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Luhnow's vision has Astros' eyes on prize

GM brought new approach to role, aced first Draft in 2012
October 22, 2017

HOUSTON -- This was the way Astros general manager Jeff Luhnow envisioned it working out. On a personal level, that's what this American League championship represents.The Process -- that is, Luhnow's process -- has worked. Spin rates matter. So do exit velocities and bat speed and assorted other deep dives

HOUSTON -- This was the way Astros general manager Jeff Luhnow envisioned it working out. On a personal level, that's what this American League championship represents.
The Process -- that is, Luhnow's process -- has worked. Spin rates matter. So do exit velocities and bat speed and assorted other deep dives into data that produce defensive alignments, player evaluations, bullpen matchups, etc.
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When Luhnow arrived in 2011, he was convinced there might be a better way of doing things. Rather, there might be other ways to complement the traditional baseball notion of how games are won.
Luhnow's Astros have been rebuilt from the ground up by relying heavily on data-driven decisions, information gathering and hiring smart people.
"It's fun to the see the plan work," Astros owner Jim Crane said. "I give a lot of credit to Jeff Luhnow for putting the plan together and hiring the right guys to execute it."
Crane was speaking in the middle of a wild, happy celebration on Saturday as the Astros punched a ticket to their second Fall Classic in franchise history. If it was Luhnow's vision that has gotten the Astros into Game 1 of the World Series presented by YouTube TV on Tuesday, it was Crane's original plan to hire someone willing to look at the game differently.
How about some practical applications? In 2012, shortstop Carlos Correa was Luhnow's first Draft choice, the No. 1 overall selection. But Luhnow was not satisfied in getting just one young player with the potential to be a star.
He signed Correa for an under-market signing-slot bonus, and then used the rest of the money to draft right-hander Lance McCullers and outfielder Rio Ruiz with later picks.

He would eventually trade Ruiz to get veteran catcher Evan Gattis from the Braves, and on the night the Astros won one of the biggest games in the franchise's 55 years, a 4-0 victory over the Yankees in Game 7 of the AL Championship Series, those decisions paid off:
• Correa was the AL's starting All-Star shortstop this year and hit .333 in the ALCS presented by Camping World.

• McCullers threw four overpowering innings of relief in Game 7 relying heavily on a curveball that data says is arguably the best on the planet.

• Gattis broke up a scoreless game in the fourth inning by hitting a home run.

If Game 7 was a referendum on Luhnow, he passed with flying colors.
Oh, and there was right-hander Charlie Morton, a frequently injured right-hander who Luhnow signed to shore up the rotation.
Morton was coming off a season in which he made just four starts for the Phillies. In nine seasons, he had a 4.54 ERA. Luhnow signed him for $14 million over two years, and a lot of people scratched their heads.
If Morton has one of baseball's best curveballs -- and the Astros measure this, in part, by the spin rate of the pitch -- why not throw it more?
"The Phillies had begun talking to me about throwing more curves," Morton said. "The Astros were all-in on it."

Morton won 14 games for the Astros in 2017 and had a 3.62 ERA, almost a full run under his career average. He also threw five shutout innings in the clincher, but the more interesting information came from Game 3, when he allowed six hits and seven runs. Terrible, right?
The Astros looked inside the numbers and found that four of the six hits had been softly hit and that Morton's raw box-score numbers didn't come close to reflecting how well he'd pitched.

Not everyone in baseball thought Luhnow would succeed at this great experiment, and that's putting it mildly. Also, not everyone wished him well as he rattled conventional thinking in how to make player evaluations, construct rosters, etc.
At times, the Astros are defensive about their reputation as a cold, robotic, numbers-only organization. That was never true, but it fits a certain narrative.
"We believe in people," manager A.J. Hinch said. "We believe in scouting. We also are forward thinking in gathering and using information. But we do understand and appreciate the human element."
But as one of Luhnow's assistants says, "There are things that happen on a baseball field that are beyond the human eye."
And the Astros made no apology for being different.
For instance, there's the Google rule.
"We encourage our people to spend 10 percent of their time pursuing whatever project they want as long as it's baseball-related," Luhnow said in a 2012 interview.
One of Luhnow's first hires -- a guy with multiple advanced degrees in engineering, a guy who does not have a typical baseball background -- stole the idea from: you guessed it, Google.
"Think about any harebrained idea you have, any research you'd like to do," Luhnow said. "It's free time to learn about the game and try and come up with new ideas."
When an MLB owner was touring MIT a couple of years ago, he ran into a young man running gaming programs.
"But I also do some baseball," he said.
The owner was skeptical.
"Yeah," the kid said, "the Astros have me on retainer to research the optimal time to steal a base during a game."
Isn't the optimal time when a pitcher is slow to the plate or the catcher has a poor throwing arm?
"Those are things that you may not get anything from," Luhnow said, "but if you don't ask, you'll never know. You may find out something that helps in another area.
"One of the best ways of innovating -- and again, this is another management-consultant strategy -- is you talk to people inside your own organization. You get ideas to bubble up from the bottom. People that are on the front line, whether it's an automobile manufacturer line worker or the accounting guy that does the numbers, you actually communicate with them and you draw stuff out of them.
"For every five ideas you get, maybe only one is worth pursuing. But for every five that are worth pursuing, there's one worth doing that adds value. If you sit in this office and try to figure everything out, you might come up with some good ideas, but the good ideas are out there."

Luhnow was 37 years old when he left the world of MBAs and Southern California startups and venture capitalists to work for the St. Louis Cardinals in 2003. He'd never worked a single day in the sport. Nor had he played above the high school level. And let's just say that not every member of the Cardinals' front office welcomed him to their world.
He established his chops with the Cardinals in running some of the most productive Drafts in the game.
"There's analytic work you can do to help focus your resources," he said. "Should we be investing in Australia? Taiwan? Brazil? What has history shown about how these markets develop? A lot of what we did wasn't to put numbers into a computer and see what we learned. There are 30 clubs in baseball. That means there are 30 different ways of doing everything.
"Let's take Venezuela as an example. Let's look at all 30 clubs' approach to Venezuela. Which clubs have been the most successful? What's their approach? Do they have four area scouts, five area scouts? How do they carve up the regions? Do they have a cross-checker? Do they send their American scouts down there? Do they have a dedicated guy down there? Do they send their Venezuelan players to the Dominican? Do they send them directly to the States?
"There's so much you can learn. This is management consulting 101. How are you doing relative to your competition? Are there any best practices from your industry, or outside your industry, that you can quickly apply to get better? That's really what it is."
The Astros made the postseason in Luhnow's fourth full season on the job. Now, they're in the World Series, and other teams have taken note.
Luhnow's top assistant for four years, David Stearns, was hired by the Brewers as general manager in 2015. Stearns has a political science degree from Harvard and is now closer to the norm of what teams are seeking in their top baseball executive.
During his first season with the Astros, Luhnow was constantly quizzed about how long this great experiment would take. He said he did not know. That first Draft -- Correa and McCullers, and by extension, Gattis -- turned out to be huge.
This is what he said then: "I go to bed at night dreaming of being able to pick up the phone and tell Jim [Crane] we want to be buyers this year at the Trading Deadline."
Fifty-one days ago, he telephoned Crane to say he had a deal in place to acquire Justin Verlander from the Tigers. On Tuesday, the Astros will play in Game 1 of the World Series at Dodger Stadium.

Richard Justice has been a reporter for since 2011. Read his columns and follow him on Twitter at @RichardJustice.