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Behind the curtain: the Astros’ front office’s fearsome reputation

Fangraphs posted their Top 39 Astros Prospects list today, and the article comes with one doozy of a statement that opens up an interesting perspective into front office relations and strategies.

MLB: ALDS-Cleveland Indians at Houston Astros
Astros GM Jeff Luhnow discusses his world domination plan with manager A.J. Hinch. The world trembles.
Erik Williams-USA TODAY Sports

Thursday morning, the esteemed crew of Eric Longenhagen and Kiley McDaniel of posted their list of the Top 39 Prospects in the Houston Astros’ farm system.

As expected, the article is a good read, with far more description and insight into deeper-system prospects than can be found anywhere but Astros-centric websites like TCB and McDaniel himself has worked with a Major League scouting department and knows the ins-and-outs of what at least one club looks for in prospects, and both gentlemen have uncountable industry sources from which to draw their conclusions.

Notes on the list itself

I’m intentionally burying the lede of this article a bit because if I jump into the main thrust of this post immediately, it will overshadow some other interesting talking points regarding Fangraphs’ list.

Briefly, here are some things that jumped out from the list, and from their analysis, that is worth noting:

  • Unlike lists from a few years ago, ten of the Astros’ top 15 prospects are pitchers. One wonders if this is by design for the club, which likely anticipates being able to keep most or all of the Jose Altuve, Carlos Correa, Alex Bregman, George Springer group, and that they anticipate the imminent arrival of Kyle Tucker and Yordan Alvarez to provide even more above-average impact to their lineup. Likewise, they are perhaps confident in their trading or Free Agency strategy to fill in the lineup around their core, whatever that core is in three years’ time.
  • It’s notable that Four of the Top 15 prospects are starting pitchers who have already pitched in at least AA or AAA. Forrest Whitley, Corbin Martin, J.B. Bukauskas, Joshua James, Cionel Perez, Brandon Bielak, and Rogelio Armenteros. Riches indeed. If even two of those pitchers become No. 2-rotation quality guys (and you wouldn’t be crazy for thinking at least the top three are capable of reaching that quality), the Astros will be set up for a very long time with a top-tier and, perhaps as importantly, cheap rotation.
  • Seth Beer at #18. Hmm. Longenhagen and McDaniel have grave doubts about the Astros’ 2018 first-round pick’s ability to hit enough to matter and want to see what he does in the upper minors. I share that sentiment, but 18th seems almost like a punishment for being a big-bodied 1B/DH type, particularly weighed against Beer’s dominance at the college level and successful 2018 in beating up on younger competition. 2019 will tell us a lot about the player to answer the questions at hand, but comparing his offensive upside and college/draft pedigree to the other players ranked ahead of him leads one to believe this is a reactionary ranking that isn’t easily justifiable. Ultimately, Fangraphs’ ranking of Beer means nothing to the Astros, but that was the most eyebrow-raising ranking of this whole list.
  • A large number of “probably will be decent major leaguers” listed low in the list: Myles Straw, Abraham Toro-Hernandez, Framber Valdez, Garrett Stubbs (he has an interesting write-up that reads a little oddly. What basis do they have for assuming the Astros will move him from catcher?), and a couple others.

And then the bomb is dropped

This is all very interesting, and fun for Astros fans. But then, the authors delve into the system overview and some context. And here’s where the article made me blink and say, “wait....what?”

After a couple interesting paragraphs about how the Astros are developing a “type” of player, particularly pitchers with high-spin fastballs and curveballs, the authors drop a bomb on the Astros-fan reader. Bold/Italics emphasis is mine.

The Astros are clearly ahead of other teams around the league in some other areas, too. In some ways, it’s becoming easier for those lagging behind to catch up because they can also look to Baltimore and Atlanta, both of which have former Houston employees in prominent roles, to spot trends. In other ways, it’s getting harder to learn about Houston from the outside, as paranoia and acrimony have begun to impact industry discourse about the Astros in a way that makes it difficult to know which rumors about them are true and which are BS. Some of the things that have been mentioned consistently, and which seem plausible and interesting, include experimentation with visual machine learning and work with topical substances to improve pitch spin/movement.

Wait....wait a second...wait, WHAT?

That bolded sentence is endlessly fascinating. Let’s unpack it.

  1. “’s getting harder to learn about Houston from the outside”

As Astros fans, we are already aware that the Astros’ front office is more of a locked box in terms of leaking information than most other clubs. As a fan, this makes it difficult to get amped up or outraged over potential deals that are not likely to ever happen. But as a different type of fan, I love that the Astros run a tight ship, as I believe it increases their ability to keep their methods secret and score big wins on the transaction front by not alerting the media to their ideas.

The other interesting thing about this sentence is that the authors, presumably from their sources with clubs, are implying that Houston is continually tightening up even further, this despite that the Astros front office has put General Managers and highly-placed personnel into Milwaukee, Baltimore, and Atlanta. With more Astros alums with other clubs and not beholden to keep Houston trades secrets to themselves anymore, STILL well-connected media members are struggling to figure out what the hell the Astros’ game is. That’s cool.

2. “ paranoia and acrimony have begun to impact industry discourse about the Astros...”

Boom goes the dynamite, as they say in circles that I generally avoid. The implication here is that the authors’ well-placed sources are some combination of some or all of: bitter, angry, jealous, worried, and paranoid over what the Astros are doing and why.

The paranoia can be derived from many possible sources. First, the Astros have jobbed quite a few clubs in deals by transforming Houston’s acquired assets into assets worth FAR more than what Houston gave up. This happened with Justin Verlander, who looked to be at the end of his career when acquired by Houston, and then arguably had the best season of his career after Houston fixed his delivery. This happened with Gerritt Cole, who was using a sub-optimal pitch mix with the Pirates. This happened with Charlie Morton, who was acquired dirt cheap and then told to change his arsenal. This happened when Josh Fields, a mediocre reliever, was traded for Alvarez, who peaked on Top 100 prospect lists in the 30’s last season. This happened when “Players to be named later” and compensatory draft picks turned into Francis Martes and other highly-thought-of prospects.

Paranoia can also be derived from a feeling of, “What do the Astros know that I don’t?” As the Astros continue to develop no-name players into legit ML stars-in-the-making (James, Alvarez, White, others) other clubs will necessarily look at any offers from the Astros with skepticism and worry, even if the offer would ordinarily be a fair and mutually-advantageous one.

Where MLB front offices were once dominated by self-assured Alphas with long experience in scouting/coaching/playing, when transactions were made with an air of confidence and infallibility, the Astros with their supercomputer and newfangled ways of collecting and parsing information has completely shattered the illusion of a level-playing field among front offices. They have psychoanalyzed and summarily discarded every long-held belief in the “right way” to build a baseball organization. They shredded the playbook and melted down the molds into slag, then sold them for two-dollar bills at a local scrapyard. And then they said, “We know a better way. And the rest of you have to figure it out on their own.” And it has worked. It has worked so well, that there are few (if any?) examples in the history of professional sports of the turnaround the Astros have executed from 2013 through 2017, while also accompanied with a window that is wide, wide open for future success.

And so the other clubs are only just now saying, “What the hell just happened to baseball?” and realizing that they almost literally have no idea how to compete in this new world the Astros have invented.

The Astros are Willy Wonka, with their secret locked-up factory that produces miracles that dominate their market. The other clubs are Slugworth, desperately trying to find some way (even underhanded ways) of catching up.

Looking forward, if this is the pervasive attitude towards the Astros in the industry and not just that of the authors’ sources, one wonders how it impacts the Astros’ ability to make moves in the future.

I would think that clubs will still have confidence enough in their own evaluation systems as to make moves with the Astros they consider to be beneficial. However, if the industry as a whole really does believe that the Astros “have a trick up their sleeves” and are bitter or angry towards the club for continually showing up everybody else, it could limit Houston’s market to make deals until the rest of MLB feels like they have caught up.

The Astros are still making deals - they traded J.D. Davis to the Mets in return for some prospects this offseason. But was that deal affected at all by industry acrimony? Could the Astros have received more in return for today’s Davis if this were, say, 2014, instead of 2019? Or perhaps the Mets don’t fit the mold of the fearful, bitter group towards the Astros that the authors imply could be prevalent.

Could this be why the Astros still hold players like Derek Fisher and A.J. Reed and others, despite being obviously blocked by several players and being MLB-ready? Can the Astros not find a deal that they consider fair value?

If so, that would stink, because it would mean the Astros would have to resign themselves to trading at seventy-five cents on the dollar until other clubs feel like they are playing at or near the Astros’ own level.

Or, it could be a misconception of the Fangraphs’ authors based on the selection of sources they had available for their research. Or it could be only the perception of the organization that McDaniel used to work for, creeping into his writing (I’m not accusing at all, these are merely speculations, none of which are more or less plausible than anything else).

Regardless, it will be interesting to observe the Astros’ future trading trends with other clubs to try to guess whether or not the rest of MLB is willing to deal earnestly with them anymore.

3. “ a way that makes it difficult to know which rumors about them are true and which are BS.”

Wow. The end of this magic sentence implies that the authors at least believe that their sources are either guessing, or they are lying out of bitterness, about what the Astros are doing and why.

The sentence also implies that the authors’ sources are from outside of Houston’s organization. If the authors had been able to penetrate the Astros, even to get innocuous quotes like “We like this guy because he has a good head on his shoulders,” it stands to reason that the authors would not need to point out that the Astros are the hermit kingdom of MLB.

So which rumors are the authors referring to, anyway? Experimenting with machine learning sounds like something “very Astros.” Although what a baseball club could do with essentially artificial intelligence, I can’t even begin to guess.

Experimenting with topical substances sounds like sour grapes from the competition, although it’s plausible that if any club thought they could discover an undetectable substance to improve pitch rotation, they would do it. On the other hand, with players leaving the organization, this sounds like the type of thing that would spread to other clubs quickly and eventually leak to the press.

And what other rumors did the authors hear about that they didn’t deem fit to print?

From this very brief look, not necessarily behind the curtain, but rather look at the curtain, which is inside a sterile room, from behind some tinted bulletproof glass, buried in a secret government installation that only “top men” know about - the Astros continue to be Major League Baseball’s most intriguing organization in terms of operation, and it doesn’t seem to be a close race.