It begins with a brunette, as it always seems to. I should have known better - they are nothing but trouble. The brunette sends me an innocent-sounding note. "Please attend the private blogger's luncheon at Astros Fan Fest on Saturday. Interview GM Jeff Luhnow, Manager Bo Porter, and outfielders J.D. Martinez and Justin Maxwell." Sounds simple enough, but then, I'm a simple guy. The name's Perry Christopher. I'm a private eye. The brunette's name was Tim.
I arm myself with a recording device, my casebook, and my trusty Dr. Grip. The good doctor has not seen a lot of action lately, and today would be no exception. But it makes me feel secure knowing that its squishy grip is available if I need it. I team up with my wife, and upon arriving at the Minute Maid Park Club Level, immediately encounter Jayne, Terri, and Jason, three professional investigators from the regular force. Great, I think, four more brunettes. This is going to be one of those days.
We meet with Kelly, the Astros' Social Media Director, who had organized the scheduled interrogations. Luckily, Kelly had also organized a fine lunch of BBQ, chicken wings, taquitos, chips, salsa, and salad. I know when I am being buttered up, but my mom taught me to never turn down free food. Good food.
The first on the slate of interrogations is Justin Maxwell, the speculative Center Fielder / Right Fielder / DH for the Astros. I feel apprehensive - the position uncertainty might point to a multiple personality disorder, which could hamper me from learning what I need to know. These are the sorts of difficulties we private eyes deal with daily though, and I'm a professional.
Justin is tall, dark, and handsome. I am only one of those - tall - and I feel inadequate. Justin is personable and chatty. This is a guy I could hang out with.
He opens by speaking of his journey through the minor leagues, and then of his goals for the upcoming season.
"I can hit for power, but I'd like to hit for more of an average this year and be more consistent that way....the more chances I have to put the ball in play the more chances I have to have hits and potentially Home Runs."
Justin is a man of self-awareness. I like that.
I ask him if he had to do anything special to prepare for playing center field in Minute Maid Park, a notoriously goofy-shaped area with a low hill on the horizon. He tells a story about how he once caught a ball on the hill against the Pirates on a jump, but that when he tripped on the hill and hit the wall, the ball popped out of his glove. Now, he is aware of the location of the Hill and tries to time his jumps to compensate. We ask if he'd like to get rid of the hill.
"It's nice not having to worry about a wall in center field, but as a hitter, I'd like to see [the hill] go away."
Justin identifies Carlos Pena as one of the nicest men he's ever met and thinks he will be a clubhouse leader. He also hopes that he himself can take more of a leadership role in the future. Of all the pitchers on the Astros that he wouldd least like to face:
"Well, I've faced Lucas [Harrell] and Bud [Norris] before, and they're no big deal."
Laughter. I like this guy. Eventually, he chooses Rhiner Cruz, a guy who packs 97 mph heat. Sounds dangerous.
I ask Justin about his thoughts on moving to the American League.
"For me, it's nice not to have to watch the pitchers hit anymore, or bunt, because to me that was kind of boring."
At this point, Justin moves to the next interrogator and new Astros' manager Bo Porter takes his place at my table. I squeeze Dr. Grip for reassurance as this self-possessed man greets us with a steely yet warm gaze. I swallow hard to master my fear. Jayne asks him about his relationship with the minor league coaches. Immediately, the man impresses me with his thoughtful answers.
"I will make it my business to develop a relationship with [the minor league coaches and staff] because I think that a lot of times, when you talk about building an organization and having a championship organization...one of the problems that can exist is there's a disconnect from the major leagues to the minor leagues. We're not going to have that here; it will be completely one family; we're all in this here thing together. From the minor leagues to the major leagues, it will be the Houston Astros way."
I ask him the question that's been on my mind. With the small army of starting pitchers coming to camp, what will he look for when sorting out his opening day rotation?
"One of the best things, when you talk about our organization and where we're at right now, is the fact that there's a lot of opportunity. And with opportunity comes competition. And I think competition is one of the best things for competitive athletes. If you can't compete against each other, how can you compete against the other team? So, I love the fact that we have created a great deal of competition within our rotation, I think it's only going to make the players better, which I can tell will make us a better team."
Terri follows up with a question about fundamentals. We continue to grill him, but his calm self-assurance never wavers. This is a tough nut to crack.
"People make comments about, 'well that's the little things', or 'the little things don't matter'. I'm a firm believer that anything that makes you lose a baseball game is major. Because when it happens, that was the biggest play of the game. Even if it's just as simple as the proper way to play catch, and I'm a firm believer...in the five P's. Proper Preparation Produces Peak Performances. It's not just a check in the box....you have to connect your mind, body, and soul into what it is you're doing. That's how you get the greatest opportunity to put yourself in position to accomplish that when the bullets start to fly."
We divert it onto another topic to try to catch him off guard, but he swings the conversation back to fundamentals with the smooth ease of butter on a hot griddle. He gives us this teaser:
"When you start to talk about fundamentals - and a lot has to do with my football background - as a team, we will be prepared differently. I'm not going to get into the particulars about how we will prepare differently, but just know that as a team, we will be prepared differently than they have been prepared in the past."
This guy is a pro. He gives us just enough information to feel like we are getting somewhere, but leaves out the details. My employer will just have to be happy with what he gets out of this interrogation. Having thoroughly and kindly been schooled on the subject of fundamentals, I try to throw him off kilter with a question that has always confounded major league managers. I ask about how he will use information from the analytics department to make game decisions. He tackles it head-on, leaving me confident that he is not the old-school type who disregards data in favor of gut reactions every time.
"We would be foolish not to take advantage of all of the material that's made readily available to us that can help the outcome of games. They spend a lot of time going through all those numbers and the particulars and positioning and spray charts that allow us to cut to the chase. I'm a firm believer in, 'why defend a portion of the field that a guy's not going to hit the ball to but 1% of the time?' So, if a guy hits a ball to this side of the field 88% of the time, we're gonna defend that side of the field. I mean, you're playing the highest percentage. It would be like in football, you're playing against an option team and you spend the entire week in pass defense. Why are you practicing pass defense when these guys are going to run the option the whole game?"
I reflect that it's an excellent metaphor, and very apt. At the end of my interrogation of Astros' manager Bo Porter, I sit back, deeply impressed. Here is a leader of men, a man of confidence and of faith. I did not know what to expect when I began our conversation, and now I feel changed for the better. I have my own confidence in Porter's ability to lead the Astros. His very presence makes them a better team. They don't pay Private Eyes to become melodramatic, but I got a surprisingly awesome impression, and will put that in my report. Porter is a stand-up guy who really knows what he's up to.
Left Fielder J.D. Martinez joins us next. He is a well-groomed, quiet-spoken man of about my height. His wrist feels good, thanks for asking. The strength is back, but now he needs to get his swing timing down. Jayne addresses the elephant in the room by asking how much of his poor performance last year was due to the hand.
Like a man, J.D. does not take the bait.
"To blame the hand, I would never do that. I was the one taking the swings, staying in the game. That's all I can really say about that."
Classy, though an outside observer like myself would disagree, knowing the impact a bum wrist can have on swinging a bat. Good for him for not using that as an excuse, though. J.D. then addresses the subject of his meteoric rise through the minor leagues.
"You want to go through it then--" he begins.
Orbit drops practically into my lap. Obviously, the giant green whatchamacallit is trying to stymie my investigation. He leans in and puts his arm around my shoulder. I toss out a good-natured thumbs up and wacky smile as Jayne and Terri snap photos. J.D. grins, realizing that he has been upstaged. Orbit's ebullient personality is evident even through his silence. His furry body smells vaguely like a dry cleaner's store, and I realize uncomfortably that his mouth is large enough to swallow my head. My knuckles are white on the grip of the doctor, and I anticipate trouble. J.D. diffuses the tension by mentioning Orbit's work at hospitals and schools, and then the green monster bounces off. J.D. continues his answer about the minor leagues.
"You want to struggle down there. You want to struggle because you learn about yourself when you struggle. Last year I learned so much about myself and baseball and people and how everything works in this game. I hate to wish it, but I wish that when I was coming up through the minors that I would have struggled then so I could have figured out what I know now and feel more ready for this year, what to expect, and how to handle it."
I ask him what his approach will be to stage his monster comeback.
"For me, it's just being patient and taking what they give to me, whether it's 'they're not going to pitch to you right now because you're hitting the ball well' and taking your walks, 'there's a guy on third base with less than two outs, they're going to want to walk you'. You can't just force the run in. I feel like [what] I learned is that you can't force it. If they want to walk you, you have to take what they give you. Then it's the next guy's game."
He turns back to the topic of his 2012 struggles.
"I've always felt a responsibility - that I've been 'the guy' on most every team I've played on. Being the four hole hitter here last year, three hole hitter - I felt like I was 'that guy' too. I take responsibility for this team, I felt like I put a little too much pressure on myself, got caught in that quicksand, and just couldn't get out."
J.D. stands and we thank him for his time. We are then joined by General Manager Jeff Luhnow. Luhnow wears a light sport coat and bears the wisdom of the universe in his eyes. Immediately, I am struck by my own intellectual inferiority. He is asked about the plethora of starting pitchers in the minors.
"Those rosters at Double-A and Triple-A are going to be as important as the big league roster. When I was farm director with the Cardinals, I instituted the tandem pitching rotations that allowed you to have eight starters for the first couple months of the year. So we're going to discuss whether or not that's appropriate because there's guys [like] Blair Walters - it's hard to plug him into a rotation right now, but he should be. We still believe he's a starter. So...we're gonna discuss that, whether or not we go with the eight starters. The way you do that is you have four groups of two, the first guy who comes in goes to the fifth inning then the second guy comes in and goes six to the end. ...Then, the next time you're the one that gets to start the game and your piggy-back partner comes in later. We're going to talk about it; we'll be creative in how we allocate those roster spots. We'll probably have to have a few guys at a level where they would be otherwise."
Specifically when Jayne asks, Luhnow addresses pitcher Mike Foltynewicz' placement in the farm system, and whether or not he would skip Lancaster, the notoriously hitter-friendly park, and go straight to Double A.
"No, we just talked about that [at the other table]...I'm not so sure that's the best thing for him anyway. We talk about Lancaster and problems there with pitchers, but at the same time, if they're going to pitch here [in the majors], they have to learn to pitch through some adversity."
Luhnow then is asked about what lessons he learned during his first year on the job.
"How to manage all that change at once is something that very few baseball organizations have gone through. It was challenging at times - not just the change in player personnel but also the front office and doing all that at the same time was challenging. ...Now I feel like we're at a point where we've got the people that are going to be here for a while. We've got players in the pipeline that are going to be here for a while, we've got the front office that's going to be here, and we're working together well. So, to a certain extent, it feels like my first year is coming up, because there was so much that we did last year. ...But, this is the group that's going to be here for the next five-plus years."
Then, Luhnow drops the names of a bunch of guys in the front office that I wish I knew. I struggle with the urge to pull out my cheat sheet of front office personnel so that I can follow along. Either Jayne and Terri know who all these people are, or they are better actors than I. I blink and smile, and internally resolve to do some homework about the organization. Luhnow continues his discussion about the successes in 2012 and looking ahead to the 2013 season.
"Losing 107 games is not fun for anybody, for sure. But, going from worst-to-first in the minor leagues was pretty fun. Going from wherever we were to 9th in BA's farm system rankings is fun. Seeing all those players take a step forward: Delino stealing a hundred bases, Folty doing what he did; that was great, that was a lot of fun. That stuff will start to bubble up here pretty soon. We got lucky with some moves, like with Justin [Maxwell], and keeping Lucas [Harrell], thank God we did that. We just have to get lucky a couple more times. You know, who knows, maybe [Infielder Jake] Elmore, maybe [Outfielder Che-Hsuan] Lin, we don't know. ...I'm excited to see those guys."
Reading from my employer's list of questions, I ask the General Manager what his strategy is for the back end of the first-year player draft.
"It's an art and a science. If you look at the Cardinals, the number one farm system in baseball, a lot of those picks were from the twenties and the teens. It's a combination of sticking to the process, but also deviating when it feels right, using your gut. ...When a scout is sitting there telling you, 'trust me on this,' and it's the twenty-first round and you have some choices, you go with what your scout says, and that's why we got [Cards' top-5 prospect Trevor] Rosenthal. Those are the types of picks that make or break your draft."
When I ask, Luhnow says he thinks the organization is ahead of where he thought it would be this time last season. That gives me comfort, and as the interrogation winds down, I reflect that I have a dirty job, but I'm glad to be the one doing it.
Thanks for sending the photo, Jayne!