It’s no secret that the Houston Astros, and more specifically the Astros owned and run respectively by Jim Crane and Jeff Luhnow, have alienated a great number of fans, media members and baseball people. In light of the recent Brady Aiken fiasco, the latest in a series of organizational blunders, there’s been a sort of backlash to the backlash. It’s comprised mainly of careerist and analytically-oriented internet baseball writers, who have come to the Astros’ defense suggesting there’s been an unfair “piling on” dynamic playing out. It seems a worthwhile time to review why the Astros repulse.
The Astros sell a tee-shirt featuring their logo and, in orange lettering, the word “Process” across the front. On the one hand it’s emblematic of where the Astros sit in what some call “the success cycle” right now. If you can’t sell a winning ball club, you have to sell something. It gets problematic when one considers the recent origin of the “process versus results” discussion in baseball circles, and more specifically in sabermetric baseball circles. Famously in Moneyball, a frustrated Billy Beane vents “my shit doesn’t work in the playoffs.” In essence he is saying “I have a process that yielded three AL West titles in four years including 205 regular season wins in 2001 and 2002 combined, but have no playoff series wins to show for it due to the nature of short-series baseball; it would probably be reactionary to mess with it.” He had succeeded. He had a process in place that was yielding results. Overhauling it or even tweaking it on account of a handful of playoff losses would likely have been foolish.
In the Astros’ case, they have won 202 games since the start of the 2011 season and find themselves 20.5 games out of first place at the time of this writing. Jeff Luhnow’s first 1-1 pick in 2012, Carlos Correa, is currently hurt with a broken leg. His 2013 1-1 Mark Appel has been nothing short of disastrous. Setting aside the ethical ramifications of how it was handled, Luhnow just failed to sign his 2014 1-1 Brady Aiken and mismanaged it so badly he also failed to sign his promising 5th rounder, Jacob Nix. At the Big League level, Luhnow has overseen a bargain-basement roster but when he has opened up his coffers has done so on the likes of Scott Feldman, Jerome Williams, Jesse Crain and Matt Albers.
As best I can tell Luhnow’s only achievement to date has been promoting Ed Wade-acquired talent to turn a .300 ball club into a .400 one. If you think any of this stops Astros defenders from making an A’s comparison, think again. When results don’t matter and you’re a True Believer in a given team’s process, the 2014 Astros can become the early-aughts A’s just like that.
It’s not just internet writers with dreams of becoming the next Kevin Goldstein, Mike Fast or Colin Wyers either. It’s the Astros themselves. When Houston parted ways with JD Martinez in March, Luhnow said the Astros had to make the difficult decision because the organizational depth they had amassed rendered them “victims of their own success.” Martinez is hitting .344/.378/.646 for the Detroit Tigers this season. Days before the MLB Draft this year Luhnow told a local radio show about Houston’s approach to the draft, "I think we’re probably best in class with respect to using all the information." Inherently, satisfaction with one’s own process absent results comes off arrogant. If results don’t at least inform your assessment of your own process, what are you even doing? And yet there is arguably no more outspoken and self-confident executive in Major League Baseball than Jeff Luhnow.
Luhnow is a Kellogg MBA, a McKinsey alum and a former entrepreneur. He had an important role in building what many regard as MLB’s model franchise, the St. Louis Cardinals. He is pedigreed and has traveled a fascinating road to become an MLB GM. His attempts to do things differently and creatively, in and of themselves and carried out more quietly, might be considered admirable and bold. Some of Luhnow’s roster-building tactics may even work out and the Astros could one day be vindicated in some fashion. But for now the Astros, at best, come off top-to-bottom as goofy and amateurish; on the field typified by Bo Porter’s Jed Lowrie hissy fit, during their local telecast, in the marketing department (Process!) and in obvious front office cases that include the Deadspin leaks and Aiken disaster.
Defenders will tell you Houston’s taking the quickest route to contention, that a rebuild is always filled with bumps in the road and that teams do this in all sports. But let’s be clear, as one baseball writer put it to me, what Houston is doing is a “screw-job for fans and a profit-raking mechanism for Crane.” Remember, Crane and Luhnow inherited a 56-win team and proceeded to win 55 and 51 games in 2012 and 2013. This while, according to Forbes, the Astros were the most profitable franchise in MLB history for the 2013 season. And speaking of Crane, if you want to know another reason why some might be less inclined to give the organization the benefit of the doubt, there’s this. Keep in mind, too, Houston is the country’s fourth largest city, fifth largest metro area and one of the fastest growing cities in the country. The Astros had a payroll well less than half the Tampa Bay Rays’ in 2013. And how is Houston capitalizing on the size of the market? One game last September they drew a 0.0 television rating.
Ultimately the most grating element of Houston’s approach centers on the fundamental truth that winning in Major League Baseball is hard. Most front office executives agonize over wins and losses. My favorite team, the Boston Red Sox, has experienced the highs and lows first hand of late. In 2011 and 2012, the Red Sox were an embarrassment. But with a stacked farm and financial flexibility coming, Boston’s stewards knew the organization was healthy, much the way Luhnow may feel the Astros are now. The difference is that the Red Sox owned their results. Ben Cherington and his staff took a lot of criticism, none more vocal and pointed than from some of the very most ardent Astros supporters. But Cherington stayed the course and won a World Series last season. Sports are great because there is never ambiguity. There are winners and losers. And when you lose but you feel you’re still doing things the right way, you wait, quietly, for the results to reflect as much. The Red Sox find themselves once again scuffling, once again owning their failures and once again quietly positioning for the future. Meanwhile, Houston invites Sports Illustrated in to crown them 2017 champs and basks in some alternate-reality success paradigm, where farm system rankings and May hot-streaks represent endgame. Unfortunately for the Astros, that’s just not even close to how this business of building championship baseball teams works.
I’ve had the pleasure of working with Allyce Najimy, Peter Gammons, Paul Epstein and other neat people committed to bettering lives of the underprivileged through their work with The Foundation to be Named Later. You can read about FTBNL, its Boston and Chicago beneficiaries and the Gammons Scholarship here.
The key FTBNL fundraisers take place each January, and the timing for baseball fans is perfect. The hot stove has cooled off, the previous season seems something of a distant memory (okay, maybe not in Boston’s case) and we’re still a good six weeks until pitchers and catchers report. The Hot Stove Cool Music concert and roundtable combo represents a fantastic opportunity for fans to come together, talk baseball, listen to music and, all the while, help others. The concert is January 11th at the Paradise. The Roundtable is the evening of January 21st at Fenway and it features Ben Cherington, John Farrell, Mike Hazen and more.
As a Host Committee member, I am tasked with accelerating fundraising for the concert and roundtable. One way I plan to do so is to host a group of people who purchase tickets to BOTH the concert and Roundtable for cocktails, dinner and baseball talk in a private dining room on Friday night, January 24th at either Empire or Red Lantern, two great Big Night Entertainment Group restaurants. Joining me will be Red Sox Director of Professional Scouting Jared Porter, and the Providence Journal Red Sox beat tandem of Brian MacPherson and Tim Britton.
1) Go here https://www.fundraise.com/hotstovecoolmusic and purchase tickets to both the Roundtable and Concert
2) Forward your emailed receipt to psullivan310 at gmail dot com. The first 10 people that do so are in for dinner on the 24th with Jared Porter and the ProJo boys.
3) I will then confirm further details for the January 24th dinner.
Thanks very much.
Everyone knows his production is not trending in the right direction, that catchers don’t exactly improve at age 30 and that his health remains a concern. Those are the reasons you avoid McCann.
Here is why the Red Sox should consider him.
1) He doesn’t need to catch every day for them. He might not even need to catch at all within a season or two.
2) His health might improve as a result of catching less.
3) His hitting might improve - even back to his once-star levels - as a result of his health improving.
4) He is very likely a very good culture/personality fit with these group of Red Sox players, something that could also lead to better production.
5) The Red Sox have lots of money to spend.
6) There aren’t THAT many ways they can spend that money. “Overpays” here and there won’t do them in, not with the talent coming up through their system.
Recently, the folks at Baseball America determined that the Boston Red Sox have the best 2014 and 2015 ETA Minor League talent of any MLB franchise. And it’s not even close. Houston’s the next closest team, well back, and they won like a game a week this season. Boston won its third World Series title in 10 seasons.
Boston’s organization is incredibly healthy and the future is bright, but the Red Sox also face tough decisions on four key contributors to its championship club. Maybe you’re not a WAR adherent, and I’m not either as a hard-and-fast determinant of a player’s quality. But it has merit and for the purposes of the point I would like to make, it is instructive. For this exercise I will use Baseball Reference’s version of the statistic and only focus on Boston’s Major League position player talent since the key pitchers all are under contract next season, setting Jon Lester’s almost-sure-to-be exercised option aside.
Jacoby Ellsbury, Stephen Drew, Jarrod Saltalamacchia, Mike Napoli and Jose Iglesias contributed a combined 17.5 “wins” in 2013. There are, too, internal solutions for all of these issues. Jackie Bradley Jr. will slide in for Ellsbury, a 6-win player or so this season. Can Bradley be counted on for much more than 2 wins or so, though?
Napoli was a 4-win player and there’s no clear replacement for him. Drew and Iglesias combined for about 4.5 wins, with some of that output coming from Iglesias at third base. Xander Bogaerts figures to solve for that but counting on a 21-year old to perform like a 4-win player might be a tad presumptuous. A rejuvenated Will Middlebrooks would solve for some of that output too, but who really knows with the free-swinging youngster?
At catcher, Salty’s 3 wins could be covered in part by a combo of David Ross, Ryan Lavarnway and even Christian Vazquez but almost certainly not in full. Elsewhere, can we really count on MVPish campaigns from Shane Victorino and David Ortiz?
For me, this makes Napoli the most likely to return assuming the Red Sox can get comfortable with his health. But here’s the dilemma: some splashy signings like Brian McCann and/or Carlos Beltran could get the Red Sox right back to a 97-win team or so, but those same splashy signings would figure to block promising youngsters on the way.
On the one hand, you couldn’t blame the Red Sox for willfully taking a step back to a high-80’s or low-90’s win ball club. But on the other, they are going to have lots of money freed up. They have flexibility, a luxury, but that flexibility also makes things tricky in a number of ways.
My stance? I think Boston has too much money and too much in the way of trade-able pieces for a “bridge year.” Even if we can all get comfortable with a 2015 roster featuring Garin Cecchini, Blake Swihart, Henry Owens and Matt Barnes, I don’t think the team should settle in 2014. And so, however they need to do it, I think Boston’s offseason goal should be to come into 2014 expecting nothing less than the quality of club they fielded in 2013.
That’s going to be a tricky proposition, but a fun challenge to tackle for one of baseball’s best top-to-bottom organizations.
1) Many more Bostonians wish for John Connolly to be our next mayor than they do Marty Walsh.
2) Darn near 100% of Walsh supporters will cast their vote next Tuesday.
I have a great number of friends who, by and large, are disinterested in politics. And in 2013, who could blame them? I also know that these people, faced with a choice of Walsh or Connolly to run their city, would choose Connolly every time. They appreciate the sophistication gap, they sense John’s executive acumen is likely superior than Walsh’s and they recognize the more likely change agent is going to be someone like John Connolly, and not someone backed by entrenched special interests.
If you fall in the camp characterized above, for goodness sake, VOTE. If you know people like this, GET THEM TO VOTE. It is absolutely essential in this election.
John Connolly is Boston’s clear choice to be its next mayor. He only will be, though, if enough of us make sure our voice is heard next Tuesday.
Tomorrow, proudly, I am going to cast a vote for Boston Mayoral candidate John Connolly, and then hopefully do the same on November 5th should Connolly make it through tomorrow’s primary. The following accounts for my decision to support Connolly.
1) John entered the race before Mayor Menino announced he would not run. Of the 12 candidates, only John can claim this distinction.
I’d argue that one of the more corrosive elements of modern politics is the growing number of opportunists and careerists that comprise our government. Notable exceptions exist on both the local and national level but people in it for the sake of self-preservation and not for the purposes of serving and leading are a civic scourge. John’s in this not to curry favor with the Menino machine, not to play it safe, but to lead.
2) John understands that a city’s health and vibrancy starts and ends with education.
Critics have fairly accused Connolly of focusing A LOT on education. Young professionals without children and perhaps others with the means to send their children to private school accuse John of being something of a “one trick pony.” The Connolly campaign themselves refer to their candidate as “The Education Mayor.”
But this is what John understands. Good schools with dedicated, motivated and duly-rewarded teachers, where children, neighbors and friends from the same community can learn with one another, foster opportunity. More opportunity also means kids feel like their futures are too bright to jeopardize by turning to drugs, gangs and violence. Thriving schools make our city safer.
Meanwhile, if we do a better job of educating Boston children, that means more young entrepreneurs and job creators coming up through our ranks. And if our schools are everything they can be, young successful families (whose parents themselves might be job-creators) will be less likely to flee for the suburbs. Companies whose employees value Boston’s school system may be less likely to uproot and head to other markets like Austin or Silicon Valley. Graduates of our local colleges, knowing Boston is a fantastic place to raise a family, won’t be so ready to leave. I once heard someone in NY condescendingly say, “Boston’s a great place to learn and train.” That’s unacceptable.
You can accuse Connolly of an exceedingly narrow focus on schools, but please try to understand the symbiotic relationship public school quality has with public safety, employment and the economy.
3) John’s pedigreed, and John’s modest.
John’s a Roxbury Latin School, Harvard College and Boston College Law School grad. He’s a Ropes & Gray alum. John’s also taught disadvantaged children, is a Boston Public School parent, and eschewed what likely could have been a lucrative career in Law for one in public service. So if you’re the type who worries that our elected officials lack the sort of acumen or intellect that tend to characterize private sector leaders, John’s got you covered. If you prefer your politicians to be more like the common man, John leads a modest and family-oriented middle-class life, has been at the head of the classroom and, again, is himself a Boston Public School parent. He’s smart, accomplished, and can easily empathize with problems and challenges Bostonians face every day.
Finally, and this is personal, but John’s as high-integrity as they come. He’s in this for all the right reasons. The Boston you want is very likely the Boston he wants.
If, like me, you too would consider a vote for Connolly, you won’t regret it.
My grandmother turns 83 today, my son turns 2 today and my mother has been dead 2 months today. I have never felt happier, sadder, more independent, dependent, grateful, lucky, frustrated, angry, fortunate or alive. I have no idea what it all means but anyone willing to clue me in should speak up, and when I get some more clarity I will check back in.
At the playground, ya know?
What would you pay Jacoby Ellsbury? In every season he’s been healthy, he has performed anywhere ranging from an above average regular to an MVP candidate. This year I’d split the difference and suggest he’s playing like a mere All Star. He’s not young - he’ll be 30 in year one of his new free agent contract - and a lot of his value is tied to his 40 stolen bases in 43 attempts this season. How long can he keep that up? And on a related note, if you question his ability to continue to swipe bases this prolifically, then you likely question his ability to remain an elite defender. What does that do to his value? Can he stay healthy?
Related to free agency one hears the term “market-setting” quite a bit and if the free agent outfield market is any indicator of what Ellsbury stands to earn, he will soon be an extraordinarily wealthy man. Here are the top-10 highest paid outfielders ranked by 2013 salary:
1) Vernon Wells
2) Carl Crawford
3) Alfonso Soriano
4) Josh Hamilton
5) Matt Holliday
6) Jayson Werth
7) Curtis Granderson
8) Nick Markakis
9) Jose Bautista
10) Hunter Pence
Scott Boras could just slide this list across to any GM in baseball with a note reading “let me know when I can back up the truck,” right? Maybe. But couldn’t any GM in baseball slide that list right back to Scott and ask “who isn’t overpaid on this list?”
This is what makes the upcoming negotiation fascinating. And I’d caution you to beware the writer/analyst with overly strong opinions on whatever shakes down with Ellsbury. Chances are the teams that decide to bid or pass on him are well aware of the risks and rewards involved. It’s complicated and unpredictable.
To the extent there is a deal to be had, though, I would like to advocate the club makes a major trade at the 2013 trade deadline, one that nets them in the neighborhood of 2-3 wins over the final two months of the season, and one that positions them significantly better for the postseason.