Jeff LuhnowJeff Luhnow: The Probabilistic Manager

by John Granato & Raheel Ramzanali


Jeff Luhnow: The Probabilistic Manager
by John Granato & Raheel Ramzanali

With the Houston Astros’ momentous season well underway, there may be plenty of credit to go around, but none more deserving than entrepreneur-turned-baseball preeminent general manager Jeff Luhnow. To say that he is an analytics guy is an understatement; he is reinventing the term. Whether it happened in business or baseball concurrently, there is no doubt about the stupefying role that analytics and big data play in today’s world. Jeff Luhnow is a pioneer among baseball operatives. Early in his career in St. Louis, some of the old guard shunned his analytic strategy and only recently has the Mexican-born-McKinsey and Company-trained executive gotten the accolades he deserves. Look at how the St. Louis Cardinals, his former employer, are doing without him - below 500 record. Not only have Luhnow and his team, through trades and the draft, navigated the waters of free agency, international signings, and the complicated Rule V draft to everyone’s envy, they are winning and maintaining the best record in major league baseball for most of the year. John Granato and Raheel caught up with Luhnow to discuss his favorite subjects before a recent series.

Granato: Jeff, we’ve been talking, and I don’t know if I’ve seen a team as good as this Astros team with the injuries to this pitching staff. Holy cow, have you ever seen anything like this?

Luhnow: Not really no. You know we expect injuries throughout the season and that’s why we usually anticipate we’re going to need 8 or 9 starters. What we don’t expect is that they all go down together. I don’t know if guys remember, but there was a time, I think it was 2013, where we hadn’t had a catching injury in a long time and all of the sudden we had two or three catching injuries in a row and we were bringing up guys who’d never been in the big leagues before to catch for us. That’s kind of what it feels like, but we’re in the middle of obviously a pennant race and a really special season so it’s tough. Our guys are getting healthy and we think we’re going to get them all back by the All-Star break and then off we go.

Raheel: Yeah what’s the latest with everyone? What’s the latest with Dallas? Is everything OK? What’s the latest with everyone else?

Luhnow: To be honest with you, when you look at Lance’s total workload now compared to what he’s done in his career and what he’s projected to do if we go deep into the post season, it may be a blessing in disguise that he’s taken a start or two off right now because we need him strong in September and October. Charlie Morton is about ready to get on the mound again, so that’s great news and everything looks good there so he’s probably the next guy coming back after Lance. Dallas remains to be seen. I don’t expect a long absence. But right now he isn’t throwing, and as soon he starts throwing we’ll probably get him back pretty quickly. McHugh has already started off the mound, but since he hasn’t been in action this year it’s going to be a little longer rehab for him. So really all four guys are on their way back. Musgrove is already in the rotation again. So like I said, by or around the All-Star break all these guys should be back in action.

Granato: I want to talk about Elian Rodriguez. And this is more of a question. This is a twenty year old kid, 6’4”, 205, throws in the 92 to 97 mph range. For a kid that age, how above average is that? Just in general, for a 20 year old, how advanced is that for a kid to throw that hard?

Luhnow: It’s pretty advanced. I mean we sometimes see kids 16, 17, 18 year olds in the Dominican and other places that throw in the low nineties. It’s not just the velocity on his fastball; it’s also his movement and his secondary stuff and the command of all his pitches. You know we spent a lot on the international market this year, and the market closes for the cycle for the year now, and so we wanted to get one last big signing in. And Elian was a great way for us to close off the year. We’re going to get him ramped up and he’ll probably pitch a little in the Dominican this summer and then we’ll see what happens after that. But this is a guy that could move pretty quickly based on his stuff and I think he’ll quickly evolve into one of our top ten pitching prospects by next year.

Granato: That’s awesome. You guys have just done what appears to be a spectacular job, Jeff, with the Latin American market. And a lot of people don’t know the rules about how much you’re allowed to spend and such, and you guys waited and waited and waited. And the market opened up with a lot of great players and you guys jumped on it.

Luhnow: We really did, and we like the inventory of guys that we added. And with some of these Cuban players they’re a little unique because they have experience pitching in these Cuban leagues, which is a much higher level than some of the minor leagues. So I think we’re going to get these guys to move fairly quickly. And you never have enough arms as we’ve proven at the big league level, and a lot of our emphasis was on getting some of these exciting arms. Our minor league system continues to be stacked; we’re going to stress it because we’re going to need players for trades and promotions. But as long as we keep it stacked we should be in good shape.

Raheel: How does that feel when you have a guy that you’ve seen develop not only perform at the lower levels, how cool a feeling is that?

Luhnow: It was pretty special, I’ve got to say. There were a couple of special moments this year. One of them was when Lance McCullers and Carlos Correa both won pitcher and player of the month and both of them were drafted together a few years back. That was pretty special.

Granato: it always hurts to make a trade, otherwise it’s not going to be a trade, you’ve got to make some tough decisions on “this kid looks like he can be a great player” and other guys that you might have to trade away that could have great careers.

Luhnow: No question about it. And you just look at the Milwaukee Brewers right now, at Brett Philips and Josh Hader and Domingo Santana are all players that we had and we traded away to help us in the short term. It has to painful to get a player that you realize is going to help you. But we have to be cognizant of the whole picture. We want to win this year. We know we have a special team. We want to do as much as we can to help that. But at the same time, we don’t want to put ourselves in a position where years from now we regret what we did and end up in a worse situation. But the trades don’t always work out. You look at the Rangers last year. They made a lot of trades coming down the stretch, and yeah they did get the division, but they didn’t get any wins in the playoffs and lost basically their top five prospects in those trades. So we have to be aware this is a probabilistic world we live in, and we’re going to make the moves that we think are the best moves. But then we have to roll the dice and see how it works out.

Granato: We’ve talked about Bukauskas and local guys that go to A&M and University of Houston, all great stuff, is there one guy who you were like “Oh my God, this guy is still here on the board?” Maybe middle rounds, that you were like “well this is a no brainer!”

Luhnow: Yeah I think Jake Adams. I’m not sure if this is just the nickname I’ve heard floating around, “Juiced” Jake Adams. He’s hit 29 bombs this year. He’s physical, he’s a big boy. From University of Iowa. Bill Porter sent me a text ten minutes after we took him to congratulate me. This is a guy that can help us follow leads not day one but day two and I think this guy has a chance to have some serious power in the big leagues. So it’s when you get guys like that you get really excited. We’ve had a lot of good picks in the 6th round in the past few years, and I think this could be another great one.

Raheel: So Jeff now the timeline, the draft is over, the international players signing day is over, so now it’s all about potential moves for this season, right?

Luhnow: Yeah, I mean we still got 9 minor league teams that we’re arming. And there’s a lot going on in the minor leagues, international operations and all that. Yeah, we’re going to be focused on keeping the big league team healthy, and doing anything we can to help support this team to win the division and win the championship, that’s our goal.