Q&A: Luhnow on analytics, unusual career path

March 12th, 2017

Unlike many general managers, Houston's Jeff Luhnow hasn't been a baseball lifer.

But neither engineering, management consulting nor starting his own business compared to the idea of being in a baseball front office, leading Luhnow to making another career change in 2003, when he joined the Cardinals' front office.

In St. Louis, Luhnow had great success installing an analytics department, became one of the top talent producers in the game via the Draft and played a key role in developing the team that won the 2011 World Series.

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In December 2011, Luhnow was hired to be the 12th GM in Astros history, taking over a franchise that hadn't been to the postseason since 2005. That drought ended in 2015, when the Astros beat the Yankees in the American League Wild Card Game before falling to the eventual World Series champion Royals in a five-game Division Series.

MLB.com recently sat down with Luhnow in his office at The Ballpark of The Palm Beaches for a wide-ranging interview, discussing his transition to baseball, changing teams -- and suites -- in the middle of the Winter Meetings, the next big trends in baseball information and what he expects from the 2017 Astros.

MLB.com: You don't have a very traditional baseball background. At what point in your life did you first think about a career in baseball?

Jeff Luhnow: When I was an undergraduate in college, I thought, 'Wouldn't it be interesting to work in sports, and specifically baseball?' I wrote one letter to Peter O'Malley, because he had gone to the same university that I was attending. I never heard back -- and I didn't really expect to hear back. But I figured that getting into baseball was something that you needed to know somebody and kind of be at the right place at the right time. So I put it aside and didn't give it another thought, really, until the summer of 2003 when I came into contact with Bill DeWitt and his family. We started talking about a potential arrangement where I could come help them out. That changed everything for me.

• PODCAST: Listen to the full interview

MLB.com: Under your guidance, the Cardinals built their system into one of the strongest in the game. What are you most proud of from your time in St. Louis?

Luhnow: The 2011 World Series, followed by the continued success after I left there in '12, '13 and '14 with a lot of the young players that had been drafted and developed through the programs that I was overseeing during my time there. It's really satisfying to see a player as an amateur, believe in that player, select him in the Draft, watch him and help him develop through the Minor Leagues, watch him get to the big leagues and then ultimately watch those players celebrate on the field after a championship. There's nothing more satisfying. We all want to win; St. Louis did a lot of winning while I was there and continued to win after I left. To feel like you contributed in some way to that championship is really one of the more satisfying parts of our jobs.

MLB.com: Your success with the Draft has moved over here. In 2015, MiLB.com tabbed the Astros as having the best farm system in the game. Given your history in scouting and your history in St. Louis, how satisfying was that?

Luhnow: It is, because in order to have long-term success as an organization like the Cardinals have had, you have to consistently produce a pipeline of players. The easiest way to do that is to be successful in the Draft and to have a successful international program, then to do as good job of developing the players you have in your system. We've done that here, and a lot of credit goes to the people that were here and the people that I hired who are running those departments. Mike Elias on the scouting side, several people that have been involved in the farm system, Oz Ocampo on the international side, Kevin Goldstein, our head of pro scouting; all of these executives have done a tremendous job in their area. It takes all of us doing well for this thing to work.

MLB.com: You were hired to be the Astros GM during the 2011 Winter Meetings, literally moving from the Cardinals suite to the Astros suite within the same hotel like you were a player traded from the one clubhouse to the other. What was that experience like?

Luhnow: It was bizarre. It was also the same day [Albert] Pujols signed with Los Angeles. The interview came up suddenly and the process was fairly quick over the course of a couple weeks. I didn't know going into it that A, I was interested, or B, I would get the job. But after I met Jim Crane and realized that his vision was exactly right for the way I thought I could help him, it was pretty quick when we came to an agreement. But it was very bizarre to move from one suite to another at 10 at night, the night before the Rule 5 Draft. I ended up staying up until 2 or 3 in the morning with the Astros people going through the list for the Rule 5 Draft. That was the year we took , who is still with us, so it was worth the effort staying up that late at night.

MLB.com: And to have that all happen on the day where the Cardinals' iconic player signs elsewhere, that's a pretty crazy 24 hours.

Luhnow: It was a crazy 24 hours. Right after the Rule 5 Draft, I got on a plane and flew to Houston and met the media. It was definitely drinking from a fire hose, but I was happy to be doing it.

MLB.com: How do you think your views or philosophies toward the game changed since you first got into it in 2003 to now?

Luhnow: I was really listening a lot in 2003 and trying to understand everybody's perspective. There seemed to be a divide between the traditions of the game and people that had done things a certain way for a long time and some of the new ways of looking at the game; the analytics, the video, all the new technologies that were starting to surround the game. I think what I realized fairly quickly is that they can all work together; they're all complementary. You absolutely have to have the wisdom and experience of a scout who has been in the industry for 30 years and has seen players come and go. You have to have the wisdom and experience of a manager or hitting coach who has done this for a long time. But at the same time, you have to have the technology, you have to have the analytics, otherwise you're leaving your organization at a disadvantage. Rather than quibble about who's got the most value to add, I think it's a matter of putting the puzzle together with all the different pieces in a way that helps your organization.

MLB.com: We've seen every team add an analytics department to the front office at some point in recent years. What do you think will be the next new wave as teams look to gain that next competitive advantage?

Luhnow: I have some ideas, but unfortunately, I can't share them. That's part of the competitive advantage. In our industry, because it's a zero-sum game, there are things that are going to benefit the entire industry and I think we're all in collaboration on those types of things like the World Baseball Classic, having great facilities like all these Spring Training facilities, having easier travel. All of those things benefit everybody. But when a team discovers something that they think is a competitive advantage, their gain comes at someone else's success, so I think we all closely guard our secrets and the things that we're working on so that it doesn't become like the analytics revolution where five or six teams have a great advantage over the period of a decade, but then that advantage dissipates once everybody else catches up. I think there are some natural areas that teams are going to all look into. Injury prevention is one that we're going to continue to struggle with as an industry, especially on the pitchers' side. If a team cracks the code on how to minimize injuries or how to reduce injuries, they're going to have a significant advantage. Ultimately, I hope that if a team does that, it is shared with the industry because injuries don't help anybody. I do think that the whole notion of health and wellness, sleep, rest, recovery, injury prevention, rehab, it's all stuff that's going to be a big frontier for baseball in general over the next 10 years.

MLB.com: MLB's Statcast™ has made some metrics more public to the baseball world over the past couple years. How do you view them? Do you think it has changed the way fans -- and maybe even some clubs -- look at the game?

Luhnow: I think it's great for the fans, I really do. I think there are some clubs that maybe hadn't quite gotten to that level that MLB provided that information to them. Whether or not they ended up using it, I don't know. Sometimes when you're among the first teams to discover something, you don't want it shared industry-wide, and so there's been some consternation with some of this stuff. But I think as a whole, it's benefited the industry and I think it certainly has made the game more interesting for a certain segment of our fans.

• PODCAST: Listen to the full interview

MLB.com: I think I remember reading somewhere that you guys are going to win the World Series this year. Did that Sports Illustrated cover in 2014 put pressure -- good or bad -- on the organization?

Luhnow: I think it was a tongue-in-cheek discussion of how teams were trying to rebuild quickly and get to success quickly. You look at what happened with the Cubs, they were able to accomplish it. Hopefully we're right behind them. When you have a good roster and when you have a good organization, expectations are going to be high, so we welcome it. Because with high expectations, it's an indication that you have a good team. Obviously we've got to play the season and we've got to see what happens, but I'd rather be in a position starting the year where expectations are high and people think we're going to win because that means we've got good players.

MLB.com: With (Brian) McCann and (Carlos) Beltran, they've both have spent the past few years with the Yankees. Aside from the obvious talents they bring to the field, what do you hope they bring to your clubhouse?

Luhnow: First of all, the Yankee culture is terrific. The way Brian and Joe have created the environment there is a model for a lot of clubs. These two guys were teammates. As we recruited Beltran, bringing McCann over was a big part of getting Beltran to accept coming over here. I think that just what we've seen so far this spring -- yesterday was our first day off of the spring and instead of staying at home with his family, he came in here to watch (Dallas) Keuchel throw off the mound with his son. That's a big signal that he's into this. He spent all offseason after he got traded learning our pitchers and talking to them. has taken players out to dinner; not just major-league players, but minor-league players. Not just Latin players, but American players. These two guys have been a tremendous boost to the environment in our clubhouse. I'm so glad they're here.

MLB.com: Do you feel like right now you have an ideal mix of youth and veterans with some of the guys you brought in with McCann, Beltran, , that it seems like it's a more well-rounded roster going into this season than you've had?

Luhnow: I do think so. Even our guys are a little bit older now; (Jose) Altuve has been in the league now for five going on six years, Marwin has been here foir almost six years now. So even our young group has now got some more experience under their belt. They've all been to the playoffs once, they've been on different types of teams. Certainly the veterans that we've added add to that, but you want to be young enough where your team is athletic, good defense and can run a lot. The older your team gets, usually you play a different style of baseball. We're still able to play young man's baseball, but have the wisdom and experience of some of the veterans.

MLB.com: What kind of player do you expect to be?

Luhnow: Coming over from Cuba, he has always had a tremendous amount of success on the international stage and in the Cuban league. I do think he's going to be a high-average hitter who is going to hit a lot of doubles, have double-digit home run power and play very good defense at first or third or wherever he's asked to play. He does make good decisions, he has good ball-to-bat skills, he drives the ball on a line drive a lot. I think he's going to come up with a lot of key hits for us over the next few years.

MLB.com: What did it mean to you to get the Astros back to the postseason for the first time in a decade?

Luhnow: It was huge. We were hoping to be a good team that year, maybe be .500 and compete for the Wild Card. To win the Wild Card and take Kansas City to five - who ultimately won the World Series - it woke up our fan base. We knew we were capable of it; maybe we were expecting it the year after. It was important, because Houston is a great sports town and it's been a long time since the '04-05 years when Houston was one of the best teams in baseball. I think that now our fans are reacting, they're excited, they're coming to the games and expecting to see a good product. They're really happy that we have good players that they can connect with like Correa, Springer, Altuve and Keuchel.