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In Luhnow We Trust: Revisited. Part III, Acquisitions and Development

This must be where the magic was

MLB: Kansas City Royals at Houston Astros Erik Williams-USA TODAY Sports

In the first two parts of the series we discussed the Luhnow drafts and the Luhnow trades. In general, we didn’t seem to find the keys to Astros success in these two parts of the Astros system during the Luhnow years. Today, we look at acquisition and development. Perhaps here is the key.

On first look, it would seem that acquisitions and development would belong to separate categories. The problem is, after acquiring a player, is his subsequent success because the acquisition was crafty? Or is it because the system made him a better player after it acquired him.

Of course, whenever a team acquires a free agent, the standard investment disclaimer applies: “Past history does not guarantee future performance.”

Along those lines, the Astros have had some misses in the free agent market, a few that have performed near expectations, and some big hits. Were the big hits smart acquisitions, or did the players improve due to the Astros developmental system?

Although it is beyond proving, I assert that much of the Astros’ success in the Luhnow era was due to player development, and this is most clearly seen in the pitching department.

But first, let’s look at the performance of Luhnow free agent signings. As a very general rule of thumb, subject to many qualifications, the free agent market usually pays about $8,000,000 per win above replacement (WAR). If that is the standard, then most of Luhnow’s acquisitions were successful. See the chart below.

cost of Astros free agents per WAR

Player $/bWAR
Player $/bWAR
Robinson Chirinos 1.513 million
Charley Morton 2.413 million
Wade Miley 2.812 million
Michael Brantley 3.333 million
Yuli Gurriel 4.072 million
Colby Rasmus 4.407 million
Hector Rondon 5.000 million
Josh Reddick 5.270 million
Scott Feldman 7.333 million
Joe Smith* 13.636 million
Luke Gregerson 18.500 million
Tony Sipp 0 WAR 18 mil
Doug Fister -0.2 WAR 7 mil
Carlos Beltran -0.8 WAR 16 mil

*Joe smith lost a half season to injury on a two-year contract.

It looks like the Astros have gotten really good value from most of their free agents. Throw in Marwin Gonzalez, a Rule 5 pick-up, who gave the Astros 11.9 WAR, one of the best Rule 5 producers in history. On the other had, Luhnow let DeLino DeShields go in Rule 5, who has 5.3 bWAR, although it is doubtful that he would have gotten that in the Astros organization.

Of course, we can’t forget the biggest miscalculation in Astros history in terms of player acquisition and/or development: J. D. Martinez. After three mediocre season with the Astros, Martinez learned a new swing before Spring Training in 2014. He was not given much opportunity to prove his swing, and was released. His career OPS since leaving Houston is .961.

Failure of player evaluation? Failure of player development? Both. You have to wonder why Martinez had to go outside the organization to get his swing fixed.

But this was a transformational event for the Astros front office early in the Luhnow regime. The Astros learned from this mistake and adapted to avoid a repeat.

Martinez was an anomaly, an exception to the rule. Obviously, the Astros have gotten a high level of production from free agent acquisitions and home grown talent. How much of this production is the result of player development we can never say for sure. Or, for that matter, how much of the success of home-grown players like Jose Altuve, Alex Bregman, Carlos Correa, or George Springer has to do with player development.

Jose Altuve and Alex Bregman, from appearances, are two of the most obvious over-achievers in baseball. Consider the growth in Jose Altuve through the years, from undisciplined singles hitter to a polished pro with legit power, while standing only 5’6” (they say).

Or George Springer. When he first came to the Astros from the University of Connecticut, the knock on him was his strikeout rate. In his first full season in AA he struck out 30.9% of the time and walked only 7.4%. In 2013 the AA strikeout rate dropped slightly to 29.%, while the walk rate increased to 13%. At AAA that year, the strikeout rate dropped to 24.3%, and the walk rate increased to 15.4%. Before his call up to the Astros in 2014, these rates remained about the same.

Of course, big league pitching is a whole nother thing. In 2014 with the Astros he struck out 33% of the time before his injury. In 2015 this dropped to 24.2%. In the infamous 2017 season it went down to 17.6%, but lest you think that was purely cheating induced, his K% has remained low, 19.7% in 2018 and 20.3% in 2019. In 2019 he had career highs in OBP and SLG, hit 39 home runs in 122 games, while having a career high BB% of 12.1%.

There has been a clear progression in Springer’s development as a hitter, not just in numbers, but in plate discipline. In 2014 Springer swung at 26.3% of pitches outside the zone. That number has dropped to 22.8% in 2019.

Same with Altuve. His first year in the majors he swung at 42.4% of balls outside the zone. Since 2013, that number has dropped steadily down to 32.7% in 2019.

Look at the growth of Alex Bregman. He was originally considered a high “floor” guy with a limited “ceiling.” Since 2017 experts have predicted “regression” from Bregman every year, but he confounds the experts and keeps getting better. His OPS each year has been 114, 123, 156, and 169 for 2016-2019. His K% has dropped from 24% in 2016 to 12% in 2019, while his BB% has increased from 6.9% to 17.2%

Yes, a guy who hit 41 home runs, yet walked 119 times while striking out only 83. The low ceiling guy was second in MVP voting in 2019, barely losing to Mike Trout.

Cuban free agent Yuli Gurriel, who signed with the Astros in 2016, had his best season last year at age 35, with 31 home runs and an .884 OPS. Like the examples above, his plate discipline has improved, walking 6% of the time last year, while only walking 3.6% in 2016. His outside the zone swing rate has declined from 40.7% to 35.4%

If you say these players just aged well, I can’t prove you wrong. But I say the Astros did something right developing these and other players.

But the real player development advantage for the Astros is in pitching development. Whether this is due to the scientific research done in the “Nerd Cave,” by liberal application of pine tar (if Trevor Bauer is to be believed), or by the magic of Brent Strom, there have been remarkable achievements by Astros pitchers and dramatic before and after results.

Let’s look at 36 year-old Astros Cy Young winner Justin Verlander. In the three years before coming to the Astros, Verlander had a 110 ERA+. In his last two years with the Astros it is 172.

This pattern is repeated over and over. In his last two years in Pittsburgh Gerrit Cole had a 102 ERA+. With the Astros it was 164. Career ERA+ for Charlie Morton before Astros—94. After—123.

Here are some careers that were taken off the dust heap by the Luhnow regime. Collin McHugh. Before Astros 46 ERA+. After, 110. Will Harris. Before Astros, 94. After, 175. Of course there’s Dallas Keuchel. Before Brent Strom 78 ERA+. After Strommie, 121 with the Astros.

Then there’s Ryan Pressly. Since 2013 with the Twins Pressly’s ERA+ was 110. Last year with the Astros it was 200. In his half season with the Astros in 2018 it was 545 in 23.1 innings.

Not every pitcher acquired by the Astros flourished under Luhnow. Ken Giles, Pat Neshek and Mike Fiers had their worst seasons with the Astros. But, by-and-large, the unexpected performances of home-grown pitchers like Brad Peacock and Chris Devenski, and improved performances by pitching acquisitions, may be the single-most important reason for the Astros’ success under Jeff Luhnow.

Imagine, if you will, an alternative universe. A universe where Jose Altuve is a fringe starter, bouncing around the league, hitting .280, mostly singles. Or George Springer, hitting .250, striking out a ton, getting maybe 25 homers a year. Or Alex Bregman, at best one of those All-Stars who gets picked because someone else didn’t want to play, instead of being the BEST THIRD BASEMAN IN BASEBALL. Or Yuli Gurriel, getting worse in his mid-thirties, instead of better. Or Justin Verlander, fading into the pitching sunset at age 36, instead of having an amazing resurgence, and having close to the best season of his career.

Don’t take the success of the Astros players for granted.

It’s difficult to prove, there are so many moving parts, but I think the main secret of the Astros’ success under Jeff Luhnow is that they got the most out of the players they had.


How do you rate the overall performance of Jeff Luhnow as General Manager, all things considered?

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