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The Legacy of Luhnow

Jeff Luhnow changed the way organizations approach building a winning baseball team. But will he be remembered for that?

MLB: Oakland Athletics at Houston Astros Erik Williams-USA TODAY Sports

This offseason has been brutal for every Astros fan. The Astros were a legendary team chasing all-time greats with both their pitching and hitting performances. The crushing blow of the World Series loss magnified the intensity of criticism surrounding the Brandon Taubman incident. And that’s before the real fun even began.

One of the hardest parts about this offseason has been the fall from grace from now former general manager Jeff Luhnow. Astros fans held such an incredibly high belief in Luhnow, that “In Luhnow We Trust” became a coined and regularly used mantra.

Luhnow was almost mythological, too good to be true. He had walked into Jim Crane’s office in 2011 with a binder containing his vision and plan for the trifling Astros. The payroll was bloated with aging players, the farm system was barren, their record terrible with over 100 losses, and they handcuffed to a poor television deal constricting their payroll. Not that anyone was interested in watching these Astros.

While I admittedly would have been optimistic with the change in direction regardless, Luhnow had something magical about him that made a lot of instant believers. His approach wasn’t the tried and true, it was a grand experiment that, if it all worked, would be the envy of the league. The next Moneyball. I bought in immediately.

The Astros lost over 100 games the next two seasons as well. It’s interesting though; I look back at some of those seasons and they were actually some of the most fun I’ve had in following baseball. Our baseball team was the laughing stock of baseball and the play on the field ranged from poor to downright embarrassing. The CrawfishBoxes at the time had a jovial atmosphere, with debates largely revolving around whether Luhnow knew what he was doing and if Crane was just a cheap ass owner. Quite a few people shouted that fans would never return.

There were news articles about the Astros tanking and how low their payroll was. But for fans following closely, the game changed. I had never followed prospects closely before, but suddenly, they were interesting. They were the future. We had something to dream on as our farm system jumped by leaps and bounds, going from last in baseball to a continued trend of being one of the top farm systems in the league. I fell in love with John Sickel’s writing over at MinorLeagueBall, and learned a ton about which skills seem to translate well and to not always trust the statline. Nicholas Tropeano (NiTro) became the first prospect I followed religiously as he progressed through the minors, putting up similar performances to Mike Foltynewicz, despite his lack of overpowering stuff. (I was also heartbroken when he was traded for essentially a backup catcher.)

And the prospect portion was just the tip of the changes Luhnow was bringing to baseball. The hiring of Brent Strom is still probably the greatest gift Luhnow has brought to the Astros. Strom would simply wave his magic wand and pitchers who were AAAA level suddenly were performing at Cy Young caliber levels. “Scrap Heap” type pick-ups such as Collin McHugh, Will Harris, and Charlie Morton turned around and pitched as genuine aces. It drove my interest much deeper than before. Instead of just looking at wins, losses and ERA, I started to learn about the advanced statistics and what pointed to real success vs luck. My article on Strom’s Magic Method is still probably the one I’m most proud of from all my time at TCB. With a ton of research, we were able to find trends in what the Astros looked for and what changes they made to pitchers. Even that is probably barely scratching the surface of the depth of the Astros’ approach.

While analytics in baseball have existed long before Luhnow, he ushered in a new era. The success of the Astros based on a “nerd cave” approach changed baseball. There quickly became chasms of difference between teams who had embraced it versus those who were still stuck in an old school mentality. It was interesting to see broadcasts picking up (and often incorrectly using or drawing data from) the advanced statistics. When Statcast information became public, it revolutionized baseball for fans. Analytics had officially taken over baseball and Luhnow’s Astros were the face of the revolution.

Luhnow’s approach was also often seen as cold and calculated, viewing players as equations instead of some of the traditional aspects teams had grown used to. It was scorned throughout the league, until it could not be ignored anymore. And while I don’t think the Astros were as cold and calculated as it was reported, they became the face of dehumanization as well.

The Astros pushed the limits. Luhnow constantly found new ways to “game” the system. He caught the entire league off-guard with his approach to the first draft with the allotted slot bonus approach, leading to an unprecedented level of talent and many claiming Luhnow “won” the draft.

He became famous for his PTBNL, finding diamonds in the rough. And while he had a few blown trades, he also pulled off some miraculous ones, with acquiring Yordan Alvarez for Josh Fields likely being the crown jewel.

And of course, Luhnow brought the first World Series trophy to Houston. He did it without mortgaging the future, or signing bloated contracts. He kept fan favorites like Jose Altuve, Alex Bregman and Justin Verlander and signed them to long term deals.

With all the success, it’s easy to understand why Luhnow was held in such high regard. He was always a step ahead of the league. What more could you ask for in a General Manager?

But when people retell or look up the legacy of Luhnow, most of the above will disappear into the void. The cheating scandal will taint his legacy and the way people view him forever.

I always believed that Luhnow took the rules to the very edge, to the absolute limit for every bit of an advantage. But the cheating scandal that has rocked MLB and the Astros did not toe the line, it plainly crossed it. And while Luhnow claims to have had no knowledge of what was going on, I can’t believe that there is any possibility of that.

With that said, I do think the exact same thing that became the biggest cheating scandal since steroids was widespread across the league. Too many players and coaches have come forward talking about the fact that it’s unjustified the way the Astros are taking heat for a problem that has existed for more than a hundred years. The Astros were just plain stupid about the way they did it.

Hatter likes to poke fun at the fact that I had written an article about the Astros stealing signs in 2018, when staffer Kyle McLaughlin was caught taking photos into the opposing team’s dugouts. While the MLB “cleared” the Astros of this, (which seems even more sketchy now) I have a similar problem with the most recent scandal.

As much as I hated the blame the players (who were immune to punishment) approach that the MLB took, I actually do believe it was a player driven system. I just can’t imagine Luhnow’s nerd cave filled with geniuses, larger investments in technology than any other team, and cutting edge approaches settling on a system that was built upon “Let’s bang loudly on a trashcan!”.

Regardless, I do believe Luhnow knew, and I feel comfortable in saying he did not attempt to change what was going on because it was so widespread in baseball. Which makes Luhnow’s firing and how his impact on the game of baseball will be remembered truly a shame.

Luhnow revolutionized the game of baseball. And as a fan, I’m truly appreciative. I understand how controversial that statement will be, but I’m being honest. I enjoy baseball in a completely different way now. I’m a smarter fan. I’ve gained so much knowledge, and I owe a lot of that to working to understand Luhnow’s approach.

I doubt Luhnow ever works in a public capacity such as a General Manager for baseball again, but the ways he changed the game will forever live on. The dynasty of a team that he built, while suffering from terrible public relations, still stands strong. I strongly believe that the Astros will continue to be a dominant force in the league over the next few years and all we can do is hope that Luhnow’s replacement carries some of the same genius that allowed Luhnow to build this team. I do hope that baseball’s hand is forced and the MLB actually takes action to stop the electronic stealing of signs, but I don’t know if it will make a difference in how Luhnow will be remembered.

I wish only the best for Jeff Luhnow, and I don’t know where he can go from here career-wise. Although there is probably an agreement preventing him from speaking too openly on the topic, I’d love to read a book from his perspective on his baseball career.

You will be missed, Jeff. You brought Astros fans not only their first championship, but a renewed vigor for learning about baseball, and a lovable group of players built to last through this storm.

In Luhnow I trust.