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Radical methods paint Astros as 'outcast'

Discussion in 'Houston Astros' started by CometsWin, May 25, 2014.

  1. CometsWin

    CometsWin Breaker Breaker One Nine

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    Didn't see this posted. Interesting the reputation they're creating for themselves.

    Radical methods paint Astros as 'outcast'
    Team defends use of analytics, strategy as modern tools to rebuild losing franchise despite questions, discontent
    http://www.houstonchronicle.com/spo...hp?cmpid=twitter-premium&t=307e02ca9cf992f472

    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."

    The Astros are firm in their belief that winning will fix everything, but that begets a question of how much buy-in by players and coaches is needed in advance, and how much perception and happiness matter.

    "I don't think anybody's happy. I'm not," one Astros player said recently on the condition his identity not be revealed. "They just take out the human element of baseball. It's hard to play for a GM who just sees you as a number instead of a person. Jeff is experimenting with all of us."

    Luhnow declined comment on the player's specific charge, but team owner Jim Crane said that "we treat everyone with respect" and that he supported Luhnow's use of statistics to help make decisions.

    "We're not running for election here; it's not a popularity contest," said Luhnow, who seeks feedback from across the organization but said feelings aren't high on his list of concerns unless they impact outcomes. "We're trying to win big league games, and we're trying to produce major league players in the minor leagues, so if those two results are occurring, that's predominantly what we care about. Now of course, any time you've got human beings involved … you want to understand how they're impacted."

    Ripe for doubt

    Some teams share in similar practices, to varying degrees. But in totality, the Astros appear more overt in their efforts and have moved with a greater speed for simultaneous changes than anyone of late.

    "If you look at every organization, I think the trend is going toward sheer statistical-driven analysis, and I think that (the Astros) are certainly on the front lines of that," said former Astros shortstop Jed Lowrie, now with Oakland. "Baseball is kind of going through this tectonic shift, and there are people out there banging on tables saying, 'This is not the way the game's supposed to be played or evaluated.' But from a business standpoint, I get it.

    "It is a purely statistical analysis. I think you can't have that approach and expect to have good personal relations. That seems like a hard balance to strike, when you're judging someone strictly on numbers and nothing else, and I'm not talking about whether it's a good guy or a bad guy. But there are certain intangibles, and the perception is the numbers are trying to drive out (the importance of) those intangibles."

    Years from now, the Astros may be shown to have undertaken a battle that every other advocate of change - see Billy Beane of the Athletics and the "Moneyball" revolution of a dozen years ago - has encountered.

    The Astros say resistance is just a part of the process. But no matter what the future will say about their plan, they are presently in a combustible setting.

    They have been bad at the major league level for so long - with 106-, 107- and 111-loss seasons in the past three years - that even "Jeopardy" mocked them on one episode over the winter. They are one of the lowest-spending teams in baseball, and their cable network is seeking bankruptcy protection.

    Luhnow's tenure in St. Louis as vice president for scouting and player development was marked by an approach that often caused a sense of acrimony in an organization pulled between analytics and traditional methods even though many of his draft picks have played essential roles in the Cardinals' current run of success, which includes a World Series title in 2011 and another World Series appearance last year.

    Add in the fact that the Astros are louder about their methods than perhaps anyone else, and you have a situation rife with second-guessing and grumbling.

    "I would expect (some unhappiness) to be out there, and yes, of course we care about it," said Luhnow, a first-time general manager. "But is it going to change what we're doing if we believe we're doing the right thing? No, it's not going to. … We're sensitive to it. If it starts to affect us in a meaningful way that we can't sign players, or players quit, or players don't give us their best effort, then we'll have to address it. As of now, that hasn't happened."

    Players don't want to feel they are just a number or part of an experiment. They want to know, too, that the here and now matters.

    "Everything's harder in a losing setting," Luhnow said. "There's a process we're going through to get to a winning ballclub. It takes years to change things, and we're doing it for the right reasons. And it's not just us, we're not alone."

    Sig Mejdal, the Astros' director of decision sciences, worked with Luhnow as his right-hand man in St. Louis, too, and criticism was relentless there.

    "In my experience, change in any industry is difficult," said Mejdal, who worked for NASA and has a background in cognitive psychology. "Supporting a change that doesn't feel right is extraordinarily difficult. … If they felt right, they would already have been done.

    "Human beings are risk-averse. It's hard to change and deal with all the pushback from change. Why weren't teams positioning their infielders different half a decade ago? I don't know. The data was all there."

    Sign or else?

    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.' "

    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.

    Astros prospect Jon Singleton is in situation akin to Springer's as he is still in the minors while the big league team is in need of a productive first baseman. Singleton's agency declined comment when asked if the slugging first baseman had been offered a contract extension.

    What if these players signed deals?

    Would Grossman still be in the majors? He was demoted just two weeks into the season. Would Springer have been here earlier? No one can prove anything, ultimately, but for a budget-conscious team like the Astros, critics say yes.

    "I think the key thing is you got to be able to have the information to make a positive decision on them," agent Scott Boras said of how he views contract offers to players with little service time. "I view it as something you have to (have) very carefully analyzed, because normally when they're offering it that early, it's for a very consistent reason. And normally it's not one that's value to the player."

    It is worth noting a contract extension does not guarantee a player a spot on the big league roster. Grossman still could have been demoted had he taken the deal, and the same goes for Springer today.

    "We are always going to bring players up later than our fans and media expect them to come up because we have our own ways of evaluating what players are ready," Luhnow said. "And it has nothing to do with what contracts they have signed or not signed."

    Service-time delays aren't new in baseball, but the Astros are in a situation in which their major league team is again among the worst in baseball, and talent that could help was and has been kept away.

    Players are employees

    Ultimately, the Astros have a right to run their business as they want.

    They say that the defensive shifts and approach to using pitchers in the minors have been fruitful - saving runs with shifts and keeping young pitchers healthy.

    Baseball Info Solutions' John Dewan wrote on Twitter this month that the Astros already have saved seven shift runs - "similar to adding a 10th fielder who happens to be elite."

    If a minor league pitcher doesn't like the tandem rotation, too bad - he's still an employee. In the first month of the season, minor league pitchers threw every time out in a piggyback system, either starting ahead of or relieving behind a partner pitcher.

    Now the pitchers throw some games in that form and some in a traditional way, where they are considered the game's lone starter.

    "I don't tell organizations what to do," said Boras, whose client Mark Appel had to be pulled out of the tandem rotation in April because he was having trouble adjusting. "But I think that the key thing in developing players, you have got to do what's best suited for the player."

    Astros pitching prospects talk of the tandem system - which is designed to keep them healthier, increase opportunity for pitchers in different roles and control workload - as something they tolerate rather than appreciate.

    "I would strongly disagree with that," defending American League Cy Young Award winner Max Scherzer said of the concept of tandem pitching. "The more you can pitch above the 100-pitch threshold, you find out more about yourself. You find out about pitching deeper into games and having to (face) a lineup three, four times."

    Hard-throwing Astros prospect Mike Foltynewicz said in spring training he thought the tandem might have contributed to arm soreness last year.

    "It's OK," Class AA pitching prospect Brady Rodgers said. "Throwing every four days is, it's a little tough cause I like to have my rest with my arm, because you know, every arm only has so many bullets, so I don't want to try to waste any. … I'm not going to bash it."

    Luhnow stressed that he seeks feedback from players throughout the system in different ways.

    "There's not one way to do this," Lowrie said. "There's more than one way, and at the end of the day there's a business, and if Jim Crane and Jeff Luhnow decide this is how they want to run their business, you can cry and say whatever you want about it, but that's their way they want to do it."

    Talking about the defensive shifts, which in some instances can have three players on the right side of the infield with the third baseman near second base, Astros starter Jarred Cosart echoed the sentiment that players are ultimately employees.

    "Everyone has their own opinion," Cosart said. "We do it a lot more and a lot more frequently. … (The front office is) not going to not shift, so if I did have a problem with it, there's nothing I can do about it, as a lot of the older guys have told us."

    Everybody talks

    If a young Astros player or his agent feels mistreated today or is just turned off by the organization's actions, why would he stick around on a hometown discount in the future, or stick around at all if comparable opportunities exist elsewhere?

    Players in every organization rely on relationships formed at all levels of the game to help them. Everybody talks, and no one's a fool.

    "Everything is seen," Orioles outfielder Adam Jones said. "There's nothing that's missed. Baseball, any sport, any business, word of mouth is good."

    Money can make most problems disappear, and the Astros have a stated plan to increase their spending with time.

    A player who can't find a job elsewhere in the majors or who has received the best offer from the Astros likely will always sign with the Astros, no matter what.

    "I want my clients to get to the big leagues," Boras said. "One thing about this organization, there's a real opportunity."

    But rarely will a player acknowledge he signed somewhere just for the money. The most expensive free agent Luhnow has signed - Scott Feldman ($30 million) - indicated he did not have a lot of choices over the winter.

    "I think that when you're somebody like (former New York Yankees and current Seattle star) Robinson Cano or one of those top free agents that has his choice of where he wants to go, maybe some of that (reputation) stuff comes into play a little more," Feldman said. "For me, I really just had to go with wherever wanted me and stuff like that. … I knew that Houston was a cool city and the farm system was stacked here. That was really all I really knew."

    Players always will be drawn to the Astros, too, because they want to play at home. Many ballplayers have ties to Houston - current Astros Matt Albers and Jesse Crain among them.

    But the Astros still might have to pay more if the team is not well-regarded.

    Luhnow disagreed, saying, "Houston's a very attractive place to play. We have a great stadium, we have a great city. And clearly it's easier to attract free agents when we have a winning ballclub, and when we get to that point, I think it'll be even easier for us."

    Ultimately, everyone will settle on their own hypothesis.

    "Word of mouth is still the No. 1 marketing pitch in the world," Detroit Tigers outfielder Torii Hunter said of how he would approach free agency. "If (Derek) Jeter tells me, 'Hey man, it's cool over here, but this and that and that and this,' or David Ortiz says that. Or any player. … I see on the outside it looks good, but on the inside, there's something else going on.

    "That's why you ask questions. And you're going to get all of it from players. I don't think a lot of people know that we communicate with each other and all the free agents out there, they communicate with other players. … 'Hey, if that kettle's black, it's black.' "
     
  2. Mr. Clutch

    Mr. Clutch Contributing Member

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  3. cardpire

    cardpire Member

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    I don't see why offering the players these early-in-their-careers contracts is viewed as "lowball" or insulting. They are giving them the opportunity to lock up some guaranteed, life-changing money, or gamble on themselves and hold out for something better.

    I'm guessing Robbie Grossman wishes he would have signed on the dotted line right about now.
     
  4. mick fry

    mick fry Member

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    True and you have agents like Boras who benefit by driving the price way up. Its hard for a hometown boy to give a hometown discount with agents like Boras proding them.
     
  5. Nick

    Nick Contributing Member

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    That's the team's perspective... but teams would not be doing it as much if they weren't getting the better end of the deal more often than not.

    I also don't see the harm in "waiting" if I'm the player... about the same money/year will be there after one or two professional seasons, and unless you totally bomb out, you're going to get a decent salary via arbitration.

    Trout didn't sign right away... Springer likely should get locked up some time this season or next season... same with Dominguez.
     
  6. sealclubber1016

    Supporting Member

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    It's really easy to criticize the Astros now because they simply don't have many good players at the MLB level.

    I am really not a fan of the tandem system at AA and AAA. I think some prospects (Appel,Folty) need to be on a regular MLB schedule. Maybe dedicate 2 or 3 rotation spots for the tandem system if there are multiple lesser prospects you wanna get a look at. Nitro and Folty's results at AAA have visibly improved since they have been out of the tandem system.
     
  7. Nick

    Nick Contributing Member

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    Teams are still willing to pay that price... if that's the case, and I'm an elite player, I certainly want my agent holding out for the best possible deal.

    Teams are making money hand over fist in this era with the TV/internet money and revenue sharing... even the Astros, as bad as their non existent TV deal is and as low as their attendance is, are able to cover their payroll with revenue sharing/TV money alone.
     
  8. mick fry

    mick fry Member

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    Thats why the best players go to big money markets via Boras but the bright side is Oakland who has shown you can build a winner without high dollar FA's. Boras had us held hostage and kept us from landing Carlos Beltran years ago and has been a scumbag ever since.
     
  9. Nick

    Nick Contributing Member

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    Beltran was never going to sign for what the Astros offered him... and in the end, he likely wouldn't have even lived up to THAT contract if he had signed here (and possibly hampering Oswalt/Berkman extensions), so even in hindsight, I'm not going to be too concerned about that.

    Additionally, Oakland still has to sign enough big money players to keep the team going... Cespedes wasn't "cheap"... and there will always be exceptions to the rule.

    My biggest problem with Boras was not how he dealt with established player's free agency negotiations... but how he was having young drafted players (like Appel) hold out or refuse to sign with certain teams that actually drafted him (and in some cases, players drop out of the high rounds for that fear, pushing that player to a "big" market team that can afford him).

    Granted, a lot of that has gone away now with the stricter slot rules... but thats a far more egregious use of an agent's "power" than simply holding a player out for the best possible FA deal after the player has already put in 6-7 "affordable" years.

    You also have to figure that every big money free agent established MLB player has likely either past his prime, or you're already past the point of getting expected value for what you're paying him.
     
  10. Nick

    Nick Contributing Member

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    "I don't think anybody's happy. I'm not," one Astros player said recently on the condition his identity not be revealed. "They just take out the human element of baseball. It's hard to play for a GM who just sees you as a number instead of a person. Jeff is experimenting with all of us."

    Any guesses who this was? Gotta be somebody either recently demoted (Grossman), or a younger "productive" guy who got one of the take-it-or-leave-it offers (Dominguez).
     
  11. cardpire

    cardpire Member

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    Brad Peacock is my guess.
     
  12. Nick

    Nick Contributing Member

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    Good call... and for good reason.

    Didn't get placed into any sort of rotation during spring training despite finishing last season very well... got limited action to start the season while they were "experimenting" with Harrell... then "finally" started to get in a groove after a few starts... and now out with arm soreness likely in -part due to an F'd up schedule to this point (similar to the complaining of the "tandem" system and increased arm soreness as a result).

    Or maybe its not "soreness"... and Luhnow's computer told him exactly who was responsible for that quote! ;)
     
  13. Scarface281

    Scarface281 Contributing Member

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    Someone on crawfish boxes suggested it was LJ Hoes, which makes sense. His mentor Adam jones is in the article, as well as bud norris.
     
  14. Nick

    Nick Contributing Member

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    Eh... Hoes really hasn't done much to deserve more time. Didn't do much to deserve less time either, but I suppose he could be mad that the club decided to give Presley most of his AB's to start the season.

    Still wasn't as big of a slight as Peacock's "demotion" was to start the season, especially since it was pretty clear that Harrell starting was both undeserved and reeked of experimentation ("lets just see if there's something worth salvaging...")
     
  15. The Beard

    The Beard Contributing Member

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    It's certainly a bit of a gamble on the players part though, if they have a serious injury or in a guy like Grossman's case, a serious case of not being very good, they could never get the chance at that big pay day. Obviously if they don't take the deal, and stay healthy and produce they will end up making more money, it would be stupid for the teams to guarantee the money up front and take on all the risk. "We will make you a rich man, give you enough money to live your entire life on, right now" . . .for a lot of guys that isn't enough to give up the possibility of making even more later, but for some it's worth it

    I do think it is interesting to hear that some of the prospect pitchers are complaining about the tandem system. Like i've said before and read for someone else on this very thread, the tandem system might be good to get a couple extra pitchers in a rotation, but for the top guys at each level, let them develop on the same schedule they will be throwing on in the bigs
     
  16. MadMax

    MadMax Contributing Member

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    This sounds very similar to what people were saying about Morey not very long ago. #assets
     
  17. Major

    Major Member

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    Of course it's a more often a deal for the teams - there's no reason to offer it otherwise. But for the player, there's huge value too. The difference between $0 and $12MM is much greater in a real-life perspective than $12MM vs $40MM. You're trading upside for a lifetime of security - and if you were successful enough to have ade $40MM, you'll probably get a decent as a free agent anyway. You're basically just buying insurance and taking the Carlos Hernandez possibility out of the equation.

    It's no different than offering a random person $5MM or a 30% chance at $30MM. Most people will take the $5MM even though it's less "value" because it's life-changing money. The first $5MM has more value than the next $5MM, which has more value than the next $5MM, etc.
     
  18. mateo

    mateo Contributing Member

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    #18 mateo, May 26, 2014
    Last edited: May 26, 2014
    1 person likes this.
  19. Nick

    Nick Contributing Member

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    In the case of Springer, his insurance came early on when he got his signing bonus as a draft pick ($2.5 million).

    My point is that when teams are trying to sign these guys really early (or in some cases before that player has even played an MLB game), unless the player turns out to be a complete bust, its in their best interest to wait to sign (especially if the player was an early round pick and already has made some money).

    Springer likely will sign a deal that covers arbitration/first free agency years... but he'll wait till after his debut/rookie seasons (or year 2) to do it... and probably be able to raise the value/year.
     
    #19 Nick, May 26, 2014
    Last edited: May 26, 2014
  20. jim1961

    jim1961 Member

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    "Radical Methods" will either become "Brilliant Methods" or "Idiotic Methods" in the future depending on whether this team succeeds or not.

    I am sure some teams are watching to see which will be the case.
     

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