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Jeff Luhnow is the Face of the Astros

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CRPerry13 thinks aloud about the release of Astros Manager Bo Porter and Bench Coach Dave Trembley

Bob Levey

I was caught off-guard by the Monday firing of Astros Manager Bo Porter, partially because I vocally dismissed the validity of claims reiterated by Ken Rosenthal reporting the growing tension between Porter and Astros GM Jeff Luhnow.  I am disappointed by Porter's removal even while I recognize that it's probably the correct move, considering the best interests of the club, the fans, and the players (more on that in a moment).

I met Porter prior to his first season at the helm of the Astros, and came away incredibly impressed by the man.  The generic wording is intentional, because I wish to get across that Bo Porter, the man, impressed me.  He was a cheerful and sincere man, who seemed utterly gung-ho about taking on an assignment that was sure to involve lots of losing at the Major-League level.  And yet, he said:

"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."

It sounded good at the time, and I remain sure that he gave it his best shot.  Problematically, it sounds like Porter (and by extension, bench coach Dave Trembley, who was also relieved of his duties on Monday), eventually came to the understanding that his view of the "Houston Astros way," might not mesh with Luhnow's view.  This reportedly led to the discontent.

Some of this is a little surprising, considering that Porter also said this during that interview prior to the 2012 season:

"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?"

That Porter seems so all-in on the front of using metrics to make game decisions at the time lends credibility to the idea that perhaps the problem leading to his firing was elsewhere.  Communication between the front office and the on-field staff?  Maybe.  Little control over his own field staff, perhaps feeling that pitching coach Brent Strom is going his own way, despite nominally reporting to Porter?  Perhaps.

Quotes from Luhnow on Monday give little to go on in the way of inference, but those quotes suggest that Porter and Trembley did not, despite Porter's words two springs ago, buy into the "consistent and united message" that Luhnow envisions for the entire organization.  At least, that would have been Luhnow's perception.

In last week's businessweek article about Luhnow and the Astros, we get a very concise picture of Luhnow's background and a glimpse into his training.  As a management consultant at McKinsey, Luhnow would have been trained to handle criticism and the fallout from unpopular decisions, and also would have been trained to make decisions for the best long-term health of an organization with only secondary importance placed on emotional factors.  Note, that does not imply that Luhnow or management consultants do not include personal or emotional inputs in their calculus.  But those things are not allowed to drive the bus.

A management consultant is trained under the philosophy that for maximum success (profit, wins, market share, morale, bonuses), at the very least all members of an organization's upper management and as many of the employees at-large must work towards a shared vision.  Is everybody required to agree with the vision?  Certainly not.  But when disagreement becomes verbal malcontent, then an organization has one or two people back-stroking while everybody else pushes forward.  The idea is to pick a direction.  The best direction you think you should go in.  And then everybody row in the same direction.

The unfortunate implication is that Porter, Trembley, and others(?), by all reports very nice men, seemed unable to keep their doubts to themselves.  That causes the rumblings of doubt that can stagger an organization trying to move forward.  The evidence is in the number of these types of situations that keep occurring, if the media is to be believed.

For example, I have not met either Bud Norris or Jarred Cosart personally.  But since leaving the Astros, both have been very critical of the Houston organization, and an easy conclusion to draw is that their malcontent did not begin on the days of their respective trades.  Were their attitudes or vocal doubts the reason they were traded?  Doubtful.  But in the light of a strangely-timed firing of the Astros on-field managers, it now seems like "not toeing the company line" could absolutely have played a factor into those two pitchers being moved instead of, say, Dallas Keuchel or Collin McHugh.  With this as a backdrop, and from Porter and Trembley's firings, one can conclude that the Astros are very aware that key personnel can derail an organization's plans just by refusing to play along, regardless of their personal feelings.

And who hasn't seen this in their own jobs?  We all know nice people who have been laid off.  Sometimes for non-performance, sometimes for cost-cutting measures, and sometimes because of their attitudes.  It's always jarring for everybody around, there is always a certain amount of pity.  But in my experience, if the business is well-run, there is a certain amount of, "That's a shame, but I'm not really surprised," also.

Just as with GM Billy Beane of the Oakland A's, Jeff Luhnow with his #process has become the face of the Houston Astros.  The Astros ownership has fully invested in Luhnow and his vision for a sustainable organization built on always making the best decision by their estimation, regardless of that decision's popularity.

In summary, while Porter and Trembley seem like swell guys, the Astros organization is currently built on #process.  Porter and Trembley should both quickly land jobs in homes where perhaps they share their employer's vision a little more closely, and I hope so for their sake.  But for the Astros, fans should be...if not happy about this decision, at least relieved that this ownership group and front office is taking the stance of a consistent message and method.  Changing plans willy-nilly to suit the feelings of one or two employees is not the way to be a successful organization, and the Astros should be stronger for making decisions like these than they would otherwise.

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Random thoughts:

  • The timing of the firing is interesting.  With a month left in the season, one can't help wondering if perhaps Porter pushed too hard, and said something inexcusable.  I've seen situations like that in my own career.  Insubordination is instant termination in every organization I've worked for.  Otherwise, why not wait until the offseason to terminate Porter?
  • Luhnow's quote saying that Porter's termination had nothing to do with on-field play, which seems truthful considering nobody expected the Astros to be competitive this season, makes me wonder if Porter was having an unhealthy impact on the locker room.  This happened with Cecil Cooper as well.
  • Maybe all the losing was getting to Porter?  The frustration from losing and having his own success in the hands of the youngest roster in the majors, comprising of still-developing players who might still be in the minors with other organizations, had to have played a role in his reported reaction to Luhnow's management methods.
  • I find it interesting to read that Luhnow sees himself as setting the culture of the organization, instead of allowing the managers to do that.  Not that I see a problem with it - it's just not something you usually hear a GM thinking about.
  • The Astros are getting all the press, but many organizations are heading in the same direction, using decision sciences to drive strategy.  Notably, the Red Sox, Rangers, Cubs, and others.  Baseball-tradition "truthers" and statistical denigrators are going into the 21st-century kicking and screaming (sup, Jarred Cosart), but the fact is that this is not a battle that they can win.  They need to climb on board or find themselves out of a job.  The Astros are not the only MLB organization who would have let Porter go, and for the same reasons.