Jim Crane’s best move as the Astros’ owner was hiring Jeff Luhnow and trusting him to stay on the cutting edge of baseball operations. Throughout Luhnow’s tenure, Crane, for the most part, stayed out of baseball decisions and gave his front office the space to innovate consistently and take a long-term approach to success. It took a lot of discipline to do so; after three 100-loss seasons in a row, other owners would have ripped up the plan and gone in a different direction. However, Crane let Luhnow enact the plan he laid out in the winter of 2011; he even fired field manager Bo Porter when he and Luhnow disagreed on baseball tactics and strategy.
Crane’s patience and trust in Luhnow paid off, as the Stros’ general manager created one of baseball’s greatest dynasties. After Luhnow was fired, Crane hired a capable replacement in James Click, who looked to continue the Astros’ success by taking an analytical approach to all aspects of the game. Unfortunately, Crane’s interference in baseball operations is threatening the dynasty that he helped to create.
After news of the cheating scandal broke in late 2019, Crane made many changes to the Astros. By hiring Dusty Baker alongside James Click and not allowing the new GM to hire his own field manager, Crane signaled that he would take a more active role in the front office. This worked well in 2020 and 2021, as the Astros still had most of their talent from the Luhnow era, and Click seemed to have complete control over baseball operations; however, after the 2022 season, it became clear that Crane would no longer trust his front office to make the right decisions.
At the 2022 trade deadline, it was reported that the Cubs and Astros agreed to swap Wilson Contreras for Jose Urquidy. However, the trade fell through because Dusty Baker went to Jim Crane to protest the trade because he thought that it would harm the clubhouse chemistry. Whether or not you agree with the trade is a different discussion, but what is most enlightening about the episode is that Crane favored the opinion of his field manager over his GM. Unlike in the Luhnow era, where the GM was, for the most part, given free reign over all things baseball, Crane decided to overrule the decisions of his data-driven front office. Unfortunately, this was a portent of things to come.
In modern baseball, it is uncommon for a field manager to report directly to the owner, and Click was likely upset about this arrangement. And who could blame him? Dusty Baker has continually made decisions that hamper the team’s chances to win. From not giving Chas McCormick every day starts until towards the end of the season, to starting Martin Maldonado when there are better options available, along with many other suboptimal decisions, it is easy to see why there would be tension between Baker and Click. The fact that Crane effectively chose Baker over Click shows that the Astros’ owner tacitly endorsed Dusty’s approach to the game. Furthermore, it showed to any future GM that Dusty Baker effectively outranked them. How could you attract the next great baseball GM if they knew they would be subordinate to a manager who was coaching like it was 1999?
After Jim Crane effectively fired Click, he went through the offseason with the help of some former players who had no experience in analytics or data science. Perhaps it is too early to tell, but the early results of Crane and Company’s signings are less than encouraging:
- Jose Abreu was signed for three years at $58.5 million and has produced negative 0.1. WAR although a late-season and playoff surge leaves some hope for this acquistion.
- Rafael Montero re-signed for three years at 34.5 million and has been around replacement level.
- Cristian Javier signed a five-year extension for $64 million but has been a shell of his 2020-2022 self. I know that his deal was signed a week after Brown was hired, but it is likely that most of the elements of this deal were already agreed to.
Maybe Click would have made some of these deals anyway; all GMs have contracts and trades they regret, but it is clear that Crane’s decisions were less data-driven than in previous front offices. For a team that has been able to outperform the league by making smarter, more analytically driven decisions, it is concerning that Crane relied on the advice of former players with no background in business management or analytics. Dana Brown has more front-office experience than Bagwell and Crane, but the fact that Crane chose him as the next GM confirms that the owner is taking a less data-driven approach to baseball operations.
Although Dana Brown has a solid track record in the draft, it is telling that his background is in scouting and not analytics. Again, the reason why the Astros experienced so much success over the past eight years is not because they had better scouts, it was because they had superior processes and utilized technology better than their competitors. Hiring Dana Brown seems to step away from this path. So why did Jim Crane hire a more traditional GM? A data-driven, analytically inclined GM would not have tolerated an arrangement where the owner would overrule him and not allow him to hire his manager.
It is too early to tell if Dana Brown’s tenure will be successful; however, we know he probably will not have as much control over the process as he would like. Reading between the lines, it is likely that Crane pressured Dana Brown to make the Justin Verlander trade. It remains to be seen how this trade will work out, but it is not optimal for the owner to be heavily involved in complex baseball decisions; the game is just too complicated for an amateur to have that much input.
Jerry Jones, the owner of the Dallas Cowboys, made the right decision by hiring Jimmy Johnson, one of the best football minds of his generation, and letting him build the team without much interference from the owner. After firing Jimmy Johnson, Jones took a much more active approach to managing the team, and the on-field product has suffered.
Jerry Jones may be a great businessman, but it takes a lifetime of experience and knowledge to develop the competencies necessary to create a winning sports team. Unfortunately, it appears Jim Crane is going down a similar path. It made sense to fire Luhnow after the cheating scandal, but he did not have to radically change his ownership style. Instead of trusting a baseball-savant GM, like Click, to continue to stay on the cutting edge of player development, evaluations, drafting, etc, Crane has inserted himself and created an organization that is neither innovative nor efficient with its resources.