Astros GM Luhnow begins executing his plan
Facing the future, Houston embraces statistical analysis, scouting
When the Astros approached him about their general manager vacancy, Jeff Luhnow started to type out all the ideas that had been percolating in his mind over the course of eight years in the baseball business with the St. Louis Cardinals.He took an honest look at the Astros -- an intradivision team he knew intimately -- and articulated all his beliefs about the acquisition and development of talent and how decisions ought to be made at the big league level. A couple days and 40 pages later, he was finished. And then he scaled it back to a more modest 25 pages. After all, he didn't want to come across as overly eager. Owner Jim Crane and president George Postolos pored over the document, and much to Luhnow's relief, determined they were on the same page. All 25 of them. "I was lucky in that regard," Luhnow says now. "When you do something like that, you take a risk that you're going off in a direction that was not part of their strategy." Much will be made of that 25-page paper should the Astros make a successful transition into the American League, beginning in 2013, and into a contending climate. For now, it stands as a road map for Luhnow as he embarks upon making Houston a more savvy organization from both the statistical and scouting perspectives. Contrary to anything you've read or heard, the Astros don't have any realistic intentions of changing their name. They do, however, have every intention of changing their identity. While Crane meets with season-ticket holders on a near-daily basis to get input on improving the fan experience (last week, Crane announced a reduction in ticket prices for 5,000 seats and some beers), Luhnow is the man entrusted with improving the on-field product. And after years of farm-system erosion, it's going to take a focused approach on the Draft and the international markets to make it happen. "We're going to work hard, work smart and make a return to competitiveness in as short a time frame as possible," Luhnow says. "That takes a commitment, from Jim Crane all the way down to our area scouts and coaches, that this is going to be the lifeblood." The Astros didn't have a lot of life last year. Their 106 losses were the most in baseball and blew away the record for most in franchise history. And those losses were the by-product of a farm system that stopped pumping prime talent into the Majors. The club's 2005-07 amateur Drafts have netted four Major Leaguers, the fewest of any club in that time span. Contrast that with the Cardinals, who selected 24 eventual Major Leaguers in that period, the most of any team. Luhnow was the Cards' scouting director for those Drafts, so it's little wonder why the Astros had interest in him for this opening. In his first month-plus at the helm, Luhnow has made a couple of interesting hires. He brought in Sig Mejdal from St. Louis for the newly created position of director of decision sciences, and last week he brought aboard respected Baseball Prospectus analyst Mike Fast to work in that same department. In the coming years, Luhnow envisions a data-management system that sets a new industry standard. But he knows it will take time. "It took us eight years in St. Louis," he says. "We probably added three or four full-time employees each year, so [it took] probably 25-plus man years of really skilled people to get this thing to the point where it's up to the top of the industry. That's the goal here in Houston. We had a lot of good scouts and coaches and front-office people, but this was an area that was missing. It was worth investing in right away." The Cards made an initial investment into Luhnow at a time when he had no baseball experience. After getting his MBA from Northwestern, he had worked in mechanical and chemical engineering and then transitioned to management consulting. When Cardinals owner Bill Dewitt Jr. brought him aboard to fill a senior executive position in 2003, the move was derided by some baseball folks (and, to be sure, some Cardinals front-office members). Luhnow, in turn, brought in some people from non-traditional backgrounds -- programmers and database experts -- to push the Cards toward the cutting edge of analytics. Fast forward eight years, and the climate is much different than it was in 2003. It's not all that strange that the Astros' new head honcho in baseball operations is not a former player or scout but a data-driven mind with innovative ideas. Twenty five pages of them, to be exact. But Luhnow also likes to break baseball down to its basics. When he participated in a Twitter chat (his handle is @jluhnow) last week, somebody asked him how he balances preparing for 2012 in the National League Central with 2013 in the AL West. "Score runs and prevent runs," he responded. Yep, that's the gist of it, even in a division in which the Rangers and Angels have established themselves as two of the game's biggest spenders. "This is a fiercely competitive business," Luhnow says. "Everybody wants to win. But it's a zero-sum game. Whenever you win, someone else is losing. We may create more revenue for the industry, but we don't create more wins every year. Every victory comes at the expense of someone else's defeat." The Astros have endured their fair share of those defeats over the course of three consecutive losing seasons, including one historically bad one. They hope the returns from the Michael Bourn and Hunter Pence trades reap eventual rewards at the big league level, and they hope discounted ducats and brews help increase attendance totals at Minute Maid Park. More than anything, they hope those 25 pages that have been put into play in baseball operations make them a well-oiled scouting and development machine as they embark upon a new era in a new league.
Anthony Castrovince is a reporter for MLB.com. Read his columns and his blog, CastroTurf, and follow him on Twitter at @Castrovince. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.