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Somebody doesn’t like something about the Astros

I’m still not sure what we’re supposed to conclude from this long but mostly unsourced screed about how the Astros are running their team.

The Astros have become one of baseball’s most progressive franchises as they try to rebuild and avoid a fourth consecutive 100-loss season.

But general manager Jeff Luhnow’s radical approach to on-field changes and business decisions has created at least pockets of internal discontent and a potential reputation problem throughout baseball.

“They are definitely the outcast of major league baseball right now, and it’s kind of frustrating for everyone else to have to watch it,” said former Astros pitcher Bud Norris, now with Baltimore. “When you talk to agents, when you talk to other players and you talk amongst the league, yeah, there’s going to be some opinions about it, and they’re not always pretty.”

The criticism, through interviews with more than 20 players, coaches, agents and others, comes in two parts:

On the field, the Astros shift their defenders into unusual positions to counteract hitter tendencies more than any other team, including in the minor leagues. They schedule minor league starting pitchers on altered and fluctuating rotation schedules, what they call a “modified tandem” system, a development strategy unique in baseball.

Off the field, the Astros are said to handle contract negotiations and the timing of player promotions with a dehumanizing, analytics-based approach detected by some across their operation.

The central question is how much criticism should be inherent to their process and how much should signal trouble in a game where word of mouth spreads quickly?

“Ninety-five percent of what we do is very similar to what all of baseball does,” Luhnow said. “We’re being a little bit different for very good reasons in some areas that we think are important.

“It doesn’t affect our ability to make people happy at the big league level. It just doesn’t. It affects their ability to perform better and be more prepared. That’s at least our hypothesis, and what we believe. And to tie that together with (how we handle) contracts is ridiculous.”

As far as the shifting goes, we all know that the basic idea for this dates from the 1940s, right? Lots of teams are employing it heavily these days, due to a combination of much better data about where each individual batter tends to hit the baseball plus a crop of managers and GMs that are willing to do what the plain facts say they ought to do. As the widespread deployment of this tactic is still new there are sure to be adjustments and countermeasures taken along the way, but for now whatever griping there is about it – the story basically had none – is the usual reactionary BS that tends to dominate baseball conversations. This is why we can’t have a better Hall of Fame balloting process.

As far as the “tandem rotation” system in the minors goes, that’s another stathead pet rock that goes back at least 30 years. The basic idea behind it is to develop young arms while minimizing the risk of injury. For all the advances we’ve made in tracking and measuring what happens on the field, we still have no idea what causes some pitchers to thrive and others to blow out their arms. A team that can crack that enigma, or just show some tangible advantage over doing what everyone has always done, will reap a huge benefit. I have no idea if this particular idea will work, but it can’t hurt to try, and the minors is the place to do it since player development and not a team’s won-loss record is the primary goal.

It almost feels silly to even discuss these things because despite being prominently mentioned early in the story, the rest of it has nothing to do with them. I guess those things are proxies for the real gripe, about how the Astros evaluate players and handle contracts.

When players are first promoted to the majors, they need not be paid more than the standard minimum salary of $500,000. Once in the majors, a player’s service-time clock begins, which eventually will determine when he is eligible for salary arbitration (three years, or two-plus in some special cases) and free agency (six years) – both vehicles for bigger paydays.

The Astros have benefited from making contract offers to young players at low rates and holding back players in the minors for service-time reasons.

Last year, Jose Altuve, signed a guaranteed four-year, $12.5 million deal (the Astros can extend it to six years) that made him even more valuable than his statistics alone – players who are productive and inexpensive are the game’s most valuable commodity.

Top prospect George Springer, who was promoted to the Astros after the season started, will not be eligible for free agency until he is 30 after the team delayed his move to the majors. The Astros said service time wasn’t a factor in the move that could potentially save them millions.

The Astros saved themselves money. But the question is whether the team handles these matters in a way that fosters confidence, and how much they should care about that perception in a business worth half a billion dollars based on a core product of 25 players.

“Players are people, but the Astros view them purely as property that can be evaluated through a computer program or a rigid set of criteria,” one player agent said, echoing the comments of others. “They plug players into it to see what makes sense from a development or contractual perspective, and it does not engender a lot of goodwill in the player or agent community.

“They wield service time like a sword (in contract extension negotiations) and basically tell a player, ‘This is what you are worth to us, take it or leave it.’‚ÄČ”

Extension offers for players who have little or no major league experience have grown in popularity in recent years as teams try to get them at a bargain price, and the Astros have made several such offers.

The premise is not what some agents said bothers them, but how the Astros approach dealings and appear to handle clients.

Springer had an offer last year that reportedly was worth about $7 million guaranteed with the potential to earn more. The Astros also have made third baseman Matt Dominguez an offer worth $14.5 million for five years, plus two options, and outfielder Robbie Grossman received at least one similar offer – $13.5 million for six years plus two options, a person familiar with the offers said.

None of the players accepted. Luhnow has a policy of commenting on contracts only if a deal is finalized.

None of this is unusual. Every team does it to some extent. Offering multi-year extensions to young players that might sign for huge amounts elsewhere once they become free agents is standard practice now, to the point that teams like the Yankees that have traditionally done business by signing such players have had to make adjustments because the free agent talent pool ain’t what it used to be. Generally speaking, teams make this kind of offer to their rising stars with a year or two left in their team-control years – it doesn’t make sense to do it much earlier than that. If the Astros are insulting or alienating the kind of players they’d like to retain at a competitive salary, they’ll find those players will choose instead to play out the string and sign with another team. It’s just too early to say whether they’re headed down that path or not.

What was really amazing about this story was just how few people were quoted in it. One unnamed Astro, one unnamed agent, and two former players – Jed Lowrie and Bud Norris. Lots of potential axes to grind in there, but no objective outsider/analyst perspective, other than one positive statement about the effect of the shift defense. I have no idea what we’re supposed to make of this. Sure, it’s easy to point at the on-field performance, but we all know they started from a point of having zero talent. They’re finally developing that talent now, and it would be nice if they could keep the players they grow. It’s fine to point out that their managerial style – talking contract negotiations here, not player positioning or pitcher rotations – might be a hindrance to that. There was so much smoke in this piece it’s hard for me to say if that’s a legitimate concern or a bunch of mindless nattering by the handful of malcontents that every organization has. If it’s the former, there will be plenty of visible evidence for it soon enough. I’m not going to worry about it until then. Chron columnist Randy Harvey, who sees things more or less as I do, and PDiddie, who sees it differently, have more.

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3 Comments

  1. It is not surprising that many people in baseball would criticize a group that attempts to find new ways to achieve success. There is a significant “don’t rock the boat” component to baseball’s culture, which was irritatingly evident during Drayton McLane’s tenure as Astros owner. It’s refreshing that the new ownership group is willing to innovate in an attempt to gain a competitive advantage.

  2. Bill Daniels says:

    It’s interesting that the Harris County Sports Authority agreed to spare no expense building a new playpen for the Astros, but the Astros won’t spend the money it takes to be a winner. Hey, I’m all for poor-boying it, but if we were consistent, we wouldn’t have built a new baseball stadium, when the Astrodome was perfectly acceptable. But hey, why not insist on the best of everything when the taxpayers are on the hook for it?

  3. Joel says:

    that entire piece could have been the first half of “moneyball.”

    even the whining in baseball isn’t original.

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