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What About Jim Crane?: An Ode to the Houston Astros Owner

Jim Crane doesn't get nearly enough credit for the Houston Astros' turnaround in 2015. Maybe it's time he should.

Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports

As the Houston Astros travel back to Kansas City to prepare for Game Five of the American League Division Series, there is a lot of credit to go around for their recent turnaround.

General Manager Jeff Luhnow has been widely credited with developing a plan and sticking to it, by utilizing deep analytics and combining it with great scouting and development, led by Mike Elias, Kevin Goldstein, and Quinton McCracken.

A.J. Hinch gets credit for taking a 70-92 team and turning it into a team that led the American League West almost all year before settling for the second wild card spot.

One name that hasn't been bandied about quite as much is owner Jim Crane. And that may, in fact, be exactly how he wants it.

On November 17, 2011, Crane purchased the Houston Astros, coming off of a season in which they had won only 56 games. A former pitcher for the Central Missouri State University baseball team, Crane paid $680m to take the team off the hands of Drayton McLane, who had governed over them during their most-successful years, including their lone World Series berth in 2005.

Crane was a different beast than McLane. Rather than dictating roster moves with a heavy hand, he hired Luhnow away from the St. Louis Cardinals to run the team, and then he sat back and let him do it, with full support. The rough years that followed, with two more back-to-back 100+ loss seasons, did not result in a change of management, but rather a doubling down of support.

"We focus on two things when hiring. First, find the best people you can in the world. And second, let them do their work. Just get out of their way."-Matt Mullenweg

What Jim Crane inherited was a mess. The end of McLane's tenure as owner of the Astros wasn't pretty. In addition to the triple-digit-loss season, the team also featured a farm system that was ranked 26th out of 30 MLB teams. After years of neglect to the system, former General Manager and Scouting Director Ed Wade and Bobby Heck had begun the process of filling the Astros organization with talented, athletic young minor leaguers, but they had had a lot of ground to cover, and the process was still very much unfinished. Added to all of that was a forced switch to the American League West, and a difficult television deal that isolated much of Houston's dormant fan base.

Crane let Luhnow do what he did best: Stock the system, develop the talented young athletes into prime-time baseball players, and utilize the best forward-thinking analytics team he could find to maximize their strengths.

And now, less than four years later, the Houston Astros stand a win away from advancing to the American League Championship Series. Just one player from that 2011 roster - Jose Altuve (two if you count the then-injured Jason Castro) - is even still with the organization.

The Astros' current playoff roster contains just four players who were in the organization on November 17, 2011: Altuve, Castro, 2011 first-rounder George Springer, and 2009 7th-round pick Dallas Keuchel. The remaining twenty-one players were all acquired by Luhnow in some fashion or another.

It's easy to look at the history of the Astros and see a team that lost 100+ times or more in three consecutive seasons, but that ignores the alacrity with which Crane and Luhnow turned the team around. In just their third season in the American League West, they have gone from 51 wins to 86 wins and a playoff appearance, with a decisive Game Five looming against the defending AL champions to advance to the ALCS.

When you're passing out credit for the 2015 Houston Astros, don't forget to save some for the man at the top. The man who helped accomplish great things for the team by doing very little: Staying out of the way of those to whom he'd entrusted his organization.