and working for GM Jeff Luhnow and placating the fans who are angry at the team being so supernaturally terrible would be the epitome of a figurehead move. Luhnow certainly wouldn’t listen to Ryan’s old-school baseball theories and the stat people in the front office would roll their eyes at him when he was out of the room. It wouldn’t be a lateral move, but a step down into the “old man” status he so clearly loathes. In actuality, the one place aside from public relations in which Ryan could help the Astros is on the mound. Since he could throw 90-mph years after his retirement, there’s a pretty good chance that he could still throw in the 80s even at age 66 and would have the pitching savvy to do better than what the Astros are currently tossing out there.

Dismissing the departure of Postolos and the talk of hiring Ryan, the Astros are coming to the inevitable conclusion that the fans being onboard with this expansion-style rebuild was fleeting. They’re not going to pay to see a product that is so blatantly and intentionally not of Major League quality, nor are they going to sit happily while the owner scoffs at the fans wanting him to spend more money to at least make the team cosmetically better. It’s easy to draw up the plan for a teardown and reconstruction without accounting for the blowback from such a decision. There’s support for what Luhnow and Crane are doing and that support will not waver in places like the halls of Baseball Prospectus and Keith Law’s house, but that doesn’t mean they have carte blanche to do whatever they want with the fans merrily going along with it sans complaints. Ryan might quiet them briefly if he was hired, but how long would that last while his suggestions were being ignored and Crane was trotting him out as a human shield to protect him from fan and media vitriol? Fans don’t go to the park to see the team president do his presidenting. Most probably didn’t know who Postolos was and while they’d know Ryan, that wouldn’t perfume the stink that these Astros are generating.

The key for Crane is twofold: 1) can he stand the constant attacks he’ll be under as the team gets worse before it gets better? And 2) Can Luhnow find the talent to make the club viable again?

On the first front, Crane is probably not accustomed to people talking to or about him the way they currently are. Rich, successful businessmen aren’t pleased about criticism and when it’s an alpha-male Texan where any small concession is seen as a sign of weakness and can cost money and clients, it’s magnified.

Regarding Luhnow, because the Astros are going to have so many high draft picks and are pouring most of their resources into development, it will be hard not to get better and show signs of significant improvement eventually. Whether that will yield the results that are expected in a replication of the Rays or the new “genius” in the Moneyball sense remains to be seen and it’s not guaranteed to happen. Already there should be concerns that their hand-picked manager Bo Porter is starting to look overmatched and was rightfully mocked because he didn’t know a fundamental rule of the game last week against the Angels. To make matters worse, his coaches didn’t point out to him that what he was doing was illegal either. That he got away with it only made it look worse.

There are similarities between another Texas team that was purchased by a brash rich man who didn’t want to hear what didn’t work in the past as Jerry Jones bought the floundering Cowboys from Bum Bright in 1989. Jones said some stupid things as Crane has, but he also had the foresight and guts to fire Tom Landry and hire Jimmy Johnson to put him in charge of the entire on-field operation. Of course it helped that Troy Aikman was sitting there as the first pick in the 1989 NFL Draft and that Johnson was a ruthless wizard with moving up and down the NFL draftboard and dispatching those who couldn’t or wouldn’t help him achieve his goals as rapidly as possible. But the key for those Cowboys was the Herschel Walker trade in which Johnson fleeced the Vikings for a bounty of draft picks that he used to put a Super Bowl team together in four years.

Jeff Luhnow is not Jimmy Johnson in terms of personality nor intensity, can’t trade up and down the MLB draftboard, and he doesn’t have a Herschel Walker equivalent on his roster to trade. Porter is not Johnson in terms of on-field strategic skill and in threatening and pushing his coaches and players to get it done or else.

Unless there’s some past business animosity between the two, I wouldn’t be surprised if Jones has called Crane as Al Davis used to call Jones during the Cowboys’ 1-15 season in Jones/Johnson’s first season running the team and told him to keep his chin up. By “chin up” I don’t mean Jones is suggesting to Crane to have the ill-advised, multiple plastic surgeries Jones has had as he’s aged, but to keep his chin up in response to the raking he’s getting for the atrociousness of his team. Not only does Crane need to keep his chin up, but it had better be able to take a punch as well because they’re starting in earnest now and won’t stop until there’s a marked improvement in the on-field product. And that’s a long way away.

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The Astros Reality Is Beginning To Sink In

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We’ve come a long way in a month. On opening night in Texas, the Astros beat up on the Rangers 8-2. Following the preseason prognostications as to how bad the Astros would be (I had them at 45-117), that one game inspired an absurd belief that they wouldn’t be all that bad. There were orgasmic reactions to GM Jeff Lunow’s in-game interview on ESPN with the response being, “He has a plan!!! He…has…a…plaaaannnnnnn, ohhhhhhh!!!!”

Owner Jim Crane made some arrogant and obnoxious statements in a Wall Street Journal article that went largely unreported and uncriticized (except for me); he was lauded for providing every player with an I-Pad like his players were a group of Unfrozen Caveman Lawyers given a “frightening new information machine.” Luhnow made an absurd projection that manager Bo Porter might be managing the club for decades. On and on.

From the time Luhnow was hired, the media has squealed in pre-teen girl delight as if they were at a Justin Bieber concert at the new metrics permeating the organization from top to bottom. They’re a pure stat guy club complete with the bizarre titles (Sig Mejdal—Director of Decision Sciences); multitudes being hired from various stat guy sources (Baseball Prospectus); a mutually beneficial “interview” of Keith Law for a position in the front office in which the ESPN “expert” made a great show of “choosing” to stay at ESPN when a job may not have even been offered; and the new, unapologetic manner in which the Astros are shunning any and all old-school techniques preferred by veteran baseball people.

There won’t be any inter-organizational squabbles and questioning of Luhnow’s credentials as there were while he was with the Cardinals and Tony LaRussa played sharp-elbowed politics to mitigate Luhnow’s influence and win the turf war. He’s in charge. It’s his baby and, admirably, he’s doing it his way and hiring people who will implement his vision.

In the end, it’ll work or it won’t. If it does, it will have more to do with the team accumulating years and years of high draft picks because they were so historically awful than because of any undervalued finds on the part of the front office. That’s just reality. It was so with the Rays, will be so with the Astros and is a fact that those looking to anoint the next “genius” will conveniently brush to the side when embarking on an archaeological dig for reasons to twist the narrative in their preferred direction—exactly like Moneyball.

Now the mainstream media—especially those who are unabashed stat guys who defend Bill James’s most ludicrous statements regarding Joe Paterno and think Billy Beane’s bowel movements are objects of worship—are not only catching on as to how bad the 2013 Astros will be, but are speculating as to whether they can rival the 2003 Tigers and 1962 Mets in terms of historic awfulness. The Astros are this bad with a few useful veterans on their roster. Imagine what they’ll look like in August once they’ve dealt away Bud Norris, Lucas Harrell, Wesley Wright, Jose Veras and maybe even Jose Altuve. They’ll have a legitimate chance to reach the depths of the Cleveland Spiders of 1899. And I’m not kidding.

The media can present the contextualized explanations as to what the Astros are doing (“What’s the difference between winning 40 games and 60 games?”) and they’ll kindasorta be right. It doesn’t make much difference. But to the fans of the club who’ll have to endure this and listen to the mantra of “trust us, we’re smart” from Crane, et al., it’s going to get tiresome quickly as they’re being abused. Crane is going to need a thick skin to get through the amount of cow refuse he’ll have flung at him as the season moves along. As a loud and brash Texan, he talks like he’s ready to withstand the criticism, but when it starts coming from those who were supportive as part of their own personal agenda and they leap from the plummeting rocketship in self preservation, we’ll see if he lashes out or stays the course. I have a hunch that it will be both. Then there will really be some good stuff to write about as Crane is saying derogatory things to critics/fans because his team is so dreadfully, embarrassingly bad. He’s used to people kissing his ass and they’ll be kicking it instead. That adds up to an explosive response that will come sooner rather than later.

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Bashing and Smashing the Real Underachievers—American League

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Yesterday I asked why the Mets were being hammered for playing pretty much the way anyone and everyone should’ve expected them to play. Today let’s have a look at some teams that were—according to the “experts,” payrolls and talent levels—were supposed to be performing better and why they aren’t.

Toronto Blue Jays

It’s becoming apparent that the Blue Jays are not a team off to a bad start. They might just be plain bad. In addition to that, one of the main culprits in their mediocrity/badness over the past two seasons—former manager John Farrell—has the Red Sox in first place with the best record in baseball. I don’t think he’s a good game manager, but the reality doesn’t lie. The Red Sox will fall to earth at some point, but will the Blue Jays rise?

They may not be making the same baserunning gaffes they did under Farrell, but they’re third in the American League in homers and twelfth in runs scored. They’re last in batting average, next-to-last in on-base percentage, and thirteenth in ERA. The bullpen has been solid, but if a team doesn’t hit and doesn’t get any starting pitching their roster is irrelevant whether it has Jose Reyes, Mark Buehrle, Josh Johnson, Brandon Morrow and Jose Bautista or whatever refuse the Mets are shuttling in and out of their outfield.

There’s too much talent with too long a history for this type of underperformance to continue for the whole season, but if it does it may be time to stop looking at the players, coaches and manager and turn the blame to the front office.

Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim

What I find funny is that one of the main arguments for Mike Trout’s 2012 MVP candidacy apart from his higher WAR over Miguel Cabrera was that the Angels took off after he was recalled. Without him to start the season they were 6-14; with him in the lineup after his recall they were 81-58. Trout’s been there from the beginning of the 2013 season and the Angels are 10-17, looking haphazard, disconnected and awful. The only “war” being mentioned is the undeclared, but known, “war” between the front office and the manager.

They’re not a cohesive unit and when you have a bunch of mercenaries, some of those mercenaries had better be able to pitch.

Yesterday’s win over the Athletics was indicative of one of the Angels’ biggest problems: veteran apathy. In the eighth inning, an important insurance run would’ve scored had Mark Trumbo touched the plate before Josh Hamilton was thrown out at third base to end the inning. Mike Scioscia’s teams were known for the inside game, pitching, defense, speed and going all out. Those small fundamental mistakes didn’t cost them games because they didn’t happen. Now they do. And they’re 10-17 and going nowhere in large part because of that. They got away with it yesterday, but just barely. It certainly doesn’t help that their pitching is woeful, but their issues stem from more than just bad pitching.

Why don’t the Angels just put the man out of his misery? He’s been there for 14 years, it’s no longer his team, his sway in the organization is all but gone and the players aren’t responding to him. It’s like delaying the decision to put down a beloved pet. Another week isn’t going to make a difference other than to make things worse. Sometimes making a change for its own sake is good.

Tony LaRussa’s says he’s not interested in managing. He might be interested but for one thing: his relationship with Jim Leyland is such that he won’t want to compete with his friend in the same league and possibly ruin Leyland’s last shot at a title so LaRussa could stroke his own ego, make another big payday, derive some joy over abusing Jeff Luhnow and the Astros and being the center of attention again. It’s Ivory Soap Pure (99 44/100%) that you can forget LaRussa.

Phil Garner took over an Astros team that was floundering in 2004 and brought them to the playoffs; the next season, they were 15 games under .500 in late May of 2005 and rebounded to make the World Series. Even Bob Brenly, who was a figurehead as Diamondbacks manager and whose main attribute was that he wasn’t Buck Showalter and didn’t tell the players how to wear their socks, would restore a calming, “it’s different” atmosphere.

Someone, somewhere would yield a better result that Scioscia is now. It’s known and not accepted yet. Maybe after a few more losses, it will be accepted that it’s enough so they can move on.

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Accepting the Marlins Inevitable Reality (It Was Clear from the Get-go)

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In today’s New York Times, Tyler Kepner writes about the empty seats in Marlins Park; about the gutting of the franchise; and the possibly bright future the Marlins have because of all the prospects they accumulated in trades of veterans.

We can go into the lack of attendance and perceived wrongdoing of owner Jeffrey Loria, but what he does is in the same ballpark (pardon the dual entendre) of what the Astros are currently doing, but the Astros are receiving widespread praise for putting together a big league club that is a big league club in name only. Weeks ago, I gave Astros owner Jim Crane a written lashing for his arrogant statements that if fans want the team to spend money, they should write him a check among other, “I’m a big shot, you’re not” alpha male nonsense, but no one else did. Astros GM Jeff Luhnow is a stat guy centerfold and little criticism is heading the way of their front office in spite of their on-field atrocity.

The political machinations that got Marlins Park built, predominately at the expense of Floridians, is still being sorted out with allegations, accusations and SEC investigations. Does anyone really believe that the investigation will amount to much, if any penalties for the likes of Loria or the powerbrokers who facilitated him getting his new park and not paying for it? Loria fits every small bit of chicanery into the flexible rules under which he operates. Similar to the Astros within-the-rules stripping of their payroll to the bare minimum and putting a team on the field that on most days is non-competitive against legitimate Major League teams, there’s no rule saying Loria can’t sign free agents and trade them a year later; that he can’t fire his manager Ozzie Guillen one year into a four year contract; that he can’t take the benefits from the new park, pocket the profits and flip a chubby middle finger at anyone who dares question him.

The Marlins were a disappointment in 2012. Loria was right to fire Guillen for the poor job he did on the field and the ridiculous statement he made early in the season praising Fidel Castro. He had options rather than gutting the club (again) by retooling with a different manager and a tweak here and there to give it another shot in 2013. But it wouldn’t have made a difference with the fans if the Marlins were contending in 2013 with a manager who didn’t alienate a vast portion of the fans they hoped to attract. It wasn’t and isn’t going to work in Miami because the fans aren’t interested.

The Marlins attendance improved dramatically last season in comparison to 2011. During that year, their usual numbers were between 10,000 and 20,000. It was an annual problem. When there were higher attendance figures, it stemmed from ancillary attractions like the Mets and Dodgers fans who’ve relocated to Florida and wanted to watch their teams. One the one hand, it’s not fair to question the reasons the fans are coming—their money is just as green regardless which club they’re rooting for—but on the other, the Marlins can look at the increase in attendance and realize that it’s fleeting and say, “Yeah, but they didn’t come to see us,” and act accordingly.

In 2012, the attendance was better than it was when they played in Sun Life Stadium, a football facility. With the new park, they regularly drew crowds of nearly 30,000 and finished twelfth in the National League in attendance. That’s counting the second half after they’d conceded the season and traded Hanley Ramirez, Anibal Sanchez and Omar Infante. Before 2012, they were annually at the bottom in attendance going back 15 years. In 1997, when they spent a ton of money and won the World Series, they were fifth in the National League in attendance, but it’s petered out and whether the team was good or not, the fans don’t have the passion. Since then, it’s gone rapidly downhill and even after they won another World Series in 2003, there wasn’t the usual accompanying attendance spike. The Marlins have stayed anchored to the bottom of the ocean of attendance.

And that’s the point. The Miami fans are not fickle, hammering home the point that the new park shouldn’t have been built in the first place. If someone stood up and told Loria to take his threats and his team and move if that’s what he had to do, none of the other stuff—the park, the investigation, the free agents, the trades, the faux anguish—would’ve happened. If he received a new park in San Antonio, Oregon, North Carolina or anywhere, the overwhelming probability is that he would’ve moved and done the exact same thing that he does in Miami—bought people’s favor, made promises and then utilized flexible statements and semantics to justify the gutting of the team and defend against accusations of ruthless profiteering. He’s a combination of a politician and a classically brutal businessman. He may want to have a team that wins, but when he sees that it’s not going to happen, all bets are off. It’s admirable in its way if you know what you’re dealing with going in.

Amid all the head shaking and abuse raining down on Loria, it all goes back to the initial mistake: giving in to his threats to move the club and Florida allowing him to get his park without paying for it. No one should be surprised, chagrined, or angry at the Marlins method of doing business. The system was rife for abuse and Loria abused it. There was no other way this could’ve ended and if the traded players Mark Buehrle, Jose Reyes, et al, didn’t see it coming; if the people who could’ve stopped the park from being built didn’t make a greater effort to do so; if MLB is allowing clubs like the Marlins and Astros to do whatever they want in their own best interests, then it’s on them for allowing it to happen. Lamenting it after the fact as if the money spent on the park would’ve been better-used for charitable causes is ludicrous. The Monday morning quarterbacking is done so in the same vein as the original decision to let the Marlins build the park. It was done for expediency and self-interest. The park wasn’t for the fans nor was it to “save” baseball in Miami because baseball in Miami can’t be saved. They don’t care whether it’s there or not.

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Red Sox and Yankees: Early Season Notes

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Boston Red Sox

There haven’t been any glaring John Farrell managerial mistakes as of yet. He’s pretty much gone by the book. They’re over .500 and the main concern is Joel Hanrahan’s poor start and now hamstring injury.

What’s been prominent with the Red Sox has been the continuing talk amongst the media about what a better atmosphere there is in the clubhouse with the new faces they’ve brought in. Positivity has to lead to wins and whether that occurs over the course of a long season with the Red Sox remains to be seen. Their positive attitude won’t amount to much if they’re under .500 at mid-season. There’s a media-created desperation to bolster the Red Sox into the behemoth they were five years ago and that’s not going to happen, especially with this roster and that manager.

The latest hype is the attempted credit given to GM Ben Cherington for the acquisitions he made in last August’s salary dumping trade with the Dodgers. Rubby De La Rosa and Allen Webster are receiving most of the attention for their arms. In realistic context, it’s not like the Dodgers were doing the Red Sox a favor by taking a load of money off their ledger. Josh Beckett was a “get this guy outta here” trade and Carl Crawford was hurt, but Adrian Gonzalez was acquired from the Padres for three of the Red Sox top prospects a year-and-a-half earlier and is a star in his prime. If you’re trading him, you’d better get some good prospects for him and not just add him as the X in the deal as a, “if you want X, you’d better take Y.”

New York Yankees

The Yankees have treaded water with Mark Teixeira, Curtis Granderson and Derek Jeter all out. Andy Pettitte’s been great, but now he’s having a start pushed back due to back spasms, thus dampening Mike Francesa’s elementary school enthusiasm that Pettitte could pitch forever and ever and ever as if he was trapped in the Francesa Overlook Hotel in which he’s overlooking Pettitte’s age and injury history.

They’ve gotten hot starts from newcomers Kevin Youkilis, Vernon Wells and Travis Hafner. The pitching, that was supposed to be a strong suit, has been bad behind Pettitte and CC Sabathia. The season will hinge on whether the new additions can maintain some level of production and the injured players return ready to contribute.

There are sudden concerns about Ichiro Suzuki’s slow start which shouldn’t be concerns at all—they should’ve been expected. He hit .322 as a Yankee last season and had a BAbip of .337. In 2013, he’s hitting .176 with a .167 BAbip (and no, I don’t have it backwards; his BAbip is really lower than his batting average). Ichiro’s success is contingent on his soft line drives and ground balls dropping in and finding holes. If they’re not doing either, he’s not going have numbers that appear to be productive.

Check out my appearance on Donn Paris’s Seamheads Podcast from yesterday here. We discussed the Angels, Astros, Mike Scioscia, the Red Sox, Yankees, Jeff Luhnow, player development, the draft and much more.

Essays, predictions, player analysis, under the radar fantasy picks, breakout candidates, contract status of all relevant personnel—GMs, managers, players—and anything else you could possibly want to know is in my new book Paul Lebowitz’s 2013 Baseball Guide now available on Amazon.comSmashwordsBN and Lulu. Check it out and read a sample.

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Lusting For Luhnow, Part II

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The narrative of Jeff Luhnow having been the scouting director who drafted the most players who opened the 2013 season on a Major League roster is taken far out of context in the effort to create a pithy and simple-minded conclusion that he was the mastermind behind the Cardinals and is a guarantee to rebuild the Astros in a similar manner.

Is it technically true that Luhnow has the most draftees on big league rosters in 2013?

Yes.

Is it accurate in its basest sense?

No.

The drafting of players is such a random thing and their making it or not making it is based on so many factors that have nothing to do with talent that it’s a meaningless assertion to make to credit any one person for it. How many high draft picks have flamed out and not made it to the degree they were supposed to? How many late-rounders became stars? Albert Pujols was with the Cardinals club that Luhnow supposedly built and was a 13th round draft pick. Chris Carpenter was a first round draft pick of the Blue Jays who was a combination of bad and injury-prone before he came under the tutelage of Dave Duncan and Tony LaRussa and was completely rebuilt into one of the best pitchers in baseball over the past decade.

No one in their right mind is going to try and take credit for Pujols as a 13th round pick and say they “knew” what he was. His selection was a combination of a late-bloomer, luck and who knows what else? The scouting director is the one who receives the credit, but in reality it’s the cross-checkers and in-the-trenches scouts who find the players to begin with and recommend them to the front office who decide which player they want. Much of it is innate talent, happenstance, teaching, and opportunity. To think that any club believes a player drafted from the 8th round and beyond will do anything significant in the majors is absurd. The ones who do are an anomaly, the product of a trick pitch, late growth spurts or PEDs.

Yet here we are. No matter what Luhnow does, it’s treated as if he’s reinventing the game and receiving undue credit for his new thinking. But we can’t avoid the reality that his current club is going to lose somewhere between 105 and 115 games in 2013. Does that not matter?

The fervent and evangelical support he’s receiving is akin to George W. Bush abandoning the pretense of Constitutional separation between church and state and holding up a Bible saying he answers to a higher authority while mega-churches prayed for his election and turned out en masse to make it happen. Instead of the New Testament, Luhnow is metaphorically holding up a copy of Baseball Prospectus and answering to that “higher authority” and plucking people from its staff to function as his assistants.

It’s sort of like Mitt Romney’s binder of women only it’s Luhnow’s paperback of stat geeks.

They have their impressive degrees, theories and worship from the masses who see them as examples of what they believe as if that’s the final word on what’s right. This is a conceit that is growing prevalent as its supporters are emboldened by increased validation, accurate or not. The congregation—the like-minded media, bloggers, and social media “experts”—spread the gospel and make ham-handed and pompous fumblings with “conversion.” It maintains the undertone of an insecure, “we don’t really believe it” desperation and whininess asking why others don’t see the “truth.”

Because Luhnow is adhering to his beliefs and has the support of the likes of Keith Law, he’s receiving a pass for this monstrosity into which he’s crafted the Astros as they play, not to compete, but to accumulate draft picks. The teams that have had success in recent years but have done it in a decidedly old-school manner and told the outside “experts” to take a hike, namely the Giants and their GM Brian Sabean, are not credited for what they’ve created with the GM failing to get the accolades he deserves. Instead, before the champagne in the carpet of the Giants’ clubhouse had even dried, the media made it a point to search for someone, anyone in the Giants organization who would bolster them and render meaningless the argument that Sabean’s old-school methods worked. What they found was Yeshayah Goldfarb who is the Giants “Moneyball” guy in a Moneyballless organization. Goldfarb, who few even knew existed before he was dragged into the spotlight, was the behind the scenes wizard who pulled Sabean’s strings and “really” crafted the Giants into a World Series winner in two of the past three years.

At least that’s how the story was framed.

So how’s it work? If the GM fits the aesthetic as Luhnow does, he’s a hero and if he doesn’t (like Sabean), he got help from a guy in a darkened room recommending the team sign Juan Uribe? If the storyline doesn’t translate neatly into some singular person being a “genius,” by believing what the baseball revolutionaries believe, a Goldfarb has to be found somewhere?

The Luhnow rhetoric stems from what “we’d” do with the “we” being the aforementioned bloggers, media and people on Twitter. But because the “we” agrees with what someone is doing doesn’t make it right; it doesn’t make it unassailable; and it doesn’t make someone a “genius” before they’ve accomplished anything at all other than accumulate a load of worshipful hype, driven payroll down as low as it can possibly go and put together one of the worst clubs in history.

Let’s wait on the smiling bust of Luhnow to be placed in the room of every would-be GM who’s memorized the latest edition of Baseball Prospectus and thinks that somehow qualifies him or her to be a GM and tell experienced baseball players, coaches, managers, and executives how to do their jobs. He’s done nothing up to now other than demolish what was admittedly a crumbled infrastructure. But anyone with a wrecking ball and sufficient motivation could’ve done that. So far he’s a media creation and nothing more.

Paul Lebowitz’s 2013 Baseball Guide is now available on Amazon.com, Smashwords, BN and Lulu. Check it out and read a sample.

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Lusting For Luhnow, Part I

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We’re about a week away from a Jeff Luhnow bowel movement being encased in a climate controlled, clear reinforced plastic viewing chamber to be marveled at and admired 50, 100, 200 years from now in Cooperstown as if it was the work of a genius and not a bran muffin and coffee he had for breakfast on a particular morning in April of 2013.

For now, the adoration lavished on the Astros GM is limited to orgasmic sighs, lusty Twitter comments, and Hardball Talk postings about the I-Pads all the Astros’ players were given, beatific grins at the catchphrase in the clubhouse (“Process”), Baseball America columns discussing the number of Luhnow draft picks that opened the season on a big league roster, and the method in which Luhnow is rebuilding the Astros as if they’re an expansion team.

Of course it’s nonsense. With the free hand Luhnow’s been given by Astros owner Jim Crane, he’s in an enviable position on multiple fronts. First, the owner isn’t expecting results immediately and is letting the GM do whatever he wants in every aspect of the organization. Second, the media is rolling around and contorting itself into a pretzel to allow Luhnow a wide swath of absolution in spite of formulating a 2013 club that is going to be among the worst in the history of the sport. Third, his resume is being taken so drastically out of context that it won’t be long before he’s given credit for the Cardinals busting through from the team that constantly lost in the playoffs under Walt Jocketty/Tony LaRussa pre-2006 to the one that won two World Series in 2006 and 2011 with Luhnow as the scouting director. Fourth, he has the support of one of the largest growing constituencies in all of sports: the bloggers and social media “experts” who think they can run a club, scout, and analyze because they play fantasy baseball and can read a spreadsheet, yet never picked up a baseball in their lives and wouldn’t know what to do with one if they did.

Luhnow’s gutting of the Astros is fulfilling a mandate and reacting to the situation he entered. The Astros had bloated contacts, were notoriously thin in talent, and had neglected the farm system to the degree that there were very few marketable prospects for trade or development. He’s essentially running an expansion team in large part because he himself cleared out the house of any and all players that were there when he arrived. It may be a bit much to say they’re trying to lose, but it’s not too much to say they don’t care if they win. It’s a subtle difference and a large factor as to why they’re being allowed to put a team on the field that has a $26 million payroll and will have a dramatic impact on all of baseball with their historic and intentional awfulness.

Is it necessary to strip the whole apparatus down to its brass fittings in order to build it back up? No. It’s not. There are many ways to get where a club wants to go and the days of an expansion team having to take annual beatings for 5-7 years while their draft picks develop ended with free agency. The 1969 Mets and early 1980s Blue Jays were case studies of clubs that built from the bottom up and turned their fortunes around in year eight for the Mets (100 wins and a World Series), and year seven for the Blue Jays (89 wins in 1983 starting off a long run culminating in back-to-back World Series wins in 1992-1993).

However, those were the days before teams spent lavishly on free agents and had the ability to just buy their way into contention. Nowadays, it’s not necessary to wait. The Diamondbacks are the new age case study having won 100 games in their second season and a World Series in their fourth. Strangely, their success has been quantified as “lucky,” “mortgaging,” and “checkbook building” by then-owner Jerry Colangelo; then-GM Joe Garagiola Jr.; and then-manager Buck Showalter. They followed the strategies of Showalter—hired by the Diamondbacks shortly after the Yankees had fired him in 1995—and he took command of the implementation of Showalter-preferred teaching methods from that day forward. They were largely a creation of free agency by signing Randy JohnsonJay Bell and trading for Luis Gonzalez and Matt Williams. This is often referred to with a scoffing eye-roll as if there’s something untoward about signing free agents and achieving rapid success with players drafted, signed and developed by other clubs. Like those who advocate eating organic foods and nothing else, there’s a sense of superiority for a team that developed their own players rather than purchased them. In reality, there’s no difference other than in the mind. The Yankees didn’t develop Babe Ruth. They bought him. So what? Does that diminish what he was? Not in any way.

The “development” attitude is supposed to be sustainable as if the atmosphere is being saved and global warming is being stopped by a player working his way through the organization and making it to the big leagues as a homegrown talent.

In the end, a win is a win is a win and it doesn’t make much difference whether it’s done by a bunch of mercenaries and a $150-200 million payroll or one with a $70 million payroll and the appellation of “genius” attached to the “architect” of the club.

The concept that what Luhnow is doing with the Astros is “right” is based on nothing more than the preferred public perception by the self-styled revolutionaries who feel as if statistics have taken over the game of baseball in an inextricable metamorphosis from what was to what is and what will be.

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Bo Porter: Future Managerial Pope?

Award Winners, Books, Draft, Games, Hall Of Fame, History, Management, Media, MiLB, Players, Politics, Prospects, Spring Training, Stats

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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Nolan Ryan’s Present And Future

Ballparks, Games, Hall Of Fame, History, Management, Media, MiLB, Players, Politics, Spring Training, Stats

People are forgetting who Nolan Ryan is and why he has the reputation he does.

As a player, he was an ornery, competitive, strong and silent Texan who let his fastball and his performance do the talking. Now that he’s in the Rangers’ front office, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that he’s staking out his territory and trying to control his own destiny by waiting to see exactly where he stands in the new hierarchy. It’s still unknown what his job description is and how far his power extends with former GM Jon Daniels now promoted to President of Baseball Operations; Rick George is running the business side; and Thad Levine—as soon as Ryan’s fate is determined—probably taking over a significant part of Daniels’s former duties in the day-to-day minutiae of running the club. Ryan has a right to stop and say, “Hold awn just a dern second here, pardner,” with his hand on his sidearm and an icy glare at the town politicians who are trying to take away his sheriff’s badge.

It seems that Ryan is being contrary because he’s not sure as to the delineation of the new parameters and wants to be certain he’s still wanted with the Rangers for his experience and advice. Daniels has said nothing will change, but that’s not worth much until there’s a disagreement between the two and Ryan knows that Daniels doesn’t have the power to shrug off what Ryan wants and do as he prefers without approval from his “boss.” Ryan also has an ego as big as Texas and doesn’t want to be seen as a caddy for his 35-year-old underling.

The Rangers baseball people are, by and large, highly educated and stat-centric. That’s not Ryan. While Ryan’s preferred method of developing pitchers deviated from the stat guy template, were Daniels and Levine onboard with what he was doing? Or were they cringing at the medieval methods and went along to get along because Ryan had the owner’s ear and they quietly hoped that no one got hurt or too much damage wasn’t done to the young arms Matt Harrison, Derek Holland, Martin Perez and others as they were pushed harder than the numbers dictate is optimal? If Ryan’s tactics are shunted to the side and more “science” is injected into the equation, it will be clear what was going on with the Rangers. This is independent of whether Ryan’s there or not.

I believe it’s a mistake to let Ryan leave. While he prefers layman terminology and old-school sensibilities, he’s also able to adapt. When he hooked up with Tom House as his pitching coach and advisor in the 1980s-90s, he took House’s penchant for long-winded technical terms and innovations such as throwing a football and made them accessible for everyone. With his resume, if Ryan was doing it it had to be okay. It’s the same dynamic with the stat guys in the organization. He’s not a grumpy old man with no interest nor capability to understand the new metrics. He plays the opposite side from a position of having the experience to know what works and what doesn’t and he won’t be intimidated by condescension and high-end vocabularies. On the other side of the coin, with people who have their own theories and beliefs on building a club, they don’t want to hear the growling, memory-lane laced, “In my day, grumble, grumble…” from someone who doesn’t have the faintest interest nor comprehension of what the stat people are trying to do.

Ryan will not accept being a figurehead and those who are suggesting the Astros hire him away from the Rangers (Johnette Howard and Richard Justice) mention that Ryan couldn’t be a figurehead if the Astros did hire him. But what would he do there? The Astros have taken dramatic steps and made pointed hirings of pure stat people who never picked up a baseball. GM Jeff Luhnow has made no secret as to his intentions with the team and he’s implementing his beliefs as to how to rebuild a dead and dilapidated franchise. Whether it works remains to be seen, but he’s plotted his course and is sticking to it. That blueprint doesn’t include an old-schooler who wants substantial say-so and is used to getting his way in the male-dominated world of baseball in which might makes right.

Teams have plenty of former stars on their payrolls. Willie Mays is listed as a member of the Giants’ front office as a special assistant. Soon to be age 82, how much special assistance do you think Mays is providing? How much interest do you think he has in doing it? Mays is there to hobnob with the people who were kids when he was in his say heyday, want to say, “Wow!! I met Willie Mays!!” and have the money to purchase season tickets, luxury suites and hold corporate events at AT&T Park.  The Yankees bring in their former stars to stand around in spring training, mingle with the fans and help them sell stuff with nostalgia and stories. Sometimes, as was the case with Andy Pettitte, they even come back to play and contribute. But they’re not there with legitimate power, if any at all.

For the Astros, hiring Ryan would be diametrically opposed to what they’ve done since Luhnow took command. While it may make some fans happy for a moment, if they’re inserting Ryan’s methods into their rebuilding process, the inevitable question as to why they were they so hell-bent on tearing the thing down to its brass fittings and putting together a team that will compete for the title of worst in history if they were going to bring in Ryan and his opposite viewpoint as a decision maker?

Ryan could have been governor of Texas if he’d chosen to. He has neither the time nor the desire to stand around talking to people he doesn’t know and being the former hero who’s there to make everyone smile at the memories he created with his power fastball, longevity, and intensity. He wants to work. That may be possible with the Rangers, but it’s completely off the table for the Astros. The Rangers should make sure Ryan feels wanted because they need him to stay with the organization for his presence and his knowledge.

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Passionless Managing, Numbers Crunching and Outsiders

Ballparks, Books, CBA, Fantasy/Roto, Football, Free Agents, Games, Hall Of Fame, History, Hot Stove, Management, Media, MiLB, NFL, Players, Playoffs, Prospects, Stats, World Series

The new managerial template of eschewing experienced minor league managers or veteran big league managers and bringing in the likes of Mike Matheny and Robin Ventura has developed into a two-way street. Teams are making the hires and the managers aren’t fully invested in doing the job, putting forth an almost blasé sense of, “Oh, I’ll manage the team if that’s what your really want me to do until something better comes along.”

According to Matheny’s own account during the revelation of his financial issues, he had no intention of returning to the dugout if he didn’t have to find work. Intentional or not, Matheny saying that he wouldn’t be managing had he not lost all his money in real estate came across as arrogant and condescending. Considering that everything the Cardinals accomplished last season had more to do with the foundation left by Tony LaRussa and Dave Duncan than with Matheny, it’s not the right attitude to have.

In a similar vein, Ventura turned down a contract extension because he wasn’t sure how long he wanted to manage. For a lifer such as Jim Leyland and Terry Francona, this would be totally foreign tack for a relatively young man such as the 45-year-old Ventura. Lifers manage, of course, for the money. They also love the competition and, in spite of the success they’ve had, there’s a certain amount of insecurity that comes from the journeyman way they were reared in baseball. Leyland rode minor league buses forever as a player and manager, got his chance as a coach with LaRussa, then began his long ride between Pittsburgh, Florida and Colorado. He spent several years as a semi-retired adviser/observer insisting he was done managing, then returned to take over the Tigers in 2006 and has been there ever since. With all he’s accomplished and his resume, there’s still regular talk that his job is on the line.

Francona is fending off the perception that his two championships managing the Red Sox were a byproduct of the organization and he was an on-field functionary. As was detailed in his new book (my review is here), the reputation-bashing he endured when he left Boston was such that it could have festered into him becoming toxic to other clubs. I believe he took the Indians job in large part to put that talk to rest.

Both Matheny and Ventura were old-school as players, but this new school of managing is something that front office people have to decide is worth it.

The tree of coaches and managers has branches that sometimes grow in strange ways. In football, Bill Parcells was known as much for his brilliance as his constant vacillation, threats of retirement and resignations only to rise again in a different location. Two of his most successful assistants—Bill Belichick and Tom Coughlin—have been on the sidelines constantly without needing a break due to burnout, failing health or exhaustion. Some clubs prefer short-term contracts with their managers and coaches and can live with not knowing one day to the next whether they’re going to stay or go. Others want a full commitment. I believe it helps the organization to have a coach/manager who wants to be there and has a passion for doing the job.

Passion. It must be there for long-term success. The job isn’t a hobby or a pleasant and brief diversion like going to the park and having a picnic. As Bill James said in his guest appearance on The Simpsons, “I made baseball as much fun as doing your taxes.” It’s the truth. With the new age people like Jeff Luhnow running the Astros like an ambitious startup, is there a love for the game or is it something they enjoy and see as a challenge, but don’t have a deep wellspring of passion for?

I don’t get the sense of passion from Matheny or Ventura. With Ventura, he’s so laid back that there are times that he looks like he needs to have a mirror placed under his nose to see if he’s still breathing. The White Sox functioned for so long under the volcanic Ozzie Guillen, that they sought someone who wasn’t going to create a crisis every time he opened his mouth. That’s exactly what they—from GM Ken Williams on through the coaches and players—needed. By 2014, Ventura might not have a choice in staying or going if the team looks disinterested and needs a spark.

Some veteran managers use their growing reputations and success to exact some revenge for years of subservience. Joe Torre and Francona took short money contracts to get their opportunities with the Yankees and Red Sox and when the time came to get paid and accumulate say-so as to the construction of their clubs—no rebuilding projects for them anymore—they took them.

We can debate the baseball qualifications and merits of hiring outsiders to work in front offices or run a baseball team. Many of these individuals are people with degrees from impressive universities who never picked up a ball themselves and haven’t the faintest idea about the social hierarchy and nuance necessary to handle a big league clubhouse or put a cohesive club together not just on the field, but off it as well.

Crunching numbers isn’t analysis and is decidedly not all there is to running a baseball team, nor the final word in determining the future. This is how we end up with the Pirates’ assistant Kyle Stark living out his tough guy fantasies by entreating his minor league players to follow Navy SEALs training techniques and telling them to think like a Hell’s Angel without understanding what that truly entails. It’s how insecure “analysts” such as Keith Law continually try to find excuses for the Orioles’ success in 2012 and why he and other “experts” were “right” in spirit about them having a prototypically terrible Orioles year, but the Orioles made up for their lack of talent with luck. Rather than simply enjoying an unexpected rise for a historic franchise as a baseball fan would, it turns into an egocentric treatise to bolster one’s own credentials and dissect why it’s not “real.” Is it necessary to find a “why” to justify the Orioles being lucky complete with turning one’s nose up in a pompous, snobby, sighing and eye-rolling dismissiveness?

Matheny and Ventura are running toward the mistaken path that other coaches and managers have taken in assuming that because they did what can be perceived as a good job, that they’ll always have another opportunity to manage if they need it. It’s not the case. The attitude of “I’m doing you a favor by being here” only lasts for so long. Perhaps Ventura doesn’t need to manage or to have the job, but with Matheny’s financial plight now known, he does need the job, making that attitude worse.

As Parcells repeatedly showed, it’s a tradeoff to take his ambiguity from one year to the next to have his coaching expertise. With Ventura and Matheny, it can be seen as an advantage to have a replaceable overseer rather than a difficult and well-compensated manager with a track record like LaRussa. Whether they realize that it won’t cost much to fire them is the question. Maybe Matheny will think about that if the transition from the veterans that performed under LaRussa and maintained that performance under Matheny evolves into youngsters who must to be nurtured and guided with strategies a legitimate manager must impart. His strategic work was wanting in 2012 even though the Cardinals made it to game 7 of the NLCS. If it becomes clear that the Cardinals don’t need him, that flippancy will dissolve, but it might be too late. Front offices will tolerate it while it’s working. When it’s not, they won’t. It could come back to haunt them. When they realize the job wasn’t such a bad deal after all, it will no longer be theirs to keep at their discretion.

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